“If the Universe is a mystery, and if the key to this mystery is hidden, are not myths an indispensable means for expressing as much as we can express of the ineffable? ‘No man hath seen God at any time’…This similitude of Absolute Reality in the World of Time and Change is the nearest approach to the Beatific Vision that can be attained by human souls; and myths are the instruments through which these farthest flights of the Human Spirit are achieved.” ­– Arnold Toynbee.20

The last four posts introduced and offered short synopses of the stories in Mr. Breen’s book bringing us now to my humble commentary on the book. I cannot help but tell the reader that the author’s voice is one I remember from the classroom – a peculiar mix of cleverness, imagination, a rich lexicon, and a tinge of sarcasm. I feel sure I would have been able to identify him from the narrative of at least the first story.

In any case, should you read the book (available on Amazon®), be prepared for a rich vocabulary full of lesser-known words like eremite, palimpsest, corrody, aspergillum, and lemniscate. Also plan on searching for the significance of ancient and historical allusions such as Mount Saphon, Aryaka, Julian of Norwich, Asaph, Parthia, and Semjaza. I like to think of myself as fairly well-read and my library as comprehensive, but Breen forced me to reassess. Thankfully Wikipedia conquered my ignorance.

The 195 pages contain immense variety from science fiction to comedy with settings varying from biblical milieus to a particle accelerator installation. The tales are full of metaphors, analogies, and allegory. Breen effortlessly takes on meta-theology in an ecumenical and non-dogmatic fashion. We witness his deployment of opposites, paradox, and irony reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching. But there is so much more: discussions of good and evil, absolute truth, science, suffering, immortality, human weakness and salvation, personal fate, and human destiny. I too have explored, though in a different fashion, many of these topics over the last five years on this site, and believe Mr. Breen and I have been traveling on parallel tracks in our reading and contemplations.

Last I would like to offer my brief take on the dominant lessons from each of the stories:

  1. God is not timeless, but adjusts to the reality of the unfolding universe.
  2. Good and evil both originate from God and thus both are part of every life.
  3. Rituals fail to assure divine favor or desired outcomes.
  4. Voluntary suffering can be part of a meaningful life, but may not secure blessedness.
  5. Goodness is abstruse and elusive, and its dogmatic pursuit is perilous.
  6. Organized religion is no guarantee of spiritual harmony.
  7. In matters of ethics, irony is inevitable.
  8. Science is ultimately limited in understanding the Ultimate.

I would like to thank Mr. Breen for sharing his text with me and highly recommend it for open-minded readers.

Next time we return to Ultimate Reality in the works of Aristotle.


20Toynbee, Arnold, An Historian’s Approach to Religion. Oxford University Press, London, 1956. Page 282.


Restoration House

This work of satire starts with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons and takes place in the near future in an assisted living facility of the One True Church. The building which had formerly been an abattoir and later a toilet distribution center has smart technology that monitors not only the residents’ medical condition, but also their behavior. We learn there has just been an annual Jubilee Revival with humorously titled workshops such as Your Suffering: Is It Enough? and God and Guns: What Would Jesus Pack? and thus the place is quiet “because its denizens languished in the satisfied exhaustion of exuberance, as they were fatigued by the aftereffects of excessive righteousness.”12 After a series of sermons in the grand hall by cleverly-named preachers assisted by a righteous parrot, the Jubilee closed with the famous Bible School Bowl in which contestants responded to a series of absurd multiple choice questions each of which had the same correct answer. But the denouement of the story is a debate about tithing fomented by the Devil. The hilarious narrative that follows should not be missed.

The Full Immersion Baptist Church

This very short piece takes place in a small, nearly inaccessible church in Appalachia where baptism only counts if the person is fully submerged. An elderly man named Jedidiah Jones13 asks to be baptized, but as his body is contorted due to longstanding paralysis from a fall, he does not fit entirely within the baptistery. It will take a complicated and expensive process to enlarge the baptistery, but the congregation feels it must offer baptism to Jones. After raising the large sum of money needed and starting the fix, an unexpected event brings the story to an ironic end.


In Breen’s last story we are invited to a press conference by the Conseil Europeén pour lea Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) opening with a statement from Francois Kohelét14 in front of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which the author compares to a mandala15 The impeccably dressed Kohelét sports a Vandyke16 and tells the audience that CERN is now “prepared to uncover the secrets of the universe and usher in a new age of peace, wisdom, and prosperity.”17 He tells them that they are 300 meters underground in the Super Hadron Energy Output Laboratory (SHEOL) where scientists are able to look back to the beginning of the universe using a process called Molecular Output Linear Energy Collision Habitation (MOLECH18) With this ability and their analysis of quarks, Kohelét explains, science will uncover absolute truth. The three loops of the LHC are compared to the Holy Trinity and the subatomic particles to life, while the Higgs Boson which gives mass to all things carries the moniker of the “God Particle.” He scoffs at the questions from the press, especially with respect to what came before the big bang, stating with a straight face, “…God must prove to us that he exists.”19 However, after the conference a series of scientific findings confounds Kohelét with a message from Ecclesiastes.

Next time I will offer some commentary on Mr. Breen’s book.

(final continuation next post)


12Breen Michael, Modern Myths; Stories from the Bible. Self-published, 2018. ISBN 978-0-692-14254-7, page 154.

13Jedidiah is Hebrew for beloved of the Lord and the name given to Solomon at birth by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:24-25).

14Koheleth (derived from the Hebrew qohelet meaning member of an assembly) is an alternate name for the book of Ecclesiastes (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary).

15In Oriental art, the mandala is a schematized representation of the cosmos characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes, each of which contains and image of a deity or an attribute of a deity. In Jungian psychology, the mandala is a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary).

16 A Vandyke beard is a short pointed beard which is often pictured on Saint Francis and the Devil.

17Ibid., 178.

18Molech (or Moloch) was a deity whose worship was marked by the propitiatory sacrifice of children by their own parents as in 2 Kings 23:10 or Jeremiah 32:35. (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary).

19Ibid., 186.


The Scapegoat

This sometimes gruesome story of the Hebrew trek to Babylon after the fall of the temple (2 Kings 25:8-11 and 2 Chronicles 20) and of life during the Babylonian captivity mirrors the Bible’s most violent and brutal descriptions enunciated in Lamentations. It is Breen’s only first person story, told by Abba,6 to his grandson. Perplexed at their fate, the Hebrews try to make sense of their misfortune and hear one elder compare the consequences of the sins of Israel to the mark of Cain. As a forgotten people they attempt a complex ritual sacrifice involving two goats to bring JHWH back to them. The first goat is successfully sacrificed to JHWH, but the second intended for Azazel7 escapes leading to additional hardships. The desperate Israelites engage in a crescendo of sacrifices which fail to bring divine forgiveness. At last the sudden overnight appearance of an obelisk at the edge of their village heralds a series of unexpected events again displaying the metaphysic of opposites.

The Last Anchorite8

Breen departs from the manuscript of the Bible starting with this story of a young 14th century Irish woman seduced by a man from whom she hears and then repeats “a blasphemy of the Holy Ghost” from which there is no divine forgiveness. When she learns of her eternal damnation, she pleads to become an anchorite, wherein she will be sealed in a 10 foot cube cell at the Church of the Blessed Virgin for life, without offering an explanation to the Bishop, who nonetheless agrees to permit her seclusion. Breen’s descriptions of her isolation are horrific, including the fact that the only opening to the outside world is a slit (called a squint) in one wall looking into the Church. She becomes famous for her sacrifice ostensibly to the Church and her community and receives many gifts from her grateful admirers. Towards the conclusion of the story she learns the Church is turning away from such martyrdom, and Breen relates her tragic end.

The Lake of Fire Church

In this story set in the near future, a traveling evangelist named Ahab Bale9 and his wife are given a gold charm – the saharon – to support their mission by a poor, elderly follower named Anna Faunel10. They sell the priceless piece, once touched by the infant hand of Jesus, for $100,000,000 at auction and use the proceeds to fund an electronic ministry which becomes the greatest in America. Events in the world and in Christianity portend the story of Revelation, and Ahab decides to deliver the most important sermon of all time. Despite warnings from his aide, Micah,11 Ahab delivers his millenarial sermon full of gruesome descriptions of the fate of non-believers and half-believers. An ending worthy of a horror film completes the tale.

(3rd continuation next post)


6Abba is the Aramaic word for Father.

7Azazel in Jewish legends was a demon to whom the ancient rite of Yom Kippur (day of Atonement), a scapegoat was sent bearing the sins of the Hebrews (from Wikipedia).

9In 1 Kings 16:29-34, Ahab was the wicked king of Israel who married Jezebel and eventually worshipped Baal instead of Jahweh.

10In Luke 2:37, Anna Phanuel was a prophetess descended from the tribe of Asher, who at age 84, with St. Simeon, was witness to the infant Jesus at the temple of Jerusalem. In ancient Hebrew, saharon means a crescent moon or crescent shaped ornament (Bible Hub website).

11Micah was the sixth of twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible (and has an eponymous book in the Old Testament). His prophecies were directed at leaders in Samaria and Jerusalem particularly regarding injustice toward the unfortunate, but also included the foretelling of the birth of Christ and the coming of the millennial kingdom.


We return now to Michael Breen’s, Modern Myths: Stories from the Bible, with synopses of his stories. So as not to be a spoiler, I will avoid discussing the end of any of these short works.

An Evening at the Club

This science fiction-like short fictional piece imagines the gods of humanity as members of a divine club called the Cosmogony Society meeting on a distant planet. The treasures of the club are modern and prehistoric hunting trophies, living tapestries, and its polyglot library with precious original religious and philosophical masterpieces.  The main speaker, a god named Hadad,1 recounts in brief the narrative of the Old and New Testaments. We are told that when the gods divided up Earth, JHWH insisted he would create humans as immortal beings (by their eating fruit from the Tree of Life) in a separate paradise (Eden). Hadad mocks JHWH who was repetitively surprised by human disobedience which he punished by driving them out of paradise and forcing them deeper and deeper into the realms of the other gods where they become progressively morally depraved. However Hadad seems to express admiration for JHWH’s solution of sending a deus ex machina2 to redeem mankind.

The Mark of Cain

This remarkable story, the author’s favorite, retells the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis (4:1-24) including God’s act of marking Cain on the forehead to protect him from the violence of his fellow humans. However Breen expands the story after Cain’s expulsion to Nod beyond the mere chronicle of his descendants listed in the Bible. At one point, Cain comes upon Adam’s image originating from Sheol 4 but seen in a pool of water at the root of the mountain, Ekur.3 Their conversation is perhaps the most poignant of Breen’s entire book as Adam pleads with Cain to find a means of redemption and hope for humanity in the face of inevitable sin, death, and damnation. It is also here that Cain asks Adam about the mark on his forehead and is told, “It is a strange mark, it is one I have not seen before. I do not know it. Did God place it on you? If He did, then joy and sorrow and day and night are yours.”5 There is so much to this rich story, including the unfolding significance of Cain’s mark of opposites, but I will leave it for the reader to discover this treasure for himself of herself.


1Hadad, whose name derives from the Semitic word for “thunder” was the Western Semitic god of thunder and storms, often called Ba’al in the Bible (from Wikipedia).

2deus ex machina in ancient Greece and Roman drama, a god introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot. Also means any artificial or improbable device resolving the difficulties of a plot. (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

3Sheol is the Hebrew word for the abode of the dead or departed spirits, equivalent to the Greek Hades or Christian Hell.

4 Ekur also known as Duranki is a Sumerian term meaning “mountain house.” It was the site of the assembly of the gods, a divine paradise (parallel to Mount Olympus in Greek mythology). The actual structure was the most revered sacred building of ancient Sumer (from Wikipedia).

5Breen Michael, Modern Myths; Stories from the Bible. Self-published, 2018. ISBN 978-0-692-14254-7, page 35.


Modern Myths: Stories from the Bible by Michael Breen, published 2018.



“All mythological elements in the Bible, the doctrine and liturgy, should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith.” – Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith.

Only twice in the last 30 years have I been contacted by a childhood friend. The most recent occurred in May of this year when the author of this book sent me a text. Mike and I were beneficiaries of the Jefferson County Public Schools ‘Advanced Program’ in the 1970s and as such were classmates for five years from 7th to 11th grade (at which time I graduated). I cannot express how significant this educational experience was for me nor the importance of the relationships I had with my mostly constant classmates in that formative period of life. In any case, Mike contacted me through one of his relatives who was my patient, and we quickly were reacquainted in a one-hour call. Much to my surprise, Mike too had been studying philosophy and theology for many years and even completed a masters in academic theology (as opposed to a divinity track). He has self-published this book and another called Bad Faith in Kentucky. Now retired, he made a four-hour round trip drive to share dinner and some fascinating discussions with me one week later at which time he presented me with this book.

Mike is a theist and religious, but not a churchgoer, nor particularly attached to a denomination. In addition to philosophy and theology he has an interest in mythology and psychology. He has been working on what he calls ‘counter-intuitive theology’ wherein the world is viewed as dominated by opposites (e.g. good and evil) and pervaded by a ‘paradoxical’ God who may not be aware of his omniscience and who is not fixed or static, but in the process of ‘becoming.’ God in his model is an invisible being manifested in time and space, and amoral, even reckless, perhaps without being conscious of this.

A few other comments may enhance our understanding of the text. Mike is dubious of absolutes in religion, philosophy, and even science. As a result he tends to a more ecumenical approach to theology. He is fascinated by the logos of the Greeks, and has studied extensively Eastern philosophies, particularly Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. He has also immersed himself in the psychology and philosophy of Carl Jung. We should not be surprised should some of these interests show up in our reading.

Modern Myths: Stories from the Bible consists of 8 short stories ranging from 8 to 38 pages comprising a total of 195 pages. The stories are mostly written in the third person and are predominately conversational. The intriguing titles range from The Full Immersion Baptist Church to An Evening at the Club and CERN. Only one, The Mark of Cain, uses a Biblical allusion in the title. I will present them briefly in the next two posts, followed by a critique in a final post.

(continued next post)

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (final continuation)

In the last ten posts I have diverted from the ongoing manuscript presented on this site in order to read and précis Sean Carroll’s luminous book, The Big Picture, where he recasts the physicalist perspective of reality in his expression, poetic naturalism. Today I wish to offer some comments which must be sparse given my heretofore wordiness.

I should start by admitting, as most people who follow the site surely have noticed, that I come closer to the physicalist view than virtually any other perspective, and certainly closer than most forms of theism or religion. Still I think Carroll and I disagree on our key approach to philosophy. I see reality phenomenologically as layered into internal, proximate, social, scientific, and ultimate where he promotes a single physical reality with different ways of talking about it relative to the perspective adopted. While I am no solipsist, it seems to me that the most undeniable reality is the self, followed by the proximate. Scientific descriptions of matter and the universe are far less tangible, certain, or germane than my own existence and the nature of the immediate world around me. Science offers valuable insights into the working of the world and opportunities for its manipulation, but little of use in the conduct of life and its meaning. For example, proving (or granting) human finitude by itself is neither profound nor serviceable.

At times Carroll seems to get caught in classic physicalist traps. On the one hand he argues logic does not permit us to impose a reason for the universe to be the way it is, while on the other, he thinks the universe is amazingly intelligible. He asserts determinism – all states of the universe are entirely explainable based on prior states (an assertion that can never be proven since no one can know any state in its entirety) – but then concedes quantum uncertainty and the unpredictability of emergent features. He admits it is not clear that if we mapped all the neurons of the brain we would have a ‘mind,’ but then works with that assumption as given. He denies we have free will based on flimsy science, but struggles to explain how we make decisions and have responsibility while totally avoiding the fact that free will is readily apparent to everyone, likely even himself. He never takes on whether the construction of an entity with all of the same atoms or elementary particles in the same configuration as a person would create a living duplicate.

There’s more…no explanation of human creativity, no discussion on whether the number 2 is instantiated in reality or is a pure human construct, whether justice is a part of reality or whether there is an absolute meaning of the words good and evil. Like most physicalists, he believes we should not harm innocent animals or torture babies, but can’t accept ethics of this kind as fundamental principles of reality since he cannot explain them scientifically. He never discusses spirituality or mystical experiences. Over the course of the book, the term poetic naturalism begins to feel more and more like a wastebasket response to everything physics and science cannot process.

Carroll’s later chapters deal with philosophical issues, but his points are mostly repetitions of common ethical principles or speculations entirely removed from his ultimate reality, Core Theory. Most if not all of his views require no knowledge of modern physics at all. Like most physicalists, he is an atheist (without ever defining God) and a humanist (without fully considering the negatives of humanism for other living creatures, the Earth, or the cosmos). Nonetheless, I appreciate his clarifications on physics and admire his contribution to the philosophical dialectic. His reformulation of the physicalist perspective is fresh and innovative. The Big Picture is an excellent text for people new to the discussion or who are perplexed by the dichotomy between modern science and philosophy, and offers great reading for all of us.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (ninth continuation)

The last two chapters of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture are almost wistful summaries of his personal philosophy and philosophical experience based on a physicalist perspective of the universe. The penultimate chapter, Listening to the World, lists his ‘Ten Considerations’ as alternatives to the Ten Commandments; 23

  1. Life Isn’t Forever.
  2. Desire Is Built into Life. (“Life is characterized by motion and change…”)
  3. What Matters Is What Matters to People.
  4. We Can Always Do Better.
  5. It Pays to Listen. (He includes ancient thinkers in this).
  6. There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  7. It Takes All Kinds. (There is no single way to live).
  8. The Universe Is in Our Hands. (We can choose what to do with our special abilities as a species).
  9. We Can Do Better Than Happiness. (“Wouldn’t you rather have a good story to tell?”)
  10. Reality Guides Us. (Meaning not Nature, but the truths of science, and not the illusions of opinion or dogma).

Carroll’s final chapter, Existential Therapy, rehearses his life first as a Christian believer and later as a scientist/atheist. On his journey he was, unlike Camus (but like Einstein), impressed by the intelligibility of the universe and in time came to a ‘cheerful’ naturalism once he recognized that the remaining mysteries of the cosmos are not unsolvable. In his opinion, “The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity… We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle, a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such a complex, aware, creative caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws.”24

Carroll closes by noting that poetic naturalism is “a rich and rewarding way to apprehend the world, but it’s a philosophy that calls for a bit of fortitude.”25 However we can choose to not to drift in a ‘purposeless’ cosmos aware of our finitude. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, we can find meaning in the tasks we choose and ultimately find ways of “mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world.”26

(final continuation next post)


23Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, pages 419-427.

24 Ibid., page 431. Carroll’s quote is nearly the opposite of the one by Professor Daniel Robinson in Synopsis on the Question of God (Cont’d), dated 3/27/2019 on this site.


26Ibid., page 433.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE – (eighth continuation)

Carroll gets to the subject of free will by noting the poetic naturalist views “wants” or “beliefs” as fitting the human level of talking about the world, but not that of elementary particles. To the physicist, if one is given a precise quantum state, the next state is entirely predictable; i.e. determinism is instantiated in physical reality. The error of the free will proponent, he argues, is mixing the human level concept of “choice” or ‘volition” with the subatomic level idea of a change in quantum states. The word “choice” (like the word “cause”) makes sense at the human level because of the arrow of time; that is, our lack of knowledge of the future. However, the concept of human agency (free agency?) introduces an element of indeterminacy into the universe which is not compatible with the Core Theory, hence is invalid. He follows this up with several of the classic neuroscientific studies that discourage the credibility that we make decisions before the brain acts. Perhaps inconsistently but understandably, Carroll still feels “blame” and “responsibility” are reasonable at the human level since they fit that level of understanding even if they are incompatible with the quantum or the cellular level of understanding.

The final section called Caring begins with a chapter titled Three Billion Heartbeats (an average human lifespan) where he reiterates our mortality and the limits of the purpose of our existence. The quest for the good life, for meaning, and for a framework of morality are not found in the realm of science, but in ourselves. Poetic naturalism rejects a teleological inclination built into the universe and views “meaning in the same way we view other concepts that human beings invent to talk about the universe.”21 While there is no standard by which we are guided; what can be said is that we evolved to care about the world, that consciousness emerged allowing learning and self-reflection, and that meaning comes from real life.

Carroll then spends three chapters on ethics reminding us science can tells us what is, we can never determine what ought to be from what is. Most of his discussion is a painfully brief summary of the field of ethics. His particular points include:

(1) Ethical arguments invariably use unsound logic to attempt to convert what is to what ought to be.

(2) Nature and the universe do not pass moral judgments: morality is a human construct.

(3) Our system of ethics should be based on improving the well-being of conscious creatures.

(4) Utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics each involve unsolvable problems.

He concludes with the following: “Poetic naturalism doesn’t tell us how to behave, but it warns us away from the false complacency associated with the conviction that our morals are objectively the best. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways; we need to be able to make judgements with clear eyes and an accurate picture of how the world operates. We don’t need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.”22

(ninth continuation next post)


21Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 390.

22Ibid., page 418.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (seventh continuation)

Carroll continues the physicalist argument into consciousness which he argues is more reasonably explained within the Core Theory than outside it. He compares the working of the human brain to a computer deploying dual process theory for mentation where System 1 is the subconscious and System 2 is the conscious, a concept he sees hinted at in Plato’s three-part personality.  The hallmark of consciousness is the ‘inner mental experience’ which he believes evolved to accommodate the land-based animal’s need to plan. Nonetheless thought in the brain simply corresponds to charged particles hopping between neurons which make up a network structure or connectome. This structure is hierarchal and in the words of the mathematician a “small world network.”

Carroll admits it is not clear that if we mapped all the neurons of brain we would have a ‘mind,’ but he scoffs at the idea of the brain as similar to a radio receiver of a non-material soul or mind as damage to the brain can result in remarkable changes in personality. As an example he refers to the Capgras delusion where a person with a particular type of brain injury recognizes other people but no longer experiences their previous emotional connection to them.

From there he expands on the problem of understanding consciousness by discussing the Turing Test, the Chinese Room, and solipsism. He concludes the poetic naturalist does not see consciousness as “a fundamental kind of stuff…like searching for the virus that causes a known disease… the concepts of ‘consciousness’ and ‘understanding’ are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.”19  Nonetheless he addresses the Hard Problem – that is explaining qualia or our subjective experiences of the world such as the color red.  He takes on the classic knowledge argument of a scientist who knows everything about the meaning of a word such as red but has never seen something red and then goes on to experience it where some philosophers argue the experience itself adds new information for the scientist. Carroll thinks this takes nothing from the physicalist position as different synapses are involved in the two apprehensions of the color red (knowledge and vision).

I will bypass his discussion of the zombies argument and of quantum consciousness, but would like tto examine his discussion of panpsychism. He considers whether mental states might be another degree of freedom like charge or spin? Carroll thinks this is contradicted by the known science of Core Theory where the number of degrees of freedom are already known for elementary particles. However if we assume such mental states have no effect on the physics of particles, then the world is already fully described without them. Moreover a Bayesian analysis makes panpsychism untenable as “consciousness seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon.” 20

(eighth continuation next post)


19Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 343.

20Ibid., page 365.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (sixth continuation)

Having clarified his position as entirely physicalist, Carroll next feels the need to explain the illusions of human experience that are confused as immaterial, in need of a clear cause, or simply inexplicable by physics alone. He introduces the concept of complexity as the origin of emergent phenomena such as life and consciousness and as the physicalist’s alternative to teleology. He counters arguments that entropy is incompatible with increased complexity, specifically stating the appearance of life is explained in two parts – “entropy and emergence.”14. Nonetheless entropy will eventually unravel the complexity of ‘life’ itself making it ultimately finite. “That’s us. Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginnings to a simple end. We should enjoy the ride.”15

In subsequent chapters he goes on the define life for the physicist in the words of Erwin Schrodinger as matter that, “goes on ‘doing something,’ exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect of an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.”16 This process depends on ‘free energy’ which for most life means the sun. He even visits the subject of the original appearance of life, abiogenesis, considering several commonly argued but admittedly still speculative mechanisms. After this he more comfortably discusses evidence for evolution and how it works.

This brings him to purpose, a word he thinks is a useful way of talking for the poetic naturalist, but utterly arbitrary in the physical world. Ideas like purpose and adaptation are not “found in the underlying mechanistic behavior of reality,”17 but intrinsically purposeless processes can lead to the existence of purpose (e.g. the length of the giraffe’s neck). In short, purpose is simply a “useful concept when developing an effective theory of this part of reality in the particular domain of applicability.”18

Last, in a beautifully titled chapter, Are We the Point?, he considers a Bayesian or credence based debate on life and the universe as spontaneous and explained by physical laws alone versus by a divine creator. He discounts the fine tuning argument for the latter position with an appeal to three rebuttals: (1) we don’t really know why the key numbers exist that make life possible, nor whether some kind of life might exist if these numbers were different, (2) there may be many areas in the universe where inflation leads to variations in physical laws, and (3) there may be a multiverse. The anthropic principle – that we can only exist in one such area of space or one such universe to ask the question – makes any of these more reasonable explanations than the positing of God. In addition a Bayesian analysis of God’s designing the universe leads to an expectation of a universe very different than the one we find ourselves in (for example with more locally habitable planets).

(seventh continuation next post)


14Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 227.

15Ibid., page 236.

16bid., page 239.

17Ibid, page 293.