The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 6

Part 6 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 5 is found here.

The Core Theory

Carroll spends several chapters discussing the quantum mechanical framework for the Core Theory, as he calls it. Quantum mechanics has been an extremely successful physical theory exquisitely predicting with enormous precision some parameters in particle physics. But what many people have heard of quantum theory is more about the various interpretations applied by physicists (e.g. Bohr’s abstract physical description, or, Everett’s many-worlds) to the way the theory might work beneath what we can measure.

Regardless of the correct interpretation it has enjoyed enormous success as a theory of physics in what is called the standard model of particle physics. The second very successful theory is general relativity—Einstein’s theory of gravity. Both work extremely well in their respective domains of operation, but outside that, in the realm of what is called quantum gravity neither operate nor has a theory been found to unite them. But that is exactly what Stephen Hawking and others have been seeking, to have the Universe begin in a quantum fluctuation of a meta-stable false vacuum.

But even though we have this limitation, in the realm of what humans can measure, Carroll has faith and writes:

“What we can do is show that physics by itself is fully up to the task of accounting for what we see.” (p.179)

However he admits that one class of particles not part of the current Core Theory are those that make up “dark matter” in the Universe. Such alleged weakly interacting putative particles are allowed for in the Core Theory because they are so weakly interacting with normal atomic matter that they are hard to detect. I would argue that dark matter and other dark entities are a philosophical construct used to keep the standard big bang cosmology from being discredited.1 Dark matter was first needed to explain the dynamics of spiral galaxies. Now it seems that it is no longer needed, when standard physics is applied correctly.2

Carroll rightly states:

“Whatever dark matter is, it certainly plays no role in determining the weather here on Earth, or anything having to do with biology, consciousness, or human life.” (p.183)

But there are contemporary physicists who would disagree. For example, American theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall has speculated that the alleged extinction of the dinosaurs was caused indirectly by dark matter.3

But because of the lack of dark matter particles in the standard model of particle physics and the need for dark matter as determined from astrophysical and cosmological phenomena he says that the Core Theory needs an extension in the realm of astrophysics. This means in the realm of astrophysics, not accessible to laboratory experiments, new physics (maybe new dark particles) needs to be added to maintain the big bang theory. Or else it should be discarded as failing to fit astronomical observations.

One solution he suggests, because he believes in the big bang, may be found

“… in something we don’t yet appreciate about the initial conditions of the universe.” (p.193)

It does not occur to him to discard the failed paradigm, because of his worldview. But in regards to the beginning of the Universe in a big bang he says that

“… it’s at least conceivable that it was in a very special state featuring extremely subtle correlations that work to influence out world today. We have no direct reason to believe that’s true, but it deserves a place on our list of loopholes” (p.193)

Even though the Core Theory is so robust and has no place for such foolishness as dark matter, because of the over-riding prior commitment to the big bang origin of the universe, he is willing to allow loopholes in the theory to maintain the big bang origin of the universe.

Why Does the Universe Exist?

This leads to his next chapter on wherein he informs us that Gottfried Leibniz

“ … argued that we should be somewhat surprised that anything exists at all. Nothingness, after all, is simpler than any one particular existing thing ever could be;” (p.195)

And British philosopher Derek Parfit said

“… it can seem astonishing that anything exists.” (p.195)

But Carroll suggests questions of why something and not nothing are the wrong ones to ask. He suggests rather that the Universe simply is. And that it is better not to invoke anything outside of the Universe to account for its existence. He even suggests that may be there is no final explanation of why the Universe.

“The progress of modern physics and cosmology has sent a fairly unequivocal message: there’s nothing wrong with the universe existing without any external help.” (p.196)

Well, that is surprising, considering there is no quantum gravity theory. Also it has been pure guesswork what allegedly happened in the big bang singularity.  There is only the physics we currently now have and understand. Yet it is admitted that all that physics cannot be applied to the singularity, so where is the unequivocal message? It may be in cosmology (a belief in the origin of the Universe, which should be called more correctly cosmogony) but it is not found in modern physics. Only by ‘faith’ can the cosmologist believe such a thing as Carroll says here.4

On the question of whether physics should look for the cause of the Universe, he states that

“… in quantum general relativity—whatever that may be, since nobody has a complete formulation of such a theory as yet—we don’t know whether the universe has a beginning or not.” (p.197)

Figure 1: The cosmological argument for a first cause, meaning God the Creator.

He then explains that there are two possibilities: One is an eternal universe,5 meaning it had no beginning and the other is where it had a beginning. Using what we do know of quantum theory, it has become apparent that time could be fundamental (always existing, infinite in past and future) or that time is not fundamental but the emergent from the big bang, and hence the universe had a beginning. Then he argues the famous Kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence—the first cause argument promoted by William Lane Craig, in his flawed proof using the big bang origin in time—is wrong because the second premise “the Universe begins to exist” may not be correct. Carroll argues that the Universe may not have, at any point in time, began to exist.

“But when we’re talking about the universe, that ‘earlier’ moment simply does not exist. There is not a moment in time where there is no universe, and another moment in time where there is; all moments in time are necessarily associated with an existing universe.” (p.200)

Apparently our intuition just isn’t up to addressing this issue.

Nevertheless, as you might conclude, how foolish it would be to build your theology on the big bang when the atheist scientific world is working hard to convince the populace that there need not be any beginning and as such its miniscule resemblance to the Genesis 1 creation account no longer applies.6

However Carroll believes—based on conservation laws—that the Universe can’t just simply begin to exist, but it could have had a beginning.

“… as far as we can tell every conserved quantity characterizing the universe (i.e. energy, momentum, charge) is exactly zero.” (p.200)

Of course that is a ludicrous statement. There is no way to know that—you’d need to be God to have such knowledge. So he covers himself with ‘as far as we can tell’. But the observational data we have does not allow such a conclusion.

On electric charge, it is probably reasonable to  conclude the Universe is neutral but to assume gravity balances, with negative energy, all the positive energy (matter, kinetic, thermal, radiation) such that the total energy is zero is an unprovable assumption. Also it is the wrong kind of energy. The energy obtained from a gravitational field is also positive energy. To cancel out all the matter in the Universe you need a negative type of energy (unknown to science) such that when the negative and positive combine you get zero. A particle falling in a gravitational field converts gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy, the positive type. Never is the total zero.

Connected with this is the matter/anti-matter asymmetry problem, also known as the baryon asymmetry problem. The anti-matter should be present in equal amounts to the normal matter in the Universe. But it is not. It is assumed that out of the pure radiation of the big bang came equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, just because in particle physics we find that a particle will annihilate its own anti-particle producing pure (positive) energy.  But because of the observed asymmetry, in the observable Universe, this problem has been turned into a tuning parameter for the big bang model, since no theorist ab initio can predict what the ratio should be.7,8

According to the big bang story before there was any matter there was only pure radiation. (Where that came from4 and the problem of it not being negative energy let us ignore for the moment.) At that moment momentum was also zero. So to know if the linear and angular momentum could be summed up back to zero at the big bang you would need to do accounting of all sources in the Universe. We know from observation that there is a slight preference for galaxies to spin in a preferred direction, which means the sum of all their angular momenta is likely not zero.9

Also we know that there is a significant asymmetry in the total mass of the galaxies in the northern and southern galactic planes. From the best high-redshift supernova data a 43% disparity of total matter content, was needed in opposite directions in the cosmos. This suggests that it is unlikely that their linear momenta would sum to zero.7

But Carroll states clearly his own belief:

“To the question of whether the universe could possibly exist all by itself, without any external help, science offers an unequivocal answer: sure it could. We don’t yet know the final laws of physics, but there’s nothing we know about how the laws work that suggests the universe needs any help to exist.” (p.201)

It is a bit contradictory. Science says the Universe needs only the laws of physics to exist, but we don’t know exactly what they are. What if the part that we don’t know means that the Universe need something else to sustain it, something hidden—like a hidden variable theory? Anyway we have no access to that! But to answer the corollary to this “Why does it exist?” he answers with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Well why not?” (p.202). To him, that is a good answer. But he admits that we don’t have an explanation for its existence, it just is. (pp.202-3)

Then he finishes this chapter with a brief discussion on God’s existence (again) saying that

“A caring deity is more likely to produce hospitable conditions than a brute-fact cosmos. If the existence of a universe governed by physical laws were the only piece of information we had, that piece of evidence would tilt us in the direction of theism.”

But in a previous chapter he found that the natural world (i.e. nature ‘red in tooth and claw’) counted heavily against theism. He seems to be making an argument against intelligent design here as he then writes

“If you want to claim that the properties of our kind of universe provide evidence for God’s existence, you need to believe that you understand God’s motivations well enough to say that it’s more like God would have created this kind of universe rather than some other kind.” (p.204)

Mind, Body and Soul

In this chapter Carroll presents his arguments against

“… one of Descartes’s most famous positions: mind-body dualism, the idea that the mind or soul is an immaterial substance distinct from the body.” (p.205)

Because his claim is that we now understand the physics of the Core Theory, which all the particles comprising the atoms in our bodies must obey. Then if you say that

“… the mind is a separate substance, … how does that substance interact with the particles? How are the equations of the Core Theory incorrect, and how should we improve them?” (p.205)

His argument is that with the development of modern science we know a lot more about the behaviour of atoms and forces than seventeenth century science, like that of Descartes. He surmises that if the soul is able to control the subatomic particles in our bodies in a way that is not detectable by modern physics then the latter is “profoundly wrong in a way that has so far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed.” (p.212)

He breaks it down into two choices. Either “… you are a physicalist who believes that there is nothing to us other than the particles of the Core Theory, or someone who thinks that there is some crucial nonphysical component to a human being,” but “everyone admits that the particles are part of who we are. If you want to say there is something else, you have to explain how that something else interacts with the particles. How, in other words, the Core Theory is incomplete, and has to change.” (p.215)

So taking his lead from Descartes Carroll requires that if the soul is a real entity existing apart from matter then the soul should be able to interact with the physical world and be detectable at least. But what if that premise is false, then a refutation of it is also flawed. Carroll thinks totally in the realm the natural world, outside of that there can be nothing detectable that is not detectable by modern science.

This leads him to his most important conclusion for those that accept the Core Theory as the only underlying mechanism in the world of our everyday experience.

“Namely: there is no life after death. We each have a finite time as living creatures, and when it’s over, it’s over.” (p.218)

His view is a little short-sighted. It, of course, ultimately means denying the eye-witness accounts of those who saw not only Jesus Christ risen from the dead but also other people, some of them well known, like Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Nevertheless his reasoning is based on the fact that he cannot see where the information, which is stored in your body during your life, should go at death, for it to be preserved after death.

To him, life is not a substance, but just a process. Like a lit candle, it burns for a while and then goes out. The energy of the candle doesn’t go anywhere. But this probably highlights his spiritual blindness, because all that he can do is relate to the physical world. If it cannot, in principle, be described by equations of the Core Theory, then it cannot be real. So he thinks.

Design and Complexity

In the next chapter he discusses William Paley’s argument for design in the Universe, a Designer of which Paley identified with God. But we are cautioned by Carroll. Citing David Hume—again—Carroll writes that “there is a substantial difference between a ‘designer’ and out traditional notion of God.” (p.226)

He writes what Immanuel Kant in 1784 wrote, “There will never be a Newton for the blade of grass”. And responds that the Newton for the blade of grass is Charles Darwin, and that Darwin’s theory not only accounts for the history of life in the fossil record but also accounts for it without invoking any Designer—“design without a designer,” as biologist Francisco Ayala called it.  Then he quotes the old Theodosius Dobzhansky line,

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

This is quite ignorant really, because it is the old bait-and-switch technique. The only ‘evolution’ used in experimental biology is natural selection, which Darwin have a little credit for. But he had no knowledge of genetics and besides the modern-day synthesis is nothing like Darwin imagined. Natural selection and mutations, and genetic drift are experimental science. The other definition of ‘evolution’ the process of goo-to-you by way of the zoo, which Darwin imagined, is not experimentally testable and therefore has no bearing whatsoever on biology.

What has happened here is the switching of the definition mid-sentence and the extrapolation of the very bounded/limited genetic changes as seen in the lab, over millions of years. Those changes come from the existing gene pool. Mutations do occur producing invariably errors which are not advantageous.

The problem is that those small changes, due to mutations, are all in the wrong direction. Mutations invariably decrease fitness, and natural selection works within a population to conserve the genetic information against losses. It is very efficient mechanism but losses continue to occur.

Yet Carroll lays it out the standard evolutionary way, switching definitions mid-sentence.

“Darwin takes as his starting point creatures that can survive, reproduce and randomly evolve [meaning an increase, not decrease, of complex coded information], and then shows how natural selection can act on those random changes [meaning genetic selection, which we do observe, but always neutral or deleterious] to produce the illusion of design.” (p.226) (Comments in square brackets are mine.)

To produce the illusion of design is just a statement of faith. And Darwin never showed this happening. He even opined the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, which he hoped the future discoveries would correct.

“Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?”10

But they haven’t. If ever I had seen a theory refuted, I’d say that this is one. Certainly it would be by the standards in the field of physics. After 10 years of experiments at the LHC searching for supersymmetric particles the results came up empty and the theorists had to admit that supersymmetry, as a physical theory, was disproven.11 That was 10 years of searching.

Now, it would be fair to say there are no undisputed transitional forms found in the fossil record and 158 years have passed since Darwin’s question. So why isn’t his general theory of evolution refuted? It is not natural selection, but his general theory which should have left innumerable transitional forms in the fossil record. I suggest it is because there is no real alternative, which the atheopaths can contemplate.

He writes that

“Essentially every working professional biologist accepts the basic explanation provided by Darwin for the existence of complex structures in biological organisms.” (p.226)

But firstly this is not true. There are a significant number of professional biologists working in the field who object to Darwinian evolution.12  And secondly, ironically it is one area where Darwinian evolution actually works. Those surviving to work in the field are those who agree with Darwin, those who don’t often lose their jobs, and that leave a residual which is very high in ‘believers’. It is even more ironic that information is not added to the population this way but subtracted because those with alternative ideas that might benefit the field of biology are culled out. This has been demonstrated on the topic of ‘junk’ DNA, for example, believed once to be left-over fragments (evolutionary dead ends) from millions of years of evolution. I can only wonder if some objectors to the notion of ‘junk’ were sidelined or lost employment opportunities, if so they would now be vindicated.

Origin of complexity

Now he deals with the origin of complexity. He answers his own question:

“How in the world did something as organised as a human being ever come to be?” (p.227)


“The short answer comes in two parts: entropy and emergence. Entropy provides an arrow of time; emergence gives us a way of talking about collective structures that can live and evolve and have goals and desires.” (p.227)

These two topics are important to the atheopaths because before Darwinian evolution can even act it needs something alive—some population of living organisms. And something alive obviously has complexity and a lower state of entropy than its surroundings.

From Carroll’s point of view

“Increasing entropy isn’t incompatible with increasing complexity…” (p.227)

Figure 2: Cream mixing in coffee

He goes on to describe an example of cream sinking into a cup of coffee, during which there is a stage where long tendrils of the cream grow as the fall under gravity and the cream molecules are buffeted around by Brownian motion. In this example, he claims complexity has grown while entropy has increased, and then as the system continues complexity decreases, all the while entropy continues to grow.

Surely this argument comes down to a definition of ‘complexity’. His idea is that life could arise from such ‘complexity,’ building structures while entropy in the environment constantly grows. But it is disingenuous to say that that complexity is the type of complexity we observe in a living cell. The tendrils of the cream grow because of the fixed laws of physics and chemistry, and those structures have nothing to do with the real complexity in a living cell.

Nevertheless, he states that it is like in

“… cups of coffee cup in which complexity grows then fades as entropy increases: the universe as a whole does exactly the same thing. At early times, near the Big Bang, the entropy is very low.” (p.230)

Why did the big bang universe start off in such a low entropy state? It is an unanswered question. But even giving them that one, how do big bang cosmologists know the Universe has done the same things as the coffee cup with the cream? It is only through unprovable assumptions that what is observed at successive redshift epochs is representative of the state of the Universe as a whole.

Even more of a problem is that all we do observe in the Universe to the highest redshifts are galaxies and clusters. To argue that galaxies grew out of primordial hydrogen gas you would at least need to have a sequence of observations of the Universe at redshifts where there are very few galaxies, and before that, where there are no galaxies. But evolution is used as a fine tuning knob to even adjust what is observed at redshifts greater than z = 8.

What this means is that the very theory they are testing is used to adjust the observational data to interpret that observational data. Specifically the sizes and densities of galaxies, at the very highest redshifts, are adjusted with a free-tuning parameter called ‘galaxy evolution’ to make the observations fit the assumed story.13

What he describes, is a story about the alleged evolution of structure in the Universe, saying we are at a stage of medium entropy. It is all circumstantial, and no different from the evolutionary biologist claiming direct evidence from the fossil record. Neither of them can observe the past events that they need the most.

Carroll ends the chapter “The universe in a coffee cup” by stating that even though we don’t know how life began or how consciousness works there is no need to look beyond the natural world for the answers. But he has to finally admit that it is a belief and that he could be wrong.

Click here for Part 7 of this review.


  1. Hartnett, J.G., Why is dark matter everywhere in the cosmos? March 31, 2015.
  2. Hartnett, J.G., Has the dark matter mystery been solved? April 6, 2017.
  3. Hartnett, J.G., Dark matter caused the demise of the dinosaurs? December 13, 2016.
  4. Hartnett, J.G., The singularity—a dark beginning, July 15, 2014.
  5. Hartnett, J.G., An eternal big bang universe, February 26, 2015.
  6. Hartnett, J.G., The big bang is Not a Reason to Believe! May 20, 2014.
  7. Hartnett, J.G., Dark Matter and the Standard Model of particle physics—a search in the ‘Dark’, September 28, 2014.
  8. Antoniou, I. and Perivolaropoulos, L., Searching for a cosmological preferred axis: Union2 data analysis and comparison with other probes, Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics 12, 12, 2010.
  9. Moore, N.C., The universe may have been born spinning, according to new findings on the symmetry of the cosmos, University of Michigan News, July 2011; M. Longo, Detection of a Dipole in the Handedness of Spiral Galaxies with Redshifts z~0.04, Physics Letters B, 699(4): 224–229, 2011.
  10. Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th Edition. New York: P. F. Collier & Son. 233, 1902.
  11. Hartnett, J.G., SUSY is not the solution to the dark matter crisis, August 30, 2016; Journal of Creation 31(1): 6–7, 2017.
  12. Hartnett, J.G., The revolt against Darwinism, December 11, 2014.
  13. Hartnett, J.G., Is there definitive evidence for an expanding universe?, August 19, 2014.

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