CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (seventh continuation)

Carroll continues the physicalist argument into consciousness which he argues is more reasonably explained within the Core Theory than outside it. He compares the working of the human brain to a computer deploying dual process theory for mentation where System 1 is the subconscious and System 2 is the conscious, a concept he sees hinted at in Plato’s three-part personality.  The hallmark of consciousness is the ‘inner mental experience’ which he believes evolved to accommodate the land-based animal’s need to plan. Nonetheless thought in the brain simply corresponds to charged particles hopping between neurons which make up a network structure or connectome. This structure is hierarchal and in the words of the mathematician a “small world network.”

Carroll admits it is not clear that if we mapped all the neurons of brain we would have a ‘mind,’ but he scoffs at the idea of the brain as similar to a radio receiver of a non-material soul or mind as damage to the brain can result in remarkable changes in personality. As an example he refers to the Capgras delusion where a person with a particular type of brain injury recognizes other people but no longer experiences their previous emotional connection to them.

From there he expands on the problem of understanding consciousness by discussing the Turing Test, the Chinese Room, and solipsism. He concludes the poetic naturalist does not see consciousness as “a fundamental kind of stuff…like searching for the virus that causes a known disease… the concepts of ‘consciousness’ and ‘understanding’ are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.”19  Nonetheless he addresses the Hard Problem – that is explaining qualia or our subjective experiences of the world such as the color red.  He takes on the classic knowledge argument of a scientist who knows everything about the meaning of a word such as red but has never seen something red and then goes on to experience it where some philosophers argue the experience itself adds new information for the scientist. Carroll thinks this takes nothing from the physicalist position as different synapses are involved in the two apprehensions of the color red (knowledge and vision).

I will bypass his discussion of the zombies argument and of quantum consciousness, but would like tto examine his discussion of panpsychism. He considers whether mental states might be another degree of freedom like charge or spin? Carroll thinks this is contradicted by the known science of Core Theory where the number of degrees of freedom are already known for elementary particles. However if we assume such mental states have no effect on the physics of particles, then the world is already fully described without them. Moreover a Bayesian analysis makes panpsychism untenable as “consciousness seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon.” 20

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19Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 343.

20Ibid., page 365.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (sixth continuation)

Having clarified his position as entirely physicalist, Carroll next feels the need to explain the illusions of human experience that are confused as immaterial, in need of a clear cause, or simply inexplicable by physics alone. He introduces the concept of complexity as the origin of emergent phenomena such as life and consciousness and as the physicalist’s alternative to teleology. He counters arguments that entropy is incompatible with increased complexity, specifically stating the appearance of life is explained in two parts – “entropy and emergence.”14. Nonetheless entropy will eventually unravel the complexity of ‘life’ itself making it ultimately finite. “That’s us. Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginnings to a simple end. We should enjoy the ride.”15

In subsequent chapters he goes on the define life for the physicist in the words of Erwin Schrodinger as matter that, “goes on ‘doing something,’ exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect of an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.”16 This process depends on ‘free energy’ which for most life means the sun. He even visits the subject of the original appearance of life, abiogenesis, considering several commonly argued but admittedly still speculative mechanisms. After this he more comfortably discusses evidence for evolution and how it works.

This brings him to purpose, a word he thinks is a useful way of talking for the poetic naturalist, but utterly arbitrary in the physical world. Ideas like purpose and adaptation are not “found in the underlying mechanistic behavior of reality,”17 but intrinsically purposeless processes can lead to the existence of purpose (e.g. the length of the giraffe’s neck). In short, purpose is simply a “useful concept when developing an effective theory of this part of reality in the particular domain of applicability.”18

Last, in a beautifully titled chapter, Are We the Point?, he considers a Bayesian or credence based debate on life and the universe as spontaneous and explained by physical laws alone versus by a divine creator. He discounts the fine tuning argument for the latter position with an appeal to three rebuttals: (1) we don’t really know why the key numbers exist that make life possible, nor whether some kind of life might exist if these numbers were different, (2) there may be many areas in the universe where inflation leads to variations in physical laws, and (3) there may be a multiverse. The anthropic principle – that we can only exist in one such area of space or one such universe to ask the question – makes any of these more reasonable explanations than the positing of God. In addition a Bayesian analysis of God’s designing the universe leads to an expectation of a universe very different than the one we find ourselves in (for example with more locally habitable planets).

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14Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 227.

15Ibid., page 236.

16bid., page 239.

17Ibid, page 293.


CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE – (fifth continuation)

Carroll continues by discussing additional issues regarding the Core Theory and Quantum Field Theory such as crossing symmetry, Feynman diagrams, the place of dark matter, and so forth which I will skip over. He concedes there may be some unknowns, but we can be sure that the current model includes all the features that concern us at the macroscopic level – what he calls effective field theory. For sure there is a need to explain emergent phenomena, but any explanation will have to be compatible with the Core Theory.

He then moves on to the theoretical question as to why the universe exists. First he believes the universe may be a brute fact that does not require an explanation. The poetic naturalist rejects the idea of necessity or necessary existence when it comes to the universe, rather one must lay out the possibilities and assess the credences. The universe may be eternal or time may be emergent depending on different Schrodinger equations. An unchanging universe is possible if we picture it as stacked classical worlds based on different quantum outcomes as hypothesized by Steven Hawking and James Hartle’s quantum cosmology. Alternatively the universe may have a beginning which is not to suggest a prior state of nothingness followed by a transforming event, but rather a moment of time before which there were no moments, and considered possible buy physicists if composed of an equal balance of positive and negative components that zero each other out.

He next examines the body/soul problem and immortality. He believes metaphysical dualism is not tenable since no one has been able to explain how the non-physical would be able to interact with the physical or how it can be compatible with conservation of energy. “To a poetic naturalist, ‘mind’ is simply  a way of talking about the behavior of certain collections of matter…”13 Carroll thinks ‘soul theory’ is unsound as any consideration would require specifics that work within Core Theory and these are not forthcoming. Consequently there is no basis to justify belief in life after death. Furthermore all empirical arguments for an afterlife, such as near death experiences, do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Despite how it may feel to us, life itself is not a force unexplained by the Core Theory, but rather a process that emerges from particular configurations of matter and which ceases at death.

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13Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 210.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (fourth continuation)

Having now dealt with the conceptual framework of poetic naturalism, epistemology, coherentism, and the question of God’s existence, Carroll moves on to the nature of reality in Part 3 which he titles Essence. I will try to move more quickly as to some extent he presents the picture of reality from the standpoint of physics which I already discussed on this site. 9 He explains in some detail the development of the Core Theory and proposes it as well established and unlikely to ever by controverted.

First he asserts that the world is simply a wave function… “full stop” to use his words. There is only the one wave function of the universe we observe and inhabit and we too are described by this wave function. The wave function doesn’t collapse into one possibility, but evolves smoothly into an entangled superposition, each collapse leading to a different universe – a theory known as the many worlds interpretation –literally a branching of the individual wave functions. While hard to accept, there simply is no other reasonable means to reconcile the principle of quantum uncertainty with observable reality.

He also tells us there are two key takeaways: (1) while we do not have a finished understanding, quantum mechanics at its basic level does not invalidate determinism, realism, or physicalism and (2) what we observe of the world is different than how we describe it. No future scientific discovery will eliminate the truth that “the world is just a quantum wave function. Everything else is just a convenient way of talking.”10

From there he vaults to the Core Theory or Quantum Field Theory – reality is fields from which particles and forces arise. Fields are not composed of anything, and the wave function of the universe is a superposition of all possible values of those fields. Fields can be of two types: (1) Bosons which can pile upon one another to create forces such as photons (creating electromagnetic forces) or gravitons (creating gravity), and (2) Fermions which cannot pile upon one another, but occupy space-time such as electrons and protons (or their subatomic particles). The Higgs field is responsible for giving matter to all particles. So ultimate reality is the world defined as a “quantum wave function …made of the fermion and boson fields of the Core Theory.”11 And “… the vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei” 12 According to Carroll this is the one and perhaps only story we can tell about reality that is definitely correct!

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9See posts titled Ultimate Reality and the Meaningful Life- Matter Parts I-IV published 10/24/22-11/15/22 and Teleology – Uncertainty Parts I-II published 11/20 and 11/22/20 on this site.

10Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 171.

11Ibid., page 176.

12Ibid., page 177.