The Big Picture – Carroll

I have to admit that I'm a massive Carroll fanboy. I think he is an extremely intelligent person and an expert communicator. I love his thinking, his books, and his podcast.

"The truth is that the ground has disappeared beneath us, and we are just beginning to work up the courage to look down" – Carroll


  • "We are small; the universe is big. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We have nevertheless figured out an amazing amount about how things actually work."
  • "The more we learn about the basic workings of life, the more we appreciate how they are in harmony with the fundamental physical principles governing the universe as a whole. Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary. We are not the reason for the existence of the universe, but our ability for self-awareness and reflection makes us special within it."
  • "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."
  • "The strategy I’m advocating here can be called poetic naturalism. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story—in different ways."
  • "The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it."
  • "Unlike a particle, which has a position in space, a field has a value at every single point in space—that’s just what a field is."
  • "Laplace’s Demon is a thought experiment, not one we’re going to reproduce in the lab. 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. If you sit down and think about what such a computer would have to be like, you eventually realize it would essentially need to be as big and powerful as the universe itself. To simulate the entire universe with good accuracy, you basically have to be the universe. So our concern here isn’t one of practical engineering; it’s not going to happen."
  • "A more popular objection to determinism is the phenomenon of chaos. The ominous name obscures its simple nature: in many kinds of systems, very tiny amounts of imprecision in our knowledge of the initial state of that system can lead to very large variations in where it eventually ends up."
  • "There is a bit of a mismatch between Laplace’s notion of determinism and what most people think of when they hear “the future is determined.” The latter phrase conjures up images of destiny or fate—the idea that what will eventually happen has “already been decided,” with the implication that it’s been decided by someone, or something. The physical notion of determinism is different from destiny or fate in a subtle but crucial way: because Laplace’s Demon doesn’t actually exist, the future may be determined by the present, but literally nobody knows what it will be."
  • "A low-entropy configuration is one where relatively few states would look that way, while a high-entropy one corresponds to many possible states."
  • "When we think about cause and effect, by contrast, we single out certain events as uniquely responsible for events that come afterward, as “making them happen.” That’s not quite how the laws of physics work; events simply are arranged in a certain order, with no special responsibility attributed to one over any of the others. We can’t pick out one moment, or a particular aspect of any one moment, and identify it as “the cause.” Different moments in time in the history of the universe follow each other, according to some pattern, but no one moment causes any other."
  • "The answer has to do with the leverage that different events have on one another. When we’re thinking about memories or records, the idea is that the later event (say, a photograph of you at your senior prom) absolutely implies the existence of the former event (you at your senior prom). But not vice versa; we could imagine you going to the prom and avoiding having your photograph taken. Causes are the other way around. Given the wineglass on the ground, we can imagine things other than a stray elbow that could have knocked it down, but given the location of the glass to start, the swinging elbow absolutely implies that the glass will topple. When a later event has great leverage over an earlier one, we call the latter a “record” of the former; when the earlier event has great leverage over a later one, we call the former a “cause” of the latter."
  • "Bayes’s main idea, now known simply as Bayes’s Theorem, is a way to think about credences. It allows us to answer the following question. Imagine that we have certain credences assigned to different beliefs. Then we gather some information, and learn something new. How does that new information change the credences we have assigned? That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves over and over, as we learn new things about the world."
  • "Is it possible that you and your surrounding environment, including all of your purported knowledge of the past and the outside world, randomly fluctuated into existence out of a chaotic soup of particles? Sure, it’s possible. But you should never attach very high credence to the possibility. Such a scenario is cognitively unstable, in the words of David Albert. You use your hard-won scientific knowledge to put together a picture of the world, and you realize that in that picture, it is overwhelmingly likely that you have just randomly fluctuated into existence. But in that case, your hard-won scientific knowledge just randomly fluctuated into existence as well; you have no reason to actually think that it represents an accurate view of reality. It is impossible for a scenario like this to be true and at the same time for us to have good reasons to believe in it. The best response is to assign it a very low credence and move on with our lives."
  • "emergence is about different theories speaking different languages, but offering compatible descriptions of the same underlying phenomena in their respective domains of applicability."
  • "In strong emergence, the behavior of a system with many parts is not reducible to the aggregate behavior of all those parts, even in principle."
  • "Poetic naturalism sits in between: there is only one, unified, physical world, but many useful ways of talking about it, each of which captures an element of reality. Poetic naturalism is at least consistent with its own standards: it tries to provide the most useful way of talking about the world we have."
  • "No analogy is perfect, but the planets-of-belief metaphor is a nice way to understand the view known in philosophical circles as coherentism. According to this picture, a justified belief is one that belongs to a coherent set of propositions. This coherence plays the role of the gravitational pull that brings together dust and rocks to form real planets. A stable planet of belief will be one where all the individual beliefs are mutually coherent and reinforcing."
  • "“It’s the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones,” as Tavris and Aronson put it."
  • "It is this kind of stance—that there is a kind of knowledge that is certain, which we should receive with docility, to which we should submit—that I’m arguing against. There are no such kinds of knowledge. We can always be mistaken, and one of the most important features of a successful strategy for understanding the world is that it will constantly be testing its presuppositions, admitting the possibility of error, and trying to do better. We all want to live on a stable planet of belief, where the different parts of our worldview fit together harmoniously; but we want to avoid being sucked into a black hole of belief, where our convictions are so strong that we can never escape, no matter what kind of new insight or information we obtain."
  • "You will sometimes hear the claim that even science is based on a kind of “faith,” for example, in the reliability of our experimental data or in the existence of unbreakable physical laws. That is wrong. As part of the practice of science, we certainly make assumptions—our sense data is giving us roughly reliable information about the world, simple explanations are preferable to complex ones, we are not brains in vats, and so forth. But we don’t have “faith” in those assumptions; they are components of our planets of belief, but they are always subject to revision and improvement and even, if necessary, outright rejection."
  • "So we take “I believe x” not to mean “I can prove x is the case,” but rather “I feel it would be counterproductive to spend any substantial amount of time and effort doubting x.”"
  • "Life is short, and certainty never happens."
  • "“Transcendent,” from the Latin transcendere, “climb over, surpass,” is a word we attach to experiences that seem to reach beyond our mundane physical situation. A wide variety of circumstances can earn the label. For some, transcendence occurs when your spirit comes into direct contact with the divine. For Christians it might involve the witness of the Holy Spirit, while for Hindus or Buddhists it can refer to escaping the material world in favor of a higher spiritual reality. Individuals can experience transcendence through prayer, meditation, solitude, or even psychoactive drugs such as ayahuasca or LSD. It could simply be a matter of letting one’s self be lost in a particularly moving piece of music, or in the love of one’s family."
  • "A person who is biologically male but identifies as a woman isn’t thinking to themselves, “Male and female are just arbitrary categories, I can be whatever I want.” They’re thinking, “I’m a woman.” Just because a concept is invented by human beings, it doesn’t imply that it’s an illusion. Saying, “I am a woman,” or just knowing it, is absolutely useful and meaningful."
  • "The question, however, is whether a particular way of talking about the world is useful."
  • "Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives, and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior. Personally, I am not comforted by that at all—I find the idea extremely off-putting. I would rather live in a universe where I am responsible for creating my own values and living up to them the best I can, than in a universe in which God hands them down, and does so in an infuriatingly vague way."
  • "has been clearly seen. When judging the veracity of such claims, we need to weigh them against the scientific knowledge we have acquired in much more controlled conditions. It’s possible that the known laws"
  • "The very notion of a “person” is ultimately a way of talking about certain aspects of the underlying reality. It’s a good way of talking, and we have good reason to take seriously all of the ramifications of that description, including the fact that human beings have individual purposes and can make decisions for themselves. It’s when we start imagining powers or behaviors that contradict the laws of physics that we go astray."
  • "emergence gives us a way of talking about collective structures that can live and evolve and have goals and desires."
  • "The increase of entropy over time literally brings the universe to life."
  • "Under naturalism, there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot. We are all just complicated collections of matter moving in patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics in an environment with an arrow of time."
  • "Any theist worth their salt could, admittedly, come up with a number of reasons why God would choose to associate immaterial souls with complex self-sustaining chemical reactions, at least for a time. Likewise, if we lived in a universe where life was not associated with matter in such a way, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with justifications for that. This is the problem with theories that are not well defined."
  • "Fully characterizing the human connectome would require something like a million million gigabytes of information."
  • "The word qualia (plural of “quale,” which is pronounced KWAH-lay)"
  • "In its modern guise it has been contemplated seriously by philosophers like David Chalmers"
  • "You can describe what’s happening in terms of electrochemical signals in your central nervous system, or in terms of your mental states and the actions they cause you to perform; just don’t trip up by starting a sentence in one language and attempting to finish it in another one."
  • "When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous—not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. 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."
  • "The idea of “Ten Commandments” is a deeply compelling one. It combines two impulses that are ingrained in our nature as human beings: making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave."
  • "You don’t really want to live forever. Eternity is longer than you think."
  • "Life ends, and that’s part of what makes it special. What exists is here, in front of us, what we can see and touch and affect. Our lives are not dress rehearsals in which we plan and are tested in anticipation of the real show to come. This is it, the only performance we’re going to get to give, and it is what we make of it."
  • "Life is characterized by motion and change, and these characteristics manifest themselves in human beings as forms of desire."
  • "We are interested in the world, in its physical manifestations and in our fellow humans and other creatures. That caring, contained inside us, is the only source of “mattering” in any cosmic sense."
  • "Once we see that mattering comes from inside people, understanding others becomes more important than ever."


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

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