Sean Carroll’s Gifford Lectures

The Gifford Lectures, first given in 1898, were established by a bequest of Lord Adam Gifford, and were intended to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.” In other words, they were supposed to use evidence from nature to give evidence for God (“natural theology”).  And that was how they began, with lecturers like Paul Tillich, Ian Barbour, and Alfred North Whitehead. But then the organizers decided to throw in some atheists as well, and those, including Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, and now our own Official Website Physicist, Sean Carroll™, have given some of the best talks. Nevertheless, the emphasis is still on the evidence for theism, promoted by speakers like Alvin Plantinga, Simon Conway Morris, and Roger Scruton.

The Giffords are some of the most prestigious lectures around, and I’m pleased that Sean was able to deliver them. His were given in Glasgow: the lectures are alternated among Glasgow, St Andrews, and Edinburgh. (Wikipedia lists all the luminaries who have spoken.) The topics were drawn from his recent book: The Big Picture, which I recommend highly. He’s also a great speaker, and though I haven’t yet listened to all of these (though I have read the book), I certainly will. I present four of the five of the talks, put on YouTube, below. Sadly, for some reason the first lecture wasn’t recorded: a huge cock-up on the part of the organizers. But you can at least see the slides.

Here’s Sean’s take on his own performance from his website:

Sometimes the speakers turn their lectures into short published books; in my case, I had just written a book that fit well into the topic, so I spoke about the ideas in The Big Picture. Unfortunately the first of the five lectures was not recorded, but the subsequent four were. Here are those recordings, along with a copy of my slides for the first talk. It’s not a huge loss, as many of the ideas in the first lecture can be found in previous talks I’ve given on the arrow of time; it’s about the evolution of our universe, how that leads to an arrow of time, and how that helps explain things like memory and cause/effect relations. The second lecture was on the Core Theory and why we think it will remain accurate in the face of new discoveries. The third lecture was on emergence and how different ways of talking about the world fit together, including discussions of effective field theory and why the universe itself exists. Lecture four dealt with the evolution of complexity, the origin of life, and the nature of consciousness. (I might have had to skip some details during that one.) And the final lecture was on what it all means, why we are here, and how to live in a universe that doesn’t come with any instructions. Enjoy!

Lecture #1 has no video yet, just slides, and you can see them by clicking on the screenshot:



Lecture #2

Lecture #3

Lecture #4


Lecture #6


  1. Nell Whiteside
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you – these lectures are fabulous.

  2. darrelle
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I have been meaning to watch these lectures. I think Sean is an excellent lecturer and would recommend any talk by him.

  3. Mark Shapiro
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    This is the guy who, for example, in a well meaning attempt to defend a right to abortion, deployed the interestingly flexible argument that after all, people don’t really exist, but are just swirls of atoms, so ‘we’ can withdraw the pretense of existence from any such swirl as we please. In other words, he’s brain dead.

    • Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but ridiculous comments like this (which are, after all, irrelevant to his Gifford lectures), make me angry. Below is what Carroll said on his thread:

      For example, science is powerless to tell us when “personhood” begins — but it tell us something very crucial about how to go about answering that question. In particular, it tells us that there is no magical moment at which an incorporeal soul takes up residence in a body.

      Indeed, the concept of a “person” is not to be found anywhere in the natural world; it’s a category that is convenient to appeal to as we try to make sense of the world. But there is not, as far as science is concerned, any right or wrong answer to the question of when the life of a person begins — from Nature’s point of view, it’s just one chemical reaction after another.

      He’s not brain dead, you just don’t have an ability to understand an argument.

  4. Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Wish I had time to watch these!

    • rickflick
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Don’t worry. I’m going to watch them for you. 😉

    • Winnie
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      Here’s a 50-minute version:

  5. Steve Pollard
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Being retired, I am thankfully able to make time to watch these lectures, and look forward to doing so! Very many thanks for posting them.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink


      Retirement is grand.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Sean Carroll is a gifted lecturer, a stylish writer, a big thinker, and all around a wonderful fellow as I can tell.

  7. Posted November 28, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Good find! Thanks for the tip.

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