The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 11

Part 11 and the final part of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 10 is found here.


In the last section of the book titled “Caring” he opens the first chapter with a quote from Carl Sagan’s wife. In response to people who knew Sagan was not a believer, seven years after his death his wife, Ann Druyan, wrote:

“We knew we were the beneficiaries of chance … That pure chance could be so generous and so kind … That we could find each other … in the vastness of space and the immensity of time….  The way he treated me and the way I treated him… that is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.” (pp.387-8)

This then leads to the question of the afterlife. Being a naturalist Carroll does not believe in such. He states though that he would like to continue living in some fashion after death, but only if it was pleasant and if he was not “tortured by ornery demons” (p.388)

And he writes that it takes courage to face up to the finitude of and the limits on our existence. Thus he agrees with Druyan that it was only chance that she met Sagan. The message here is that man is just another animal and not any more important that a sea slug. By chance we meet our spouses—there is no more meaning in our existence than chance.

“Ideas like ‘meaning’ and ‘morality’ and ‘purpose’ are nowhere to be found in the Core Theory of quantum fields, the physics underlying our everyday lives.” (p.389)

But he tries to add meaning by saying that these are emergent ways of talking about our human-scale environment. Nothing more.

“The source of these values isn’t the outside world; it’s inside us.” (p.389)

We could discuss where such ideas have ultimately led to. In the 20th century alone at least one hundred million people were killed, directly or indirectly, by atheistic despotic regimes, which were the invention of man’s values. Nazi Germany eliminated the handicapped because of ideas from inside the mind of man—ideas that were based on humanist Darwinian thinking.

Carroll tries to save the atheist position with

“If you are moved to help those less fortunate than you, it doesn’t matter whether you are motivated by a belief that it’s God’s will, or by a personal conviction that it’s the right thing to do. Your values are no less real either way.” (p.391)

That is true. But in a culture that developed from the Judeo-Christian mind-set it is not surprising that altruism in part remains in the society, even among atheists. But what is their motivation. It would seem they would be acting contrary to their selfish Darwinian belief system.

Figure 1: Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Byzantine style, from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily, c. 1130. Credit: Andreas Wahra – Wikimedia commons

Most societies that developed aid to the poor or the handicapped did not arrive at those ideas using man’s values. Most hospitals, aged care homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other outreaches (the anti-slavery movement, for example) began with Christians desiring to follow Christ’s admonition. (Matthew 25:37-40)

The unsaved sinner did not just think it would be a good idea to help the poor themselves. History tells us—Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, to name a few—that man’s ideas are decidedly selfish and destructive. The scriptures tell us (James 4:1-2) that it is from lust (or desire) that many undesirable actions and even wars result.

But according to Carroll,

“[d]esire has a bad reputation in certain circles. But that’s a bum rap.” (p.392)

And he tries to give it a positive spin, but not by mentioning any of the negative traits that desire or lust lead to. He says once we have provision of food and shelter we challenge ourselves to show some accomplishments.

“That makes sense, in light of evolution. An organism that didn’t give a crap about anything that happened to it would be at a severe disadvantage in the struggle for survival when compared to one that looked out for itself, its family and its compatriots.” (p.392)

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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)

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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 5

Part 5 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 4 is found here.

Worldviews and Science

In his chapter titled “Planets of Belief” he uses the analogy of how planets are alleged to have formed naturalistically (which in reality is just wishful thinking) and how we humans form our belief systems by associating together collections of ideas and ‘isms’.

“One person’s planet might include the scientific method, as well as the belief that the universe is billions of years old; another’s might include a belief in biblical literalism, as well as the belief that the world was created a few thousand years ago.” (p.118)

Then he asks how do we know which one is correct. But firstly he has created a straw man anyway. To suggest that a biblical creationist does not believe in the scientific method because she or he believes in a Creator is absurd. Science operates on the present, not the past. Any past creation event is untestable by the scientific method. This shows a clear ignorance of such matters. He goes on to write:

“If you confront a young-Earth creationist who thinks that the world came into being 6,000 years ago with scientific evidence for a very old Earth and universe, their typical response is not “Oh, I don’t believe in evidence and logic.”  Rather, they will attempt to account for the evidence within their belief system, for example, by explaining why God would have created the universe that way.” (p.118)

Carroll believes that his science is some absolute ground upon which he may firmly stand, without realising that same that he accuses the young-Earth creationist of applies to him. His worldview is also based on a set of beliefs. I would say beliefs that are without foundation because they rely on an edifice of untestable theories supported by plethora of unknown ‘unknowns’. Those ‘unknowns’ include, but are not limited to, dark matter, dark energy,1 dark radiation, dark photons, chameleons, inflation and how it allegedly started and stopped, the singularity itself, expansion of space, CMB radiation as the afterglow of the big bang—not the radiation itself, but the fact that it allegedly came from the big bang fireball, when big bang cosmology has a radiation horizon problem—and also the growth of large galactic structure allegedly only hundreds of millions of years after the big bang—a particle horizon problem. These horizon problems mean that there is insufficient time in the standard cosmology to account for the existence of the observations. Yet, on the same page, Carroll writes,

“Abandoning the quest for a secure foundation in favor of a planet of belief is like moving from firm ground to a boat on choppy seas or a spinning teacup ride. It can make you dizzy, if not seasick. We are spinning through space, nothing to hold onto.” (p.118)

The implicit belief here is that his belief is better than a YEC belief though he does not directly acknowledge it. But he is saying something like ‘you’d be mad to believe that!’ Yet he uses the language of belief in reference to his own faith.

“What rescues our beliefs from being completely arbitrary is that one of the beliefs in a typical planet is something like ‘true statements correspond to actual elements of the real world.’ If we believe that and have some reliable data, and are sufficiently honest with ourselves, we can hope to construct belief systems that not only are coherent but also agree with those of other people and with eternal reality.” (pp.118-9, emphases added)

Then he continues with the discussion saying that stable planets of belief are those that are internally consistent and coherent. Also he relies on the fact that others hold to the same beliefs as a judge of their truth. The inference though is that YECs and others who hold a different belief system to his atheistic worldview are not consistent or rational, and their beliefs don’t correspond with reality. Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 4

Part 4 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 3 is found here.

Understanding the World

Carroll devotes a few chapters to assessing how well we understand the world. He introduces us to Rev. Thomas Bayes who, in the latter part of his life, studied probability. He was published posthumously on the subject. His work has become widely used in mathematics, principally statistics, and also in physics. The subject has become to be known as Bayesian inference or Bayesian probability.

Bayes’ main idea involves how to treat the probability of a proposal being correct in the light of new evidence becoming available. In physics we rely on what we already know, or what we think we have established as foundational and we build upon that. When we get new information that could change our view we need to update what we believe is the probability of the hypothesis being correct in light of that new information. That probability is what is called a credence, or the degree of belief that we hold that we are correct.

So Bayesian inference attempts to apply a quantitative value to what we might infer from our attempts to explain the physical world. It is the basis of scientific investigation. In terms of experimental discoveries it is easy to see how this might apply. We can never prove any hypothesis or theory correct. All we can hope to do is update our credence, meaning to increase the probability of a theory being correct.  In physics a threshold is established of 5σ (5 sigma) above which it is said that a discovery has been made. Statistically that is like saying there is only 1 in a 3.5 million chance that the signal isn’t real and thus the theory is wrong. That is a very low probability indeed. But some discoveries have been made at the level of 3σ or less.I know of one hypothesis that had a 6σ probability yet it turned out to be wrong.2

But things don’t always work out to be correct, even with a statistical probability above 5σ. Any hypothesis may be refuted but it can never be proven. Do you remember the claim of faster than light neutrinos in 2011? The OPERA team’s experimental results indicated a 6σ level of confidence, which is much higher than the 5σ usually required for new particle discoveries. But in the following year, as many expected (because we don’t expect any particle to break the speed of light limit), an error was found in the experimental analysis resulting from a loose fibre optic cable, and that meant those neutrinos obeyed the universal speed limit. When the new information came in the Bayesian credence could be updated to nearly zero. Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 3

Part 3 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 2 is found here.


Carroll defines naturalism saying it comes down to three things (p.20) and that “the only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it”. But how can he know that if he is not God. Suppose for a minute that there really is a Creator God and He gave us a revelation in His written Word. But because man cannot, by definition, observe God, since He is a spirit and outside the realm of detectability by science, how can he know that what God has written is not a reliable way of learning about the world? And this is another self-refuting claim: what observation did he make, or even could he make, that reliably showed that observation is the only reliable way of learning?

His form of naturalism – poetic naturalism (after David Hume) – is just standard atheistic naturalism, but he adds that man has responsibility and freedom (p.21).

“The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.”

He means there is nothing intrinsically good or beautiful. He writes that there are

“No causes, whether material, formal, efficient, or final” (p.29).

Extending the idea of Laplace’s Demon, he writes

“Realistically, there never will be and never can be an intelligence vast and knowledgeable enough to predict the future of the universe from its present state.” (p.34)

In the chapter titled “Reasons Why” he says that Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason is a mistake. That principle states that “For any true fact, there is a reason why it is so, and why something else is not so instead” (p.40). And he points out that

“Hume noted that conceiving of effects without causes might seem unusual, but it does not lead to any inherent contradiction or logical impossibility.” (p.41)

This leads to his belief that the universe needs no reason to be; it simply is.

“… there are facts that don’t have any reasons to explain them”. (p.42)

He implicitly believes a big bang origin for the universe 14 billion years ago, and says that there are some questions for which we may not get answers. Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 2

Part 2 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 1 is found here.


In the Prologue the author writes:

“We have two goals ahead of us. One is to explain the story of our universe and why we think it’s true, the big picture as we currently understand it. It’s a fantastic conception. We humans are blobs of organised mud, which through the impersonal workings of nature’s patterns have developed the capacity to contemplate and cherish and engage with the intimidating complexity of the world around us. To understand ourselves, we have to understand the stuff out of which we are made, which means we have to dig deeply into the realm of particles and forces and quantum phenomena, not to mention the spectacular variety of ways that those microscopic pieces can come together to form organized systems capable of feeling and thought.

The other goal is to offer a bit of existential therapy. … By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are ‘just’ collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.” (p.3)

The latter he must say because later he says that the material world is all there is. He argues that there is no such thing as a spirit or a soul that is not part of our material body. When we die that is it, there is nothing beyond life.

Carroll is a student of many philosophers, mostly atheists, or who are at least those who challenge a conservative Christian worldview of life.  For example he mentions, Descartes, Nietzsche, Laplace, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza, Lewis (not C.S.), Russell, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and others. But it would seem that the author relies more strongly on the so-called Enlightenment philosophy of the atheist Scotsman David Hume.

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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 1

Part 1 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, and an outspoken atheist (not to be confused with Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist). The book was the winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Front cover of book. Published by Oneworld Publications, London, 2016, 470 pages.

On the inside book cover these questions are written:

Where are we? Who are we? Do our beliefs, hopes and dreams mean anything out there in the void? Can human purpose and meaning ever fit into a scientific worldview?

Carroll’s message in this book is that there is no ultimate purpose, we are only the product of matter and material forces, there is no meaning to life, there is no afterlife and meaning and purpose do not fit into any scientific worldview. But the author tries to dress it up saying that it’s what you put into your life that counts. Beauty is found in the observer. But he cannot escape his own bondage because his worldview ultimately does not allow for intrinsic meaning or purpose. He is just dead in the end.

There is nothing new in this book but a lot of atheistic philosophy stemming from Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. The author uses circular reasoning and begging the question. By assuming there is no Creator because He is not needed in the universe, to cause it or operate within it, and by assuming everything in the past evolution of the universe and life in it is explained by man’s current knowledge (Darwinian evolution by mutation and natural selection) then everything can be explained how it came to be. The Universe needs no reason to exist. It simply is. Life needs no reason, it simply is. There was nothing before time began in the big bang so no question can be asked what was before? There is no First Cause because either the universe came into the existence with the beginning of time itself, or, time is fundamental and always existed so from it and the laws of physics the universe spontaneously arose from some quantum fluctuation. Now that we are smarter we have come to understand this true fact.

He talks of methodological empiricism as the correct way to learn the truth about the universe but he offers no direct empirical evidence for the origin of the universe in a big bang, or for the initial alleged low entropy state it started in, or for the spontaneous origin of life by random chance, or for the alleged Darwinian evolution of living organisms by natural selection over eons of history. We are essentially asked to just believe these as given facts as much as the author seems to. Only he offers up stories to justify his beliefs. As a book alleged to give the Big Picture of the Universe and all life in it, it fails on the very premise the author sets out to use—direct observation of the world to discover the truth. Continue reading