The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 10

Part 10 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 9 is found here.


The fifth of the six section divisions of the book is titled “Thinking,” which includes chapters on the origin of consciousness. This section is very vague, perhaps because there is a major lack of any real experimental evidence in support of what gives rise to consciousness and therefore any evolutionary speculations on how it arose in a Darwinian world are very tenuous.

Carroll opens the first chapter in this section “Crawling into Consciousness” with:

“Almost 400 million years ago, a plucky little fish climbed onto land and decided to hang out rather than returning into the sea. Its descendants evolved into the species Tiktaalik roseae, fossils of which were first discovered in 2004 in the Canadian Arctic.” (p.317)

Only the second part of the second sentence has any factual basis in being a true statement. The rest here, though stated as a fact, is completely assumed—made up—just pulled out of the air. There is no evidence—fossil or otherwise—of a fish that climbed onto land and decided to stay there.

“If you were ever looking for a missing link between two major evolutionary stages, Tiktaalik is it; these adorable creatures represent a transitional form between water-based and land-based animal life.” (p.317, emphasis added)

On the same page he shows a reconstruction of a Tiktaalik roseae fish half in and half out of the water. See Fig. 1.

Figure 1: A reconstruction of Tiktaalik roseae, crawling onto land, as imagined. Credit: Zina Deretsky

The animal was more likely a fish with some mosaic like features in the same way that Archaeopteryx, a bird, had teeth and claws on its wings, resulting in claims that it was also a transitional form.1 But note Tiktaalik roseae, could not walk.2 Tiktaalik’s fin was not connected to its main skeleton, so it could not have supported its weight on land. Thus the story of it coming out of the water and walking on land is pure fiction.

Then Carroll continues with his storytelling about how a fish evolved while climbing onto land. He uses expressions like “We don’t know, but we can make some reasonable guesses.” (p.318) He then argues that the evolutionary pressure on the fish as it swims under water and its need to think quickly caused its brain to evolve to think more quickly. “A fish brain is going to be optimized to do just that.” (p.318) But this is just another statement of faith—faith in an unobserved process, based on a belief that evolution happened over billions of years.

“Bioengineer Malcolm MacIver has suggested that the flapping of fish up onto dry land was one of several crucial transitions that led to the development of the thing we now call consciousness.” (p.319)

Carroll defines consciousness as

“a complex interplay of many processes acting on multiple levels. It involves wakefulness, receiving and responding to sensory inputs, imagination, inner experience and volition.” (p.319)

After stating that neuroscience and psychology have learned a lot about what consciousness is, he writes that “we are still far away from any sort of complete understanding”. (p.319) But rather he believes that when man does achieve an understanding of consciousness “it will be one that is completely compatible with the basic tenets of the Core Theory—part of physical reality, not apart from it.” (p.320) But this is again just a statement of faith. He has no empirical evidence to support it.

“MacIver suggests that one of the most important pieces in this puzzle—the ability to take time to contemplate multiple alternatives, breaking the immediate connection between stimulus and response—started to become selected for by evolution once we crawled up onto  the rocks.

It is natural to suppose that our imaginative faculties grew out of the evolutionary pressure in favor of developing the ability to weigh competing options for our future actions.” (p.322)

It is only natural when you define evolution as the only acceptable explanation.  When no alternative explanation is allowed.

“Our ability to imagine the future is incredibly detailed and rich, but it is not hard to imagine how it might have evolved gradually over the span of many generations.” (p.325, emphasis added)

Some irony there. He is talking about imagining how evolution might have evolved consciousness when no one knows what consciousness is. In addition, imagining is all that evolutionists can do, because they have absolutely no actual knowledge of how it might have evolved. That is because it didn’t. But the imaginative faculties in our brains had to have evolved before the evolutionists could imagine how they might have evolved.

He asks was MacIver’s speculation of a fish crawling onto land the “pivotal step” in the development of consciousness, or, “just another fish story” (p.325). The latter I would think. He then argues that because whales and dolphins descended from land animals “their intelligence actually provides evidence for the hypothesis, not against it.” (p.325) But that is again circular reasoning. Only because evolutionists believe whales evolved from land animals that once evolved from the sea could you claim whales’ intelligence is attributable to the transition from water to dry land.

Of course none of this is supported by empirical evidence, just storytelling. Despite Carroll’s belief consciousness did not evolve in the first place, so it is empty rhetoric to suggest it was motivated by a fish climbing out of the water to live in air. It is more reasonable to expect that frogs turn into princes.

He ends the chapter with

“As the reducibly complex mouse trap reminds us, we shouldn’t let the intimidating sophistication of the final product trick us into thinking that it couldn’t have come about via numerous small steps.” (p.326)


When discussing a magneto-encephalography (MEG) scan of his own brain Carroll states:

“What we call a ‘thought’ corresponds directly and unmistakably to the motion of certain charged particles inside my head.” (p.329)

But admits there is a divide between those who believe thinking is just that—a physical process in the brain—and those who believe it is necessary to add some additional ingredients beyond the physical. He takes the former view. To him thought is merely the product of 85 billion neurons, with a hundred trillion connections, in the human brain.

Then he involves the reader in a discussion of the development of neurons in other organisms and even how neuroscientists have been able to artificially remove or add memories by direct nerve cell stimulation in mice. “Memories are physical things, located in your brain” (p.331) he writes. The implication is that ‘you’ are just the sum total of your neurons, only matter and nothing else; not matter plus spirit.

He argues that

“Damaging the brain, …, can change who a person is at a fundamental level.” (p.334)

But this would seem contrary to the scriptures, which tell us God chose us before the foundation of the world, (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20) or before we were conceived (Psalm 139:15-16).

Carroll then gives examples of brain-damaged people that have changed their affections for another. But what about patients with a mental condition, who do not recognise loved ones, yet after they are delivered from the condition, they are returned to their normal mind?

Chapter 39 is titled “What Thinks?” and deals with the question of what thinking is. The chapter open with a reference to a Robert A. Heinlein novel where the plot involves a computer ‘Mike,’ which had become self-aware.  It is a stretch to reference science fiction in this regards. But also the author of the novel (quoted by Carroll) makes the comparison between the number of neuristors that Mike had and the number of neurons in the human brain. (p.336)

The point Carroll seems to be making that all it takes is sufficient hardware for a computer to become self-aware, i.e. to develop consciousness.

“There’s a revolution to be won, and presumably self-awareness is just the kind of thing that happens when thinking devices become sufficiently large and complex.” (p.336)

This statement is a faith statement, without a shred of any sort of experimental evidence. In fact, large supercomputers have developed over the past 5 decades, and none have become self-aware, as often portrayed in the movies. That portrayal is based solely on evolutionary beliefs that man evolved consciousness as he ascended (allegedly) from primitive forms.

But as Carroll admits what is more important is not the number of neurons per se but the ordered structure in the way they are connected to each other. This is called the connectome. Carroll claims that that “… developed gradually through the course of natural selection”. (p.336)  Yet he admits also that the structure a computer has makes it unlikely that it would develop self-awareness by accident. (p.337)

Alan Turing a British mathematician and computer engineer, proposed a test, the Turing test, to decide if a machine can think. But due to a lack of agreement on definitions, Turing downgraded his test to only decide if a machine, through conversation, could make a human believe it was a person. But no computer has even come close to passing the Turing test. Even if it did, would it prove consciousness? The materialist might say yes, but in reality it would only be clever programming.

But Carroll has faith. He writes:

“We will likely get there at some point, but contemporary machines do not ‘think’ in Turing’s sense.” (p.337)

This is because as materialist he cannot imagine (because he cannot experimentally detect or describe) consciousness endowed by the Creator.  It must only be due to sufficient hardware and the right software to run on that hardware.

I would say that no matter how clever the programming, a computer can never understand what it is says. And that is the central question. Can a machine experience emotions, or have abstract thought?

Following Turing, a human perspective only a person can know that they have consciousness. In essence no one else can get inside another’s head to know what that person feels. But from the Creator’s perspective, we can know because He has told us that He created man in His own image. No other life form has that privilege.

But atheists like Carroll see only the material world.

“If the physical world is all there is, we have to think that consciousness results from the particular motions and interactions of all those cells, with one another, and with the outside world.” (p.341)

And Carroll argues that it is not actually the ‘cells’ that matter, i.e. not the hardware components, “only how they interact with one another” (p.342).  From there is follows that “many different substances could embody the patterns of conscious thought” (p.342).  Thus “all kinds of things could be conscious” (p.342). This can be taken to the point of replacing every one of a person’s neurons by an equivalently behaving neuristor.  He asks if such a person is conscious, even though their brain had been replaced with machinery.

Of course, such ideas are purely science fiction. Perhaps it would be forever beyond human technology to do so. But Carroll continues:

“It’s logically possible that a phase transition occurs somewhere along the way as we gradually replace neurons one by one, even if we can’t predict exactly when it would happen.” (p.342).

It is only logical in a materialist’s world. In that world it is assumed that all that counts is the firing of neurons and that there is no separate existence of the soul. In a God-created-man world removing neurons would eventually lead to a person’s death.

Recently the idea of the “Ghost in the Machine” was popularised by a movie of the same name. There a human’s brain is transplanted into a machine. That is just one step before moving consciousness into the hardware of the machine. That idea was, in fact, the plot of the movie “Chappie”. The notion ignores the fact of the resurrection. The man Christ Jesus was restored to life after He died on the Cross in a new resurrected body, which includes his brain, which is new hardware. In His resurrected body He had the same knowledge, memories and consciousness as before His death.

But Carroll can only cite sci-fi and fanciful stories in support of his unfounded arguments.

“From a poetic-naturalism perspective, when we talk about consciousness we’re not discovering some fundamental kind of stuff out there in the universe. It’s not like searching for the virus that causes a known disease, where we know perfectly well what kind of thing we are looking for and merely want to detect it with our instruments so that we can describe what it is like. Like ‘entropy’ and ‘heat’, the concepts of ‘consciousness’ and ‘understanding’ are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.” (p.343)

So to Carroll consciousness is only the collective behaviour of an enormous lot of neurons. It has no existence apart from matter. Accordingly the atheist defines consciousness as “how the system behaves over time” (p.344).  And that system is subject to evolution through time. In the atheist mind consciousness defines itself that way. He has no alternative. He does not believe in the immaterial existence of the soul.

As a result intentions, like purpose, are merely the emergent property of that collective behaviour of those myriad neurons. That leads to no responsibility for one’s thoughts. And thus it leads to denial of any objective decision-making.

You can see how this would influence the atheist mind. To him he is just the product of his surrounding and the Core Theory of particle physics. He can deny any responsibility for negative thoughts and hence for sin. After all he would say they are just the result of certain neurons firing or not, and he is not responsible for anything he does or thinks.

The hard problem

This is the title of Carroll’s chapter 40.

“Life on Earth has undergone a series of dramatic phase transitions. Self-replicating organisms, cell nuclei, multicellular life, climbing onto land, the origin of language—all of these represent important new capacities that changed what life was capable of.  The appearance of consciousness is arguably the most interesting phase transition of all, the beginning of a new kind of way for matter to organise itself and behave.” (p.348)

None of his claimed phase transitions have been presented with any credible supporting evidence. The “appearance of consciousness” is no difference. He uses only philosophical arguments based on his firm belief in the Darwinian goo-to-you evolution. Carroll writes:

“I have no trouble believing that life is a complex network of interlocking chemical reactions that began spontaneously and evolved through natural selection over billions of years.” (pp.348-9, emphasis added)

No physical evidence is presented. And the fact remains that consciousness has not developed in non-biological ‘brains’ (computers) as they have become more complex. Such a phase transition has not occurred.

“This issue has been dubbed the mind-body problem: how can we hope to account for mental reality using only physical concepts? As will the origin of life and the origin of the universe, we can’t claim to have a full understanding of the nature of consciousness.” (p.349)

This would have to be the understatement of all understatement. Science has no idea about the origin of life or the origin of the Universe, so also the origin of consciousness from a purely naturalistic Darwinian viewpoint. The reason the chapter is called “The hard problem” is because though naturalists claim to understand evolution of function (i.e. being awake or asleep) they have no idea about experience—what we personally feel. But to Carroll there is no hard problem. He calls experience “the effective behavior of the collection of atoms we call human beings” (p.351).

He argues:

“If consciousness were something over and above the physical properties of matter, there would be a puzzle: what was it doing for all those billions of years before life came along?” (p.363)

It is an ill-formed question. Based on a fallacious belief that life evolved from pond scum, he poses that consciousness cannot be separate from matter, else it would have to have been floating around for billions of years before a human brain evolved.

His conclusion is that consciousness “seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomena” (p.365). This is analogous to temperature manifested by a collection of particles. Individually the atoms don’t have a temperature but collectively they do. Materialists like this type of explanation because, even though science can’t yet explain consciousness, this type of explanation gets around the problem of anything more than material matter.

“Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.” (p.366)

He discusses the notion put forward by some that quantum mechanics plays some role in consciousness. Carroll writes that if quantum theory is not fully understood then the leading candidate in that which is not yet known is in how we think about quantum measurements. Roger Penrose has suggested that

“quantum gravity is involved, and filamentary structures in the brain called microtubules—but the upshot is that the wave functions of structures in our brains collapse in just the right way to grant human beings powers of insight and cognition that computers will never achieve.” (p.370)

Carroll does not agree. He says, as stated above, it is an emergent phenomenon—a very high level emergent phenomenon. He says it may arise out of underlying processes that are absolutely rigid and logical yet it does not exhibit those properties itself. This is little more than a faith statement based on (by his own admission) a materialistic worldview. If the Universe is all there is and if the Core Theory is complete then it follows. But if there exists a consciousness outside of ourselves (i.e. a Creator) then the starting premise is false, and the conclusion does not follow.

This leads to a discussion on causation. He states the argument against Cartesian dualism (mental properties that influence physical ones) is causal closure of the physical. (p.374) He is saying that from a knowledge of the complete and self-consistent laws of physics, in the realm of interest, and a knowledge of the complete quantum state of a system, you can precisely predict what that system will do. Nothing else is needed or allowed.

But he does not agree with what some promote as the logical extension of this—that free will does not exist. He writes that on the human scale free will does exist. But it seems it really is in the vocabulary that we express our ideas.

He describes what he calls compatibilism and refers to the compatibility between an underlying deterministic (or impersonal) scientific description and our vocabulary of choice and volition.  Apparently this notion traces its origin back to John Locke, atheist English philosopher, who is regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.”

But it would seem to me that it is merely semantics. Carroll says that

“… once you frame the question in terms of you and your choice, you can’t also start talking about your atoms and the laws of physics. Either vocabulary is perfectly legitimate, but mixing them leads to nonsense.” (p.379)

He argues that because we don’t know what the atoms in our body are going to do it is free choice on the human scale.  This does not solve the dilemma; it merely removes from the discussion the determinism of no free choice. However, ultimately he agrees that it is some sort of basic truth that “we are collections of elementary particles interacting through the rules of the Core Theory.”

The materialist would say in regards to the question of “responsibility” in human choice no blame can be attributed to any decision because all decisions are the result of the properties of particle physics in the brain—hence no free choice.

The poetic naturalist, Carroll writes, gets around the problem by saying that on the human level volition is a property of the whole system and hence blame can be attributed to a bad decision. But is this not just avoiding the issue?  It is semantics. He still believes that on the quantum scale there is no free choice—any decision is purely a property of the particles in his brain acted upon by the Core Theory.

Click here for Part 11 of this review.


  1. Sarfati, J., Tiktaalik roseae—a fishy ‘missing link’,
  2. Nunn, W., It’s all talk,Tiktaalik can’t walk, A fishy story that has no legs,, January 30, 2014.

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