Sean Carroll and Our Freedom to Choose

(This is a post series on The Big Picture by Sean Carroll.  The work of this popular physicist was unknown to me, but then became obviously pertinent to the positions taken at  This series will hopefully clarify and substantiate the vital concepts of Emergence, Complexity, Human Action and the limits of Scientific Knowledge.  An amazing conclusion is arrived at in the end!  First published 11/2019)  


Sean Carroll is a noted physicist from Cal Tech.  Known for his wide ranging interests and knowledge, he has written “The Big Picture”, a book from 2016 that exemplifies his versatility.  Its subtitle is “On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.”  Yes, wide ranging.

Physics and the ‘hard’ sciences are not my forte, but I needed to tackle this book — some 450 pages of it — to solidify (or refute) my claim that interesting and more complex objects “emerge” from the quantum fields and sub-atomic particles that are now known to be “the basis” of our world and the universe (“itself”).

Carroll is a “Compatiblist”, a philosophical position that argues that both the objects of physics are real and significant and so are the objects we call ‘people’, ‘zinnias’ and ‘the Atlantic Ocean’, to name but a few.  The microscopic and the macroscopic largely fit together without too much tension, he believes (1).  This has also been the position here at

Others do not believe this.  Radical Reductionists believe that since the objects and laws

Note each letter suspended from a puppeteer’s string.

of physics underlay everything, macroscopic objects lose there status (in some important sense) as real or legitimately significant (2). Too much of the way we think these objects behave, and are, does not fit with our ‘scientific vision’, they claim.  Neuroscientist and famous atheist, Sam Harris contends that free will is an illusion and the choices we make are caused by mechanical forces outside and in.  There is no free will, therefore we should eliminate such talk.  

Biologist Jerry Coyne believes we do not freely choose, therefore talk of ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’ is also unfounded (see his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True, or WEIT).  These folks are called by Carroll not only reductionists — macro objects are really micro objects — but also “eliminativists”.  Their position has undeniable cogency; why talk about ‘the same thing’ in two very different ways?   For example, a Zinnia is a collection of sub-atomic particles and also a biological object with needs, satisfactions and efforts.  Which way of talking is more important, which way is true?  Should we talk in both ways?

Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment.  “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he said.

The flavor and attitude of this eliminativist claim might be captured in this famous quote by Ernest Rutherford, the experimental physicist who in 1909 was crucial in discovering the structure of the atom.  He not only diminished the significance of macro objects but other less fundamental sciences; he said “all of science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (3)

I must admit that I feel a significant degree of confusion about this connection.  How much can we eliminate  from a particular discourse, or change the discourse entirely, and still be talking about the same thing?  To me, a flower exhibits some distinct qualities different from inanimate objects, and this is the historically recognized belief.  It is an empirical claim.  A flower grows, blooms, makes seeds that then reproduces “itself” in a very similar flower—its offspring.  We can manipulate its fertilization and encourage the enhancement of some traits by contrast to others in the offspring.  We know there are even “laws”, “rules”, by which this happens.  It’s called the science of biology.  So, is a “flower” still a flower if we decide to speak of it only in atomic terms?

The Power of Physics

Some day, our knowledge of physics may expand to the point that all behavior of all things may be predictable in advance.  Crazy to think, but Carroll says that, “in principle”, that day is already here!  Physicists now possess accurate and detailed knowledge of the workings of the universe but also “an effective theory of the everyday world.”(4)  He calls it “the Core Theory” and it is “the specific set of fields and interactions that govern our local environment.”  He continues, “Everything we want to think about human beings has to be compatible with the nature and behavior of the pieces of which we are made” and then adds an interesting proviso, “even if those pieces don’t tell the whole story.”(5)

That is the crux of the entire debate.  What sense can be made of that proviso?  How can the particles and forces that compose us at the most basic level behave as physically predicted, yet, not be all that is worth saying?  What more can be added that does not fall into silliness and superstition?

Here is  the equation that puts ‘the nail in the coffin’; it is the physics that is the basis for the prediction of all that happens around us, and with us, in our macroscopic world.  Its called “the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics”.(6)   It was pioneered by Erwin Schrodinger but this is the “compact and elegant” formulation of contemporary physicist Richard Feynman.


Carroll has added to the equation the solid lines and descriptions that distinguish the different sections of this formulation: “quantum mechanic”, “spacetime”, “gravity” etc.  In general, the equation describes “the quantum amplitude for undergoing a transition from one specified field configuration to another, expressed as a sum over all the paths that could possibly connect them.”(7)  That is what W is, it is the ‘amplitude’ of a wave expressed as an integral that is “summing up an infinite number of infinitely small things”: “the possible things the field can do in between the starting and ending, which we call a “path” the field configuration can take”, says Carroll.

I can assure you, the above equation is not the style in which this book was written.  If it was, I would not have gotten beyond page two!  The above equation is the only one to appear and it does so in an appendix as an effort to give the reader a taste of the unvarnished work of contemporary physics.  It is amazingly impressive stuff, and Carroll contends that its accuracy and specificity is such that even if in the future scientists come to think of its components in very different ways, this formulation will still be true in its own terms and for the domain to which it applies forever!  Vive la physique!(8)

Some Things Emerge

Interestingly, Compatiblists are themselves Eliminativists concerning some issues.  Carroll argues that our most basic framework for understanding what is real is physics with its Core Theory exemplified by the above equation.  This eliminates any good reason for talk of gods existing, souls, “the ether”, ghosts, or mind (as something beyond the physical) and even what he calls the “strong emergentist” position (which will be discussed later).  They all are incompatible with physics and the evidence that supports it.

But he does offers us a list of objects that do legitimately “emerge” from the more basic and simpler underlying pieces of the Core Theory.   This is where we start to return to the Core Theory as not telling “the whole story.”  This “whole story”  includes (9):

protons and neutrons  emerging from quarks and gluons,

 “A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces “binding” them together.” Wikipedia

stars and the emergence of light from simpler scattered elements,

life from non-life,

the multicellular organism from separate living single-celled organisms,

consciousness emerging from interacting neurons,

language and abstract thought from… well, he doesn’t really say, but we can assume from non-language and more concrete thought?

This is not his full list, but the largest portion of it.  Carroll is not a full-fledged Eliminativist.  Each of these “larger” or “more complex” ‘things’ — stars, organisms, language — are valuable additions to our understanding of all things, even as none of them are part of the vocabulary of physics.  

Our first Eukaryotic Ancestor.  Diagram of the merger of free-living Spiochette and an Archaebacteria.  Thanks to PNAS (2006)

In what sense they are valuable additions (beyond physics) to our understanding is “that crux of the problem” mentioned earlier.  It’s a “secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, he writes (10).  Carroll is, philosophically, a Naturalist, that is his basic commitment to science as the doorway to what is real “at the deepest level.”  Then, when he adds the “other ways of talking”, “emergent theories” and capturing “the whole story”, he admits he has now become what he calls “a poetic naturalist”. (11) 

“Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility”, he very pointedly declares (12).  Though physics captures the universe fundamentally, there are other “useful ways of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff”.  They are useful to us for various reasons.  First, “it would be horrendously inconvenient if ” to explain anything “we were to list a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged.”(13)   Second, and most importantly, “we really do learn something new by studying emergent theories for their own sake, even if all the theories are utterly compatible” (with physic’s theories). (14)

So Where Does This Leave Human Choice?

I believe it leaves ‘choice’ in kind of a grey area in our discussion thus far.  Let’s now try to move it into the legitimately emergent category.  From the certainty of the determination of all events as predicted by Feynman’s equation, to the list of Carroll’s legitimately emergent objects (above), human choice appears somewhere between life and language.

Choice does exist, argues Carroll, and “it would be difficult indeed to describe human beings without it.”(15)  A basic tenant of Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism is that each “way of talking”, each emergent and “effective theory”, has its own vocabulary, its own ontology of objects that it describes with consistent and orderly relations.  As I wrote above, I am constantly concerned and confused by the contentions of radical reductionists and eliminativists.  They want to think about “persons” and make contentions about them, but also want to exclude concepts that seem to be central to personhood.  You cannot eat your cake (pizza) and have it too.

Carroll contends that they make a category mistake.(16)  They illegitimately mix two ways to talking.  Physics talk or persons talk, “either vocabulary is perfectly legitimate, but mixing them leads to nonsense”, he contends.

If all we do is determined by causal forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade, as would be debating free will also.

An example of this mixing two ways of talking, I believe, occurred recently on WEIT.  A light-hearted debate arose over which is better pizza, Chicago style deep dish or NY style flat and thin.  Coyne jumped in to defend deep dish, being from Chicago and all, its his favorite.  But I commented, kind of raining on this light-hearted parade, that “who cares”.  “If humans have no free choice in the matter and are not responsible for their likes and dislikes, then what is the point of debating; other than the fact that the debaters can do no other than what they do—debate, and that, in a debate whose outcome is already determined and in which they have no personal responsibility.”

This is Carroll’s contention; being a no-free-willer, no-true-chooser AND debating what is the best pizza, is “nonsense”, pointless, vacuously circular.  Isn’t it?

Humans Do Choose

Choice is a deeply human characteristic.  Carroll keeps using the term “human”, but I think it would be best to say “person”.  Humans in comas or extremely mentally deficient do not make choices, or high level choices.  So, persons are deeply characterized as ‘choice-makers’.

Carroll gives us a simple example.  In the morning, you walk to our closet to choose a shirt for the day.  Should I choose this blue one or that black one, you wonder.  “That is a decision you have to make,” he says, “you can’t just say, ‘I’ll do whatever the atoms of my body were going to do.” (17)

Choosing is not just a mental act, it is built into the way we live.

Two points about this.  First, I would like to emphasize that your choosing is not just an issue in your head, in your conscious framing of the situation.  You can not stand there and not think about the situation and then find your arm rising to grasp the blue shirt.  I guess it could work that way; it just doesn’t.  Our choosing is more than a mental state, it is built into the way we liveA closet is physically designed to set up choice.  Your wardrobe hanging in that closet is all about choosing from among it,  choosing something that you feel good about for that day.  Driving down the road, every intersection is a choice-opportunity, and on and on.  The rudiments of choice go back into biology, into single-celled organisms and plants in general.  They are Structurally Organized to ‘ignore’ most objects and ‘respond’ to a few.  That is ‘proto’ choice.

Secondly, and the point that Carroll emphasizes, no matter what physics knows will

Person’s choose because they have incomplete knowledge.  That is our condition.         Wikipedia diagram.

happen next, You Don’t.  As you stand in front of that closet, Choice is real for you because you are limited in our ability to know.  Carroll says it is a matter of “epistemic access”.  It is “the unavoidable reality of our incomplete knowledge (that) is responsible for why we find it useful to talk about the future using the language of choice…”  “None of us knows the exact state of the universe, or has the calculational power to predict the future even if we did”, he writes; “we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states…given that incomplete information…” we choose and “it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.” (19)

The Conclusive Point

There is the conclusive point, to my way of thinking.  We have strong evidence that the course of our world is predetermined.  Its course is physically necessary, BUT we do 

Human environments can be designed to facilitate reflection upon behavior.  Mr. Hemingway at work. creativewritingcenter

not have practical access to knowledge of that.  From our limited and inclusive participation in that world we have been rightly designed to act as if the future is open and that our choices are significant there in.

The next step in my argument will be to suggest that many of our cultural contexts (our “providential environments”–my phrase) are designed to facilitate our choices and give us the access that we do have to the necessary course of the universe.  Our cultural contexts have been Selected by Nature for their success.  They work for us and are compatible with the world as displayed through physics.  Not only are these cultural contexts compatible with the physical world but as we accept our determined behavior in this universe, we can also be pleased with the success humans have had.  It is as if the configuration of particles shortly after the Big Bang had ‘good things in mind for us’.   These kinds of cultural contexts are providential environments for our higher forms of behavior.

I believe the above position is similar to that put forth in my Human Freedom and Mother Nature post series, especially Posts 12 and 13, “The Character of Structures 1 and 2”.  In philosophy,  parts of this position were pioneered as far back as Immanuel Kant (latter 18th century) in his “Critiques” of Theoretical Reasoning and Practical Reasoning.  As pure and sublimely abstract as is physics, it only tells us part of the story for limited real human knowers and actors, including the scientists who act within that tradition.  American Pragmatism has advanced this position of Practical Reasoning; human actors are as significant in the art of knowing as is the universe that stretches beyond us and of which we are an important part.

Wow, we really do live in a rather spectacular world and at a rather spectacular time.  There is a close connection between Reality, The Natural World, and Human Success.  If only we could understand that more clearly and live more fully in its light.

In the next post in this review of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture, the mechanisms by which higher level, more complex objects “emerge” will be considered.

Notes— Since this post is a review of aspects of this book, I thought a few page references would be appropriate.  I did attempt a close read of this material and it is a respected work.   1. page 379   2. page 19   3. 105   4. 177-9   5.       6. 437   7. 437   8.  179   9.  102  10.  93  11. 15-19   12.  21   13. 108   14. 108  15.  379  16. 379   17.  379   18.  380            19. pages 380-1

When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune in Our                                         World.                                        Logo by Marty.

Things Emerge in a Universe that is Winding Down

(This is the Second Post in the series, The Big Picture by Sean Carroll.  The initial post explained Carroll’s position that in spite of our understanding of the world as caused, necessary and predetermined, when we act we do so with a belief in our freedom and causal efficacy.  In this post the deep background that underlays human “action” is explored: “Emergence”.  Objects that emerge appear to have abilities and properties significantly different from the objects that exist in the vocabulary of physics.  They appear to be “more complex” and with interesting “structures” and this seems to be at odds with The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  First published in 11/17/2019)

In a universe that is running down, how do complicated things appear and persist “Complicated” in the sense of designed.  “Designed” in the sense of put together in a way  that does not seem accidental, in a way that seems similar to how we put together an artifact — to serve a purpose.   And “appear”, as in “complicated things appear”, and that is a good word, because it leaves open the possibility that things that are that tightly organized, things that serve a purpose, things whose parts then also ‘serve’ a purpose in light of their object’s larger purpose, are only “an illusion” in some sense, a ‘mere’ appearance.  That is the position of physicist Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture.  He contends ‘highly organized things’ are both real and not so real at the same time.  Only the objects of physics are “fundamental”; they are “the world at the deepest level.”(1)

The Starry Night by van Gogh (1889)  Beyond the atoms that make up this work, are its “color-palette, the mood it evokes” and its reference to the moon and the stars.  “These are emergent properties”, says physiciist Sean  Carroll.(11)

It seems that if you take ‘purpose’ too seriously — ‘it has a purpose and its parts have a purpose and the parts of the parts have a purpose…and all the way back — then you might even end up with there being a purpose to life, or maybe even a god.‘  “It’s a natural thing to worry about”, says Carroll, “How can an intrinsically purposeless process lead to the existence of purposes?”(2)

“In the Far Future”

But it’s even worse than that.  In the biggest process of all, The Universe, things are ‘running down’, not ‘building up’.  Entropy is increasing and that is often thought of

“…stars will burn out, black holes will swallow them, and then even the black holes will evaporate…The era     of complex behavior (is) a temporary one.”   Sean Carroll quote, graphic from Quanta Magazine.

as “disorder” and “randomness”, and that is the opposite (it seems) of high organization and significant design.(3)  So, entropy is very high and this is Second Law of Thermodynamics which predicts ‘heat death’.  “In the far future….the universe will appear cold and empty,” Carroll says, “all the matter and radiation we currently see will have left our observable horizon, diluted away by the expansion of space.”  It will be very “simple”, very “smooth”, one area of the universe will be no different than any other.(4)

“At Early Times”

And Carroll continues: “At early times, near the Big Bang... the state (of the universe) is also extremely simple:  It’s hot, dense, smooth, and rapidly expanding”, he says.  One area of the universe is like all the others.(5)  But here, entropy is very low.  This state of the U should not be thought of as disorderly or random.  So, how could entropy be so different, early to late, when so much about the two situations is similar?  One is hot and full, the other is cold and empty but both are simple and “smooth”.

Of course, when you look at this depiction, all that black space, outside of the cone of expansion, is not supposed to be there.  All real space is only ‘inside’ the cone.

The answer seems to be, according to Carroll, that there are two kinds of “simple”, and this will help clarify what is “complex” because complexity arises as the universe moves from one kind of simple to the other.  And this initial simplicity, to my mind, can only be thought of as if a single unit, a singularity though Carroll does not often use that term.

Coffee with Cream

Carroll tells us that “our intuition is a bit off” when we think of simplicity as high entropy (highly random and disorganized) — like a pile of sand, and when we think of complexity as low entropy (highly organized and not random) — like my good old pet dog.(6)   Actually, simplicity can appear to us as both low and high entropy.   Carroll’s favorite example of this is coffee with cream and it’s one that he is researching professionally.

Complexity arises as the universe evolves from one kind of simple to the other.

It was Ludwig Boltzmann who started a shift in thinking about entropy in about 1875.  He “explained it” in a new way, says Carroll: Entropy is “a way of counting how many possible microscopic arrangements of the stuff in a system would look indistinguishable from a macroscopic point of view.”(7)   The difference between the microscopic and the macroscopic has been a key issue here at NatieRel, and Boltzmann brought the concept of entropy into the middle of it.  Entropy no longer casts doubt on the existence of the Complex (the macro).   The complex presupposes entropy and helps clarify what it is in light of the micro!  That is what I believe Carroll is saying.


In Carroll’s coffee and cream example, on the left (above) the cream is gently poured in to sit on top of the coffee.(8)  On the right, the coffee and cream are thoroughly mixed.  Carroll’s point is that each appear simple in Boltzmann’s terms; each appears simple from a macroscopic point of view.   Yet, the one with the cream carefully sitting on top is low entropy in comparison to the very mixedSignificantly fewer possible arrangements of coffee and cream molecules can be in the one at left than the possible arrangements in the very mixed at the right.  A simple appearance can be the expression of both high and low entropy.

It is in comparison to both of these that Complexity, with its entropy

Complexity is possible as a stage between relatively low and high entropy in a system.

dramatically low, is evident.  The middle state is coffee and cream in the process mixing or moving toward an even dispersion.  Here, “in between low and high entropy, (is) where things look complex …. Tendrils of cream reach into the coffee in intricate and beautiful ways”, writes Carroll.(9)  It is in this kind of intricacy that there are relatively very few possible molecular arrangements and for which complexity is an apparent and appropriate description. 

“Between the Far Past and the Far Future”

So, Carroll’s point is that in the coffee mixing case, “Entropy has gone up throughout the process, just as the second law would lead us to expect.”  “But complexity first goes up, then goes down,” he says, “it’s the intermediate stage…where things look complex.”  “It is today, in between the far past and the far future, when the universe is medium-entropy but highly complex…(that) The initially smooth configuration has become increasingly lumpy…as tiny perturbations in the density of matter have grown into planets, stars and galaxies.”(Carroll)(10)  And much more.

In the following posts in this series on The Big Picture, Carroll’s ‘views’ on the mechanisms of the Growing Complexity on dear old Planet Earth will be explored.  Stay tuned, Comrades!

Russian Revolutionary Art: New Planet, painting by Konstantin Yuon, (1921), image from The Guardian newspaper.

   Notes:  1. page 19,  2.      3. 228   4. 230   5.  230   6. 228   7.  227   8.  229   9.  229   10. 230  11.  95

Our Special Planet, or “Funneling Energy” and the Metabolic Aspect of Life


(This is the third post in the series on The Big Picture by Sean Carroll based on the physicist’s book of that title In the previous posts we considered his arguments for the reality of human choices and then his broadest arguments for the possibility of growing complexity in a universe that is running down.  In this post, the more specific case of the creation of  Life on our planet will be reviewed.  Life is an amazing thing, often; if we can understand it, it may become even better and this more often.  I must admit that this kind of ‘hard science’ is not my forte.  I hope to briefly and accurately represent Carroll’s theories in the plainest language.  First published 11/24/2019)

The Earth is a special place.  By comparison to the other planets in our solar system, life exists here and is complex enough to write and read about itself.  To have gained this kind of Complexity, it is necessary for it to have ‘built up’, evolved from simpler states of life.  ‘But how does this square with the Second Law of Thermodynamics?’, I have often been asked.  True, the universe is ‘running down’ not ‘building up!’, we know this.

In the previous post, Things Emerge in a Universe that is Running Down, the answer was in the most general terms.  Complex structures emerge as the universe moves from low entropy to high entropy(1), but a more specific answer is possible for our planet.

On other occasions, I have always answered, ‘the Earth is an open system, we receive

Life and human life are the great organizers on the planet Earth.

energy from the sun…This input forestalls the inevitable and allows our forms of complexity.’  After all, disorder (entropy), says the Second Law, increases in closed systems.

Our physicist for the day, Sean Carroll, argues that though this answer is true, it misses the main underlying point.  If your bedroom is a mess and you clean it, order has been ‘built up’ but it  took work and especially work by an intelligent worker.  Your bedroom did not “spontaneously organize itself.”(2)

So, life and eventually human life are the great organizers here on planet Earth.  Where did they come from?  Carroll sees life on Earth not as a luxury nor as having an intelligent source, but as the solution to a problem.  The “problem” of available “free” energy.(3)

Sunlight as “Free” Energy

What is “free” energy?  That is a term I had not heard until I read Carroll’s The Big Picture.  But “free” has nothing to do with cost.  Free energy is “useful” energy; it is “energy with low entropy”  An “amount of energy is ‘free’…(depending) on its environment”, says Carroll.(4)  “A piston full of hot gas…(does) work…but that is

Work by Combustion: Made possible by the disparity inside and out.

assuming that the piston isn’t surrounded by gas of an equal temperature and density.” (Carroll)  It is the disparity of temperature and density inside and out of the piston that gives the exploding gas its push.  It is the disparity in the evolution of the universe’s entropy that has resulted in an opportunity for complexity.

It is worth remembering, at this point, that Carroll also describes  our “vocabularies about emergent phenomena” — like talk of living things and persons — as not only the “poetic” part of his “Poetic Naturalism”, but also “useful to us” (see previous post).  This usefulness to us makes emergent objects real to us, though not as “deep” or “fundamental” as the objects of physics.  So now we  have in addition to “useful”  objects (like the solidity of a table, the growth of a zinnia in my garden, the ‘redness’ I see in red); we have “useful” energy — “free energy”.  This, too, has its reality importantly tied to us and complexity; I think this is Carroll’s point.

“Free energy”: “the sun is a hot spot in a cold sky.” the importance of entropy in the reality of complexity. Photo from sanrise37.

And our planet is in the right spot. Our setting has the kind of disparity discussed above: there are low entropy objects in an environment that is of higher entropy.   From our previous post, Complexity is like the brief complex swirls of cream as they mix into the surrounding coffee.

A lack of disparity would be, if we had no sun, or the sun was much farther away. “The entire sky would look like the night sky does now”, Carroll says.  The earth would adjust (toward entropy equilibrium, a kind of ‘smoothness’) with dropping temperatures and complexity on Earth.  The light that reached us would have little to no free energy.  Conversely, he tells us, if “the whole sky was raining photons down on us as bright as the sun does now” the Earth would, again, “equilibrate” and become as hot as “the surface of the sun.”(5)   Again, there would be no contrast and no “free” energy useful to do the work of building complexity.

“The sun is a hot spot in a cold sky”, says Carroll, and for this reason “the energy

photo from

we receive in the form of solar photons is almost entirely free energy to be turned into useful work.”(6)  For us and our planet of life, that is just what we need.  It is very useful.  It is part of the mechanism by which energy is “funneled to usand can be said ‘is for us’.  This is the way Carroll attempts to reconcile, within Poetic Naturalism, the difficult position of having a ‘deepest level’ of reality and less fundamental, almost less real, levels.(7)  It’s somewhat awkward, it seems to me, but it’s a difficult area for any philosophy that argues for “levels” of reality or existence.

So, overall, from the point of the universe, growing disorder remains the rule.  “For every one visible photon (Earth) receives from the Sun, (it) radiates approximately twenty infrared photons back into space, with approximately one-twentieth of the energy each.(Carroll).  An infrared photon is a “degraded”, higher entropy, form of radiation compared to visible light.  Here on Earth, we get energy that works; the universe (at least immediately beyond us) gets energy with much less to offer.  “The Earth gives back the same amount of energy as it gets, but we increase the entropy of the solar radiation by twenty times before returning it to the universe.”(8)

The Practical Biology

When we consider “levels” of what exists, Carroll tells us, each is “a way of talking” with objects specific to them and consistent ways these objects interact.  Each level has its “domain of applicability” which is the setting in which we find it appropriate to talk that way.(9)   So, not only does talk of living things occupy ‘regular’ people, it also forms the science of biology.

The preceding sections were my attempt to relate to you the interface between biology and physics as understood by Carroll.  One of the ‘rules’ of Poetic Naturalism, and really any serious talk of ‘levels’, is that all the layers must be “compatible” and that especially with the areas of science for which ‘many competent people’ are most assured.(10)   Of course, this is open to interpretation, but for Carroll physics is sure knowledge.  We, here at NatieRel, agree with this but will ourselves have some issues of disagreement with Carroll in the end.  The above sections attempted to ‘square’ complexity with the reality of rising entropy.  Now let us briefly get to some of the biological mechanisms for “funneling” and using energy to facilitate the complexity of life on Earth.


It starts with Photosynthesis, of course.   Free energy, in the form of a photon of visible light, “knocks loose” an electron from a molecule of chlorophyll in a leaf, for example.  This creates “an electrical gradient” in which “protons push each other apart” with some “escaping through an enzyme called ATP synthase” which “winds up” and synthesizes ATP from ADP (adinosine diphosphate).(11)  ATP (adinosine triphosphate) is the “battery of life”, says Carroll, but in the sense of “energy storage” more similar to “a compressed spring.”(12)  ATP then powers all “the vital biochemical  functions”: muscle contraction, synthesizing DNA and proteins, nerve cell signaling, etc.

“The Origin and Purpose of Life”

The story we have been telling thus far leads Carroll to “the metabolism-first” camp in the debate on the origins of life.(13)  The availability of “free energy”, the ‘knocking loose” of an electron in photosynthesis, the layers of complexity above physics as “useful” views of existence, lead him to thinking of life and its origin as basically all about eating.  Who am I to disagree with that, especially as Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays approach?  The purpose of life is to eat up the free energy available here on Earth and send it back out into the universe as rising entropy or disorder.  The contrasting ‘camp’ is “the replication-first” approach; the purpose of life is to replicate  with the emphasis on information and the DNA molecule.

The ‘right kind’ of deep sea vent was hypothesized in 1988 and then found in 2000

“There is free energy locked up in certain chemical configurations, and life is one way it can be released”, says Carroll, and this is “a good summary of the metabolism-first view.”  Of course, it all starts with the useful energy of photons in our higher entropy environment.  That free energy was not capable of release through photosynthesis until life originated.  Original life had to receive its energy differently and that leads us to the vents deep in some of the seas.  Here, electrons could have been “knocked loose” and their protons forced apart to “wind up” ATP for the first time, and without chlorophyll.

If I understand Carroll correctly, these deep vents of the mid-Atlantic Ocean provide several advantages for the appearance of these vital chemical processes without all the equipment of the modern cell.  Interestingly, a geochemist named Michael Russell hypothesized the existence of something like these vents as far back as 1988(14) and the possible advantages they could offer.  Vents that “were alkaline, warm (but not too hot), highly porous (riddles with tiny pockets, like a sponge),  and relatively stable and long-lasting.”  The pockets would act as cell walls before there were cell walls and the alkaline in the vents created a disequilibrium with “the proton-rich acidic ocean water beyond them, creating the proton movement similar to that which “winds up” ATP today.

It was not until the year 2000 that vents of this type were actually discovered in the Atlantic.  They are 30,000 years old and vast enough to have been dubbed The Lost City.  Older such vents are certainly possible on the Earth’s ocean floors that remains largely unexplored.

Our Crazy, Mixed Up World

So, our world is a crazy mixed up place, and that’s a good thing.  “The expansion of the universe draws things apart;  mutual gravitational forces pulls them together; magnetic fields push them sideways; collisions between atoms shove matter around and allow it to cool down”, writes Carroll.(15)  Entropy started low but is moving toward high.  In this swirl of forces and objects, “all of the pieces matter, and they matter all at once”, for complex objects.(16)   According to him, it’s the only kind of place complex objects could exist.  And, “That’s us…Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy…We should enjoy the ride.”

Complexity in the Eagle Nebula.  Gas pillars in this star-forming region of space.  photo from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA (color added)

Notes:  are provided in this series to allow the reader access to the points being made in Carroll’s test.  1. page 234   2. 228   3.  263   4.  242  5. 242  6.242   7.  235-6   8.  243   9.  103   10. 104   11. 245-6   12.  244   13.  263    14.  262   15.  234  16. 236

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-2        drawing by Marty

The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

(This is the fourth post in the series on the book by physicist Sean Carroll, The Big Picture.  In it a vital point is presented, and I hope convincingly.  That the concept of “Emergence” is most importantly a logical issue.  There is an internal coherence to our different “emergent vocabularies”.  The new qualities discovered by them about “the deeper, underlying, physical structures” are interrelated at their own level.  To mix the vocabularies of different levels — as in, “the stimulation of this set of neurons caused the subject to experience red” — is fraught with significant complexities.  Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism, in this way, approaches the topic Reference in human language and thinking; a topic long discussed by philosophers.  First published 12/16/2019)

Complex Forms with Numerous Qualities Have Emerged From Microscopic Structures with Limited Qualities.    Drawing by Marty

So, what is “Emergence”, anyway?  This is the Third Post in the Series on “Emergence” and it’s time to finally say — more explicitly — what it is.  After all, we all kind of know what the term refers to, or do we?

One of my most persistent readers has made it clear, he does not like the term.  “What is its point?” he has commented.  For example, if you take the CHNOPS chemicals and mix them just right, Life “results” or “occurs” or “is caused”.  Why say life “emerges”?  What is added?  It sounds unscientific, spooky-like. 

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers’ Stone, painting by     J. Wright of Derby (1773)

Yet, noted physicist, Sean Carroll has written an entire book (The Big Picture) pretty much dedicated to that concept.  “There are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, he writes.(1)  This vision of reality is “innocuous-seeming but secretly profound” and he calls it “Poetic Naturalism.”  What is vital is that all these “stories” must fit together.  “Higher level” ways of talking must be consistent with those ‘below’ it.  He then declares, “One pivotal word enables that reconciliation between the different stories: emergence.”(his italics, 2)

Emergence is as much a logical concept as it is a physical one.  Carroll cites 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte as the first to explicitly delineate a “hierarchy of sciences”.(3)   We all tacitly acknowledge this hierarchy, with not much dissent.  Physics is “the most microscopic and comprehensive level; out of that emerges chemistry, and then biology, and then psychology, and finally sociology”, Carroll summarizes Comte’s view.  But here is the controversial part, each layer does not ‘collapse’ into those below it because each “way of talking” or each “effective theory” — as Carroll also calls them — is valuable and logically autonomous in itself.

Not quite the idea of a Hierarchy of Sciences, but the general idea of a hierarchy of  existence has been around for a long time.  The above is Thomas Acquinas’ fourth argument for the existence of God, the argument from degree.  Thanks to Chegg Study for diagram.


For example, the chemistry and neurology of the brain will someday “explain” all the ‘truths’ of psychology we might want to say, but Carroll disagrees.  ‘The emergent theory (in this case, psychology, gww) describes true features of the system that might be completely hidden from the microscopic point of view”, he argues.(4)  He contends emergent theories are additional knowledge of the system; more precisely, they are knowledge of “useful ways of talking” about it.(5)  The microscopic theories do not say, or explain, all that is worth saying about the system.

What is this “usefulness”?  It seems to be a shift in perspective.  In fact, Carroll cites Ludwig Boltzmann’a explanation of entropy: Entropy is “a way of counting how many possible microscopic arrangements of the stuff in a system would look indistinguishable from a macroscopic point of view.”(6)   So, a point of view has now become integral to this vital scientific principle; microscopic occurrences can be taken, or have significance, in different ways!

When we describe the world from the point of view of physics — with its objects and laws — it is, as if, persons don’t exist.  Physics is not a very ‘human’ perspective.  It is universal and, therefore, almost totally abstract.  Physics “ignores” all the many layers of complexity that we humans deal with constantly.  No macroscopic solids or fluids, no color or sound, no feelings or meanings, no living things, no perceivers are conceptually present in its vocabulary.  For physics, these ‘things’ do not exist except as crude, initial, data that is in need of analysis.  They are “subjective phenomena” for which there true nature can be discovered.

“Where is Waldo?”  He is not in this portrayal of the movement of the basic particles of the universe as obtained following a high speed collision in a super collider.  “Waldo” is an idea from a vocabulary far different than particle physics.  Image thanks to pixabay.

“Physics is the simplest of all the sciences,” Carroll says, “not ‘simple’ in the sense that the homework problems are easy, but simple in the sense of Galileo’s trick of ignoring…”(7)  He says, some make of this that “if we completely understand the microscopic level,…we know everything there is to know…Whatever (macroscopic, gww) questions you might have can be translated into the microscopic language and answered there.”(8)

Carroll agrees, in one sense; all the ways we talk about ourselves (if it is legitimate talk) will be compatible.  So, ‘our’ behavior, as a system of atoms, is predictable and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.  The idea of “You” is “not a part of our best theory of atoms” or any other microscopic object.  Carroll continues, “you are an emergent phenomena, meaning that you are an element in a higher-level ontology that describes the world at a macroscopic level.”  As “You”, it is “perfectly appropriate to talk about wants and feelings and desires” and also choices.  “Those are all real phenomena in our best understanding of human beings”, he concludes.(9)

So, atoms don’t have wants and feelings, nor do waves in a quantum field.  Even though ‘you’ are made of such things, and understanding ‘you’ as a particular collection of them, can predict, “in principle”, all the movements of ‘you’,we can still legitimately say ‘you’ have wants and feelings.  Nor are wants and feelings caused by atoms.  That is a mistaken way to talk, says Carroll.  It is incoherent; it is mixing two vocabularies.  Wants and feelings are caused by other elements at the vocabulary level of ‘you’ (10), things like ‘need’, ‘instinct’, ‘ambition’, ‘expectation’, ‘socialization’, ‘desire’.  Atoms (or quantum fields, or whatever) only interact with other things of their kind.

The movement of these collections of particles can be predicted and described by physics, but the terms “predator and prey”, “cheetah and gazelle”  would not appear in that vocabulary, nor any emotion or need these creatures might be feeling.

This is Emergence, I believe: it is an ‘unfolding’ of potential, not a necessary sequence of caused objects.  It is our good fortune that from a microscopic world of quantum waves or sub-atomic particles more complex unities appeared.  It did not need to happen and it is a somewhat rare occurrence in the universe, apparently.   But, on our special planet, it did happen, and  from our point of view, as rational humans, many emergent properties and abilities needed to emerge for us to get to our current situation.   We can trace ‘our’ origin to the Big Bang, but there is a huge gap from there to humans going to the moon and sending robotic explorers into deep space.  Also, humans have a reasonable understanding of the entire universe at a microscopic level, and we live to write about all this and consider the significance of these accomplishments.

So, the connection between the Microscopic Worlds and the various Macroscopic Worlds (“ways of talking” about the micro) is not causation, but “usefulness”and “emergence” according to Carroll.  It is how the microscopic order is ‘taken’, ‘used,’ that matters to Poetic Naturalism.  It is what can possibly evolve from them.  Useful ways of talking about the microscopic add new properties, new abilities and new objects that are “autonomous” and meaningful on their own, because they are a set of interrelated structures, functions, and qualities (to use terms familiar to any follower of this blog). “The emergent theory is autonomous (it works by itself, without reference to other theories)”, and “truly new”, contends Carroll. (11)

That is a nice thought!  It is real and legitimate to understand the universe as useful to us as persons.  Emergence allows us, literally, to see this, and the concept of “emergence” allows us to understand that we do fit in this universe as a qualitatively rich and complex place.  We can look out and see it, hear, smell and feel these developments.  We can also try to understand these emergent wonders.

                     OUR WORLD OF NUMEROUS QUALITIES                            AND COMPLEX OBJECTS.       Allegory of the Sense of Smell, painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens (1617)

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

Much was attempted in the above discussion.  Physicist Sean Carroll has helped to establish and legitimize a context for understanding the emergence of complex unities from collections of simpler parts and simpler qualities.  Significantly, a passageway of connection remains between these increasingly stratified and unified emergent worlds.  In this post, I have focused on Carroll’s concept of “usefulness”.  Micro structures can be used to ‘create’ macro structures, in the above senses.  But an important and puzzling aspect was mentioned but not embellished: Movement remains ‘the same’!  Physics understands the basic movement of any object in the universe even when they are complex objects.  The Compatiblist Philosophy (12) being argued for, here, must accept a puzzling situation.   The movements of even complex objects is predictable by our basic physical understanding of the microscopic universe, but the meaning and significance of these objects is not!  Therefore, Reality is more than mere movement whether of microscopic or macroscopic objects.

Carroll suggests this puzzling situation in his Poetic Naturalism by his basic contention that Reality is two kinds of things: the universe of physics and a lot of “ways of talking about this underlying stuff.”(13)  His discussion of human perception and rationality is suggestive of some of these issues but it is not sufficiently developed compared to the hundreds, even thousands, of years of philosophical discussion of the issue of the universe as bits and pieces — and very limited qualities, and/or the universe as series of larger unities and, eventually, one very complicated thing.  The best philosophies, in my opinion, have been unable to avoid a role for, and a real source of, complex unity in reality.  Carroll founders on his insistence that the stripped down perspective of physics is preeminent.  His view leaves a huge gap, but suggests the problem by its recognition of the coherence — or unity — of each vocabulary and its perspective, by contrast to the qualitatively bland and splintered world of physics.

Does Carroll offer a solution to the puzzle?  We seem to have confident knowledge of the various levels of microscopic worlds and confidence in our ability to know and perceive these worlds, but little context for an understanding of these polar experiences or realities.  What we need is a more comprehensive theory of reality that describes its compatibility with our human ability to know that reality.

Carroll suggests a solution.  Reality has a bottom line for which we have no larger context with which to compare it, he contends, and no larger context to understand it within.  The bottom line reality is there, as given, as it is in itself.   Therefore, it simply must be accepted, if at least as the given position for further investigation.  For Carroll, this bottom line is the universe as presented by our current science of physics.  But here at naturereligionconnection. org, we have sided more with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, who argue that the bottom line existence is BOTH the universe as revealed by physics AND our abilities to know that universe.  Our human abilities to act — to reason, to initiate, to be responsible, to make mistakes and to learn — are as fundamental as the basic structure the universe.

THE WORLD AS UNDERSTOOD BY CHEMISTRY, which is less abstract than physics.  The molecular organization of graphene, charcoal and some other forms of carbon; can now also be seen with an electron microscope.



So, there is more to the universe than atoms in motion.  The next post will provide Carroll’s basic examples of how the universe “emerges” from these atoms.   The universe becomes more than its basic stuff, and is “for our purposes”, “useful” and ‘significant’ to us!   Two important mechanisms or structures for emergence will be described: coarse-graining and fractal organization.

Prades, the Village (1917)  Painting by Joan Miro.  “Intense color, light, space and form are used to express the artist’s emotional state.”

Notes:  1. page 93    2.  94    3. 104   4. 108    5. 108   6. 227  7.  25   8. 108   9. 113  10.  113    11. 106-7

12.  Compatiblism is the idea that higher qualities and abilities are compatible with a Deterministic Universe.  Just because physics knows a lot about the movement of the basic particles and quantum waves of the universe, does not mean that there are not still more interesting and significant things to be said about those microscopic realities.         13. page 17