CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (third continuation)

After his extensive discussion of the scientific view of coherentism and non-absolute truth, Carroll takes on the question of God. He begins by noting the variable understanding of the word God by different theists and religious traditions making any empirical analysis difficult at best. He then concedes that theism and atheism are about equally likely from the standpoint of mere logic as the existence of God is “explanatory” while the non-existence of God is “simpler.” To address the question he asks us to imagine how changes to reality would support or discount each theory, in effect, applying Bayesian probability to God’s existence.

For example, the absence of evil would be strong evidence for God but would dissuade atheism as a purely natural reality would be expected to entail varying impulses and circumstances including evil ones. In a world full of miracles, God would be more likely while in world without miracles, atheism would be more reasonable. In a world with demonstrable souls and afterlife, God would be more likely while the absence of evidence of them would argue for atheism. A world of religious texts consistently revealing scientific truths and with consistency between unrelated religions would be supportive of God while one with neither would diminish that likelihood. Given the world we live in, these points make atheism more credible.

On the other side, in a world where no one believed in or suggested the existence of God, the divine would be less likely. A world like ours but without life or consciousness would be more likely to support atheism. Other points such as the immensity of the cosmos or the emotional support and value of belief in God are for some supportive of the theory of God while for others, billions of galaxies are more natural in a spontaneous universe and divine oversight is unsettling, even alarming. At the end of the day, we must try to eliminate as much bias as possible and examine and understand the universe to the utmost in order to make sense empirically regarding the question of God’s existence which informs his subsequent chapters.

(fourth continuation next post)

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE – (second continuation)

Carroll continues with some interesting observations on the cosmos. The Big Bang does not mark the beginning of our universe, instead it marks the end of our theoretical understanding. It is a moment in time rather than an explosion of matter into an empty pre-existent void, that is, “the moment prior to which there were no moments: no space, no time.”5  Likewise changes in the universe are not teleological – directed to some future goal, but ekinological – points of departure. Time as we experience it moving forward but never backwards is due to the unwavering increase in entropy known as the arrow of time. Last the idea of “cause and effect” is artificial as there is no “responsibility” intrinsic to sequential events; for example, the position of a planet at any time is simply determined by its prior position. Physics considers events as simply arranged in a certain order. Nonetheless “causality” is a useful way of talking about events.

He next takes on epistemology in his chapter called Understanding. Like the philosopher, he reminds us the reliability of beliefs vary, and references Reverend Thomas Bayes’ theory of probability as a starting point. Degrees of beliefs or “credences” are affected by new information which supports or discourages a given belief. He embraces the use of doubt in strengthening belief, but rejects foundationalism as attempted by Rene Descartes. Instead he highlights “emergence” – the appearance of properties of a system that are “not part of a detailed ‘fundamental’ description of the system.”6

Different stories or theories as useful ways of talking have particular domains of applicability. While each is autonomous within its domain, viable theories connect through “coarse graining.” So emergence (esp. strong emergence) explains human consciousness in one story even if the physicalist thinks it is an illusion based on quantum, atomic, or chemical processes. For the poetic naturalist, consciousness is real “if it plays an essential role in some particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability.”7 Poetic naturalism then allows for two components of reality – the fundamental and the emergent/effective within which are the factual or objective and the constructed or subjective. Illusions (for example phlogiston or ghosts) are emergent/effective, but not real.

From there Carroll takes us to the coherence theory of truth (knowledge) which he calls planets of belief,  meaning “a set of beliefs held together by the ‘gravitational pull’ of their mutual consistency.”8 Coherentism says knowledge isn’t founded on unimpeachable and unquestionable principles but on a system of beliefs compatible with each other. There can be many planets of belief, but they should share three important premises: (1) reason and logic are important in finding truth, (2) models of the world should provide accurate representations of what we observe, and (3) true statements correspond with actual elements of the world. Some planets of belief are more stable or ‘habitable’ and the best way to be safe is to avoid cognitive or confirmation biases, and by giving extra consideration to facts against your beliefs.

Finally we must accept uncertainty – science never actually proves anything – only makes something immensely more or less probable until belief becomes justified. And science is not based on ‘faith’ (as with religion) but assumptions. Absolute certainty is only possible in mathematics where axioms are stated and truth is limited to the world of those axioms. The non-absolute truth of science entails methodological empiricism, i.e. knowledge obtained from our experience of the world rather than thought alone. Innate and transcendental experiences may arise from direct contact with a higher level of reality, but can only be accepted if they conform to our observations of the world.

(fourth continuation next post)


5Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 51.

6Ibid., page 94.

7Ibid., page 111.

8Ibid., page 116.


I continue now with my analysis of Sean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture. He begins with his fundamental conceptual framework of reality – poetic naturalism. In this construction, naturalism refers to the view that the only world is the natural one, consistently governed by the ‘laws of nature’ which can only be characterized by scientific methods and empirical investigation. In this worldview, there is nothing supernatural, spiritual, or divine; no cosmic teleology; and no transcendental purpose. Naturalism is typically conjoined with humanism and atheism.1 The problem with naturalism is that it offers unsatisfactory or incomplete explanations of much of human experience – such as love, purpose, or justice. Can the works of Shakespeare be explained as the mere output of quarks and leptons inside a carbon-based superstructure? Is one’s child nothing more than an aggregation of atoms in a defined area of space-time?

Carroll proposes poetic naturalism as an alternate ‘useful way of talking’ that involves a richer ontology conforming to the feelings that make up our experience of the world.2 Neither the physicalist nor the poet is right or wrong, but either’s language may be more or less useful for describing the nature of reality for us. On this account, naturalism is founded on three premises: (1) there is only one world, the natural world, (2) the world evolves according to unbroken patterns imposed by the laws of nature, and (3) the only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it. Poetic naturalism adds three additional premises: (1) there are many ways of talking about the world, (2) all good ways of talking about the world must be consistent with one another and with the world, and (3) our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking about the world.3 Thus the moon is both a collection of elementary particles and a heavenly body capable of romantic stirrings or psychological disequilibrium in humans, but not a supernatural being which determines one’s destiny.

After explaining some of the evolution of human science related to motion, causality, and determinism and brief references to chaos theory and quantum randomness, Carroll next points out that the utter complexity of reality makes events in the universe and human behavior ultimately unpredictable. While some events seemingly demonstrate cause and effect it is also true that statistically unlikely events are in fact possible even if they never occur in human experience (such as the appearance of the moon in a different part of the solar system). This does not make them un-natural or supernatural. Moreover while events have causes, features may not. Logic does not permit us to impose a reason for the universe to be the way it is even if it is “natural” for us to ask why? – the fabric of reality and the laws that govern it may simply be ‘brute facts’ of the world. The imposition of reasons as to the make-up of the universe is, for Carroll, a problem of fallacious logic.

In his words,

“We’ll see how our convictions that things happen for reasons, and effects follow causes, are not bedrock principles. They arise because of a contingent feature of how matter is evolving in our local universe…The “reasons” and “causes’ why things happen, in other words, aren’t fundamental; they are emergent. We need to dig in to the actual history of the universe to see why these concepts have emerged.”4

(further continued next post)


1Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 11.

2We are reminded of Niels Bohr’s complementarity of objective and subjective descriptions of reality. See Ultimate Reality – Matter – Part II dated 11/4/22 on this site.

3Ibid., page 20.

4Ibid., page 44.


The Big Picture  by  Sean Carroll, published 2016

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” – Muriel Rukeyser

Last October, a reader referenced this book, so I added it to my Christmas wish list, and lo and behold, it appeared like magic on December 25th. I wanted to wait until I had finished my section on scientific descriptions of ultimate reality before blogging on it, and quite frankly, I am dubious I will be able to read the entire 470 page book as I compose these few posts. Instead I will try to cover the more general or philosophical components of his manuscript, or any science where my previous posts were faulty or which is relevant, but not addressed on this site to date. I ask the book’s author and my readers to forgive any significant omissions due to the limitations of space and time imposed on me. As always, I welcome comments, corrections, and amplifications.

If you watch physics or astronomy documentaries, you probably have seen Professor Carroll speak and are aware of his lucid and thoughtful explanations as well as his amiable and charismatic personality. The book’s jacket cover tells us that he is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. His earlier books include From Eternity to Here, and The Particle at the End of the Universe. He has been awarded some amazing prizes and fellowships including, most impressive in my mind, from the Royal Society of London. We are also told that Carroll is “emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation.”

The book is divided into 6 parts – Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring – covering 50 chapters in all. There is also a 7 page Appendix with the intriguing title, The Equation Underlying You and Me. We are enticed with these words (also from the jacket cover): “Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void? Do human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?”

So…let’s begin at the beginning…

(continued next post)


“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” – Max Planck.

After twenty-six blogs we are now ready to summarize the scientific perspective on ultimate reality. It seems to me this comes down to the intersection of the very small – that is what makes up the substances of the universe – and the incomprehensibly large – that is the entirety of its substances. At the composition end we find two modes: (1) structural – including the theoretical strings of energy in multiple dimensions, elementary particles, atoms, and the elements of the periodic table plus more obscure components such as dark energy and dark matter, and (2) dynamic – including fields, quantum uncertainty, observer effects and decoherence, the four forces, the interchangeablity of matter and energy, wave/particle duality, and the dubious prospect of panpsychism. At the other pole we likewise have two modes: (1) structural – the universe or the multiverse, its instantiation in all light, matter, and events, and space-time itself, and (2) the transcendental –  unity, uniqueness, order, subtotal accessibility, infiniteness, cosmic evolution, and perhaps macroscopic consciousness.

But many scientists extend the transcendental further. There is the issue of dimensions beyond the four known to us. There is Neil Bohr’s complementarity of the subjective and the objective. We have Carl Sagan’s formula of three proper nouns: Universe = Nature = Reason (is anyone else reminded of the Christian Trinity?). There is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “great chain of being,” reflexivity of in-ness of the universe and of ourselves, and the stimulation of spirituality. And of course there is Einstein’s unexpected ‘comprehensibility of reality’ where through a leap (of faith or of intuition?), the “rationality manifest in existence” brings one to an intangible, impersonal deity.

If we assemble all of the pieces into a single understanding of ultimate reality we are left with not only awe of the physical, but a near mystical understanding of existence that has been “sensed” by the great thinkers and the great spiritualists in human history. Perhaps they were never far off the mark, only limited by vocabulary and knowledge needed to fully express it. We will come back to this intriguing possibility in our synthesis of this section after we examine descriptions of ultimate reality by philosophers and theologians that follow. Stay tuned.


The second type of argument for panpsychism is analogical. Here the proponent starts by suggesting that plants are too close to animals to deny them a psyche – consider they both need nutrition and water and share vital processes such as growth and reproduction. Even movement applies to plants: the opening and closing of a flower and the turning of a branch toward the sun. If there is correspondence of visible processes, there may be correspondence of invisible processes. By comparison a plant is little different than a hydra, and the hydra little different from other invertebrates, and so forth. After all, Paulsen points out, the inner processes of a plant are no more inscrutable than those of a jellyfish.11

Stretching further, the panpsychist notes the border between animate and inanimate is blurred, they share the same world, and they constantly interact. Matter is not inherently and absolutely passive – consider the complexity of an atom with its continuous internal motion. A stone is “in constant interaction with its immediate surroundings as well as the remotest system of fixed stars,”12  Paulsen concludes it is entirely plausible that “corresponding to this wonderful play of forces and movements” there is a system of inner psychic process analogous to that of living things.13

Finally let’s consider the thoughts of the contemporary physicist, Paul Davies. In one essay he argues that consciousness is inexplicable on the plane of physics. Life is a ‘holistic’ concept, whereas the reductionist perspective is that we are made up of only inanimate atoms. “Similarly mind is a holistic concept, at the next level of description. We can no more understand mind by reference to brain cells than we can cells by reference to their atomic constituents.” 14 However this concept of ‘holistic’ seems obscure enough that one might in theory apply it to non-organic aggregates of matter.

In another work  Davies entertains (albeit reluctantly) panpsychism as espoused by the physicist Freeman Dyson who writes, “I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron.”15 Davies’ goal in referencing Dyson is to “affirm the reality of mental events and to show that they comply with his proposal that each new level of organization and complexity in nature demands its own laws and principles.” 16 But again he seems to be opening up the possibility that ‘mental’ events might occur at the molecular level based on laws different from those of human consciousness.

Of course none of these arguments is proof or even substantial evidence for panpsychism. I suspect most readers will reject the theory of panpsychism and assume that consciousness and mind are emergent features of complex interactions of mindless matter. There just does not seem to be a logical pathway back from organically derived consciousness to a reasonably similar process at the atomic level. Only by equating atomic energy and motion with mental energy and motion by definition can the panpsychist sustain his position and this seems logically fallacious.


11Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 27.

12Ibid., page 28.


14Davies, Paul, God and the New Physics. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983. ISBN 0-671-52806-8, page 92 .

15Davies, Paul, The Cosmic Blueprint. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-671-60233-0, page 190.

16Ibid., page 191.


We ended last time with the theory of panpsychism formulated as monadology and now must examine what justification exists for its assertion. Allow me to start with this extended quote by the German physicist, philosopher, and experimental psychologist, Gustav Fechner (1801-1887):

“I stood once on a hot summer’s day beside a pool and contemplated a water-lily which had spread its leaves evenly over the water and with an open blossom basking in the sunlight. How exceptionally fortunate, thought I, must this lily be which above basks in the sunlight and below is plunged in the water – if only it might be capable of feeling the sun and the bath. And why not? I asked myself. It seemed to me that nature surely would not have built a creature so beautiful and so carefully designed for such conditions, merely to be an object of idle observation…I was inclined to think that nature had built it thus in order that all the pleasure which can be derive from bathing at once in sunlight and in water might be enjoyed by one creature in the fullest measure.”5

This is not mere wistfulness on Fechner’s part, rather he believes panpsychism is the “best, clearest, most natural, and most beautiful account of the facts of the universe.”6  Biologist Wilfred Eade Agar (1882-1951) seems to agree admitting that while there is “no coercive demonstration” of panpsychism, it “leads to a more consistent and satisfying world picture than any of the alternatives.”7  William James offers added support  arguing that evidence from psychology and his study of religious experience establishes a “formidable probability in favor of a general view of the world almost identical with Fechner’s.”8

Beyond such observations are two general arguments: (1) genetic and (2) analogical. Genetic arguments come down to the premise that mental facts can be casually explained only in terms of other mental facts. German philosopher, Friedrich Paulsen (1846-1908), believes a newly developing life could not create feelings out of nothing any more than the matter composing living things could come from nothing. Biologist Conrad Hal Waddington (1905-1975) offers a more extended argument: “Something must go on in the simplest inanimate things which can be described in the same language as would be used to describe our self-awareness.” Although we know nothing of its nature, we are forced to accept it by “the demands of logic and the application of evolutionary theory.”9 The phenomenon of self-awareness is a ‘basic mystery’ because it cannot be constructed theoretically from our current science, but we know it exists from experience. Thus we can infer that the mode of our experience “evolved from simple forms which are experienced by non-human things.”10

(final continuation next post)


5Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 22.

6Ibid., page 23.


8Ibid., page 24.

9Ibid., page 26.



“There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness.” – William James.

In the last two blogs we examined two possibilities for a cosmic consciousness: (1) decoherence of the quantum physicist and (2) non-organic consciousness emerging from cosmic structures. This leaves a last form for consideration, panpsychism defined by Dagobert Runes as “a form of metaphysical idealism, of which Leibniz’s theory of monads is the classical example, according to which the whole of nature consists of psychic centers similar to the human mind.”1 In effect, the panpsychist asserts that every component of the material world has a kind of consciousness.

While panpsychism appears in different guises throughout history, it seems logical to begin our discussion with the more developed thoughts of the philosopher-scientist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The solution to the mind-body problem, that is how a non-material mind can control a material body, is, according to Leibniz, that all matter is endowed with a ‘substantial form’ analogous to a mind. For the simplest matter this “mind,” which he calls a monad, is only capable of “perception,” but through perception all matter expresses what goes on in the universe. This is demonstrated by the fact that all material substances have a degree of elasticity and of hardness which mirror what they encounter in the world. But the monad also reflects the law of continuation of the series of its own operations, its history, and its future as well as a primitive force akin to Aristotle’s entelechy which is combined indissolubly with its primary matter.2 Extension of primary matter and aggregation of monads leads to higher level consciousness and derived forces or vis viva as for example in animals and humans.3

Monadology then is “the theory that the universe is a composite of elementary units…the real atoms of nature, the elements of things… the substance of a monad must be conceived as force, as that which contains in itself the principle of its changes. The universe is the aggregate, the ideal bond of the monads, constituting a harmonious unity.”4 Here we have our third concept of universal “consciousness” – particulate “minds” aggregated into cosmic consciousness. The theory appears interesting, even credible, but we still need to consider if there is evidence to support it.

(continued next post)


1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, page 223.

2Leibniz’s thoughts are by no means unprecedented. Hindu philosophy breaks substances into prakrti  (matter) and purusa (spirit or consciousness).

3Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 4, pages 422-431.

4Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, page 201.