From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature and the Meaning of Life

By Sean Carroll | October 22, 2012 6:19 am

That’s the charmingly grandiose title of a talk I gave at The Amazing Meeting this past July, now available online. I hope that the basic message comes through, although the YouTube comments indicate that the nitpicking has already begun in earnest. There’s a rather lot of material to squeeze into half an hour, so some parts are going to be sketchy.

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.

The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

Or at least, so you will hear me opine if you click on the link. Curious as to what people think.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Philosophy, Science, Top Posts
  • Joah

    Good job, Sean.

    We need more people driving these points home. I am not sure why so many people take issue with them. It seems to me that people who believe in telekinesis, for example, must be identifying with that belief for reasons that have nothing to do with what they think about the physical world. The Maharishi “flyers” who bounce around in the lotus position and claim that they are somehow experiencing “human levitation” are a perfect example of this. For them, the “meaning” they create is wholly detached from the fact that they are launching themselves on parabolic trajectories in a gravitational field. I find this kind of spiritualism to be fatuous indeed, but if it is our place to create our own meaning, who are we to say that it is irresponsible to create a meaning that is so profoundly opposed physical reality.

    In other words, what do you tell the passionate believer who creates their own meaning on the basis of myth and lies?

  • PL Hayes

    I think the first point is important too. I don’t believe the amount of time and money wasted on e.g. pseudoscientific parapsychology ideas (and cargo cult experimental ‘tests’ of them) is either very much or intrinsically very harmful, but I think the situation in medicine and medical science is more worrying.

  • Carol Roper

    Sean, that was a truly fantastic lecture. One of the reasons I’ve come to love physics (as a non-scientist) is that these concepts always seemed logical to me, but I had no way to explain them in an objective, evidentiary manner without learning about particle physics and relative size, etc. Philosophy alone simply didn’t cut it. It’s you, and people like you, who have given me the joy of understanding (some small part of) what we know, and what meaning we choose to give it. Thank you.

    • Sean Carroll

      Carol– thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • gammaburst

    A foundational idea in Existentialism is “existence preceeds essence”- that is, there is no supernatural framework that gives our lives meaning. From that perspective, our lives gain meaning only though the decisions (the good, the bad, and the roads not taken) we make.

  • Tony

    Sean your lectures are absolutely great. I don’t understand physics particularly well, but I do enjoy your lectures.

  • Harry

    I was just rereading Bertrand Russell’s, “A Free Man’s Workshop” on this very topic. We know quite a bit more physics since it was written, but the argument is still a good one.

    Thanks, Sean – I can’t wait to check out the lecture when I get home.

  • piscator

    Well, the first point is wrong (speaking with the my professional particle theorist head on).

    For it to be correct, we would have to know and understand physics in the infrared. We don’t.

    We don’t understand the properties of neutrons (particularly, why they have no electric dipole moment). The best solution is an *infrared* modification of the Standard Model, via the axion.

    We don’t understand the properties of the vacuum, and the energy associated to it, and we don’t know whether the unknown solution to this problem – which is a problem defined at energy scales much smaller than those of the hydrogenic atom – could play around with any other aspects of infrared physics.

    What we understand extremely well is the behaviour of small numbers of particle or quasiparticles. Life involves O(10^23) particles, and we don’t have great sensitivity to any small modification of quantum mechanics or the Standard Model that is enhanced by a number of species factor.

    More importantly, we have an experiental datum (`consciousness’) that doesn’t look like anything that is in the fundamental equations. Furthermore, unlike something like turbulence it looks really different in kind to what is in the laws of physics. One can yadda yadda about neuronal epiphenomena, but this is just an attempt to define away the problem: consciousness reduces to the known laws of physics, because everything reduces to the laws of physics, because even consciousness reduces to the known laws of physics, because everything reduces to the known laws of physics!

    The second point is also wrong, because its very easy to frame the deep, purposeful teleological aim of the laws of physics as the universe striving continually and constantly to minimise its action.

    The third point: well, it relies on the first two.

  • jpd

    i’ve argued about point 1 before, i predict the
    response: redefine the terms so that it fits these answers.

    ie everyday life becomes non scientists, despite the fact that
    even non scientists use technology based on edge knowledge

  • Brett

    piscator, if English is your first language, then I’m inclined to believe that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • uncommon

    You can tell that “piscater” is a professional

  • Arun

    Is physics as it is practiced capable of uncovering a teleological law????

  • Eric Habegger

    “We don’t understand the properties of the vacuum, and the energy associated to it”

    See my answer to that at comment 39 in the previous post of Sean’s. It stymies and confuses me how professionals in physics say we don’t know something when what they are really saying is “I refuse to admit new information because it will lead to conclusions that will go against what I was taught.” Sure, every little thing is not close to being known about the vacuum energy. But the broad outlines of how it works and how it changes energy levels over time is now understood. The real problem is that it simply repudiates what many particle physicists have been saying for years. Get with it!

  • Tony

    One cannot know what was before the universe began, by extrapolating from its present condition, nor what will happen when it has ended. Sean is completely wrong when he talks about the moral life, he does not know good from evil, because in his view evil has the same rights as good. If rape in my view is a good, than it is so, because I have the right to choose my own morality.

  • Walter

    I think it is hilarious how we try to delude ourselves that life can have any sense of meaning. It takes a certain detached framed of mind to think life is meaningful because it isn’t. Atheists are right about the facts, but no amount of philosophical hand waving can change the fact that it is all utterly meaningless, we cannot inject meaning to our lives any more we can cure cancer by thinking happy thoughts. We can certainly delude ourselves, but the meaning delusion is not different from the god delusion, they are just happy lies we tell ourselves to protect us from the pointlessly of it all. Scientists, please stop trying to inject cheerfulness into existence, you only preach to the choir and look ridiculous in the process.

  • Tony

    Wow, science cannot prove or imagine what God is or could be made of therefore there is no God. I can tell you what a world without God would be like, try Germany with Hitler with nothing to stop it, no moral authority anywhere that says no you cannot kill wantonly, by the way I had a grandmother who was Jewish, and I with a disability as well, so if I had been there I would have been on a freight train. Simply human suffering without reason, the strong over the weak, raw nature, the law of the wild, without end.

  • haig

    With regard to point #2, the apparent dysteleology of the universe, if instead of teleology as commonly interpreted as planned or intentional purposefulness, we instead view it in terms of teleonomy which preserves aspects of goal-directedness in nature without recourse to intelligent design, why couldn’t this view be plausible? Of course there are purely contingent facts based on the particular history of the evolution of the universe and life on this planet, but it can be argued that the way the physical laws play out overall, if rerun over and over again, would indeed create complex life and intelligent societies given enough time and chance (the reverse of Stephen J. Gould’s assumption). Wouldn’t this perspective, though still remaining secular and naturalistic, support the argument that there is purpose in the universe, to produce complexity in the form of life and consciousness (at least so far, with further future emergent states remaining unpredictable)? I’m not claiming any special status for humans or individuals, the universe still seems indifferent to each of us, but I can’t help but see an overall pattern to the way the universe unfolds. Is this such a wrong-headed point of view?

  • James Gallagher

    Sean is an impressive speaker, which I do admire, it’s good to have well-trained physicists who can do this (I couldn’t)

    However at least 50% of the stuff he says I don’t agree with, and in fact I’m pretty sure is wrong.

    Previous posts make it obvious where I disagree, but the fact that I don’t believe in determinism and am agnostic wrt god doesn’t mean I wouldn’t reach similar conclusions to him regarding same sex marriages (for example) However, for balance, and to make it really clear what he’s saying, Sean should also apply his argument to 40-year old man in love with 15-year old girl and explain how that situation is different. (I’d just argue that situations which don’t help society function well over-all should be prevented if possible)

  • David Shelton

    I’m afraid that Tom Campbell, Bernard Haisch, Brian Greene, Dean Radin, Bohm, Wheeler, and Einstein all disagree with you. Physics can only describe gross realm phenomenon and nothing of subtle realm modalities. It can’t. It is of a more intuitive logic that “reads” the subtle realm communications. However, physics does, very well, describe how gross realm modalities behave.

  • Walter

    Tony at 16. I think you are making a mistake. I agree with you on the implications of a purely materialistic universe; however, truth is not contingent to meaning. I am sure that the experience of the holocaust was too horrible to contemplate, but that didn’t stop it for been true. Yes, a purely materialistic universe, reducible to nothing but its constituents particles does present a bleak and meaningless picture, but it is the truth nonetheless. My problem is the complete inability, and unwillingness, of the modern atheist to concede that point. They still persist that everything can be wonderful and happy if we just entertain the right thoughts. They deny the very probability of an existential crisis on a social scale. They may even attribute said sentiments to medical depression, rather than the nihilism intrinsic in their world view.
    The idea of us giving meaning to our own existence is as stupid as it is counterproductive. It is hard to comprehend how people so well versed in the patterns of the universe are at the same time so clueless about the human psyche.

  • David Lau

    Another excellent lecture from you. There are many good points made. I especially like the part where you said our meaningful lives have to be created by us, and not given to us by some supernatural power. Life is itself an accident and has no real meaning, but we can still live a meaningful life and we have to make it for ourselves. Very well done, Sean. As you know, there is no way to please the whole world no matter how excellent your presentation was. There are always comments and disagreements, but I know you don’t take them too personal, for you are a professional presenter. I posted the lecture on my FB.
    David Lau

  • Brett

    POINT #1 MR. CARROLL! YOU DID NOT OVERCOME THE FORCE OF GRAVITY! Henceforth hitherto tallyho, you were in fact pulled back down to earth. You only beat gravity for a very short moment in time, but it caught up, like a panther in the night!

    POINT #2! I agree with your thoughts on fields.

    Point #3! (insert argument over the fine structure constant)

  • vmarko


    at 10:00 there is a slide with two Feynman diagrams — the bottom diagram is incorrect. You might want to get the arrows right, at least on the proton side. It’s a minor point, but it is not very good advertisement to have something so obviously wrong about the physics in the presentation.

    About the talk itself — I agree on some points, mildly disagree on the others, but the morality part is where I feel I need to comment. Simply put, it’s not just our own choices that make up moral laws. Biologically speaking, a human lives (or used to live) in a harsh and unfriendly environment, and evolution taught him some morality, with the purpose of self-preservation in the wilderness. The purpose of morality is not to uphold some arbitrary set of self-imposed rules, but to help humans survive as a group.

    If you argue that basic laws of physics are all there is to define our world, I can use the very same argument to conclude that those laws of physics induce the laws of morality (in a complicated way, but still…). For example, I can argue that same-sex marriage provides the society with a family having a dysfunctional procreation ability, which is not favored by evolution, and can be ultimately a waste of resources for the local society (think cavemen at the brink of extinction), since there will be fewer young people in 50 years time. This is dictated by biology, which is ultimately a consequence of the laws of physics. A similar example is incest, which provides the society with offspring of problematic health. Yet another example is a “Thou shalt not kill”. And so on… A lot of these “traditional morality” rules have their origin in the optimal behavior of a self-preserving prehistoric society (societies behaving differently can not survive for too long). So a lot of that stuff is being imposed on the human culture by the harsh environment, i.e. ultimately the basic laws of physics.

    Of course, you could argue that same-sex marriages are ok today, since there is no danger of extinction, the world is overpopulated anyway. In the same sense, I could then argue that randomly killing other people can be considered ok as well.

    My point is that relativization of morality can be abused very easily. Claiming that there is no morality besides what we make up for ourselves (aside from being false) is short-sighted, and can likely lead to self-destruction of the society that thinks in such a way. You don’t have to accept that morality was given to us by God or otherwise, probably most of it was likely self-taught through evolutionary mechanisms. But it is plain wrong to say that morality is purely a human construct and that it has no basis in objective reality of our environment. And since the environment is defined by the laws of physics, morality is somehow encoded in there. My suggestion is to better think of morality as an emergent property of laws of physics. 😉 At least some of it.

    Best, :-)

  • SunnyD

    Hi, I’m glad you gave an interesting lecture, but I’m unhappy with its “purpose.” (that was a joke…your lecture is partially about purpose in life and so…it’s a pun, sort of) It seems to serve as a sword stabbing everything that conflicts with science–and then talking about a world without purpose.

    I disagree with your first point. I have read about widely supported evidence of phenomena that violate the laws of physics (yes, I’m rational and yes, I carefully sifted through all the BS and non-reproduceable experiments) and I know you would too if you searched more carefully. Skeptics are in for a big surprise in the coming years, but until this evidence is widely known, well, we will just have to wait.

    Your second point doesn’t make sense to me, but honestly, I didn’t watch the video. Isn’t moving from “moment to moment” a purpose? What defines purpose? Religion? Be specific.

    Your third point seems to be a logical fallacy. If there is no purpose in the world, then how can one live a meaningful life, when meaning itself implies that something, whether in your life or the world, has value? You know what, it’s probably best to ignore this, because I didn’t watch the lecture. I’m sure you explained this question sufficiently.

    In conclusion, I’m not a religious zealot attempting to burn the house of science. That’s a darn good house. I’m only asking questions, presenting arguments and trying to be honest, as all scientists do, about the points you seem to hold on so tightly to.

  • Cosmonut

    “The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.”

    I don’t see the logical connection here. Why can a universe “that moves from moment to moment” not have intrinsic meaning or purpose ?

    In fact, if we buy this bit of non-argument, then as parts of the universe, we humans also “just move from moment to moment” and hence have no intrinsic meaning or purpose.

    In addition, the last bit about “trying to create meaning for ourselves” also falls flat because any purpose or meaning you try to “create” is actually pre-determined by the laws which move you from moment to moment.

    It all seems like a very desperate attempt to have your (nonexistent) cake and eat it too.

  • Cosmonut

    On another note, I think that the entire project to find a meaning for our lives by looking at the Universe or beyond is misguided.

    Suppose God Himself showed up and announced that the purpose of our species is to collectively perish in a cosmic disaster just when we are on the verge of creating a perfect society. Maybe our species has been chosen to illustrate to be the “tragic figures” of the divine drama, who strive and fail for no fault of their own. (No, there won’t be any eternal future reward for perishing thus)

    Would we then delight in “having found our Purpose” and proceed as per plan ? No way !
    I bet most people would refuse to believe that God had such a miserable end planned for us.
    Those who did believe it would possibly still try their best to find a way out.

    So, there’s the rub.
    1) We basically want to find something to do which makes us “live long and prosper”.
    2) We hope that the Universe and/or God also has the same in mind for us..
    3) Even if (2) is not true, we will continue with (1) anyway.

    So, as far our lives are concerned, it doesn’t really matter either way if the Universe has “intrinsic purpose or meaning”.

  • julianpenrod

    This may cause this not to be printed, but Sean Carroll’s capering is the very essence of arrogance.
    Declaring that absolutely everything that will ever be observed or experienced will come only from what is written in “science” books now. There is absolutely nothing whose basis is not completely understood. There are no new laws of nature. There are no new levels of reality. Remember when “science” used to be about the unknown, ever expanding realms with new things to discover, not just new combinations of the same things? This is an unjustified retrenchment, retreating into a standard model and accepting no embellishments. “Defining” anything that falls outside their artificially attenuated purview as a one time odd combination of conventional manifestations, fraud or “noise” which, like all “noise” in “experiments” is discarded and denied that it ever occurred.
    So much, too, like a Fascist indoctrination meeting, insisting that all they need to know is containined in one pamphlet of self serving rhetoric. “Everything you need to know is explained in this one book. You don’t need anything else. Just being a follower of the movement makes you a genius!”
    What combination of the conventional explains the formation of the moon? Even the popular idea of a third body hitting the earth only goes to far as to explain a ring of debris around the planet. It still doesn’t explain how it formed into the moon.
    How does conventional “science” explain the fact that the rate of decay of radioactive elements shows a seasonal variation?
    What conventional “sceince” explains the Banford Law?
    Basically, it looks like the false bravado of the insecure and uncertain who know that they have nothing to offer and they have to convince themselves that they’re not frauds.

  • Kumar S

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for this talk.

    I’ve often been at a loss at expressing the idea of nature being quite detached from our judgemental world view. Your talk has given me a much better vocabulary to express this.

    In school… during the study of thermodynamics and physics, it was becoming clear that our culture’s narrative was very anthropocentric, and believing somewhere that there are higher purposes and values. I guess it was the study of evolution which eventually drove home to me our place in the world and highlighted the several inconsistent thoughts and beliefs we live with. It was depressing for a while to have the anchors removed… but those were false anchors anyway and I guess learning to swim untethered and free in the vast oceans needs time. :)

    I think the cumulative cultural of curiosity that is science is something I’m very thankful to for shaping my world view and helping me see things I would not have. Wish I could buy all the people in the history of science a good beer! It’s awesome.

    Oh well… I think I should get back to work. Got to keep my story going! 😉

    Thanks again for the talk!

  • David Lau

    I so agree with Kumar. Good support of science. For others who are not as familiar with science are usually threatened by it. Science is a true glory while religion is a fabricated glory. Thanks for the lecture, Sean. I can’t wait to view your presentation at Wisconsin.
    By the way, scientists are not afraid to admit what they don’t know and would patiently wait for the data to come in before making any claim, where the religious fanatics have the answers to everything even before the questions were asked. Arrogant and yet so simple minded.

  • paul kramarchyk

    Sean, 100% excellent, every word.

  • Richard M

    Cosmonut #25: “I don’t see the logical connection here. Why can a universe “that moves from moment to moment” not have intrinsic meaning or purpose ?”

    Well that’s kind of misstating (or at best oversimplifying) Sean’s point. He said the laws *describe* a Universe that moves from moment to moment — you left out the primary verb. And because the laws are descriptive, they do not impart meaning. If you wish to posit some meaning then that must be either (a) not intrinsic, or (b) arising from something fundamental other than the laws of physics. But if there were something fundamental other than the laws of physics, then it would leave its mark on the material world. But if something fundamental outside of the laws of physics left its mark, then the laws would fail to describe it. So option (b) is not tenable, if the laws are descriptive.

  • David Lau

    Good point made, Richard M. The laws of science are descriptive.

  • David Lau

    and yes, Sean, excellent presentation and 100% on it. Thanks. Keep presenting and maybe someday people will understand what you are trying to say. Educate them!

  • David

    I’ve heard this “you make your own meaning” song from many different people in many different places. They usually become mute when you ask them: “good, so what is yours?” Creating your own meaning is no meaning at all. Actually, “the meaning of life” doesn’t even seem to make sense from an objective point of view. Or subjective, for that matter. Enjoying life? Sure. Making the most of it? You bet. From there to meaning, though, there’s quite a long way…
    I’m not saying we should all go ahead and kill ourselves. But just face that, if by “the meaning of life” we understand what everyone else does, there is no meaning and that’s that. Get over it. Move on. It happens.

  • Dave Hooke

    It’s a well presented talk, but I think it’s probably preaching to the choir. I do not think it would persuade anyone who is determined to believe in their metaphysical entities. You are implicitly saying *if we presume naturalism* then astrology, life after death etc are bunk, but the majority of people who hold those sort of views will not presume naturalism.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Sean should also apply his argument to 40-year old man in love with 15-year old girl and explain how that situation is different.”

    You tell us how it is different.

  • Brett

    I think the point that people are missing when Sean says “whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us” is that human beings don’t realize how insignificant we are to : the quantum universe, the cosmological universe, or even our own planet. A lot of people think about how global warming will “destroy the planet” when it really won’t; the planet will be fine, we will be screwed. So even at the scale of classical mechanics, we’re pretty insignificant.

    How does the whole of humanity throughout history effect the universe? It doesn’t. That’s the reason why our lives only possess the meaning we assign to them; because we have no effect on the laws of nature. If the whole of humanity throughout time did effect the universe, then we would have a purpose because our existence effects the laws of nature; but we strive to manipulate the mechanisms which govern the universe in order to better our lives, which means those mechanisms have purpose to us because we are bound by their limits but we have no real purpose ourselves other than the role we assign ourselves in civilization.

  • James Gallagher

    @Phillip #36

    I did say how I thought it was different, to expand, in the case of older man and underage girl (as determined by society) the union would not be beneficial to the overall functioning of society since it would raise strong AND REASONABLE fears in many parents of their daughters’ saftety and protection in society.

    Whereas with two adults of the same (or different) sex such a fear is not reasonable and so the people in society for whom it would be a problem are mostly UNREASONABLE (even irrational) people. They would benefit from education.

  • Christian Takacs

    Wow, you are an atheist AND a nihilist too, which is not too surprising since one logically spirals down into the other down the drain of futility. To put it mildly, you aren’t inspiring.
    @Brett #37,
    Wow, you’re atheist AND a nihilist AND (by your own admission) insignificant. Why do you bother saying anything at all? When you say something is ‘pretty insignificant’, do you even know what that means? And to who? Significance has nothing to do with the physical size of an object, so comparing a human to cosmologically large phenomena is pointless. As to what effect humans have on the universe, well, if there isn’t a higher power, then we are all that we know that can give it any meaning at all with our names and stories about it, which is pretty amazing and in it’s own way ‘god like’, which is in effect cosmic purpose. What you don’t know about the universe we live in should instill some humility as to limits of our knowledge, not the presumption of our insignificance.

  • David Lau

    Brett # 37, well said. We are insignificant due to the short life span within such a vast and expanding universe. We have no effects on this universe at all except we pollute our own planet. We do assign our own roles in this society and all the laws we made up are so prescriptive and the only purpose I can see is that we do whatever it takes to keep surviving at our best and to fulfill our urges. We try to live a meaningful life and get the best out of it even though life is itself an accident with no real purpose since we can’t affect the laws of nature for they are descriptive. Sean is very inspiring and for those who said he isn’t, they just simply don’t understand the real science and they are embedded with their own fabricated glory that is so called ” religion” and “God”, ” false comforting”.

  • Walter

    I grew up in a third world country; among the lucky ones who got to live well. Now, when I hear Carroll go on about meaning and other things I keep imagining the following: A young emaciated kid, underweight, sunken eyes, sniffing glue from a plastic bag to blunt the worse of hunger, somebody already bit him to the leftovers in the garbage dumpster. Now, I approach this kid and go, “Hey kid, what’s the meaning in your life?”
    After a long, empty and silent stare I start to spew my existential drivel. “You are nothing but a bunch of atoms in a cold and indifferent universe. You see how your parents did not care for you, how society ignores the fact you exist, well, the universe is not different. There is no god, so please don’t start praying. By the way, you will die in a few weeks, and nobody will even know you existed. But don’t look so gloom, because you give meaning to your life, just think the right thoughts, and everything will be super.”
    Really? Is there no surprise then why atheism will never win? It is stupid be mad at atheist for the fact we live in a meaningless universe, but it is human to hate the cheerfulness with which they embrace the fact. It takes a perniciously sheltered life, insulated from human suffering, to embrace this world view with a smile, and expect others to do the same. It is not atheists who bother me, I am one myself, but the way they smile smugly as they strip meaning away, and then look with bafflement when others do not concur.

  • James Gallagher

    Sean isn’t telling the important part, that we can actually influence the future via our free choices and imagination – THAT is what essentially gives meaning to our existence.

    In fact, violation of Bell Inequalities shows that universe can’t possibly be deterministic in a sensible (meaningful) way, and MWI is just a childish or psychological problem with accepting fundamental probability, since the theory is identical to one that says the global wave function evolution is seeded by random jumps at the microscopic scale.

    And it’s perfectly natural/sensible/sane to assume randomness at a microscopic scale whereas it is pathological to assume some kind of monstrous macroscopic splitting wave functions.

  • James Gallagher

    And remember, you can’t get randomness out without putting randomness in, no matter how convoluted your theory is (especially not by obfuscating decision theoretic arguments)

  • Carl Brannen

    Regarding the old article “ghost moon”, here’s a wikipedia article on a rare cloud type that matches this shape:

  • Brett

    Something I noticed from the comments on here is that a lot of people seem to find meaning in hate.
    I guess hating the people and things that are different from you gives you purpose just like it did for so many people throughout history. Hitler, the “god hates gays” church of assholes, racists, religious extremists of all forms etc.

    But as a point to #41, I’ve seen FAR more theists (throughout history) use their religion to justify treating kids in 3rd world countries like the conditions you described. Atheists tend to appreciate and respect a person far more because they don’t believe in an afterlife; they believe that when you die your time is up and you don’t exist anymore; the computer has been turned off, the car does not run because it is out of gas; and it would be so immoral to take any of that time away from you due to some misdirected hate. I’ve never met an atheist who goes around shitting on someone when they are living a torturous life of despair. In Christianity, and other religions, they actually go out of their way to travel to 3rd world countries to feed people false hope; or they beat you to death or torture you if you don’t accept god in some parts of the world. Atheists believe in actually focusing on humanity rather than just saying so in order to win points with a fictitious deity. Find me 1 atheist who would go to someone who is about to die in minutes and tell them “you can be saved if you accept atheism into your heart before you die”. Is it any different to say “life is meaningless, and you are powerless, so let go” or “god is in control, you are powerless, let go”? It is all about your perception of reality. Life has the meaning you give it.

  • David Lau

    you are right on, Brett. Very well done. We are on the same wavelength here. Thanks.
    Any organized religion is a disaster to the real humanity. It is all about power and control and dictating. Religion is just like the laws we have created, very prescriptive and serve absolutely no benefits to the humanity.

  • Don N.

    There were a few other posters who made the point that morality is likely attached to a biological/evolutionary mechanism – so I won’t dwell on that point. But as we free ourselves from the shackles of survival instinct as a guiding principle, we can indeed make our own morality.

    But I wanted to point out that I think it’s because we are so tiny in this vast universe that makes us special and gives us a purpose. We know that life is rare. We haven’t found it on the moon. We haven’t (yet) found it on Mars and we know that there can only be a small portion any given solar system that could support life. And we also know that at some point, a very complex and accidental chemical reaction took place that caused protons, neutrons and electrons to arrange themselves in a way that they began reproducing and competing for resources to continue that reproduction and that competition became evolution. We also know that intelligent life has only existed on this planet for a tiny fraction of time since life itself began. So, even if there’s more out there, intelligent life is extremely special.

    So, the universe created intelligent life. The universe now contains intelligence. And we are self aware, so (being part of the universe) the universe is also self-aware. So, I would argue that being the universe’s self awareness, does indeed give us meaning and purpose. And the laws of the universe endowed us with that purpose. Makes them almost seem benevolent, doesn’t it? 😉

  • vmarko


    Oh, come on folks, get serious! Religion is an abstract concept, like physics is. Saying that religion should be abolished since someone has abused it is like saying physics should be abolished because someone made an atom bomb, or that knives should be abolished since someone used a knife to stab someone else to death.

    Religion, like any other abstract concept, is a tool (a tool for thinking about the world). How people are going to implement/use/abuse this tool is mostly the reflection of the people who do it, rather than a property of religion itself.

    It is plain stupid to discard the concept of religion only because some arrogant idiots implemented it in the wrong way and (ab)used it to justify inquisition, crusades, etc. The concept of atheism can be abused in much the same way (and indeed was abused, in recent history).

  • James Gallagher

    @Brett #45

    Have you heard of communism? Have you heard of Pol Pot?

  • Walter

    Brett, is not that I disagree with you, I don’t, I just think you are missing the point. I often wandered why people in poor countries are so willing to accept ideologies that work against their own self interest, like the Catholic Church and its attitude towards birth control. The answer is meaning. Think of it like a drug addiction. You can tell a heroin addict: it’s bad for you, you con OD, and you can get HIV, etc. All true, but also already known by the addict. You cannot understand addiction by looking only at the negative effects. There is something about the act that makes its consequences more than worth it, in addiction that is getting high. In religion that is meaning. You can argue: religion is so stupid because it makes people do stupid things. But you can also argue: religion is so powerful because it makes people do stupid things. Those people we atheists look down at must be getting something in return for their belief, otherwise why would they be willing to do what they do? And what they get is meaning, the very one thing we take away from them. If you are a rich person, living well, healthy, with a stimulating intellectual life and a proper social environment, then meaningless may not present a problem for you. But if you are not, then the very idea of you giving meaning to your life is not only stupid, but offensive, for it clearly shows an utter disconnect on how the rest of the world lives. Our economy has its 1%, but so does our intellectual world, and both 1%s are clueless on how the rest of the world works. Why is this so difficult for most atheists to understand?
    An atheist is like a doctor informing a patient of a cancer diagnosis. If I were the patient I would want to know the truth, but if my doctor told me the news with a smile on his face I would have to resist the urge to punch him in the face.

  • Ellery King

    @Tony #16
    How true, how true. If it weren’t for the fact that gods & angels & such ARE around, there might’ve been evil countries out there like, say, commie China, whose first ruler slaughtered 85 million of his countrymen for no valid reason & whose murderous, imperialist successors are carrying on the tradition, massacring many, many thousands of people, including making genocidal attempts at the Tibetans & Uighurs, etc., & who have nukes & who try to steal islands from other countries in the surrounding seas & so on. But thank goodness & saints be praised! Gods & angels & such DO exist out there & there IS NO such country as commie China out there. What luck! Whew!

  • Don N.

    Agreed, Vmarko #48…

    Atheism can be just as dogmatic as Catholicism.

  • David Lau

    @ #51
    So according to your comment, those gods and angels weren’t around at the time when those 85 millions were slaughtered. What happened? Did the gods and angels fall asleep at that time or were they lagging? Where were they at the time of 911 incident? Oh, I got it. God must have a plan for those victims. We can’t question it. If something good happens, then God is responsible for helping out. But if something bad happens, then God must have a plan for them. Religion and god hypothesis are so twisted. Arrogant in its own way but shallow on the other end. As I said earlier, science is the true glory, while religion and god-like beliefs is fabricated glory.

  • David Lau

    @#51 again
    Science flies people in an airplane, religion flies people into the building. That’s it!

  • Jasper

    Great talk!
    I like the way you talk about complementary levels of description, which I find one of the most important “discoveries” in physics.
    It shows that to truly understand the universe we need not one way of looking at it, but we need to try to exhaust all complementary levels of description. (Hmm… I’m starting to sound like an article of Bohr.. 😉

  • vmarko


    “It shows that to truly understand the universe we need not one way of looking at it, but we need to try to exhaust all complementary levels of description.”

    This reminds me of one passage in H2G2 (and I’m trying to quote Douglas Adams from memory here, slight ommisions are possible):

    “The Universe largely depends on how one observes it. In fact, the Universe doesn’t exist at all. The Universe is actually defined as a set of all possible ways one could observe it if it had existed.”

    Now this is real art! 😀 Combine scientific with philosophical with satirical, while making fun of each of those, all in one go! 😉

  • Lord

    A lot of things are ruled out by our current understanding. Nothing is ruled out by our future understanding. It is only arrogance to believe we know everything there is to know and what little we don’t doesn’t matter, can’t matter. Sean, if you believe this why are you wasting your time on it.

  • David Lau

    Yes, Complementarity principle of Bohr. Great discovery in physics. But lots of people on the commenting list don’t understand it. Science is humble compare to the arrogant religion, especially the western religion.
    Thanks for your input.

  • David Lau

    Scientists never claim that they know everything, that’s why we are still in the process of making progress. Unlike religion, they seem to have the answers to everything. Sean certainly never mention that we know everything. In fact, scientists like us will not be sure to claim anything unless we are absolutely sure ( the golden 5 sigma level), meaning if we have less than one in a million chance of getting it wrong, then that’is the level we claim it and it usually takes 10 to 20 years of data analysis. This is how cutting edge medications were developed. As complexities arise, we have to modify and expand and improve to overcome those complexities. Science is forever changing and getting better and the beneficial factors are immense. What has religion done? No progress at all and only claiming that everything they say is right. It is a disaster and create conflicts and wars and separation among humanity, now that it is a major factor in politics as well which made it even worse. The laws of science were here long ago before us, and the rules in religion were created after we got here due to our lack of self courage and fear of death. To this day, those kind of people are the true victims for they keep circling around false hopes and comforting.

  • Tony

    God is Love, Hatred is the breath of Hell. Honestly I tell the Truth, Truth is God as well, and God is Life itself. Wisdom is God as well, it is she who came in the Person of Christ. This is why it is impossible to imagine God. No one can unless God shows Himself to the person and as Christ revealed Himself to me. I realise that most if not all of you will think of me as out of my mind, but it is the reality of what happened. To imagine Love in all its power is simply beyond all human understanding, we have nothing to compare it with, absolutely nothing at all. This of course leaves me open to intense ridicule, but none the less it is true and I feel I must say it. So my friends when your time of death arrives there is a path that leads to the light of Love, so be sure to take it, it begins here and ends there. This was not a vision, but was in the light of day.

  • David Lau

    Well, it seems like you have been through that path or else you wouldn’t be so sure of it. When my time comes, I’ll be sure to let you know that you were right all along. I guess I can do it through dreams, or through a medium or any of those supernatural means. I think both me and Sean will have to accomplish that.

  • Ellery King

    @David Lau, #53
    Dude, I think you missed the pt. Read the 3rd from last sentence again!

  • David Lau

    my point is if those gods and angels are around, what are they doing now ? The world is a mess and it is getting worse. But never mind answering this, for there is no conclusion about science and fairy tales coming to a consensus.

  • Cosmonut

    @31. Richard M.
    Well that’s kind of misstating (or at best oversimplifying) Sean’s point. He said the laws *describe* a Universe that moves from moment to moment — you left out the primary verb.

    Well, in my post I did put up Sean’s entire quote, and once again, it is there below.

    “The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.”

    The thing is, “intrinsic meaning or purpose” doesn’t make sense anyway. When we talk about purpose or meaning, it is always with respect to some larger system.

    But my real point was – how can one tell whether a system has purpose or not by looking at its descriptive laws ?

    For instance, suppose I run some code to which gradually builds up a picture of the Mandelbrot set on your computer. Now someone just looking at the code would say, “This has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. All the code does is describe how the pixels on the screen change colour from one moment to the next”.
    But the code definitely was written for a purpose. Its just that by looking at the code, it may be impossible or very difficult to figure out what the purpose is.

    Note: I am not insisting that there IS a purpose to the universe. I’m just saying that everything Sean wants to say can be expressed without making grandiose claims about the purpose of the universe or lack thereof.

  • Cosmonut

    Brett @37:

    Agree with you. The deeper issue is that any form of genuine choice or “meaning creation” assumes that we have the ability to act beyond the laws of nature.

    But if you seriously accept that we are part of the universe, completely subject to its laws, then any choice we make or any purpose we create for ourselves is also predetermined by the system.

    So, if I hear Sean’s lecture and sink into despair, that’s determined by the laws. If I decide to spend my life arguing against it, then that’s also determined by the laws.

    Hence, Sean’s entire project to “create meaning” is doomed from the start, really. All we can do is PRETEND we have free will and try to make decisions for our happiness

  • Lion

    You say QFT is the most successful theory, which says “there is no such thing as particles,” and then you say, about the theory of the everyday world, “there are three types of particles.” Doesn’t that seem a bit illogical? (Yeah, I know, particles are made of fermions… but shouldn’t you check your language?)

  • David Lau

    @ #66
    Sean specifically said ” if you look at the field, you’ll see particles”. Particles are manifestations of quantum field. He is a great physicist and he knows what he is talking about. Don’t pick on little language issue as physicists often mix and interchange words, focus on the whole content that he talked about and look at the big picture. He can teach you a lot about real science.

  • James Gallagher

    He means that QFT is the most successful EFFECTIVE theory we have.

    Problem is QFT doesn’t even explain gravity, which requires a completely separate theory.

    QFT also doesn’t explain the mind, and Sean’s hope that it is just an emergent complex phenomena is not much advance on religious belief to be fair.

    And also note that Sean has a non-orthodox understanding of QFT since he claims it is based on a deterministic quantum theory, which a minority of his fellow scientists believe.

    So his grandiose claims are not only inaccurate, they are based on fringe ideas.

  • MarshallB

    To those who say there can be no meaning without a supreme being to judge us, we’ll my meaning is one I learned from my father: leave the world a better place than you found it. Granted, every thing in the universe will eventually die, so in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter, but we may as well make the most of it while we are riding this bus.

    As for a moral code for atheists, it’s quite simple: treat others the way you would like them to treat you and don’t always think of yourself first. I consider this a far superior code to what most Christians follow, in which they fear their god so they don’t do anything that would make him want to torture them forever and they do nice things to buy their way into some place of eternal pleasure.

    I ask you Christians: if you were the lord and creator of the universe and were in a position to decide which people you would want to hang around you, would you pick people who spent their lives doing good deeds to curry favor with you, or people who did what was right just because it was in their nature and never expected any heavenly reward for it?

  • David Lau

    I am definitely believing the statistics here now based on the comments on this list, that 46% of Americans still believe in the fact that God created the universe in less than 10000 years ago and that there are angels and fairies more so than evolution. The belief in creationism is more popular in this country compare to any other. Let it be.

  • Brett

    @ #65,

    I agree with that. I think the experiences we receive throughout our lives, and the way we handle those experiences and analyze them, is the reason why we react to stimuli the way we do. We don’t have free will in that we can’t spontaneously decide without a reason for that decision coming from a physical action that stems from the beginning of our universe; even though trying to trace that action back to that point would be impossible because we aren’t mathematically or physically advanced enough to do that. We do have free will in that we can choose from a list of responses to environmental stimuli based on our knowledge of the system we exist in. The limits and conditions of our response are case dependent though. Say and asteroid is heading towards the earth; there’s absolutely nothing a single person can do about it, but there is a very limited list of things our civilization could do about it (which would probably result in impact anyway because they are pretty pathetic options). So our free will is very similar to quantum mechanics: We have a range of possible responses (I can’t stop bullets matrix style if I get mugged, but I can just give the person my wallet to prevent them from shooting me), those responses are effected by external stimuli within range (if the mugger hears a loud noise down the street then he might get startled and shoot me anyway), and since the limit of interaction is our universe, then any attempt to measure free will breaks down into chaos. The process of free will is so vague and easily effected by external factors that it is impossible to pin down free will to an exact decision, but easy to get within a range of possibilities depending on our ability to manipulate the outcome of an interaction with nature.

  • Brett

    #65, I guess what I’m saying is that people tend to greatly oversimplify the idea that we are a product of the laws of the universe. The laws of nature don’t present us with a single determined choice, they present us with a set of choices that we can choose from which can change at any moment because of the influence of Time. You can decide to argue against Sean’s lecture, or you can decide to accept it because both options are in the set of possibilities. The only instances in physics where a system can only choose one choice or the opposite are the limits of existence, which I would argue are the extremes in which our universe’s physics are active, the entire universe and the Planck length.

  • Phil P

    It’s still difficult to understand how consciousness and especially free will emerge from deterministic fundamental laws. There actually is a ghost in the machine – it’s Maxwell’s Demon; life’s ability ot maintain its low entropy state by selectively letting low entropy in and high entropy out. How that function emerged is going to be an interesting investigation. Life has energy, and it can choose (free will) how to use it. A rock cannot.

  • Brett

    I would argue that’s an oversimplification as well; though a very intelligent and insightful point to make. In the grand scheme of a person’s life, we don’t have a choice how we use that energy. We are always loosing energy and need to eat and drink water in order to replenish that energy and as we age we are less able to do so. Our perception of free will depends on the time and metric scales we choose. At a quantum level, life and the rock are exactly the same. Even the molecules and compounds that compose the life and the rock are subject to the exact same laws differing only by the length of time chemical interactions take place. Rocks can add energy and get bigger or they can loose energy and get smaller. So can people. I could argue that a person has a set amount of energy they can use in their lifetime, and that amount of energy changes depending on the interaction with external environmental stimuli throughout the length of a life. The same happens with a rock. It can be moved to a stream where it changes dramatically over time. It can be dropped into a volcano or fall into a fault line during an earthquake.

  • Don N.

    Quite true #73. Here we have a lecture that supposes to discuss the “meaning of life” yet never attempts to ponder “life” itself. Further, he glosses over consciousnesses, admitting we don’t understand it. I would argue that all of life’s meaning lies in consciousness, self awareness and free will. Carrol shows how weak gravity is by demonstrating how easily it is counteracted by jumping. – But for a rock (as the poster above points out) counteracting gravity is not only exceedingly difficult – it’s not even a possibility. And #74 I could choose (an internal force) to jump into a stream or a volcano, yet the rock would depend on external forces. And I can also ponder the meaning my existence (self awareness)- a rock cannot (although, it appears physicists are nearly as disadvantaged as rocks in this department)

  • Phil P

    Brett (#74) – I think Don in #75 elicits the key point – agency. Life acts, rocks are acted upon. We can choose how to perform work on the environment for own benefit. The universe as a whole may not be teleological, but life is. I agree that life must operate within the bounds of the laws of physics, but it can use those laws to its own benefit Thus instead of going to equilibrium each day – dying – life act to replace lost energy, repair damaged tissue, etc. – it maintains its entropy state rather going to equilibrium – that’s the Maxwell’s Demon in the works.

  • Brett

    that’s a good point. rocks are not capable of computing/analyzing anything.

  • Tony

    I will say this, that Love, and sometimes I wish there was a different word for it, because it sounds like weakness, but believe me, it isn’t, is entirely outside of particle Physics. It is a force of an entirely different dimension, yet can influence, act upon and control particle physics to its own designs. When I experienced it, it was as an absolute power, unlike anything else I have ever felt. It wasn’t like the love that many might feel when they become so called, in love, okay maybe a tiny, tiny bit, no this was far, far different yet there is no other word that could possibly used. Let’s call it the full, the absolute totallity of power that could annihilate this world in a single instant. This is also the power that created this entire universe. Now I have made a fool of myself, but I just had to say what I had been shown. Yet this Love is in us and can be used by us for all that is good, in other words God will let us use Him for the good of the world.

  • Joebevo

    The reason why the culture wars exist is because you people keep talking past each other. The real issue is that such conversations properly belong to the realm of philosophy and religion. Taking QFT and using it in the wrong context will give you wrong results. And yet, if you look at the overall philosophy of Sean’s talk, it is nothing new. I’m sure atheist philosophers like Camus, Satre, Nietzsche, etc have made their points more convincingly, yet they have been answered by Christian philosophers. Let the philosophers hash it out. Why sully the name of science by misusing it? There’s nothing in science that says that a God who exists can’t perform miracles. And comparing such a God to a moon made of cheese isn’t going to get you too far in places where you aren’t preaching to brainwashed. The reason people believe in God is because He answers their deepest questions of existence.

    For some reason, people like Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins are so entrenched in their worldview or philosophy that they have a serious prejudice against admitting these existential longings as real and significant.

    Finally, if there is no absolute moral law, then on what basis does Sean say that allowing gay marriage is something we OUGHT to do? I suppose we have to each fly by the seat of our pants? Then what about human cloning? Genetic engineering? Oh I get it. I have to wait the next thousand years to see if science can answer such questions. How ridiculous. Skepticism seems to be a placeholder for “so much inanity that we need to find a new word for it”.

  • Phil P

    Joebevo (#79) Even though I’m a science-guy and an atheist, I actually agree with much of what you are saying. I do not think science should put itself in a position of opposing religion. Science should do what science does best – figure out how the Natural World works. In my view, science has nothing to say about the supernatural because, by definition, it is not testable. By the same token, science has no use for the supernatural as it cannot explain anything.

    For its part, religion should refrain from trying to do science’s job by inventing mythical explanations of the origin and workings of the Natural World. When it does so, religion puts itself on a collision course with science. History has shown that the results usually do not favor religion.

  • Meh

    I believe Stephen Hawking is correct in assuming that the universe does not need God. What he means by that is this: what kind of engineer builds a machine that requires constant maintenance of every single operation down to its quantum properties? A stupid one who didn’t think out the design. If there is a god who created the universe, I don’t think micromanaging the lives of 1 species on a single planet among trillions in a galaxy, in 1 galaxy among trillions in the universe…would be part of his design. I don’t think we are that special because I don’t think life in this universe is as rare as we believe it is based solely on the statistical odds relative to the # of planets and galaxies there are. I also don’t know why god would clearly understand the finest details of our society yet choose to work in the shadows. What kind of sociopath plays a game like that, testing people without giving them solid evidence and if they fail they spend eternity in hell?

    The reason why *popular* science is entering the realm of philosophy is based on several things.
    1. We are being dragged into it by religious extremists who hate it when we say simple facts like, “the world is much older than 9000 years”.
    2. Science has advanced to the level where new experiments to verify extreme theories require the assistance of a very large number of people, nations, $$, and resources (CERN, the ISS, the NIF, etc.) So we need people to work together, and accepting “god did it” is a cop out. Maybe god did do it, but there’s no reason why we can’t try and understand it better; or else why live life at all? Why try at all?
    3. In many instances in life, it’s better to admit that there is no answer than to believe in something that isn’t true. The reason for that is because it’s very easy to do horrible things when you’re brainwashed by anyone or anything (religion being just one of many; herbal medicine to treat cancer, faulty science, racism, sexism, -isms, etc.)

    I think Sean’s reason for saying we should allow gay marriage is that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t other than people distorting their religious beliefs to fit their homophobia. If anyone can offer a reason why we shouldn’t allow gay marriage other than the one Sean clearly covered in his lecture and the religious argument, I’ll change my tune and give you credit.

  • vmarko

    @81. Meh:

    “I believe Stephen Hawking is correct in assuming that the universe does not need God. What he means by that is this: what kind of engineer builds a machine that requires constant maintenance of every single operation down to its quantum properties? A stupid one who didn’t think out the design.”

    What kind of engineer gets married and has children? Also a stupid one — both spouse and children require constant maintenance, micromanaging of their operation, constant inflow of resources/money without any return of investment, etc. And most often you get stuck with them for the rest of your natural life…

    Of course, Stephen Hawking didn’t comment on the quality of engineering and design solutions for this “family-machine”. He commented only on the “Universe-machine”.

    “If there is a god who created the universe, I don’t think micromanaging the lives of 1 species on a single planet among trillions in a galaxy, in 1 galaxy among trillions in the universe…would be part of his design. I don’t think we are that special because I don’t think life in this universe is as rare as we believe it is based solely on the statistical odds relative to the # of planets and galaxies there are.”

    Certainly, why would you as a father ever try to micromanage the math homework of your own 10-year-old son? Why would your own son be so special, given billions of other 10-year-old children out there who already grok fractions and precentages? A good engineer would find the design of such family completely stupid, right?

    Besides, who told you that god is interested only in this particular planet?

    “I also don’t know why god would clearly understand the finest details of our society yet choose to work in the shadows. What kind of sociopath plays a game like that, testing people without giving them solid evidence and if they fail they spend eternity in hell?”

    What kind of sociopath told you that religion should be interpreted as constant fear of punishment in hell?

    Let me see… Christ… ummm, no. Buddha… also no. Krishna… I don’t think so. Allah… hardly. Well, I’m almost out of religions here. But wait, let’s try to think out of the box — you have read this in some ancient scripture-style book? Maybe, but most ancient books have some forgotten implicit contexts, since they are so ancient. Or, how about a priest? Oh, now we are getting somewhere! Right, a *priest* told you that! So sure, you’re completely right — some priest scared you with horror stories when you were young, therefore God must be a sociopath. Ten points for logic! :-)

    “3. In many instances in life, it’s better to admit that there is no answer than to believe in something that isn’t true. The reason for that is because it’s very easy to do horrible things when you’re brainwashed by anyone or anything (religion being just one of many; herbal medicine to treat cancer, faulty science, racism, sexism, -isms, etc.)”

    …atheism, naturalism, materialism, communism&capitalism… All those can get you brainwashed as well, if you are not careful. Especially brainwashed about the topics of what is true and what isn’t, what has value and what doesn’t, etc.

    “I think Sean’s reason for saying we should allow gay marriage is that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t other than people distorting their religious beliefs to fit their homophobia. If anyone can offer a reason why we shouldn’t allow gay marriage other than the one Sean clearly covered in his lecture and the religious argument, I’ll change my tune and give you credit.”

    Ok, this requires a more serious answer. The problem with gay marriage is not in the “gay” part (i.e. homophobia) but in the “marriage” part. If you ask different people about the purpose of marriage, you will get very different answers, depending on the part of the world where you are asking. For example, in some parts of the world the concept of “marriage” is understood as “give birth and raise children with a spouse”. In other parts of the world it is understood as a “legal contract between spouses about their property” (and related hereditary wealth issues). Gay marriage is obviously compatible with the latter, while incompatible with the former meaning of “marriage”. Unlike English, some languages have different words for those two meanings (and a plethora of other meanings one can come up with).

    So, simply put — for some people, gay marriage is simply a very stupid and ugly perversion of the meaning of marriage, since one obviously cannot give birth to children with a same-sex spouse. At the same time, for those same people, creating a legal contract between same-sex spouses is completely ok. However, creating such a contract is typically called “spouse-registration in a municipality office” (or something like that), rather than “marriage”.

    So when talking about gay marriage, care must be taken to have a common meaning of the term “marriage”, or otherwise more precise terminology should be used. This is always a source of great confusion.

    HTH, :-)

  • Meh

    And you’re answer is the typical answer from a religious idiot, Marko; to intentionally distort the meaning of a logical argument and talk like an angry child who is hearing something they don’t want to hear. ALL of your lackluster and pathetic arguments are simplistic at best. Confusing someone by being irate and irrational does not mean you’ve proven your point; it just means that people are not likely to respond to someone they know is too stupid or too much of an asshole to have a civil or logical conversation.

    meh: give a reason why we shouldn’t allow gay marriage.

    Marko: because marriage means different things to different people.

    What?! that’s not an answer of any sort. That’s the problem; you have no answer so you just bullshit your way through it like a complete moron.

  • Meh

    My point about Hell is this: god doesn’t give you clear instructions on how to live your life, he leaves that information with humans, humans which he apparently knows are not to be trusted (really bright). Then you are expected to find your way onto the correct path with no guidance while he won’t instruct you, but is there watching you? And if you don’t choose the right path then you’re condemned to hell for it? If that’s who god actually is then he’s a sociopath and I wouldn’t be surprised if the heaven of Christianity is is more like hell and hell is more like heaven.

  • vmarko

    @83. Meh:

    “And you’re answer is the typical answer from a religious idiot, Marko; to intentionally distort the meaning of a logical argument and talk like an angry child who is hearing something they don’t want to hear.”

    I was just using irony to emphasize the quality of your “logical arguments” (which seem to be based solely on analogy with engineering, and authority-figure of Hawking). Sorry if I offended your logic.

    “meh: give a reason why we shouldn’t allow gay marriage.
    Marko: because marriage means different things to different people.”

    “What?! that’s not an answer of any sort. That’s the problem; you have no answer so you just bullshit your way through it like a complete moron.”

    I wasn’t trying to give you a solution to the gay marriage problem, but to point out the core issue — marriage indeed does mean different things to different people, and considering gay marriage as a form of *marriage* is something some people will find incompatible with their understanding of the word “marriage”. And such people will consequently oppose the concept, or in more clever cases suggest more suitable terminology for it. And this has nothing to do with either religion or homophobia, but only with the semantics of the word “marriage”.

    Finally, I am really sorry if you consider my point of view as “bullshitting my way through like a complete moron” and calling me “idiot”, “stupid” and “asshole”, while claiming that you want to have a civil and logical conversation, all at the same time. Namecalling doesn’t do any good, ever. It just makes you look bad yourself.


  • vmarko

    @84. Meh:

    Look, what you are describing has nothing to do with Christianity, let alone other religions. The fact that you have heard such interpreation from some people that claim to be members of some Christian church doesn’t have anything to do with the actual teaching of Christianity. In Christianity, god is an agent of forgiveness and absolution, not punishment.

    You should also take into account the historical context and development of the various churches that call themselves “Christian”. The actual teaching of Christianity was canonized in the seven Ecumenical councils, during the first seven centuries AC. Then after that in 1054. there was a schism between the eastern churches (now called Orthodox) and the western church (now called Catolic). Due to the separation of churches (which had mainly political origins), some of the teaching also got twisted out. Many years after that, due to the criticisms of the Pope and new interpretation of Christianity initiated by Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, many new churches fractioned out of the Catolic church (and are now jointly called Protestant). There are also some churches that fractioned out of the Ortodox churches (for various reasons), but they are much smaller in number and in followers.

    Each of these churches has a different (and in some cases very twisted) interpretation of Christianity, compared to the original one from Ecumenic councils. Depending on what teachings you have been exposed to, you could have indeed ended up with a sociopath picture of god that you have described. But that has nothing to do with most of the original Christianity.

    My point is that you shouldn’t be bashing Christianity, let alone the general concepts of religion and god, based solely on someone’s stupid misinterpretation of what Christianity teaches.

  • David Lau

    @ Meh
    Hey, don’t try too hard to convince the religious fanatics that science dominates over religion. It just gets you more angry. let them think that there is a heaven they can go to, and all of those false hopes will provide confidence for them while they are still alive. That’s fine.
    I agree with everything you said, Meh. We don’t need to keep bashing the fanatics as it won’t help them from waking up. have a beer and enjoy what you do. take care.
    I need to do the same.

  • Darth Dog

    @#82 vmarko
    “…in some parts of the world the concept of “marriage” is understood as “give birth and raise children with a spouse”. …”

    Ok. I understand your arguement. But that would say that it should be illegal for a woman who had a hysterectomy, a man who was infertile, elderly people, and people who have no intent to have children to get marrried. Are you serious?

  • vmarko

    @88. Darth Dog:

    @#82 vmarko
    “…in some parts of the world the concept of “marriage” is understood as “give birth and raise children with a spouse”. …”

    Darth Dog:
    “Ok. I understand your arguement. But that would say that it should be illegal for a woman who had a hysterectomy, a man who was infertile, elderly people, and people who have no intent to have children to get marrried. Are you serious?”

    I wasn’t talking about the legal system or laws, but rather about what makes sense. And yes, in some cultures infertile and old people typically have no motivation to engage in marriage. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they do not live with a partner and have a family-like lifestyle. Sometimes infertile people do get married, since that can be a legal prerequisite for adopting a child. Mind you, nobody explicitly forbids these people to get married, but it just doesn’t make sense to do so in their situation.

    But those are all exceptions and rare cases. The vast majority of people choose to marry, and do so because they want to have children. Marriage is considered a legal, social and personal commitment to raising a family. If there is no family to be raised, there is very little worthy of commiting to.

    But as I said, that is a situation in some cultures. In other cultures, marriage is considered a legal contract related to ownership of material wealth, social status, various stuff related to legal privileges of a spouse, etc. So people may choose to marry in order to gain money, name, access to certain social circles, etc., none of which have anything to do with raising children. In this context, gay marriage makes perfect sense, same as the heterosexual marriage.

    So the point is that the same word, marriage, is being used with entirely different meanings in different communities. Therefore it is quite natural that some communities find gay marriage perferctly legitimate, while others consider it utter nonsense, and a form of perverse mocking to the concept of family. YMMV.

    HTH, :-)

  • Christian Takacs

    @Meh and David Lau,
    Not saying you should get religion, because you’ve obviously already got one even if you don’t recognize it, but perhaps you should turn your skeptical eyes a tad inward and examine the foundations of your own beliefs. Modern day physics and cosmology have been straying further and further from scientific and logical rigour for quite some time as people like Sean Carroll (and yourselves apparently) stack assumption upon assumption starting with the logical fallacy that Math=Reality or MUH (Mathematic Universe Hypothesis) which is just a variation of Platonism which itself is a philosophy dependent on an otherworldly or divine realm of mathematical perfection. Aristotle dedicated quite a bit of thought to the Prime Mover behind his math because even he realized mere numbers and their manipulation is not enough to explain existence, movement, and reality.
    Since Sean and yourselves seem to have trouble determining the difference between what you use to measure or model something with (mathematical approximations or abstractions), and the thing itself (physical reality), you really aren’t in any kind of enlightened position to call anyone a ‘religious fanatic’ or help them ‘waking up’. Once you lose the smugness and jettison the condescending remarks, you might actually start to engage those you are trying to communicate with instead of just being offensive.

    @Meh in particular,
    You have issues, ok. That does not excuse you being rude while hiding behind your false indifference (clearly evident by your screen name).

    @Those actually interested in actual physics and science,
    You should really consider reading ‘The Trouble with Physics’ by Lee Smolin. The book puts to rest any of Sean’s arrogant bombast about “… the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions ..”. Nothing could be further from the truth than claiming to understand the laws of physics or the rules of atoms when you are relying on a heuristic model with twenty free constants that can not be explained how they are chosen in nature, while blathering on about MWI when you can’t explain how even this universe works, and bragging about how accurate QFT is when it can’t account for gravity. These are not a few loose ends to be tidied up, they are huge gaping ‘black holes’ in scientific understanding and a foundational crisis in the underpinnings of physics which Mr. Carroll likes to ignore while he spouts nihilism and takes cheap shots at other peoples ‘irrational’ beliefs. Pot, meet kettle.

  • James Goetz

    Hmm, So you claim that the known laws of nature unequivocally indicate that there is nothing more than the known laws of nature?

  • Doug Little

    Shorter Christian Takacs…

    I reject your reality and substitute my own because a goat herder 2000 years ago told me to. Oh… and my feelings are hurt.

  • Meh

    Christian Takacs, you are a hypocritical troll obsessed with bashing Sean Carroll. Please leave. You’re not a scientist; you’re just some douche bag who thinks he understands physics and math more than those who are actually professionals in those fields.

  • zbob

    “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Lord Kelvin in 1900.

    Sean qualifies his statements but seems to tread on the same self confident ground as Lord Kelvin. Our ape brains seek absolute truths but we are rarely completely correct. Time will tell.

  • Eddie Devere

    As stated by others, your Claim#1 (that we know everything as of 2012) will likely be proved false in 2013. I’m not sure if you’re trying to be controversial on purpose, but this is over the top.
    Claim#2 is a philosophical statement (i.e. that there is no meaning.) Try proving this statement mathematically. I guarantee you that, in trying to prove your statement, you will inevitably create a self-referential, self-replicating loop.

    Claim#3 is simply a restatement of Existentialism.
    Are you prepared to defend the logical consequences of your existentialist philosophy?
    If there is no objective meaning in life and if we create our own meaning, then you have no means of making moral, political argument. You’re basically stating that there is no absolute criterion to judge whether an action is ethical. If meaning is not objective, then why do you seem to get so upset with people who hold different philosophies? The reason you get so upset with other people’s beliefs is that there actually is an underlying, unchanging, absolute ethical foundation within the universe.

    I think that you want to have and eat your cake as well. I think that you want the freedom to be an existentialist/atheist, but you want the luxuries generated by a society that values hard work, i.e. a society who believes that hard work and growth (via improved science and technology) are the goals of life.

    You claim that people can invent meaning, but where is your “Theory of Personal Meaning”? Can you describe the physics, chemistry or biological of your statement, “whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us”? How exactly do we ‘create meaning’? While I understand that you don’t like how certain religions took and deformed Plato’s theory of an intangible, real world of abstract notions like ethics and mathematics, there is still a lot to learn from Plato. For example, Plato argues that the ability to communicate via language is only possible if we have a means of referring to unchangeable abstracts like ethics and mathematics. Do you have a means of either proving or refuting Plato’s claim? I think that we have a means of proving his claim, but I’ll grant that most proofs aren’t air-tight.

    It seems that you are trying to bring together the disparate philosophies of materialism, existentialism, and utilitarianism. You seem to think that these disparate philosophies can be brought together in some pluralistic, scientific, modern, atheistic and utilitarian society. But that is just the philosophical air you are breathing right now. This will change because we are learning so much about how the universe is not determinism, not time-symmetrical, and not reducible to particle physics. Materialism, nihilism, utilitarianism, and existentialism are dying philosophies because they just don’t describe our time-asymmetric universe, in which the future can not be predicted from current conditions (even if you knew the position and momentum of every particle.) These philosophies are remnants of a Newtonian/Laplacian belief that all of the laws of nature were deterministic and time reversal symmetric, which therefore led philosophers like Diderot, Bentham and Nietzsche to suggest that we had to invent meaning, such as individual or societal happiness.

    I suggest that you refrain from philosophical statements that can’t defended any longer because the effects of these existentialist and utilitarian philosophies are causing real-world negative effects on the economic and population growth rates in most ‘Western’ countries. Your attempts to justify “personal meaning without objective meaning” will do damage to the scientific communities ability to communicate with the people who fund science through their taxes. This will damage our ability to conduct science, and in the end, damage our ability to use science to help society grow. Ultimately, the growth of life in the universe should be the goal of our time and effort because it appears to be the only goal that consistently has been compatible with the known laws of physics, chemistry and biology even as our understanding of the laws has changed.

    Your support of string theory, multi-verses, and supersymmetry without any evidence for these theories is bad enough, and has already done a lot of harm to the ability for physicists to get public funding of their research. But your vocal support of existentialism will likely do even more harm to the physics community. It’s one thing if you were just discussing experimental physics and the possible theories that fit the experimental data (such as in your Great Courses lectures), but for a few years now, you have been going well outside the realm of your expertise. Be careful you don’t do more harm than good.

    p.s. for those of you who are reading this post and understand what I’m saying (even if you don’t agree), think about what it means that you are able to understand these words. How is language and communication possible without a reference to some absolute, unchanging notion such as ethics, mathematics, self-reference and symmetry?

  • JAC

    If you think Sean’s 1st point “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” (emphasis on *everyday life*) means that we know everything, then you have no understanding of physics beyond high school…American high school. There are 3 basic branches of physics which can be broken into the Physics of celestial bodies in space (Relativity Theory), the Physics of our everyday lives (Newtonian Mechanics), and the physics of energy (Quantum Mechanics). That’s not what you would call them in official physics terms, but this wording helps someone who has a very basic knowledge of physics understand what Sean means.

    Claim #2 means that the laws of physics can’t prove or disprove the meaning of life because they are not intended to do so. They are simply the most accurate description of what we can observe in nature, not why nature exists or what it means to exist; but that if a tree falls in the woods, it does indeed make a sound…it sounds like a tree falling in the woods whether or not someone is or is not around to hear it, and we can guarantee that 100% of the time.

    His 3rd point is that you can believe whatever you want to believe, whatever religion or bias you prefer in life; but the laws of nature are true whether you are a judeo-christian (don’t think I spelled that correctly), Buddhist, or Atheist. No matter what your religious preference, the laws of nature are absolute. Whatever god you believe in, they use the laws of nature to do their work and obviously have a better understanding of those laws than we do.

    This distortion of what a person says has got to stop in the world. Stop distorting a person’s words in order to find a reason to be outraged. Watch this and you’ll understand a little better:

  • Christian Takacs

    @Doug Little,
    I’m not sure what you are talking about in reference to a goat herder who told you something 2000 years ago…and I honestly don’t think you know either. Why would your feelings be hurt about something I wasn’t even talking about? I did talk about it being pretty foolish to criticize someone else’s beliefs for having supernatural aspects when your own beliefs contain supernatural aspects as well. Sean and people who believe as he does like him to poke fun at others for believing in heaven, while they themselves think it informed to believe in all manner of infinite alternate realities and think paradox is clever theory.

    Hypocritical? In what way? Do you even know what the word means or did you just like the way it looked next to the word ‘troll’? Are you equally ‘obsessed’ with kissing up to Sean because… well who knows? As for actual professionals understanding math and physics better than me, depends on the professional. If you knew anything about the history of science, or math, or physics, you would know that almost everyone you venerate was not exactly liked or respected by ‘professionals’. Copernicus was also considered a ‘douche bag’ by the experts of the establishment and fellow sycophants such as yourself. I believe Einstein, Pasteur, Ohm, Tesla and many others also fall into your ‘douche bag’ category, as did anyone else who disagreed with the epicycle adherents of their own day. You don’t need to have a fancy lambskin on your wall to see that the emperor’s new suit is a tad transparent, or that actual points don’t have mass or extension, or that one dimensioal objects don’t exist in physical reality and get tangled up with other one dimensional objects and then vibrate, or that velocity can be measured at an instant, or that time can actually pass any faster or slower than one second per second no matter what speed you are traveling at.
    I do think you are funny though Meh, you like to dish out your contempt on what others believe yet get so upset when somone challanges your beliefs with actual points of contention… and all you can do to defend them is invoke an appeal to authority and potty language. The people you have been insulting have been far more considerate and thoughtful than you have.

  • JAC

    to sum up my previous point if you don’t have the time or patience…

  • karaktur

    I think that inherently there is no “meaning” in our existance. However, you can have a “meaningful” day or life. You can spend your life playing XBox or doing drugs and have zero impact on your community, perhaps you would steal to get your drugs and have a negative impact on your community. Or, you can get an education, develope a skill or earn a PhD and then contribute to your community by revealing truth, repairing a leak or installing a device and make your existance “meaningful” by making a contribution to your community. That may be the extent of “meaning” to which we have access.

    I have a problem with “settled science”. As successful as QFT may be, there appear to be problems unifying it with gravity. At the end of the 19th century, science was settled except for those two minor problems with the oribit of Mercury and the spectrum emitted by a black body radiator. Each led to a “revolution” in theory, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics which changed our view of reality. Once we find a model that unifies GR and QM it that can be tested, we may enjoy another change in our view of reality.

    Consciousness has still to be explained and perhaps even defined.

  • Scott Daris

    S U P E R B

  • timbebinder

    “From People to Particles: What the future holds for high energy laser weaponry.”

  • Ernie Kammers

    It’s rather odd how crazy trolls like Muslim Takacs prefer to waste their time bloviating on this list instead of putting their efforts into more productive endeavors. It makes one think that Takacs must be on welfare as he has so much free time to spew his nonsense here. Notice that nothing he says is interesting or original. He seems to get his jollies by hurling insults at others here, Prof. Carroll in particular, blithely unaware that they have no effect on their targets but instead merely bounce back on him, making him even more contemptible. No one here with even half a brain assigns any importance to anything he says. Altho I totally agree with Meh’s criticisms of him – he’s definitely spot on – I think the best thing to do is just ignore him & others like him. The more people ignore trolls like him the less they’re apt to post. Of course there are other weirdos here that respond to him but they can be left to talk among themselves & leave the rest of us to move on to more important topics. That’s my take on it, in any case.

  • SunnyD

    Why do you people love to argue??????

  • Christian Takacs

    My name is not my religion you dolt, any more than your name means you are a muppet who lives with Bert on Sesame Street. That you would attempt to mock me by making fun of my name puts your wit on the level of most six year olds. That you would play the word ‘Muslim’ off my name as an insult infers you might be bigoted. That you “totally agree with Meh’s criticisms of him” tells me you do not understand what the word ‘criticism’ means. Calling somone a ‘douche bag’ is not a criticism Ernie, it’s just a vulgar attempt at insult. That nothing I say is ‘interesting or original’ is almost an actual criticism, but you need to follow it with an argument of some kind that makes your point…and no, calling people names is not an argument anymore than it is a criticism. My critique of you Ernie, is that given your apparent lack of understanding of what words mean, or how to use them in an actual logical argument, I’m doubtful you understand why myself and others are critical of some of the things Professor Carroll says. If you wish to agree with everything Professor Carroll says… without understanding what that is, or why others might disagree with it, then that’s your right to do so, but it is not your right to tell others they must do the same as you.
    If you want warm fuzzy agreement and ‘feelgood’ consensus, I don’t think science, philosophy, or physics is for you, it’s always been a pretty contentious debate of ideas fighting for recognition, prestige and limited funding.

    Because it’s fun! Why do people arm wrestle or play chess? You might as well ask, why do people root for different teams then walk into sports bars where fans from the opposing team are and argue about who should win the game. Between classes and study, I find it relaxing to see what others have written, provided they have good arguments, and don’t use pointless potty language.

  • Peter

    It was a very good lesson, I’ve seen it six times now.
    You have shuch great flow when speaking and say so much in a very short time.
    I think, and many with me that Sean is one of our time’s greatest thinkers.
    You should take place as the 4th horseman to Dawkings Harris and Dennett.
    Do not worry about the non- thinkers, they have read the same book 5000 times and think they understand something.
    Sorry for bad english.

  • Tony

    To each to his own. Those who believe in a God, have faith in an everlasting award for the life they live, even those who live a life of hatred get to live it afterwards, to each their choice, but to those who don’t believe, their death is a death to nothingness, a rather depressing viewpoint, but we shall see.

  • Tony

    It seems that so often the higher a persons intelligence the more likely they are to try and omit any possibility of a Creator.

  • Tony

    Perhaps Sean believes that physics is a God, the creator of life and conciousness.

  • Craig McGillivary

    I think this was a great speech, but I notice that the venue was TAM. Aren’t they the ones who insanely refuse to adapt an anti-harassment policy?

  • Filosofo Tazio

    @Doug Little & Meh,

    You are all nothing but an empty pieces of atoms in the universe, however, you are a necessary chaos in our existence so the meaning of order will always be justified. Because of you, we are able to define what is “fine” netizen and what is not!

  • Filosofo Tazio

    54. David Lau Says:
    October 23rd, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    @#51 again
    Science flies people in an airplane, religion flies people into the building. That’s it!

    >> What if your airplane will fly you to hell? You atheists really believe that only religion has killed people. You don’t exactly know about history. You did not think that atheist’s ideology has killed millions of people hundreds of times than people killed in the name of religion. That’s it!

  • vmarko

    People do not get killed by religion, science or atheism. People get killed by other people.

  • Doug Little

    Filosofo Tazio @111

    What? I gather English is not your first language but you will have to do better explaining yourself.

    vmarko @112

    People do get killed by other people but generally there is a motivation behind the killing. Religion can be a pretty strong motivation. Charles Manson never killed anybody (that we know of), but he was just as responsible for the murders he convinced other people to do.

  • Doug Little

    Christian Takacs @97,


  • Ernie Kammers

    Note that I haven’t read the latest dribblings from the Muslim (@104) & won’t be in the future either. Everything he says is nonsense so whenever I see his name I just skip over his ramblings, which I recommend everyone else do as well. But speaking of weirdos on the list, in addition to the Muslim, of course, we also have Tony, as can be seen from his offerings above. Tony & the Muslim should get together to discuss their nonsense while the rest of us move on.

  • Bill Lum-Tanaka

    @102 Ernie
    Dude! You da man! Great job you did on that moose limb nutball (@104). I DID read his latest dribblings & as you suspected, it was just a buncha nonsense. Keep up the good work, man. Maybe I’ll start pestering this crazy troll for the next few weeks.

  • Tony

    A flotsom of atoms in emptiness of space, but to view all that is and then to pass, a spark, but not remain, returns to that, that which was not. Ye fate of those who were, but are no longer, darkness enters, time stands still, and mind empties onto endless space. So not true.

  • Christian Takacs

    @Doug Little,
    Concerning what Filosofo said @111,
    Estimates of how many Mao Zedong (‘Chairmain Mao’) killed due to his inept ‘cultural revolution’ are estimated around 75 million, Pol Pot around 1.7 million, Hitler around 12 million, Kim Il Sung around 1.6 million, Jozef Stalin around 6 million, and Leopold II estimated around 8 to 12 million.

    You want to quibble about the numbers, google it yourself, there are lots of resources available.

    Each of these ‘social reformers’ was ‘secular or atheist’ and claimed to be doing what they did ‘for the people’ and often cited that informed scientific opinion was on their side to justify their causes. Odd thing about socialists, communists, secularists, and atheists, they decry the evils of religion and faith, then quite successfully try to do much worse. Each of the people I mention also tried to do away with religious influences in their respective socieities because it resisted their control of the population.

    The later half of the 19th century, and the entire 20th century have been a series of secular bloodbaths, that quite frankly, make the relgious wars of the previous 2000 years look tame in comparison. Science has helped extend the reach, efficiency, and magnitude of killing more than any other belief system, as it seems incredibly well suited to do so in the hands of people who don’t know the difference between having the technological ability to do a thing versus the wisdom of doing such a thing. Anything at all can be used as a strong motivation for killing, obviously, if people want to kill, they find a way, rational or not.

    Filosofo Tazio @111 would seem to be correct and I agree with him in this; You don’t seem to know your history, which explains much.

    P.S. ‘Wooosh’ indeed, but “you will have to do better explaining yourself.” as you put it.

  • vmarko

    @113. Doug Little:

    “People do get killed by other people but generally there is a motivation behind the killing. Religion can be a pretty strong motivation. Charles Manson never killed anybody (that we know of), but he was just as responsible for the murders he convinced other people to do.”

    Religion can almost never be a motivation for killing. It can only be an *excuse* for killing, which is a very different thing. There are very few religions (satanism being the only one coming to mind) that encourage killing other people in their teaching. Such religions are very rare and have very few followers, AFAIK. None of the most common religions in the world have any teaching that would encourage or motivate killing other people.

    Also, I don’t know who Charles Manson is. I glanced shortly at the wikipedia article about him, but couldn’t find anything obviously related to any religion in there. He just appears to be some conspiracy-murderer, or such.

  • Doug Little

    Christian Takacs.

    Each of these ‘social reformers’ was ‘secular or atheist’

    Hitler was a Catholic. This is well known, I don’t know why people like you keep inferring that he was an atheist. Furthermore, the rest of those people that you cited were motivated by their own early religious experiences, they were not bought up in a vacuum of atheism but were rather molded by religion in their early years and still exhibited some form of mysticism throughout their adult lives. They saw the church as the enemy to their own despotic power, this does not necessary mean that they were atheist.

  • Doug Little


    What I was alluding to with Charles Manson is that he got others to do his bidding, but was held just as culpable when convictions were handed out.

    There is plenty of religious motivated killing in the Bible and Koran, and plenty passages that can be used to motivate others to hate and kill.

  • Brett

    hello 8th grade…

  • vmarko

    @121. Doug Little:

    “There is plenty of religious motivated killing in the Bible and Koran, and plenty passages that can be used to motivate others to hate and kill.”

    The Bible also contains the “thou shall not kill” and the “love your enemy”, which are fairly explicit, regarding any motivation to kill. Any passage that is used to “motivate” killing is really just used for excuses. If one understands religious teaching and the proper interpretation of the words written in the Bible, there is no room for ambiguity. I am fairly certain that the same holds for Koran as well.

    Of course, everything can be misinterpreted, if people want to have an excuse for killing others.

  • Doug Little


    Here is a line out of Exodus 21.

    21:17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

    There is plenty more where that came from.

  • Christian Takacs

    @Doug Little,

    Please give the relgion bashing a rest, if you knew anything about history you would know that anything can be used and abused to motivate others to hate and kill such as: Money, Sex, Jealousy, Shame, Greed, Envy, Desperation, Depression, Men, Women, The Other Woman, The Other Other Woman, The Other Man, Children, Bad Romance Novels, Burnt Dinner, Reaction to Burnt Dinner, Erectile Dysfunction, ‘That Dress Makes You Look Fat’ Comment, The Kitchen Sink, and the oldy but goody, ‘Yo Mama’,. . . So please quit harping on religion and faith as the root of all the world’s misery, it just isn’t so. With your line of reasoning you should be jumping up and down about Karl Marx’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’ written in 1848 which has been responsible for far more death and misery than the Bible in the last two thousand years, so PLEASE get some perspective.

    As for your ‘Hitler was a Catholic’ argument, oh please. Just being born into a faith is not the same as practicing it as an adult, you know that, so ditch the sophomoric non sequitor.
    Hitler may have been born into a Catholic family and was christened Catholic, but he didn’t really have any say in the matter, and he certainly didn’t practice its doctrines anywhere during his adult political career, though he did pay lip service to something toxic called ‘positive christianity’ for obvious political reasons while ramping up Nazism. Hitler liked to lie… a lot, and often told the crowd he was speaking to whatever he thought would persuade them the most, he even bragged about how he did it in Mein Kampf. Underneath the surface of what Hitler showed the world, there were other things bubbling away however…
    If you want to bring up powerful influences on Hitler and his beliefs, pehaps you should bring up the dirty little secret that the Nazi party was in a round about way started by Hans Blueher, who advocated a hypermasculine (and agressive) form of homosexuality in the ‘naturalist’ young men’s youth movement called Wandervogel. This youth movement gained followers and eventually became the basis of the first brownshirts, and later evolved into the Nazi Socialist Party, continuing all the way up to Ernst Rohm, who for a time was the second most powerful Nazi in the party next to Hitler…until they had a spat and a slight falling out in the ‘night of long knives’. I would say young Hitler’s bedfellows and friends had more to do with his conflicted identity and hateful outlook than his Catholic upbringing. Strangely enough, in contradiction to what most people think, it wasn’t that the Nazi Party didn’t like homosexuals (since many of the inner circle were), they just didn’t like effeminate homosexuals since the Nazis worldview worshipped the youthful dominate hypermasculine homosexual ideal.
    Read up on who Hitler’s friends and early acquaintances were if think this sounds farfetched, it certainly explains a lot more about the man’s life knowing who he surrounded himself with than the fact he was born into the catholic faith. It always amazes me how much stranger the truth is than fiction.

  • Jimbo

    Just to add another tempest to this teapot, we have the new book testifying about a visit to the afterlife by a MD (neurology), & now, distinguished consciousness researcher Stu Hameroff (U.Ariz) appears in HUFF Post, contending the same:

    We need to have Sean, Harris, Tegmark, Penrose, Hameroff, & a few of the other heavy hitters on this subject square off for a debate on the science of the afterlife.
    How can Penrose’s microtubules sustain entanglement at room temp & avoid decoherence ?

  • Doug Little

    Yeah that’s right Christian, thanks for proving my point. You add nothing to this blog, why do you comment here?

  • Mitchell Porter

    I am a fan of the quantum microtubules concept, at least as an idea worth considering, but not of what Stuart Hameroff says about postmortem survival through the persistence of “quantum information”. It’s actually no different to the ultra-transhumanist idea that if there’s enough “information” to reconstruct you, then you can live again. Real survival means persistence of the conscious being, not the persistence of information about what the conscious being was like when it existed.

    If human consciousness resides in entangled electrons from neural microtubules, then that specific system of electrons is the person – it is the soul, if one wishes to use the old terminology. If we entertain for the moment the arbitrary scenario that the quantum state of those electrons is copied to something else at the moment of death (let’s say a handy piece of dark matter, just to be specific), then I would maintain that the only sensible way this can really constitute personal survival, is if the true ontology of the “copying” interaction is interpretable as the persistence of a single entity, a “substance” in the old metaphysical sense of that word. It would have to be the same “fundamental degrees of freedom” which had formerly been part of the electrons and which were now part of the dark matter. For example, if you had a fundamental theory of preons which make up both ordinary matter and dark matter, and the soul was a specific bunch of entangled preons, and they were absorbed en masse by the convenient blob of dark matter.

    That would be a sort of survival (and your “soul” would now be stuck in interstellar space). But “survival” as information is no different to Ray Kurzweil wanting to resurrect his father from photographs and other memorabilia and data. At best you have a new person engineered to resemble another person who once existed. True survival requires persistence of ontological substance, that’s my slogan.

  • Christian Takacs

    Lucky you, I’m rained in by Sandy so I have lots of time today.

    No, you made your own point and then didn’t back it up with anything, other than that your bigoted belief that religion is the cause of all that ails you.
    What I did was put some evidence out on the table which indicated you aren’t very familiar with why people do stuff, showed your complete and utter disregard for history and philosophy, and brought to your attention that being born into a faith doesn’t mean you practice it. Hitler spent his entire adult life trying to demolish the faith and religious beliefs of others so that he could rule through the state unopposed. That is why I classified him as secular. He also believed in the tenets of secular progressivism which he displayed in his attempts to perfect the german people into a aryan super-race through force and eugenics. If Hitler had been a practicing member of the Catholic Church, he would have known what most Catholics know; that humans are flawed and that human nature is not perfectable, though we should always try to do better as individuals by making good moral choices, and taking responsibility for our own actions. All of these things were anathema to Hitler and his views of state controlled everything.
    Doug, besides the facts that you #1. like Sean Carrolls opinions about religion, #2. you don’t like mine or anyone elses who disagree with Sean, #3 you seem to hate religion and all that you can’t measure, what have you brought to the discussion on this Blog? That you don’t know how to quote the bible in context? That you think Hitler was a practicing Catholic? Or that you haven’t done the arithmatic to estimate how many people have died in the 20th century alone in the name of Marx’s ‘social science’ of diseased utopistics?

    You have a view Doug, badly supported as it is, and you have voiced it. I also have a view, and I have voiced it as well. Why is that a problem for you? Please be a man (or whatever you are), and just accept discourse. The site is called Cosmic VARIANCE for a reason don’t cha’ know. One of the definitions of variance is : “the fact or state of being in disagreement” , So deal with it.

  • Doug Little

    Like I said Christian, all you do is whine, you know the score here and yet you persist. You claim a many great things and are fantastic at building and then demolishing strawmen, and moving goalposts.

    Good luck living in your alternate reality.

  • Ernie Kammers

    @130 Doug
    Good points all, Doug, in this & your other posts above but remember what you’re dealing with: a crazy troll. These people tend to be psychologically unbalanced, often pathological, but the main thing to keep in mind is that they crave attention, so the less of that you give them the less you’ll see them around. Note that Prof. Carroll pays him no attention, knowing that he’s a worthless slob so it’d be a good idea for the rest of us to emulate him in that respect.

  • Doug Little

    Earnie @131 Yeah I know, sometimes I can’t help myself, it’s fun prodding one once in a while and the thread was pretty much dead so no harm, no foul.

    I did get a surprising admission out of him though, I think he has been reading “The Pink Swasticka” by Scott Lively, or quoted some material directly from it. Now that’s some serious crazy right there, especially because gay people weren’t given any quarter by the Nazi’s either. But to these crazies if it didn’t happen like they wanted it to happen then there must have been a cover up. It’s a recurring theme I know, but I digress.

  • farnsworth

    @Christian Takacs,

    I think people have a problem with you because you do the same things you criticize others of doing; and that really pisses people off. You also tend to be abrasive and stuck up; and by that, I mean that you’re comments are disrespectful and you try to talk smart instead of saying something smart. You think using intelligent language makes you intelligent; but you don’t seem to understand that trying to use intelligent language while saying something really really stupid, filled with snark, just makes you look like some stupid kid trying to find validation from anyone who will offer it because you’re insecure and lonely for whatever reason. But if you would like to rise above it all and really prove that you do have some sort of worth, then just stop arguing like some brat who can’t handle criticism. You’re telling someone else to deal with the difference of opinion while you lack the ability to do so or else you wouldn’t be trashing Sean Carroll whenever he says something you disagree with. I don’t agree with some of the things Sean says, so I either say something meaningful or I don’t say anything at all; mainly because I’d rather not say anything at all than be an intolerant jerk off. But that’s just my honest assessment of you hijacking another person’s blog with your stupid bulls***.

  • Christian Takacs

    Looking over your complaint, I’m sorry my use of language upsets you, but not everyone speaks with a sixth grade vocabulary, and I don’t intend to start now. I also don’t like using potty language and ad hominem as a substitute for my arguments. If that comes across as arrogant or snarky to you, I’m ok with that, considering you just dumped your laundry list of insults on me and were trying to be rude in your less than honest assessment. Please realize that Doug and Ernie have been playing tag team with me for quite some time now, One says something rude or obnoxious then the other one says ‘Yeah, me too!’, then they switch off, but more or less, that’s the extent of their debate skills it appears. Right now I’m trying to convince Doug that I didn’t make up the fact that Ernst Rohm was a homosexual nazi second in command of the Nazi Party who was quite the monster and perfectly fine with killing thousands of fellow gays, but Doug has not discovered Wikipedia yet, and so he accuses me of making things up… you will have to read down a ways… ‘night of long knives’ ref.
    @Doug, Ahem,…crow tastes delicious I hear. You can’t blather on about my assertion being false when even Hitler admitted the guy who had given ‘no quarter’ to gays and been his second hand man in charge of the Nazis himself was gay. This man was also Hitler’s mentor and closest friend. Draw whatever contorted conclusions you want from that fact, I don’t really care if it ties you into a pretzel.

    back to you farnsworth…
    But if you would like to jump in and say ‘me too’, I’m fine with that as well. I’m sure Doug and Ernie can use all the help they can get, and they could use some new material for their routine anyway. I must admit I still am puzzled by the ‘intolerant’ comment, since I have not told anyone they can not believe what they wish to, I may have disagreed with what somene says, and presented argument or evidence to make my point, but disagreement does not mean the same thing as intolerance at any reading level.
    Maybe you should move on now to Sean’s new posting and cheer on David Lau and Brett as they bash philosophy and make their great claims to how “… philosophy is not there to resolve a problem but just dwelling on it”. Don’t tell either of the boys that they are inadvertantly mocking the very things Sean went to discuss at his retreat, and making a complete hash of it.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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