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

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

by Sean Carroll


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The instant New York Times bestseller about humanity's place in the universe—and how we understand it.

“Vivid...impressive....Splendidly informative.”The New York Times
Succeeds spectacularly.—Science
A tour de force.Salon

Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions: Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void? Do human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?

In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human leveland then how each connects to the other. Carroll's presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.  

Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.

The Big Picture is an unprecedented scientific worldview, a tour de force that will sit on shelves alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101984253
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 71,769
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SEAN CARROLL is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in 1993 from Harvard University. Recently, Carroll has worked on the foundations of quantum mechanics, the arrow of time, and the emergence of complexity. He has been awarded prizes and fellowships by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the Royal Society of London. His most recent award, in 2014, was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Carroll has appeared on The Colbert Report (twice), PBS’s NOVA, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and he frequently serves as a science consultant for film and television. He has been interviewed by various NPR shows, Scientific American, Wired, and The New York Times. He has given a TED talk on the multiverse that has more than one million views, and he has participated in a number of well-attended public debates concerning material in his new book, including one in New York City in 2014 with Eben Alexander.

Read an Excerpt


The Fundamental Nature of Reality

In the old Road Runner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would frequently find himself running off the edge of a cliff. But he wouldn't, as our experience with gravity might lead us to expect, start falling to the ground below, at least not right away. Instead, he would hover motionless, in puzzlement; it was only when he realized there was no longer any ground beneath him that he would suddenly crash downward.

We are all Wile E. Coyote. Since human beings began thinking about things, we have contemplated our place in the universe, the reason why we are all here. Many possible answers have been put forward, and partisans of one view or another have occasionally disagreed with each other. But for a long time, there has been a shared view that there is some meaning, out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged. There is a point to all this; things happen for a reason. This conviction has served as the ground beneath our feet, as the foundation on which we've constructed all the principles by which we live our lives.

Gradually, our confidence in this view has begun to erode. As we understand the world better, the idea that it has a transcendent purpose seems increasingly untenable. The old picture has been replaced by a wondrous new one-one that is breathtaking and exhilarating in many ways, challenging and vexing in others. It is a view in which the world stubbornly refuses to give us any direct answers about the bigger questions of purpose and meaning.

The problem is that we haven't quite admitted to ourselves that this transition has taken place, nor fully accepted its far-reaching implications. The issues are well-known. Over the course of the last two centuries, Darwin has upended our view of life, Nietzsche's madman bemoaned the death of God, existentialists have searched for authenticity in the face of absurdity, and modern atheists have been granted a seat at society's table. And yet, many continue on as if nothing has changed; others revel in the new order, but placidly believe that adjusting our perspective is just a matter of replacing a few old homilies with a few new ones.

The truth is that the ground has disappeared beneath us, and we are just beginning to work up the courage to look down. Fortunately, not everything in the air immediately plummets to its death. Wile E. Coyote would have been fine if he had been equipped with one of those ACME-brand jet packs, so that he could fly around under his own volition. It's time to get to work building our conceptual jet packs.

What is the fundamental nature of reality? Philosophers call this the question of ontology-the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed. It can be contrasted with epistemology, which is how we obtain knowledge about the world. Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality; we also talk about "an" ontology, referring to a specific idea about what that nature actually is.

The number of approaches to ontology alive in the world today is somewhat overwhelming. There is the basic question of whether reality exists at all. A realist says, "Of course it does"; but there are also idealists, who think that capital-M Mind is all that truly exists, and the so-called real world is just a series of thoughts inside that Mind. Among realists, we have monists, who think that the world is a single thing, and dualists, who believe in two distinct realms (such as "matter" and "spirit"). Even people who agree that there is only one type of thing might disagree about whether there are fundamentally different kinds of properties (such as mental properties and physical properties) that those things can have. And even people who agree that there is only one kind of thing, and that the world is purely physical, might diverge when it comes to asking which aspects of that world are "real" versus "illusory." (Are colors real? Is consciousness? Is morality?)

Whether or not you believe in God-whether you are a theist or an atheist-is part of your ontology, but far from the whole story. "Religion" is a completely different kind of thing. It is associated with certain beliefs, often including belief in God, although the definition of "God" can differ substantially within religion's broad scope. Religion can also be a cultural force, a set of institutions, a way of life, a historical legacy, a collection of practices and principles. It's much more, and much messier, than a checklist of doctrines. A counterpart to religion would be humanism, a collection of beliefs and practices that is as varied and malleable as religion is.

The broader ontology typically associated with atheism is naturalism-there is only one world, the natural world, exhibiting patterns we call the "laws of nature," and which is discoverable by the methods of science and empirical investigation. There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life. "Life" and "consciousness" do not denote essences distinct from matter; they are ways of talking about phenomena that emerge from the interplay of extraordinarily complex systems. Purpose and meaning in life arise through fundamentally human acts of creation, rather than being derived from anything outside ourselves. Naturalism is a philosophy of unity and patterns, describing all of reality as a seamless web.

Naturalism has a long and distinguished pedigree. We find traces of it in Buddhism, in the atomists of ancient Greece and Rome, and in Confucianism. Hundreds of years after the death of Confucius, a Chinese thinker named Wang Chong was a vocal naturalist, campaigning against the belief in ghosts and spirits that had become popular in his day. But it is really only in the last few centuries that the evidence in favor of naturalism has become hard to resist.


All of these isms can feel a bit overwhelming. Fortunately we don't need to be rigorous or comprehensive about listing the possibilities. But we do need to think hard about ontology. It's at the heart of our Wile E. Coyote problem.

The last five hundred or so years of human intellectual progress have completely upended how we think about the world at a fundamental level. Our everyday experience suggests that there are large numbers of truly different kinds of stuff out there. People, spiders, rocks, oceans, tables, fire, air, stars-these all seem dramatically different from one another, deserving of independent entries in our list of basic ingredients of reality. Our "folk ontology" is pluralistic, full of myriad distinct categories. And that's not even counting notions that seem more abstract but are arguably equally "real," from numbers to our goals and dreams to our principles of right and wrong.

As our knowledge grows, we have moved by fits and starts in the direction of a simpler, more unified ontology. It's an ancient impulse. In the sixth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus suggested that water is a primary principle from which all else is derived, while across the world, Hindu philosophers put forward Brahman as the single ultimate reality. The development of science has accelerated and codified the trend.

Galileo observed that Jupiter has moons, implying that it is a gravitating body just like the Earth. Isaac Newton showed that the force of gravity is universal, underlying both the motion of the planets and the way that apples fall from trees. John Dalton demonstrated how different chemical compounds could be thought of as combinations of basic building blocks called atoms. Charles Darwin established the unity of life from common ancestors. James Clerk Maxwell and other physicists brought together such disparate phenomena as lightning, radiation, and magnets under the single rubric of "electromagnetism." Close analysis of starlight revealed that stars are made of the same kinds of atoms as we find here on Earth, with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin eventually proving that they are mostly hydrogen and helium. Albert Einstein unified space and time, joining together matter and energy along the way. Particle physics has taught us that every atom in the periodic table of the elements is an arrangement of just three basic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Every object you have ever seen or bumped into in your life is made of just those three particles.

We're left with a very different view of reality from where we started. At a fundamental level, there aren't separate "living things" and "nonliving things," "things here on Earth" and "things up in the sky," "matter" and "spirit." There is just the basic stuff of reality, appearing to us in many different forms.

How far will this process of unification and simplification go? It's impossible to say for sure. But we have a reasonable guess, based on our progress thus far: it will go all the way. We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That's a big deal.


Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to be skeptical. When we look into the eyes of another person, it doesn't seem like what we're seeing is simply a collection of atoms, some sort of immensely complicated chemical reaction. We often feel connected to the universe in some way that transcends the merely physical, whether it's a sense of awe when we contemplate the sea or sky, a trancelike reverie during meditation or prayer, or the feeling of love when we're close to someone we care about. The difference between a living being and an inanimate object seems much more profound than the way certain molecules are arranged. Just looking around, the idea that everything we see and feel can somehow be explained by impersonal laws governing the motion of matter and energy seems preposterous.

It's a bit of a leap, in the face of all of our commonsense experience, to think that life can simply start up out of non-life, or that our experience of consciousness needs no more ingredients than atoms obeying the laws of physics. Of equal importance, appeals to transcendent purpose or a higher power seem to provide answers to questions to some of the pressing "Why?" questions we humans like to ask: Why this universe? Why am I here? Why anything at all? Naturalism, by contrast, simply says: those aren't the right questions to ask. It's a lot to swallow, and not a view that anyone should accept unquestioningly.

Naturalism isn't an obvious, default way to think about the world. The case in its favor has built up gradually over the years, a consequence of our relentless quest to improve our understanding of how things work at a deep level, but there is still work to be done. We don't know how the universe began, or if it's the only universe. We don't know the ultimate, complete laws of physics. We don't know how life began, or how consciousness arose. And we certainly haven't agreed on the best way to live in the world as good human beings.

The naturalist needs to make the case that, even without actually having these answers yet, their worldview is still by far the most likely framework in which we will eventually find them. That's what we're here to do.


The pressing, human questions we have about our lives depend directly on our attitudes toward the universe at a deeper level. For many people, those attitudes are adopted rather informally from the surrounding culture, rather than arising out of rigorous personal reflection. Each new generation of people doesn't invent the rules of living from scratch; we inherit ideas and values that have evolved over vast stretches of time. At the moment, the dominant image of the world remains one in which human life is cosmically special and significant, something more than mere matter in motion. We need to do better at reconciling how we talk about life's meaning with what we know about the scientific image of our universe.

Among people who acknowledge the scientific basis of reality, there is often a conviction-usually left implicit-that all of that philosophical stuff like freedom, morality, and purpose should ultimately be pretty easy to figure out. We're collections of atoms, and we should be nice to one another. How hard can it really be?

It can be really hard. Being nice to one another is a good start, but it doesn't get us very far. What happens when different people have incompatible conceptions of niceness? Giving peace a chance sounds like a swell idea, but in the real world, there are different actors with different interests, and conflicts will inevitably arise. The absence of a supernatural guiding force doesn't mean we can't meaningfully talk about right and wrong, but it doesn't mean we instantly know one from the other, either.

Meaning in life can't be reduced to simplistic mottos. In some number of years I will be dead; some memory of my time here on Earth may linger, but I won't be around to savor it. With that in mind, what kind of life is worth living? How should we balance family and career, fortune and pleasure, action and contemplation? The universe is large, and I am a tiny part of it, constructed of the same particles and forces as everything else: by itself, that tells us precisely nothing about how to answer such questions. We're going to have to be both smart and courageous as we work to get this right.


Poetic Naturalism

One thing Star Trek never really got clear on was how transporter machines are supposed to work. Do they disassemble you one atom at a time, zip those atoms elsewhere, and then reassemble them? Or do they send only a blueprint of you, the information contained in your arrangement of atoms, and then reconstruct you from existing matter in the environment to which you are traveling? Most often the ship's crew talks as if your actual atoms travel through space, but then how do we explain "The Enemy Within"? That's the episode, you'll remember, in which a transporter malfunction causes two copies of Captain Kirk to be beamed aboard the Enterprise. It's hard to see how two copies of a person could be made out of one person-sized collection of atoms.

Fortunately for viewers of the show, the two copies of Kirk weren't precisely identical. One copy was the normal (good) Kirk, and the other was evil. Even better, the evil one quickly got scratched on the face by Yeoman Rand, so it wasn't hard to tell the two apart.

But what if they had been identical? We would then be faced with a puzzle about the nature of personal identity, popularized by philosopher Derek Parfit. Imagine a transporter machine that could disassemble a single individual and reconstruct multiple exact copies of them out of different atoms. Which one, if any, would be the "real" one? If there were just a single copy, most of us would have no trouble accepting them as the original person. (Using different atoms doesn't really matter; in actual human bodies, our atoms are lost and replaced all the time.) Or what if one copy were made of new atoms, while the original you remained intact-but the original suffered a tragic death a few seconds after the duplicate was made. Would the duplicate count as the same person?

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part 1 Cosmos

1 The Fundamental Nature of Reality 9

2 Poetic Naturalism 15

3 The World Moves by Itself 23

4 What Determines What Will Happen? 30

5 Reasons Why 38

6 Our Universe 47

7 Time's Arrow 54

8 Memories and Causes 60

Part 2 Understanding

9 Learning about the World 69

10 Updating Our Knowledge 75

11 Is It Okay to Doubt Everything? 84

12 Reality Emerges 93

13 What Exists, and What Is Illusion? 105

14 Planets of Belief 115

15 Accepting Uncertainty 123

16 What Can We Know about the World without Actually Looking at It? 130

17 Who Am I? 139

18 Abducting God 144

Part 3 Essence

19 How Much We Know 153

20 The Quantum Realm 159

21 Interpreting Quantum Mechanics 166

22 The Core Theory 172

23 The Stuff of Which We Are Made 178

24 The Effective Theory of the Everyday World 186

25 Why Does the Universe Exist? 195

26 Body and Soul 205

27 Death is the End 215

Part 4 Complexity

28 The Universe in a Cup of Coffee 225

29 Light and Life 237

30 Funneling Energy 244

31 Spontaneous Organization 250

32 The Origin and Purpose of Life 260

33 Evolution's Bootstraps 273

34 Searching through the Landscape 279

35 Emergent Purpose 291

36 Are We the Point? 302

Part 5 Thinking

37 Crawling into Consciousness 317

38 The Babbling Brain 327

39 What Thinks? 336

40 The Hard Problem 348

41 Zombies and Stories 355

42 Are Photons Conscious? 363

43 What Acts on What? 372

44 Freedom to Choose 378

Part 6 Caring

45 Three Billion Heartbeats 387

46 What Is and What Ought to Be 394

47 Rules and Consequences 403

48 Constructing Goodness 412

49 Listening to the World 419

50 Existential Therapy 428

Appendix: The Equation Underlying You and Me 435

References 443

Further Reading 451

Acknowledgments 455

Index 456

What People are Saying About This

Carlo Rovelli

With profound intelligence and lucid, unpretentious language, Sean Carroll beautifully articulates the world view suggested by contemporary naturalism. Thorny issues like free will, the direction of time, and the source of morality are clarified with elegance and insight. The Big Picture shows how the scientific worldview enriches our understanding of the universe and ourselves. A reliable account of our knowledge of the universe, it is also a serene meditation on our need for meaning. This is a book that should be read by everybody. --Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Weaving the threads of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and philosophy into a seamless narrative tapestry, Sean Carroll enthralls us with what we've figured out in the universe and humbles us with what we don't yet understand. Yet in the end, it's the meaning of it all that feeds your soul of curiosity.
—Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey

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