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Dr. Sean Carroll makes science’s meaningless universe meme sound palatable in his new book, The Big Picture.

photo by: Awesome Inc

Dr. Sean Carroll is a Harvard trained, Cal Tech theoretical physicist with a long list of fellowships, awards and bestselling books, including his latest, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

Dr. Carroll is not only a respected scientist, but with his many television and movie appearances, a bit of a science celebrity. All of which makes his opinion on consciousness and the meaning of life noteworthy. I recently completed a recorded interview with Dr. Carroll. You can listen to the complete, unedited interview through the link below, or read these excerpts along with my analysis. Let me start with this clip:

Alex Tsakiris: Do you really believe that all human experience can be reduced to chemical reactions in our brain?

Dr. Sean Carroll: Yeah except I wouldn’t use the word ‘just’. And I wouldn’t even use the word ‘reduced’. I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘illusion’.

Before directly addressing Dr. Carroll answer to this question, I’d point out that throughout this interview I used my pet phrase, “biological robots in a meaningless universe” when characterizing Dr. Carroll’s Naturalism philosophy. I wanted to see if he’d push back, but he never did. The reason is because no matter how he spins it, that is what he’s saying. He may say “meaning isn’t built into the fabric of the universe,” or “meaning and purpose are a social construct,” but it still boils down to the idea that we’re all just biological robots in a meaningless universe. He knows this, so he never challenged my phrasing.

Back to this question, when I asked if everything can be reduced to a chemical reaction in your brain, Dr. Carroll’s answer was, “yes… but I wouldn’t say just.” This is the latest script change on the consciousness question from the meaningless universe crowd. 10 years ago they would just say what philosopher and noted atheist Dr. Daniel Dennett still says, “consciousness is an illusion.” In other words, there is no such thing as human experience so get over it. But somewhere along the way they realized this message/meme doesn’t sell. You can’t tell any rational person outside of academia that everything about their minute-to-minute experience as an illusion. They’d laugh in your face. It’s a crazy idea and it just does not sell outside of their very narrow group. So guys like Dr. Carrolll have changed the script. They now say your experience is this wonderful way we have of “talking about” this “emergent property” called consciousness that happens inside the brain. The trick is to give you something that sounds like what you know (i.e. that you really exist and are experiencing consciousness… duh) while sidestepping the really big questions of purpose and meaning. And also sidestepping the huge metaphysical assumption he’s making when declaring that consciousness is entirely a product of your brain. Keep in mind, Sean is a physicist, he’s not supposed to make metaphysical assumptions. But also keep in mind that this is what he’s doing. Sean can’t say when consciousness begins. He can’t say when it ends. He can’t say what’s necessary and sufficient to cause consciousness. But he wants you to accept his metaphysics and jump through these tortured apologetics about the “fabric of the universe” because he’s really, really committed to his cosmology, and he wants you to be committed too. Unfortunately for Sean, logic gets in the way of his argument. If the universe is meaningless, and you are embedded in that meaningless universe, then there can be no meaning to your life. It can’t be any other way. If there’s real meaning in/to your life, then there’s at least that much meaning in the universe. If the universe is meaningless, if there isn’t even a tiny little smidgen of it anywhere in the universe, then you have zero chance of ever finding it in your life. But again, this is not something Dr. Carroll can sell. He knows that even with his Harvard PhD you’re going to laugh at him if he tries to tell you your life is meaningless, so he’s putting up this elaborate “yes, but…” smoke screen.


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Read Excerpts From Interview:


Alex Tsakiris: Is it really fair to say that this Naturalism idea (i.e. that we’re all biological robots in a meaningless universe) is so popular in terms of all the great thinkers throughout time?

Dr. Sean Carroll: I think that Naturalism has never been popular until modern secular societies. But there’s always been strands of it. The good news is we know a lot more about the universe than Buddha or Plato did. We can say a lot more accurate things about it.

Okay, this is almost a throw away point. Many authors stretch the truth to make a point and I guess that’s what Sean is doing here, but it irks me to see a respected scientist says stuff like, “there is a long, distinguished pedigree for Naturalism…” when there isn’t. And it irks me even more when he tries to wrap himself with the historical celebrity of Buddha, Plato and Confucius by suggesting these great thinkers considered this kind of reductionistic crap. Buddha never thought he was a biological robot in a meaningless universe. Neither did Plato or Confucius, but Sean’s throwing his hook in the water hoping you’ll bite. But again, it’s a minor point. Let’s move onto something more substantial:

Alex Tsakiris: You have a line in [your book] that caught my attention. You say, “Unlike brains which are complicated and hard to explain, elementary particles are extraordinarily simple.” What I immediately thought of was one of the most famous and mysterious quantum physics experiments of all time–the double slit experiment — you make reference to this in your book —  where they shoot this beam of photons through two tiny holes to see whether they act as waves or particles. As you know, this has been a long-time debate among quantum physicists as to what we’re really measuring there. What I thought about was this recently published research by Dr. Dean Radin. It was published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2012. Then it finally and really, quite convincingly, with a P-value of 10 to the minus 6 or something, shows that consciousness–that is, a human being that was instructed to focus on that photon beam–can actually collapse the quantum wave function. So this is one of the core, fundamental questions that we’ve had about consciousness. And it seems to be answered in a way that moves us away from your mind-equals-brain physicalism.

Dr. Sean Carroll: Yeah. I think that’s just not right. I think that is not something that 99.9 percent of working physicists would say is actually true.

Alex Tsakiris: [It] was published in Physics Essays in 2012… [it’s] peer reviewed. Has anyone else done this experiment and shown it not to be true? Not that I’m aware of.

Dr. Sean Carroll: Not that I’m aware of specifically. I don’t think anyone would really spend the time and money to do it.

Alex Tsakiris: Why not? It’s a relatively simple experiment, right?

Dr. Sean Carroll: There’s a lot of stuff that appears in peer-reviewed journals that is not right. As someone who’s refereeing for these journals and reading them, the standard for accepting some enormously dramatic overthrow of the laws of nature as we know them, is much higher than someone got an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

For anyone who’s listened to Skeptiko before and heard this kind of nincompoopery, Sean’s not saying anything new, but it’s still stunning. First, Carroll uses the infamous I-wouldn’t-believe-it-even-if-it-was-true thing. He admits he’s never read Radin’s research, but is adamant in denouncing it. (note to  Sean: I know you’re the Harvard physicist, you’re the Cal Tech professor, but that’s not how science works–you have to look at the data before you pass judgement on the experiment)

Next, Dr. Carroll minimizes the fact that Radin’s paper passed peer review at a respected academic journal. It’s a silly claim given that his career relies on a functioning peer review system, especially since he sits on the editorial boards of similar journals. It’s silly, but not surprising.

As a final volley, Carroll adds the ol’ “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” thing to his argument. This is terribly unscientific argument in general, but in this case it’s especially inappropriate because the double slit experiment has been contemplated and debated for 100 years by the biggest names in physics. But it’s not like Dr. Carroll let’s facts get in the way of a good stump speech. Here’s an excerpt where we explore this point further:

Alex Tsakiris: But Sean, this wouldn’t be a radical overthrow. 100 years ago this was the conclusion that quantum physicists, at least half of them, came to.

Dr. Sean Carroll: There was never any consensus that consciousness was involved in collapsing the wave function.

Alex Tsakiris: Right but didn’t the biggest names [such as] Neils Bohr and Schrodinger–all of these people came to the conclusion that it seems like consciousness is collapsing the wave function. So you can say there wasn’t a consensus, sure, but there were some pretty heavy hitters on that side.

Dr. Sean Carroll: That’s not at all true. What people like Schrodinger and Bohr were suggesting–actually not even Schrodinger–he was skeptical about the whole thing. But Bohr and Heisenberg, the founders of the Copenhagan interpretation of quantum mechanics, they were saying that we think of as the wave function isn’t a physically real thing.

[easy-tweet tweet=”If the universe is meaningless, and you are embedded in that meaningless universe, then there can be no meaning to your life.”]

The deep waters of quantum physics is a topic I’ve always been interested in, but never studied seriously.  So, I was a bit shaken by Dr. Carroll’s confidence regarding what some of the giants of quantum physics thought about consciousness and the double slit experiment. He insisted I was wrong. His confidence had me doubting what I thought I knew. Fortunately, it only took 90 seconds of google-ing to resolve the issue:

Niels Bohr: “We can admittedly find nothing in physics or chemistry that has even remote bearing on consciousness. Yet all of us know that there is such a thing as consciousness simply because we have it ourselves. Hence, consciousness must be a part of nature, or more generally, of reality. This means that quite apart from the laws of physics and chemistry as laid down in quantum theory, we must also consider laws of quite a different kind.”

And Schrodinger? Again, I thought he was supportive of the idea of consciousness, but unlike Sean, I was fuzzy on the details. Again, it didn’t take long to resolve. Here’s what I found from a collection of his wrings published in 1958. First, he argues that there is a difference between measuring instruments and human observation, “a thermometer’s registration cannot be considered an active observation as it contains no meaning in and of itself.” Again, it’s a little bit obscure but this is what we’re talking about–whether consciousness can affect things in the physical world.  Then Schrodinger goes much further than I remembered:

Schrodinger: “Some of you I am sure call this mysticism. So with all due acknowledgement to the fact that physical theory is at all times relative in that it depends on certain basic assumptions we make, or so I believe, assert that physical theory in its present stage strongly suggests the indestructibility of mind [i.e. consciousness] by time.”

Hey Sean, crack open a history book now and then! You know this would all be a lot funnier if it wasn’t so tragic. I mean, this guy is supposed to represent our best and brightest.

As I say, quantum physics history is outside of my swing zone, but next we talked about near-death experience, which, through the benefit of doing all of these interviews with top NDE researchers, I know something about.

Alex Tsakiris: … but Sean, these generalities are not supported at all by anything you’ve published in the book. And I don’t see it in anything you’ve published anywhere else. Share with us some of the studies that you think do not live up to that standard. Tell us whether Dr. Pim Van Lommel did. Tell us whether Dr. Sam Parnia, who just published in Resuscitation… a long-term study… 10 years, 20 different hospitals. Do these not live up to these standards? I think to say that without having any way of backing it up… I just find that very surprising. Tell us what studies you think don’t hold up to those criteria.

Dr. Sean Carroll: You know, life is short. I could spend my entire life reading studies on near-death experiences and carefully understanding why they’re flawed, and I have no interest in that.

No interest?! Here’s a guy who’s written a book with a whole chapter dedicated to the scientific question of death. Here’s an academic who’s well aware of the large body (100’s of peer reviewed studies) of near-death experience science. Yet, when Dr. Sean Carroll is pressed as to why he’s ignoring the evidence that contradicts his position the best he can come up with is the ol’ life-is-short thing. Does anyone fall for this? Let me turn it around — can you imagine any scientist you respect saying this about any scientific question they claim to have investigated. Again, I don’t think many people outside of the biological robot crowd fall for this kind of nonsense, but Sean Carroll sure pushes it pretty hard.

Like I said in the opening, a lot of people are not going to like this episode of Skeptiko. But I occasionally feel a need to return the task of exposing this nincompoopery for what it is. And since so many of these science-as-we-know-it types run from this kind of tough questioning (and again, I give Dr. Carroll credit for not hiding, for coming on and facing these tough questions) I wanted to take a little extra time to breakdown this silliness.

Once again, you can follow the above links to listen to the complete interview. When you’re done I urge you to click the share button and send it to someone who needs to hear it 🙂

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