Things Are Really This Bad: Global Climate Change and American Politics

(I feel obliged to forward this for your consideration.  For the sake of our planet and our sanity, I thank the NYTimes and Paul Krugman for allowing this use — Times 12/12/2019.  Krugman has always been one of my favorite commentators.  He is the Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 2008 for his modelling of international trade.  This column reads smoothly and quickly.  It is a short, devastating and dire analysis of Climate Change and the American Republican Party.  ‘God save us’, for surely we will not save ourselves, GWW)

Polar Bear on shrinking ice flow in the Arctic..  Image fro the International Monetary Fund blog.

The Party That Ruined the Planet:                Republican climate denial is even scarier than Trumpism.

by Paul Krugman

The most terrifying aspect of the U.S. political drama isn’t the revelation that the president has abused his power for personal gain. If you didn’t see that coming from the day Donald Trump was elected, you weren’t paying attention.

No, the real revelation has been the utter depravity of the Republican Party. Essentially every elected or appointed official in that party has chosen to defend Trump by buying into crazy, debunked conspiracy theories. That is, one of America’s two major parties is beyond redemption; given that, it’s hard to see how democracy can long endure, even if Trump is defeated.

However, the scariest reporting I’ve seen recently has been about science, not politics. A new federal report finds that climate change in the Arctic is accelerating, matching what used to be considered worst-case scenarios. And there are indications that Arctic warming may be turning into a self-reinforcing spiral, as the thawing tundra itself releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases.

Catastrophic sea-level rise, heat waves that make major population centers uninhabitable, and more are now looking more likely than not, and sooner rather than later.

But the terrifying political news and the terrifying climate news are closely related.

Why, after all, has the world failed to take action on climate, and why is it still failing to act even as the danger gets ever more obvious? There are, of course, many culprits; action was never going to be easy.

But one factor stands out above all others: the fanatical opposition of America’s Republicans, who are the world’s only major climate-denialist party. Because of this opposition, the United States hasn’t just failed to provide the kind of leadership that would have been essential to global action, it has become a force against action.

And Republican climate denial is rooted in the same kind of depravity that we’re seeing with regard to Trump.

As I’ve written in the past, climate denial was in many ways the crucible for Trumpism. Long before the cries of “fake news,” Republicans were refusing to accept science that contradicted their prejudices. Long before Republicans began attributing every negative development to the machinations of the “deep state,” they were insisting that global warming was a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast global cabal of corrupt scientists.

And long before Trump began weaponizing the power of the presidency for political gain, Republicans were using their political power to harass climate scientists and, where possible, criminalize the practice of science itself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of those responsible for these abuses are now ensconced in the Trump administration. Notably, Ken Cuccinelli, who as attorney general of Virginia engaged in a long witch-hunt against the climate scientist Michael Mann, is now at the Department of Homeland Security, where he pushes anti-immigrant policies with, as The Times reports, “little concern for legal restraints.”

But why have Republicans become the party of climate doom? Money is an important part of the answer: In the current cycle Republicans have received 97 percent of political contributions from the coal industry, 88 percent from oil and gas. And this doesn’t even count the wing nut welfare offered by institutions supported by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel moguls.

However, I don’t believe that it’s just about the money. My sense is that right-wingers believe, probably correctly, that there’s a sort of halo effect surrounding any form of public action. Once you accept that we need policies to protect the environment, you’re more likely to accept the idea that we should have policies to ensure access to health care, child care, and more. So the government must be prevented from doing anything good, lest it legitimize a broader progressive agenda.

Still, whatever the short-term political incentives, it takes a special kind of depravity to respond to those incentives by denying facts, embracing insane conspiracy theories and putting the very future of civilization at risk.

Unfortunately, that kind of depravity isn’t just present in the modern Republican Party, it has effectively taken over the whole institution. There used to be at least some Republicans with principles; as recently as 2008 Senator John McCain co-sponsored serious climate-change legislation. But those people have either experienced total moral collapse (hello, Senator Graham) or left the party.

The truth is that even now I don’t fully understand how things got this bad. But the reality is clear: Modern Republicans are irredeemable, devoid of principle or shame. And there is, as I said, no reason to believe that this will change even if Trump is defeated next year.

The only way that either American democracy or a livable planet can survive is if the Republican Party as it now exists is effectively dismantled and replaced with something better — maybe with a party that has the same name, but completely different values. This may sound like an impossible dream. But it’s the only hope we have.


Paul Krugman

A Beautiful Experience at the “Beautiful Day…” Movie

Tom Hanks as Mr.Rogers, and Mr. Rogers

Surprising how things can turn out.  I was greatly moved by this movie.  Funny how The Powers of Reflection can so swirl, and so shine back on things.   “Things” can and do truly improve in this world of frailty.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a slow moving, emotional, drama centered about that most slow-moving character of all, public television’s Mr. Rogers.  It’s based on the true story of the deliberate effect Rogers had on the life of a talented and successful, but deeply cynical, young man; a journalist who comes to interview Rogers for Esquire magazine.

I must admit I have always been a sucker for “Billy Budd” characters and that is Fred Rogers.  He is Lenny from Of Mice and Men; he is the slow, deeply religious and epileptic brother from The Brothers Karamazov.  They are seemingly too good to be true, or at least too good for this world.  Simple, honest, kind, and profoundly right; it’s Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump all over again.

Maybe this movie does take this man and raises him beyond what he was.  Who cares?  The movie skillfully suggests that Fred had his faults and failings too, but Fred keeps working at them and this in literal ways.  He practiced self-reflective techniques, one of which quieted the theater and brought me into reflections on my own less-than-ideal life and personality.  Fred prayed; he read the Bible and was very religious.  It is the kind of religion — it would seem to have to be — that only brought out the humility and love in this man.  He was not judgmental at all, no matter what his opinions might have been.  It’s a kind of religion that we don’t often enough find.  Fred, also, played and believed in puppets.

I’m not saying that you might not fall asleep.  This movie not for everyone.  It’s not about escaping life through a series of exhilarating and fake car-chase scenes.  It is about embracing the kindest side of life and holding on to it.  It’s about emotions and healing and men.

Director, Marielle Heller, does a masterful job.  She has put together a movie with an ingenious approach to presenting a man that spent his life talking in the simplest fashion to four-year-olds.  She took Fred Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe” and made it more important than I ever realized it was.  She shows us a hero of a truly unique sort.  And Tom Hanks is masterful as Fred; a portrayal of the man that is maybe more memorable than the real man, himself.

‘God’ bless you, Mr. Rogers.





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

(This is the third post in the series on “Emergence” based on Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture 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.)

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.

stages-of-photosynthesisIt 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





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.)


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 ‘that purpose stuff’ 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 use that tern

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






Good News for Our Gang

Our Gang, a bunch of “Little Rascals”  photo circa 1930

I’m pleased to report a recent surge of readership here at  Modest as this may be, on Monday Nov. 11 we had 10 visitors who viewed 23 posts.  Most were from the good old U.S.of A. and our Canadian friends up north (thanks especially to Rom and John), but, one visitor was from China and viewed 4 posts!   Posts receiving the most attention recently are “Sean C and Our Freedom to Choose” 25 recent views (rv’s), “Nika No More” 16 rv’s,  and  “What is Morality” 36 rv’s.  Thank you for your consideration!   Please don’t be shy, comment!


Chilly, a Review

(I’ve seen a couple of good movies lately and want pass on some recommendations.  These movies are in keeping with our theme here at NatieRel.  So, here is the first.)

Who is Chilly Gonzales?

Chilly Gonzales, funny to think that the Universe spewed forth this gentleman!  But, I will not give the U all the credit.  “Gonzo” is a man who invented himself.   The documentary,  “Shut Up and Play The Piano”, wonderfully captures that process of self-invention.  The movie and its main character are both very interesting.

For me, it was utterly significant that I knew of Chilly’s recorded music before I saw this film.  Wow, did I have the wrong impression.  Such quiet and contemplative music is his early releases Solo Piano (2006), Solo Piano II (2012) and Chambers (2015),  and this from such a volcanic personality!  This music is a fusion of jazz and classical and its creator is all talent, experimentation, sweat, sexuality and personality.  And I thought the music was from some politely trained but slightly rogue classical musician.  Wrong.

“Shut Up” explains that Chilly was not even born “Chilly Gonzales”, but he was born to a family of great talents and wealth.  He took that privilege and went to obscure places to find “who he was” and “what he wanted.”  New Music was that answer.  Starting with classical piano training from an uncle, to leader of a rock band in his youth in Toronto, to  the Berlin performance art and Techno Punk-Rap scene in the late 90’s, his search was on the extreme edge.

Chilly as Techno-Punk Rapper in Berlin.

That process was intensely self-reflective.  “Who is Chilly Gonzales?” he asks repeatedly.  And it is “ALL about him”.  How would a “megalomaniac” begin a piece of music? he asks and then convincingly shows us.  “He has so much to give” explains a friend and fellow musician.  In deed, Chilly does have a massive genius.  He is a presence in which ‘the world’ is enveloped and then spit back out to behold itself.

So, who is Chilly Gonzo?  Stay tuned.  He and his alter egos are still working at it, but this movie is a good place to start.

Another Amazing Thing in This                          World!                          Drawing by Marty

Sean Carroll and Our Freedom to Choose

(This is a new post series: 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.)  


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 WEIS).  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 WEIS.  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.  Not only are these cultural contexts compatible with the physical world but, interesting, 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’.  

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 Emmanuel 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.

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. 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. 380-1



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