In Praise of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

Confession: for a guy who hosts a podcast, I don’t listen to all that many of them. I used to enjoy 99% Invisible, and I still recommend it. But for me, it doesn’t go into quite the depth I prefer for the medium. Others do go into quite a bit of depth, but get bogged down by (often political) dogmatism and pettiness from the host (I’m looking at you, Waking Up). The Joe Rogan Experience is sometimes cool but is often too chatty and too much of Joe spitting his by now boring opinions.

I’ve recently become enamored of the physicist Sean Carroll. He works primarily in cosmology and is known, among other things, for being a strong proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, he’s also a generally curious guy with broad intellectual interests. (To give credit where it’s due, I discovered him through Rogan.)

Carroll recently started a podcast, Mindscape, and it may be my favorite I’ve found so far. He tackles a wide variety of topics, always interesting, always fairly in-depth. He’s reasonable, smart, and not into politically-minded shit-talk. His most recent interview is with none other than my boss(ish), Tyler Cowen. But he’s also done some very cool interviews on the science of aging (and how we might go about indefinitely postponing aging), cryptocurrencystring theory, and other cool stuff.

Since I’m a philosophy, I especially loved his brilliant solo episode on why there’s something rather than nothing. I love this question (particularly Derek Parfit’s exploration of it). Carroll did a great job of offering a physicist’s insights into it, which was really educational for me. Example: apparently, if it turns out that the total energy of the universe is non-zero, it follows that the universe is infinite in time. If it turns out that it is zero, it follows that time is an ’emergent property’ (i.e., not fundamental, not ontologically basic). This is fascinating to find out for its own sake, but Carroll makes a decent case that it’s relevant to this question of why there’s a universe at all. Importantly, despite bringing his physics brain to the problem, he doesn’t pretend that the question can be reduced to physics. Unlike some folks in the natural science world, he’s not a science chauvinist — he does justice to the irreducibly philosophical nature of the question.

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