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Book Review – The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll

What is the big picture? It’s how humans fit into what we know about this unfathomably large, endlessly mysterious universe. Sean Carroll has taken on the difficult and noble task of attempting to piece it all together through the lens of Poetic Naturalism, a philosophical ontology that suggests that the natural world is all there is, and that logically there really isn’t a need to conjure supernatural forces to explain the beauty that humans see in the universe. While this may seem atheistic in nature, Poetic Naturalism, it turns out, is inherently accepting of all ideas so long as they match up with empirical evidence. As a result, it’s both scientific and spiritual in nature, and can be extended into all facets of life.

Going into this book I definitely had a predisposition towards Poetic Naturalism even though I didn’t know that my feelings towards the universe had a well-defined name and whole philosophical backing. But while reading this book I learned even more about myself, my beliefs, and have come out with a better way to navigate this complex world.

The Big Picture is a perfect blend of science and philosophy that does a great job at piecing together the “big picture” in a very stepwise manner. This book needs to be read kinda slowly in order for later chapters to make sense. It’s not a random showcase of scientific facts but is instead a coherent story that morphs into a colorful motif. That being said, this is a book I’ll definitely be revisiting many times in the future in order to pick up the pieces that I missed before and also renew the sense of awe and wonder that it produced in me.

Like I said before, the concept of Poetic Naturalism is all-encompassing. One thing I really liked about this book was how it didn’t try to completely disprove religious beliefs by introducing science and logic. Instead, it gives you the mental tools you need to form your own opinions about anything in the world. In other words, it does not disregard religious or spiritual thought but instead argues that they can be compatible with science only if you are honest in truly trying to discover how the world works. The main take away, however, is that just because the universe is vast, beautiful and at times mysterious beyond comprehension, doesn’t mean that there is some supernatural element to it all. Perhaps the genesis of the universe (and maybe even the multiverse) and life within it is a completely natural occurrence, and that humans are not the center of it all. That doesn’t mean we should all fall into chaos and nihilism. In some ways, it’s just as wonderful to think that despite the immense odds against our very existence, humans have been able to contemplate and solve a few of the mysteries of the universe while at the same time cultivate profound meaning and love for each other.

Unfortunately, The Big Picture was not as accessible as I’d presumed. Someone who isn’t already sufficiently science-literate or into this kind of stuff might not make it past the first few chapters. To me, this seemed a bit counterproductive if the whole goal of this book is to show the world that it’s possible to compromise, or at best, come to a consensus about most issues. We will probably never all see the world the same, and that’s okay. Or maybe Sean Carroll didn’t expect this message to reach everyone, and instead just wanted to introduce this school of thought to the widest audience possible. Either way, it goes to show that scientific literacy for the entire population is the best way for humans to advance, which doesn’t mean that you need to throw away your religious beliefs. I know plenty of religious people who are still science-literate. But I digress.

Honestly, I haven’t been impacted this much by a book since reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My view of the world became enriched well before actually finishing the book. I can’t wait to read it again, and again.

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