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Some Thoughts on “The Big Picture”

Written by Jeff Drake
4 · 17 · 18


I’m reading my second book by cosmologist and physicist Sean Carroll. It is titled, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, written in 2010. The first book I read of his a while back is titled, The Big Picture: From the Big Bang to the Meaning of Life, written in 2016. Needless to say, Carroll likes book titles that catch your imagination!

Purely by accident, I happened to read his latest book first (the “Big Picture”) and got so excited by what I read I immediately went out and bought his earlier book (“From Eternity to Here”), which I am still reading. There is some overlap in the two books, but they are really about different topics and the material is deep enough that it doesn’t hurt me if I hear some of it over (and over again). In fact, that helps me.

A few of the things I learned from his books have affected me deeply and positively, which might sound odd since they are just two books about science. But when it comes to the latest theories in cosmology and in physics, the implications of what he tells us about our latest scientific discoveries have everything to do with life, how we live it and how we think about it – and that means philosophy, which is a subject I love.

There is also at least one thing I learned from Carroll’s book, “The Big Picture”, that made me kind of sad.

Sad? Well, maybe sad isn’t the right word, perhaps disappointed would be a more apt term. You see, I thought I had given up on certain beliefs of my youth a long time ago, that I had grown beyond such things, now that science and logic had shown them to be – first, “beliefs”, because they were not based on facts or science – and second, they were seriously flawed beliefs. Who wants to have their head full of seriously flawed beliefs? I sure don’t! But then I read Carroll’s book and suddenly, with a clarity I hadn’t experienced before, I was forced to accept the conclusions that leapt out of the pages and into my head, conclusions which are once again, forcing me to put aside the flawed beliefs (and wishful thinking) of my youth and attempt to learn to better appreciate the amazing world we live in and the way the world really works.

The thing I learned from Sean Carroll that made me somewhat sad is the thing he says most people don’t realize, the thing most scientists, for some reason, don’t publicize. It’s kind of a shocking thing, (to Carroll) really, so maybe that’s why scientists aren’t shouting it out to the world from their university windows, perhaps they just don’t want to have to explain it to any non-scientists. Fortunately, for us, we have Sean Carroll, who is more than happy to sit us down and tell us what science has been up to… and what it means.

We can turn on the TV or the radio and be amazed as we hear about the new discoveries that science is making on a regular basis. Seriously, who hasn’t heard of Stephen Hawking, black holes or quantum mechanics? We’re used to hearing about the research associated with some very esoteric scientific fields and their subsequent discoveries. Sean Carroll feels that’s all well and good, but to him the thing that is really worth telling people – it’s a factual thing, so you just have to accept it – is that when it comes to the basic physical laws that underlie every single one of the phenomena we experience in our everyday lives –  we know them all! That’s right. All of the physical laws! So, when it comes to explaining all of the stuff around us by describing the underlying laws that govern them, well, you can put a fork in it, because those laws are known! This is something Carroll tells us he believes should be celebrated. I have to agree. What an absolutely amazing feat!

Carroll is quick to point out that he’s not saying we know everything there is to know about the world around us, because nothing could be farther from the truth. He tells us that we don’t know everything about dark matter or gravity, for instance, but says that’s okay because “…we don’t need to know any of those things to account for the world that is immediately apparent to us.”

Carroll further says that we don’t have a complete understanding how the basic laws actually work in the real world either – we don’t understand consciousness, for example; or have a cure for cancer, or control the weather, etc. But not to worry, because these things we don’t know yet are “…manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete.”

All we need to account for the world we live in and see around us, according to Carroll, is a handful of particles – electrons, protons and neutrons, which interact using things like the nuclear force, gravity, and electromagnetism.  Particles might change or new ones be discovered, but the effect of subatomic particles is not something we notice on a day-to-day basis and are not necessary to explain our daily world. As Carroll says, “That’s a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world.” He ain’t lying!

So why does this revelation make me sad? You might think it makes me sad because I believe that there are no more important science discoveries left, but we can see from what Carroll tells us that this belief would be in error, because there is so much left to discover about the world!

No, this statement of fact by Carroll took me back because it made me realize once and for all, that unbeknownst to me, deep down inside, I was still holding out a very faint hope that eventually science would discover some new feature in our daily life that would explain what is popularly called, “psychic phenomena.”  This realization was a real surprise to me because I thought I’d left it behind some time ago. Sometimes wishful thinking is hard to extinguish.

According to Carroll:

Psychic powers—defined as mental abilities that allow a person to observe or manipulate the world in ways other than through ordinary physical means—don’t exist. We can say that with confidence, even without digging into any controversies about this or that academic study.

The reason is simple: what we know about the laws of physics is sufficient to rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.

Carroll again is quick to claim that he is NOT saying we know everything! What he IS saying is that what we know currently about some things is enough to rule out other things; for example, reading minds or bending spoons ala Yuri Gellar. That’s because modern physics doesn’t stop at telling us what things are true, it also comes with a “…built‑in way of delineating the limits of that knowledge—where our theories cease to be reliable.”

Belief in psychic powers is understandable. We grow up seeing things happen around us invisibly. We talk on phones and our voices are carried long distances without strings, even using a TV remote is rather magical, why not invisible powers for our minds? Unfortunately, there is, Carroll tells us, a big gap between “…admitting that we don’t know everything about how the mind works and remembering that whatever it does, it needs to be compatible with the laws of nature.” This latter point is, I think, easily forgotten by most of us.

Carroll uses the example of the common cold. He says that we don’t know a lot about how to treat colds, but there is no reason to think that cold viruses are anything more than specific arrangements of atoms that obey the rules of particle physics. And this knowledge puts definite limits on what cold viruses can do! Viruses can’t teleport from one body to another, nor can they suddenly transform into “antimatter and cause explosions.” So, while it is true that the laws of physics don’t tell us everything we want to know about cold viruses, they do tell us some things about cold viruses for certain.

All of the things we see in our everyday life are made of a small number of particles interacting with each other via a small number of forces. And let me be clear, not only do the particles and forces Carroll is talking about here NOT have the capability to support the existence of psychic phenomena, we also know that there aren’t any new particles or forces out there waiting to be discovered that would support psychic powers! Carroll explains that this is not “…simply because we haven’t found them yet”, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the “right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.” In other words, we know enough today to “…draw very powerful conclusions about the limits of what we can do.”

Yeah, I know that we can’t know everything there is to know with total accuracy and everything we do know is theoretically subject to change i.e., tomorrow morning the sun might rise in the west just to be different. I”ll leave it to you to try and imagine what the odds are of this happening. It’s so unlikely that it is laughable. And yeah, it’s true that we can’t prove that this won’t happen tomorrow. Carroll reminds us that if new data were to suddenly appear that would cause us to consider this possibility seriously, then by all means, we should do so. But waiting (or in my case, hoping) for such data to be found is futile. Psychic powers, Carroll tells us are just like this. In other words, while there’s no harm in conducting laboratory experiments trying to prove psychic powers exist, there really is no point since we know such abilities are not real in the same way we know the sun will continue to rise in the east.

Carroll concludes: “We are part of the world. Understanding how the world works, and what constraints that puts on who we are, is an important part of understanding how we fit into the big picture.”

I have come to terms with my newly refreshed understanding of why psychic powers cannot exist in our world and my initial regret that such things cannot be true has passed. Instead I have a new respect for the human intellect and remain in awe of a world that continues to amaze me more every day, a world that has no need of psychic phenomena to be wondrous.



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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.