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

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