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)

Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 8

Part 8 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 7 is found here.

Darwinian Evolution

In his next chapter “Evolution’s Bootstraps” Carroll starts by describing Richard Lenski’s experiment, which he labels as evolutionary biology. I am thinking that Carroll must have gotten the creationist message that evolution (in the goo-to-you sense) cannot be science because there is not one experimental demonstration of any process which changes microbes into molecular biologists. I say this because he states:

“Evolution is the idea that provides the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life on Earth today. There is no question that it’s a science: evolutionary biologists formulate hypotheses, define likelihoods of different outcomes under competing hypotheses, and collect data to update our credences in those hypotheses.” (p.273, emphasis added)

In the first sentence he uses one definition for the word ‘evolution’ (the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life) but in the following sentence it is different (mutations and selection though not explicitly stated). After the word ‘science’ what follows implies ‘evolution’ is observable in the lab, by carrying out experimental science. This is changing of the definition is called equivocation, and demonstrates very poor logic.

Very strangely Carroll does not see the point he makes himself in terms of the weakness of equivocating on the meaning of the word evolution when he admits that chemists and physicists have an advantage over evolutionary biologists because they can perform repeated experiments in their labs. The latter defines experimental science but nowhere in his statement (above) does he indicate that the evolutionary biologist carries out an experiment that “provides the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life”.

The data collecting and formulating of hypotheses is in relation to what they believe happened in the past. At best this is historical science, a type of forensic science that tries to unravel the sequence of unseen past events. But experimental science or operational science, which is the usual definition used for science, depends on repeatable experiments to test hypotheses. This the evolutionary biologist cannot do and he admits it.

“It would be very hard to set up a laboratory experiment to see Darwinian evolution in action, just as it would be hard to create a new universe.” (p.273) (emphasis added)

Nearly correct, but not quite! It would be not “hard” but impossible. But like all evolutionists, he then equivocates at this point saying:

“But it’s not impossible. (At least for evolution: we still don’t know how to create new universes.)” (p.273)

Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 7

Part 7 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 6 is found here.

Origin of Life

In the chapter titled “Light and Life,” Carroll discusses the meaning of what life is and the origin of life itself. He makes a passing comment that at least bacterial life may be found on another planet. He mentions, as a fact, that Europa, which is one of the natural satellites or moons of Jupiter, “… has more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth” (p.238).

But that has only been conjectured if there are liquid oceans underneath Europa’s frozen surface ice. The oceans are thought to begin 20 to 50 kms (12 to 30 miles) below the surface. Thus it may be sometime before the conjecture can be confirmed or denied. If there is anything we can learn from this, it is that Carroll is not phased at presenting as fact something he hopes to be true. To my knowledge, as of writing this, no oceans have been definitely discovered on Europa.

He asks the question, in regards to looking for life in space, will we know it is life when we see it?

“What is life anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are ‘alive’ from those that are not.” (p.238)

He gives NASA’s definition as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” (p.238) He claims that the ‘correct’ definition of life doesn’t exist. Yet he offers the following.

“Life as we know it moves (internally if not externally), metabolizes, interacts, reproduces, and evolves, all in hierarchical, interconnected ways.” (p.238)

Edwin Schrödinger, who helped formulate quantum mechanics, believed it was one of balance, balance between change and maintenance of structure and integrity. His definition is as follows.

“When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on ‘doing something,’ exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.” (p.239)

This focuses on the ‘self-sustaining’ part of NASA’s definition. Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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