BookshelfJacob deGroot-Maggetti

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself – Sean Carroll

Summary: Carroll argues in favor of a philosophical worldview he calls poetic naturalism. Poetic naturalism holds that there is a single universe which, at a fundamental level, behaves in a consistent and predictable way, but that there are many different, valid ways of talking about the universe. He supports this argument by discussing how we are able to learn about the universe (empiricism), how certain we can be of things (we can never be 100% or 0% certain of the truth of a statement, but we can come very, very close), what we know about the universe (at a fundamental level, the universe is highly predictable and likely deterministic), how new, complex phenomena can emerge from simpler systems, whether things like consciousness and human agency are consistent with a deterministic universe (as far as we can tell, they are), the limits of what science and reason can teach us (they can’t tell us how to build our moral systems, but they can warn us against the complacency of thinking that there exist fundamental moral values), and what we should do with this knowledge.

Thoughts: I found The Big Picture to be very compelling: while it challenged several of my beliefs, its largest effect has been to clarify my worldview: Carroll expresses ideas I have been grasping at but unable to clearly articulate, and explores some of their finer details and ramifications. The discussion of Bayesian reasoning was particularly valuable, as well as the idea that even if a category is invented, it still deserves to be thought of as “real” so long as it does a good job explaining the patterns we observe in the universe. Of all the topics Carroll raises and deftly handles, the issues in the book’s final section, “Caring”, are least well-addressed, and I’ll need to explore them further. That said, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding how the universe works.

(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)

Carrol, Sean. 2016. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.


Part One: Cosmos

1. The Fundamental Nature of Reality

2. Poetic Naturalism

3. The World Moves by Itself

4. What Determines What Will Happen?

5. Reasons Why

6. Our Universe

7. Time’s Arrow

8. Memories and Causes

Part Two: Understanding

9. Learning about the World

10. Updating our Knowledge

11. Is It Okay to Doubt Everything?

12. Reality Emerges

13. What Exists, and What Is Illusion?

14. Planets of Belief

15. Accepting Uncertainty

16. What Can We Know about the World without Actually Looking at It?

17. Who Am I?

18. Abducting God

Part Three: Essence

19. How Much We Know

20. The Quantum Realm

21. Interpreting Quantum Mechanics

22. The Core Theory

23. The Stuff of Which We Are Made

24. An Effective Theory of the Everyday World

25. Why Does the Universe Exist?

26. Body and Soul

27. Death Is the End

Part Four: Complexity

28. The Universe in a Cup of Coffee

29. Light and Life

30. Funneling Energy

31. Spontaneous Organization

32. The Origin and Purpose of Life

33. Evolution’s Bootstraps

34. Searching through the Landscape

35. Emergent Purpose

36. Are We the Point?

Part Five: Thinking

37. Crawling into Consciousness

38. The Babbling Brain

39. What Thinks?

40. The Hard Problem

41. Zombies and Stories

42. Are Photons Conscious?

43: What Acts on What?

44: Freedom to Choose

Part Six: Caring

45. Three Billion Heartbeats

46. What Is and What Ought to Be

47. Rules and Consequences

48. Constructing Goodness

49. Listening to the World.

50. Existential Therapy

Further Reading

Posted: Jan 16, 2020. Last updated: Aug 31, 2023.