A Short Review of Carroll’s The Big Picture

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture is like the anti-particle version of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. If they ever come into contact, they’ll carroll-sean-bookannihilate each other and Aquinas’ Summa will pop out.

– Very well-written. Expansive in its scope, it includes fascinating discussions of cosmology, history, biology, and psychology.
– Philosophically sophisticated. I have never, ever read a scientist who had such a good grasp of philosophy and who explained it so clearly.
– Irenic. Not the usual Neoatheist polemicist, Carroll seems to recognize the attractiveness of the religious worldview

– He spent several chapters dismissing the possibility of substance dualism, with only the barest glance at the strong Copenhagen interpretation of QM (consciousness collapses the wavefunction). Worse, he states several times that the current laws of physics rule out any mechanism for interaction. This is a huge omission.
– His central argument for ‘poetic naturalism’ depends crucially on saying that concepts can be invented by human beings yet can still be ‘real.’ This argument trades on equivocation. He agrees that some concepts like ‘chair’ are just shorthand for ‘a huge number of particles arranged as a chair.’ On the other hand, he recognizes that ‘beauty’, ‘morality’, and ‘purpose’ are obviously not shorthand for ‘a huge number of particles arranged in a certain way.’ So why not just admit that these concepts are illusions?
– A related problem is his defense of the legitimacy of ‘ways of talking’. While Carroll agrees that physics alone ultimately determines everything, he defends the idea that other ‘ways of talking’ – like biology or poetry- can be ‘useful.’ But he seems to waffle on whether ‘useful ways of talking’ should still be tethered to truth. For example, he is not sure whether it’s ‘useful’ tell a person who thinks they are a unicorn that they are not a unicorn. He has similar problems with the hard problem of consciousness and free will.
– He really runs into trouble when trying to explain morality. He admits that morality is a human construct, which each individual can create. But he seems to think that ‘useful’ morality will always be more or less conventional. Why think that? Murderers and tyrants find rationalization to be extremely useful.
– No footnotes, just a list of works cited and a bibliography at the end.

Thorough, engaging, irenic.  A very good book.