Book review: The Big Picture

Book review: The Big Picture

A review of: The Big Picture – On the origins of life, meaning, and the universe itself, by Sean Carroll.

This book deals with the questions I’ve always had myself, and I found it very engaging. They are big questions, and it may seem presumptuous to want to answer them, but I am glad he took the trouble to try.

That said, I did feel that the author was a little too sure of everything he posited. It’s quite bizarre to see him quoting a long list of people from history who all said that now we knew nearly everything and then were proven wrong, only to continue to say that this time we really do know nearly everything. So I’m not all that impressed with the answers he provides, but he did a good job explaining all the questions and pitfalls, laying out the landscape of what we need to take into account if we want to speak sensibly about reality and meaning.

The book lays out this landscape of where the questions lie, in six parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking and Caring. All parts composed of several chapters explaining the questions one might have on these topics, and background information on what others have already said about them. All very informative, and lively written. Sean isn’t afraid to be personal and share his own journey through these questions, I appreciate that.

Part 1: Cosmos, deals with the nature of reality, and time, and questions about what causes things. It’s a bit introductory, he explains his own vision of ‘poetic naturalism’. I nearly stopped at the first chapter, because this was the most presumptuous in my opinion, stating things like ‘we now know nearly everything’.

Part 2: Understanding, engages in the questions of how we can know what we think we know. A question that has always bothered me as well. Especially his chapter ‘Planets of Belief’ explained beautifully how we can build a whole consistent system of thoughts, feeling safe there, and then, all of a sudden (or slowly growing) we can find that there is some inconsistency, making us feel as if our foundations are shattered. I found the recognition in this chapter very comforting.

Part 3: Essence, deals with body and soul. Very intriguing topic, but here I felt that he broke his own rules, and mixed the various layers of meaning. He was too obviously out to prove that no such thing as a soul can exist. However I did really appreciate the background information he gave on the correspondence between princess Elisabeth Palatinate and Descartes.

Part 4: Complexity, engages in depth with the various arguments that have been brought forward by the advocates of ‘intelligent design’. This part was especially convincing to me, since he uses arguments from the field of computer algorithms, which is a topic I know very well. These chapters were eye-openers to me, making me ponder once more what (if any) is the difference between our soul and artificial intelligence, and how I would go about describing that.

Part 5: Consciousness, is the most interesting topic in my point of view. He explained how some people have called this ‘the hard problem’, but if I understand him correctly, he himself thinks it isn’t a problem at all, since consciousness isn’t a real thing. (Here I disagree)

Part 6: Caring, becomes most personal and less consistent with the rest of the book. But I appreciated that he tackled this topic as well.

So, with this ‘big picture’ in mind, I now have some new starting points in my own thought process, especially on the topic of consciousness, which is indeed (I think), the hard problem. As I said, I think I disagree with the author, but I’m at loss for words on how to explain where exactly I differ. I do think that whether or not you believe in consciousness is very much related to your faith in God. I think it is no coincidence that Augustine called our consciousness God’s Image in us. As a first, more personal, reaction I wrote a prayer to God with my questions raised by this book: Dear God.