On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe with Sean Carroll

November 1, 2018

Today it’s an honor to have Dr. Sean Carroll on the podcast. Dr. Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. Recently, Carroll has worked on the foundation 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, among others. Dr. Carroll has given a TED talk on the multiverse that has more than 1.5 million views, and he has participated in a number of well-attended public debates concerning material in his latest book, which is entitled “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.”

  • The meaning of “post-existentialism”
  • What is “poetic naturalism”?
  • What is the fundamental nature of reality?
  • Do “tables” and “chairs” really exist?
  • The difference between rich ontology and sparse ontology
  • The Bayesian probability of the existence of God
  • How the universe evolved
  • The analogy between psychological entropy and naturalistic entropy
  • Can we think about the brain in useful terms entropically?
  • In what sense do we have free will?
  • How hard is the hard problem of consciousness?
  • The importance of “existential gratitude”
  • The link between quantum mechanics and consciousness
  • Is there life (consciousness) after death?
  • How can we create purpose, meaningfulness, mattering, morality, and ethics in a natural world?


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7 Responses to “On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe with Sean Carroll”

  1. Great questions. Interesting interview. Some musings pertaining to the life/consciousness part of the podcast. If life and consciousness are used interchangeably then they arise from structure i.e. the way atoms are arranged, because a table lack consciousness but a plant posseses consciousness. Tables and plants both have atoms but differ in higher scales of emergence which partly depends on complicated ways in which atoms are arranged. Secondly life/consciousness interacts with the environment like a plant does but a table made of of wood does not (my assumption). However if atoms are made of subatomic particles like electrons , then can an atom be “sentient” in the sense that it posseses electrons which have opposite spins (like a choice, a switch), and each particle is a vibration within a field. Maybe a combination of vibrations at higher orders of emergence give rise to life through phase transition.Consciousness exists at each level of vibration but manifests itself differently at higher levels of emergence. A memory may be encoded in synaptic connections and/or neurons but if the neuronal structure disintegrates the higher order consciousness disintegrates too but the lower order consciousness at the level of atoms remains as the atoms do not disintegrate. I maybe wrong, but just a thought.

  2. RV says:

    I really appreciate Sean Carrol, I love his honesty and clarity around his own philosophy, a more human extension of philosophical materialism.

    To me, it appears though his conclusion, using Bayesian probability to form his worldview, does seem somewhat flawed at end, arriving at his 99.9% levels of probability around specific metaphysical statements.

    He honestly admits that all information, formed via science, logic, and including personal experience, are reasonable and noteworthy to consider in forming a worldview from a Bayesian perspective, especially one that includes a view of consciousness and divinity.

    He also states that, while childhood initiated a worldview for him that began with divinity, it collapsed into “naturalism” (I’m assuming Sean is also a physicalist in the pure sense), which emerged from his experience which gave him a new set of data from which to derive probabilities, as well as a structure for the analyzation of data (i.e. education in the sciences) to form a worldview comprised of naturalism as the highest probability.

    He then juxtaposed this experience with an example of someone who claims to speak to “God”, applying Bayesian probability to them, would reasonably assume a high probability of the existence of diety unless they apply a further Bayesian inquiry – “What is the probability that there are natural explanations for the experience of the supernatural?”.

    In both scenarios, either conclusion using Bayesian probability appears by his own admission to be entirely subjective.

    What is the Bayesian probability that a man, educated in the best universities, dedicating his waking life to acquiring, analyzing, and proposing data sets in the maths and sciences, would have access to data that would be primarily consumed by another individual as all of the varieties of divine, shamanic, or religious experience?

    What is the Bayesian probability that either individual (individual in the sciences/individual in religious ecstasy) has access to enough information from any data set, to even be able to apply Bayesian probability as a test of certainty to one’s worldview in the first place?

    It appears that the worldview Sean arrives at using his own reasoning is a confession of his own subjective bias as a scientist, and should not be considered any more valuable than any other known or unknown set of experiences.

    What am I missing?

  3. Justin Urias says:

    Here is the biggest problem I keep seeing with people trying to understand the meaning of life. There are 3 camps. One camp believes the traditional, convoluted ideas that supposedly explain the meaning of life. These people are like the naive children who unquestionably believe the presents they find under their tree at Christmas came from Santa Claus. A second camp is at the other extreme, wholly rejecting traditional meanings for life because they can’t be proven or replicated by fellow humans using their rigid, logical, white lab coat philosophies. These people are like the highly intelligent children who discount the idea that presents show up under the tree as imaginary because they know the traditional explanation of a man using flying reindeer to visit all the world’s homes in a single evening is mathematically impossible. These first two camps are usually the people who engage in ‘meaning of life’ conversations that go nowhere because their only option for an explanation is either the existence or non-existence of ‘Santa’.

    But there is a third camp. Independent, open-minded seekers who aren’t afraid to change their paradigm when new information calls for it. They eventually discover a plethora of empirical information from non-collaborative sources that explains the meaning of life. These are like adults who know parents are the reason the gifts appear under the tree, and who are content to let the naive children enjoy their fantasies and the highly intelligent children enjoy their certainty, while they go out and live meaningful lives.

  4. Suzie says:

    Re: comment above- I don’t see how the categorization of three camps applies to this conversation. Also, although attempts to lean back into meta assessments of human interactions allows for transcendence, in a way, of the vagaries of arguments themselves, “open-minded” and independent is usually how people of all camps describe their arguments. These concepts would have to be argued for for this characterisation to hold.

  5. Suzie says:

    Re: Sonali
    I like your thorough description. The way you describe it fits with how I think of consciousness, as a metaphor, to relate to physical events like this turning off/on, which in itself might have no such consciousness except to the extent its behavior resembles ours.

  6. Sonali Sengupta says:

    Interesting. Thanks.

  7. Kelly Kennedy says:

    Love the idea of existential gratitude that was addressed (invented?) in this episode. This feeling is something I think about all the time, and it’s nice to hear it as a slightly more formed scientific concept, in contrast to the more familiar existential despair. Sometimes when people as me about my opinions on religion, I often give an explanation about my spiritual leanings, mainly related to the wonder and awe I feel regarding the sheer unprobable likelihood that the earth and all of its biodiversity exists at all, myself included. There are moments where I sometimes feel depressed or down, and a wave of gratitude washes over me, filling my heart with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and filling my eyes with tears. I can’t wait to see research on this topic—or maybe contribute to some myself!

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