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).

(seventh continuation next post)


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.


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