The Big Picture

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book


It is not without some trepidation that one contemplates criticizing a “rocket scientist.” After all, it is believed that they are so far beyond the rest of us that we cannot hope to follow much less comprehend what they say; even to question them is pretentious.

Sean Carroll is a rocket scientist. His thumbnail bio found on his website reads:

I’m a theoretical physicist, specializing in field theory, gravitation, cosmology, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and philosophy of physics, with occasional dabblings elsewhere. My latest book, released May 2016, is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. (Dutton, NY 2016) My official title is Research Professor of Physics at Caltech.[1]

He is 49 and married.

I have just read Carroll’s long 440 page book The Big Picture. I would like to comment on it, but I wonder if I will be heard, not only by him, but by the general reader who may share the prejudices of our times that when rocket scientists speak on any matter whatsoever they are beyond challenge except by their own kind, and the rest of us had better shut up and listen.

Rocket scientists have the further unfortunate reputation of believing the popular hype about themselves. They are said to form a closed clique and restrict serious conversation to their own ilk who speak their jargon. Their preference for quantified data expressed in equations, over human language conveyed in grammatical sentences, adds to the impression that they live in a world other than ours. They are accused of believing that (1) only the things in their area of concern, using mathematical terms to express them, can be said to be really “true;” (2) matters of importance in other areas that are not quantifiable are also strictly speaking not verifiable and therefore cannot hope to achieve the designation of “truth” except in the practical sense of “working” within some limited area of applicability. But as far as “reality” is concerned, what is real is physics and chemistry.

People who attempt to apply scientific methodology and logical reasoning to non-quantifiable subject matter like biology, the social sciences and psychology, except for certain ancillary statistical procedures, are really dealing in “metaphor” not knowledge. What is considered “knowledge” in these areas works within the limitations of their applicability but no further. In the past that feature of “scientific” thinking whereby what is truly real can be reduced to the subject matter of physics and inorganic chemistry was called “reductionism.” Everything else was to one degree or another, illusion.   Carroll’s blog uses a quote from Democritus as a sub­title: “In truth, only atoms and the void.” It is part of a larger quote that is usually translated: “There are only atoms and empty space; the rest is opinion.”

Carroll’s latest book The Big Picture ventures out of the strict field of physics and into the murky regions where the rest of us live and try to make sense of our lives. One would hope that he has decided to do so as one of us in our struggle to discover meaning, and not as a superior being who condescends to enter the shadow-world of the mathematically challenged to liberate us from our religious illusions.

Such a sentiment on my part is not empty paranoia. It is well known that some years ago Carroll explicitly turned down an invitation to speak at a conference because “he did not want to appear to be supporting a reconciliation between science and religion.” Granted that he was suspicious of the sponsoring Foundation’s motivation, his own independently antagonistic position denying any possible compatibility between science and religion a priori, is well documented and supports my misgivings. [2]

Given this background, informed readers may be forgiven for expecting that Carroll’s book, which purports to elaborate a science-compatible worldview he calls “poetic naturalism,” will simply be a more reader-friendly version of the same ol’ axe-to-grind: matter is a mindless mechanism and human life is a kind of virtual reality — an illusion — whose social expressions, like religion and politics, are metaphors that we impose upon it. We may be humored in our use of these quaint narratives because it’s all we can handle. But the condition for this concession from the rocket scientists is that we keep to our side of the line and stay out of their way.

Carroll appears to avoid the strictly mechanistic position, what he calls strong reductionism. “Strong reductionism,” he says,

not only wants to relate macroscopic features of the world to some underlying fundamental description but wants to go further by denying that the elements of the emergent ontology even exist, … consciousness is merely an illusion.[3]

Carroll’s characterization, using the word “strong,” allows him to distance himself from it without rejecting the concept entirely.

Against strong reductionism he proposes nothing less than an expanded definition of reality. Acknowledging that “we don’t as yet have a full theory of reality at its deepest level,” he sets up the parameters that will serve as the premise for poetic naturalism throughout the book:

Something is “real” if it plays an essential role in a particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability: atoms are real, tables are real, consciousness is undoubtedly real. A similar view was put forward by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, under the label “model-dependent-realism.”[4]

Carroll’s efforts seem to be part of a recent tendency among philosophers of science to reopen the issue of the nature of matter. This trend questioning “strong” reductionism can be seen in Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, though Nagel seems to have identified no alternative but dualism. [5] Noam Chomsky in his 2015 book What Kind of Creatures Are We? [6] says the “nature of matter” is a question unresolved since the days of Descartes and Newton. The final chapter entitled “The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?” gives a thorough historical scan of the perennial dissatisfaction with the Cartesian (reductionist) view of matter. He cites the modern “pan­psychism” of Galen Strawson as a model counterpoint to the classic unjustified and unquestioned reductionism.[7] Thus Carroll is not alone in his reassessment.

The Hawking-Mlodinov book The Grand Design, however, is of another order altogether. Instead of eschewing strong reductionism, it seems to be doubling down on it even to the point, in my estimation, of jeopardizing the legendary careful procedures and limited claims that are associated with professional scientists. From the very first page of text where the authors cavalierly declare that “Philosophy is dead”[8] to the end of the book where a conjectured hypothesis called “M-Theory” whose unobserved and untested projection of “multiple universes” is adduced to “explain” the otherwise inexplicable fine-tuning of our universe (the basis of the strong anthropic principle), the prestigious Hawking seems hell-bent on eliminating any thought of “explanations” other than that of physics. “The multiverse concept,” they say, “can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”[9] It seems that Hawking, like Carroll, had a prior agenda: an antipathy toward religion that is willing to sacrifice science’s hard-earned reputation in its service. “But if it [M-theory] is true, …” begins the conditional sentence that lays out the thesis, then the multiverse conjecture would reduce the strong anthropic principle to a weak version, and a universe like ours loses its uniqueness in an ocean of universes whose physical laws vary widely and wildly. Sooner or later one such as ours is bound to emerge.  This is all hypothatcal.

Possibly the most “far out” claim made by Hawking for “M-theory” is that it “explains” how matter can emerge spontaneously out of nothing:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”[10]

It’s not clear whether Carroll agrees with this or not. In a review of Hawking’s book published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Carrol said of M-theory and the multiverse:

This is a picture that has been put together by a number of theoretical physicists over the past couple of decades, although it remains speculative. Mr. Hawking’s own major contributions have involved the spontaneous creation of the universe “from nothing.” The basic idea comes straight from conventional quantum mechanics: A particle does not have some perfectly well-defined position but rather lives in a superposition of many possible positions. As for particles, the logic goes, so for the entire universe. It exists in a superposition of many possible states, and among those states is utter nothingness. The laws of quantum cosmology purport to show how nothingness can evolve into the universe we see today.[11]

The key word is “speculative.” While speculation has its place in science as in any other field of enquiry, the use of unproven guesswork as if it were an established premise in order to “prove” the definitive elimination of “God” as a reasonable cosmological possibility arouses in me the suspicion that the tail is wagging the dog. “M-theory” is given a scientific status that it does not possess in order to serve as bludgeon for the anti-religion agenda.   Carroll acknowledges: “Whether this ambitious conception is actually correct remains unclear,” and adds incisively in my opinion: “they [Hawking-Mlodinov] advocate ‘model-dependent realism,’ which asserts that the ‘reality’ of various elements of nature depends on the model through which one interprets them. This is an interesting approach to ontology …”[12] He may have changed his mind since he wrote that review in 2010 because his 2016 book embraces exactly such an “interesting approach to ontology.” If what is real can be defined by the categories of enquiry that we humans have devised, then philosophy is indeed “dead” and “being” is reduced to what the sciences can describe. Heidegger would be appalled.

How does Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” compare to all this? It is my opinion that the “naturalism” offered by Carroll’s book does not advance much beyond an arid “physicalism” that he clearly has not abandoned. I also believe he fails either to identify or to create an appropriate “poetry” that might accompany science with some degree of depth and validity — all the while assuring us that religion cannot be that poetry. In fact, it turns out that all he really means by “poetry” is any view of reality that is not “science:”

This brings us to the “poetic” part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. Aristotle and his contemporaries weren’t just making things up; they told a reasonable story about the world they actually observed. Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability.[13]

The “poetry” in “poetic naturalism” is sparse. But sparse can be forgiven if it is deep. What, then, has Carroll accomplished? I think it is at least fair to say that according to the attitudes he revealed in the writing of this book, he appears to elude the description offered by one of his blog respondents in 2009, who said that Carroll displays “the sneering condescension of self-con­gra­tu­la­tory superior-sounding people” … who “demand that we must all act as [they] do.” That characterization seems more applicable to Hawking than the Carroll of the Big Picture.  If that is true, it is in fact quite deep. Whether or not it can translate into words that can serve as “poetry” for the rest of us, such a change of attitude is no small achievement.


It appears that Carroll is aware of all these objections. His book cannot be accused of active hostility to religion. But neither does he acknowledge that religion has any compatibility with science; he simply ignores it. He proposes to eschew the strong reductionist view as the privileged expression of truth and to substitute for it a “big picture,” much larger than the old, in which all the various ways of speaking about reality are acknowledged as equally valid and given their rightful place in the panoply of human enquiry and knowledge. This is not quite the capitulation it might appear to be, however. The final result is that while “reductionism” loses its arrogant claims to primacy and exclusivity, it is protected from interference from other world­views and retains its physicalist integrity. It is my opinion that it is a maneuver to keep religion and other non-mechanistic explanations out of cosmology. From my perspective that’s unfortunate. For I am going to claim and try to show that matter, far from being inert and passively mechanical, is a living dynamism, and that a satisfying and mutually supportive philosophic-religious synthesis compatible with science can be constructed on that foundation. I am going to show that a religion exorcized of its demonic elements by a cosmo-ontologically grounded theology can be integrated into a new synthesis as science’s “poetry.” “Poetic naturalism,” something Carroll bit off but could not chew, may still be a worthy and achievable goal.

Fundamentally Carroll says that each “discipline” or area of intellectual pursuit has its own vocabulary based on its own premises, axioms, principles and procedures that are valid within the domain of its applicability but not outside of it. That includes physics. In Carroll’s “big picture” physics supposedly no longer holds pride of place. For example, biologists are under no obligation to speak about LIFE in a way that reduces it to the mechanisms, dynamics, and structural possibilities described by physics and chemistry. The biologists’ starting point is LIFE as a given, and the development of their science is an elaboration of that premise. Biology need not entertain the possibility that the perception of LIFE is simply an illusion. Nor is it legitimate for physics to presume to sit in judgment on the validity of biology’s fundamental assumptions.

It is “philosophy,” as Carroll understands it in The Big Picture, that sits above and sets the boun­daries of the various sciences. Of course, it is not entirely clear what the principles, premises and procedures of this “philosophy” of Carroll’s might be, aside from his endless ruminations which are predictably based on scientific methodology like Bayesian logic and Peirce’s “abduction.” The allusions to philosophers, classical and current, which pepper the book, hardly compensate for his appalling Wittgensteinian disregard for what has gone before him. But we must at least acknowledge that his attitude is far less arrogant than Hawking and Mlodinow who declared flatly at the very beginning of their book: “philosophy is dead.”[14] Carroll in his 2010 WSJ review rightly excoriated them for that. “Our best hope for constructing sensible answers,” he said, “lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.”[15]

This holds true for all the “soft” disciplines, according to Carroll. Sociology and Psychology cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry. They each have their own area of applicability and, just as the use of the terminology and procedures of physics would be false and misleading if applied to these sciences, so too the terminology of Psychology and Sociology which acknow­ledge the indisputable role of “purpose” in human life, would be completely inappropriate if applied to the world of inert matter and its dynamics. Indeed, it seems to be “purpose” more than any other source of explanation that Carroll is most determined to keep out of the realm of the physical sciences, while at the same time justifying scientists’ use of those categories as explanations, “metaphorically”.

He thus sets up lines of separation between areas of human pursuit that are reminiscent of the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) schema presented by Stephen Jay Gould in the 1990’s as a way of ending the dispute between science and religion. In Gould’s view, neither science nor religion should encroach on the other’s “turf.” He imagined each of them to be an independent “magisterium” functioning with its own premises, principles and procedures completely free of interference from the other; they are conceptually incompatible, therefore they are thoroughly incommunicable and mutually meaningless.

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.[16]

This “cease-fire” between science and religion, however, is purchased at a high price. It means that an ultimate unification of human understanding not only has not occurred, but now cannot occur because it has been precluded in principle. Specifically, it ignores the fact that reductionist science has no explanation for the existence of the universe itself, at best trying to justify the assertion that “it just is there and always has been” or that it was a “quantum fluctuation” that just appeared out of nothing. It also dodges the criticism that after more than a century of trying, science has yet to explain either life or “mind” in reductionist terms, endlessly declaring that the allegedly soon-to-be-found explanations will prove to be strictly mechanistic and the macro appearances, illusions as predicted.

Hence, having suppressed enquiry into the possible valid relationship between science and religion, NOMA condemns the enquirer to live forever on two parallel tracks, having recourse to one or the other as the circumstances may require. The end result of this institutionalized parallelism is the sealing off of the various paths of human endeavor from one another and the eternal consignment of the human being to a divided understanding of the universe. We live schizoid lives because of it. The universe, I submit, is just one thing. And the human intellect is part of it — its genetic spawn. And unless you are a dualist spiritualist ready to claim that the human intellect, even though born of this universe, cannot comprehend itself and its material matrix in the same metaphysical terms, you have to aspire to some ultimate unified understanding. Carroll seems to have surrendered physics’ candidacy for that role. Unfortunately, despite the absence of any formal academic consensus on the matter, NOMA has in practice become the accepted wisdom of our times enshrining an ungrounded tacit dualism. Philosophical synthesis has been despaired of in principle. Religionists are complicit in this intellectual irresponsibility, because NOMA, by implying that there is a separate source of understanding for the human mind — namely an imagined immaterial “soul” — gives them full permission to wallow in their discredited belief in the existence of a world other than this one, and to ply their trade of selling access to it.

It is Carroll’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate and even necessary place for “philosophy,” however informally conceived, whose task it is to assign the limits and boundaries of the disciplines, that provides a potential tool that someday might conceivably override Gould’s NOMA strategy. But Carroll’s limited application of his “philosophy,” and the absence of any adequate explanation of what that “philosophy” might be based on that makes The Big Picture little more than Carroll using his prestige to impose his own personal preferences on the situation, and his preferences hardly go beyond a slightly tamed reductionism and a wider application of the NOMA principle to other fields beside religion. But the difficulty as always is that physicists do not have principles or procedures that are not derived from physics, therefore in Carroll’s hands the enterprise never achieves a philosophical solidity. It is simply a softer version of a “rocket scientist” telling the rest of us what’s real and what’s “poetic,” and it ends up supporting the prejudice that religion is incompatible with science. No surprise here, after all that has been Carroll’s thesis all along.



[1] note: Carroll’s blog has a foto of the gravestone of Ludwig Boltzman which has engraved on it his entropy equation, S = k.log W.

[2] Carroll, Sean, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.” Slate. May 9, 2013. Cf the same article on Carroll’s blogpost:

[3] TBP, p.110

[4] Ibid., p. 111 The Book in which that view is presented is called The Grand Design, Bantam books, NY, 2010

[5] Oxford University Press, NY, 2012, for an extensive review see: Tony Equale, “A Dalliance with Dualism?” Nov 2012

[6] Columbia University Press, NY, 2015

[7] ibid., p. 115

[8] Hawking, op.cit., 2010, p. 5

[9] Ibid., p. 165

[10] Ibid., p. 180

[11] Sean Carroll, “The Why Questions: Chapter and Multiverse” The Wall Street Journal, Sept 24, 2010

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawking, 2010 op.cit., p. 94

[14] ibid., p.5

[15] Carroll, op.cit., WSJ 9/24/2010

[16] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Random House, NY, 1999. Cited in

The Limits of Knowledge (2)

the human being — time and death

Existence is time.[1] It’s not coincidental that time caused us to look at being-here separately from abstract “being” and ask what it otherwise would not have occurred to us to ask, why do I die, or “Why does being-here seem to end?”

My life is both temporal and temporary.  There’s a connection between the two.  It seems the very nature of the modulations of existence is to find better ways to be-here, to survive and extend survival.  The vitality displayed by matter’s energy is not a leisured aesthetic creativity, an unhurried pastime.  There is an urgency here that derives from a conatus, a drive to survive, that is integral to a developing universal entropy that results from the energy expenditure of any “thing,” whether it be the hydrogen fusing into helium in stars or the respiratory activity of the cells of the human brain.  Entropy is the exhaust from combustion — the smoke that is the sign of fire — the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move toward a state of uniform inertia through the expenditure of energy for the performance of work.  Work is energy applied in the endeavor to survive. The aggregation and integration forged by matter’s energy is part and parcel of the “downhill” flow of the existential cataract initiated at the big-bang that drives the Universe to produce its effects — like the eddies and vortices that spin off in a raging current.  These pyramidal vortices (one vortex cumulatively building on another and another) are an anti-en­tro­pic phenomenon — they struggle against dissolution, to survive — even though they add to universal entropy as a result.

My life is the inner force of existence because it is matter’s energy.  It is driven in the direction of perdurance in an obsession to continue the dance of presence.  Time is the effluence of my own presence.  As my existence perdures from moment to moment — as each “now” molts into the next — it emanates time as the sweat of its creative labors; the vapor trail of its endless explorations.  I embrace my being-here, and so I embrace time.

The transcendence over death, not only through evolutionary integration but also with other communitarian strategies like daily alimentation and organismic reproduction, harnesses even as it recapitulates the patterns and primordial energies let loose within the first second of the big bang.  The energy that drives my hunger for existence, is the energy of matter itself.

We live in a banquet of existence.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are dependent on the entire material matrix within which we evolved.  In our lifetime, each human organism consumes in sustenance probably 40 or 50 tons of the matter’s energy — in the form of carbon — of other living things who must die in order that we might live.  Add to that another 50 tons of oxygen continuously drawn in from the atmosphere and utilized together with carbon in the cellular combustion we call metabolism.  At death we return our “stuff” to be used as food by others as part of an endless cycle of interchange within the one organism produced and energized by the cascade of existence.  Matter’s energy is a totality.

At a certain magical moment, also, the very cells of my body, by utilizing another communitarian tactic, combine with another’s to create a new identity — my daughter, my son — which is automatically granted a full allotment of time, slipping under the entropic radar of death.  How was this miracle accomplished?  The living cells are mine, but their age and accumulated karma are erased.  Death is cheated, fooled, outwitted.  The new individual with my cells, my DNA, eludes the death they were otherwise destined to endure.  Do we share this adventure in survival with love and gratitude? … Only if we understand!

But if we mis-under­stand — if we originally mis-interpreted that moment of crisis, the perception of death, as the cessation of what’s really there, we are quite capable of turning this banquet of sharing into a selfish grab-bag where the desperate “eat drink and make merry” in a display of bitter disillusionment against a morrow of imagined nothingness.  It is precisely the fact that “I” am metaphysically insignificant except as an integra­ted function of matter’s energy that opens me to a new dimension.   I realize that what is really there and really important is the matrix, the universal “stuff” of which I am made, the homogeneous substrate of which all things are made, the single organism of which we are all the leaves and branches, and which will go on in other forms endlessly.  It was with those micro-threads of existence that I was woven.  The primacy here, as always, belongs to the stuff of existence, the matter-energy of the universe.  It is material energy “congealed” in me.  And in short order, the same existence will use “me” to do something else in a constant search for survival — existence.

So time is the expression of process; it is the measure of groping and the tracks of creativity.  It marks the work in progress of evolutionary development.

endless or “eternal”

The re-cycling is endless.  Isn’t that the same as “eternal,” and doesn’t it imply transcendent, necessary, absolute etc., all those abstract, essentialist characteristics derived from the “concept of being” that we rejected in chapter 1?

No.  Endless is not “eternal” because endless is open and empty.  “Eternal” is closed, fixed and finished, full and complete; “eternal” is the absence of time.  Endless, on the other hand, is time … time without end; it contemplates development without term, a presence that is forever thirsty.  “Eternal,” is synonymous with unchanging, impassible and immutable, Pure Act, pure stasis, without a shred of unfulfilled potential — perfect.  It’s a completely foreign concept to us, pure conceptual projection.  We’ve never experienced anything the least bit like it.  For us, being-here as we know it is an endless phenomenon that throbs always with unrealized potential, with an ever perceived emptiness seeking to be filled and asking for nothing but more time.  We have never encountered existence in any other form.  Its current modality is always in the process of becoming, apparently without limit, itself — existence.

Being-here in our world, is endless becoming.  It’s all we know.  Where, then, do we get the notion of a fixed and finished “eternal”?  I believe it’s another of our fantasies based on the requirements of the imaginary ancient “concept of being.”  Existence, matter’s energy, as found in the real world, however, is a function of power — potentia as Spinoza discerned insightfully — potential; it is focused on survival and constantly ready to change tactics in order to achieve it.  Matter’s creative power is the drive to exist (survive) by extruding new forms out of itself creating time.

“Eternal” is unthinkable.  Endless is not.  We can understand endless perfectly because it’s no different from time itself.  To conceptualize “endless” requires no more insight than imagining present moments, “nows” in an open-ended flow into the future.  In our very own awareness of ourselves-exist­ing, which is the unfolding of our personal presence in time, we actually experience this pheno­menon most intimately as our own sentient selves.  We experience ourselves in a temporal flow into a potentially endless future.  To experience temporal flow is to experience that part of “endless” which will always be here — the present moment, “now,” the only part of “endless” that ever … and always, exists.  To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.

We are reminded that for the 14th century mystic Johannes Eckhart, “now” was the most sacred of all locations, the center of the universe.  It was precisely where “God,” he said, who exists in an Eternal “Now,” was actively sharing “being” with creation in an effluence of love and self-donation.  If you want to touch “God,” he said, you can only do it “now.” The fact that “now” — the present moment — is the only moment that really exists and that, at the same time, it goes almost universally unattended, may be a measure of exactly how alienated from existence we are.

Can we say that our conception corresponds to the emphasis on living in the present moment promoted by the Buddhist, Thich Nat Hanh?  The Bud­dhists insist their counsel is a discipline not a doctrine.  They don’t speak about metaphysics, “being” or existence, so we can’t say for sure.  But for the Buddhists, as for Meister Eckhart, the present moment is all there is.  We are-here only in the present moment.  To live in the present moment is to embrace the impermanence, the “emptiness” that drives reality always to the next moment, creating time.

[1] The similarity of this proposition to Heidegger’s thesis expounded in his Being and Time is only semantic. For H. time is the pulse and measure of Da-sein’s anguish of being-toward-death, which alone brings Da-sein’s authentic care to bear on the beings-in-the-world. In my conception, on the other hand, I make every effort to exclude the subjective factors. Time for me is foundationally a physical property exuded by the physical perdurance in existence of a physical entity — matter’s energy.

Thinking About Edith Stein (II)

This is the second in a series of posts on Edith Stein and builds on what was said in the first.  Stein was a serious philosopher who tried to apply the phenomenological methodology of Edmund Husserl to the philosophy that underlay the theology of Thomas Aquinas.  It was a project she took on after her conversion to Catholicism.  Neither Finite and Eternal Being, the book she wrote in the late ‘30’s to complete that project, nor its forerunner, Potency and Act, written in the ‘20’s, were published in her lifetime, the former because she was a “Jew” and the latter because she was a woman.    

Stein was a Thomist.  This essay is not a critique of Stein but of her Thomism.  As such it may be considered as an addendum to the “page” in the sidebar to the right called “Critique of neo-Thomism” which is focused on the work of Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. 

It should go without saying that it is also an implied critique of the Tridentine Catholic dogmatic constellation which her efforts were designed to protect and promote.  Stein was a formidable proponent of that point of view not only because of her unique resources — she was well versed in both Thomism and phenomenology — but because of the power of her personal witness.  People called her a “saint” long before the Wojtyla Vatican decided to “canonize” her for reasons that had more to do with her “orthodox” ideology than her sanctity.  It’s significant that many cite Stein’s brand of “feminism” as a source of Wojtyla’s “Theology of the body.”  His respect for the “uniquely feminine,” however, while it encouraged participation in politics by women even at the highest levels, did not include membership in the Catholic hierarchy even at the lowest levels.  I wonder how Stein would react to the way her thought has been applied.

Clearly she was an extraordinary human being.  The luster of her fidelity in following her lights, however, should not blind us to the flaws in the worldview that, in ways we are only now coming to recognize, was not only the cause of her death but victimized untold numbers of believers in a myriad of ways.  We will have more to say on this issue in subsequent posts.


It is significant that Stein calls her metaphysical opus Finite and Eternal Being and not “Finite and Infinite Being.”  The reason is that “time” is the fulcrum of her analysis .  Very early in the book she makes a revealing reference to a 1927 article entitled “Time” by fellow Husserlian Hedwig Conrad-Martius.  Stein applauds the article’s “profound analysis” of the ego’s phenomenological experience of the temporal structure of existence and incorporates it into her own work-in-progress.  The phenomenon of “being,” according to Martius, immediately contains within itself the notion of “non-being,” for in the very instant of its “showing itself” as a phenomenon now, it is already in declivity toward an as-yet non-existent future that will put the current existing moment into a non-existent past.  But notice what the phenomenologist is doing with this “knowledge:” she uses it to arrive at what she calls the “essence” of the idea (the phenomenon) of being.  For Stein the idea of being reveals itself to be simultaneously a “now” that is eternally “existent,” riding the crest of a continuous wave-form that is constitutively temporal because it continually passes from non-being into being and back into non-being again.  It is precisely this way of looking at temporality that provides the justification for dividing being into finite and eternal.

For Stein, following Husserl, being is an idea — an idea whose inner structure as an idea is explored and “purified” phenomenologically — but an idea nonetheless.  From there, following Husserl’s belief that the idea as constituted in consciousness is “being” and if properly clarified through phenomenological analysis accurately reflects reality, she makes immediate declarations about the real world.

I believe this is to repeat Plato’s fatal mistake.  She believes her “purified” idea reveals reality-as-it-is.  She declares the “now” part of the three part sequence of past-present-future (abstracting selectively from the phenomenon as an unbroken continuum) is eternal and without any admixture of non-being.  Thus she derives the notion of “eternal being” from the very first phenomenological analysis.  “Being” has an eternal side, for there is always a “now,” and it has a temporal side, because it slides back into non-being.  She calls the latter “finite.”  But I believe the flaw in this analysis is the introduction of an arbitrary division in an experience of an otherwise seamless process.

Others who analyze the same “phenomenon,” like Martin Heidegger, do not reify such ideational divisions.  Heidegger, also a student of Husserl, who wrote a book at the same time (1927) and with virtually the same title as Conrad-Martius’ article (“Being and Time”), uses the temporality of the experience to explain the subjective need of Dasein (the human being) to forge its existence ever-new in each instant, the micro-building block of a lifetime of self-creation, the simultaneous source of human freedom, creativity and a profound anomie. 

But no such immediate “practical” determinations interest Stein.  She is focused on “ideas” — like “being” — which presumably, in the final mix with other “ideas” similarly purified and validated by phenomenological analysis, will provide an overall vision that will eventually open onto the practical paths implied.  But initially the reason for the analysis — true to the thought of Husserl — is the purified “idea” that it produces.  It’s what Husserl called the “essence” of the phenomenon.  He “brackets” the actual existence of whatever is constituted in consciousness (a procedure he calls epoché) and by doing so postpones the examination of its practical applications and prevents them from entering into the definition of the “essence” of the experience.  But please notice: this procedure prevents “matter” from entering into the definition of “being” which is forever dominated by its origins as an “idea.”

Husserl always insisted that his analysis did not abandon the anchor of real existence and that his methodology was a way of knowing the real world — that it was an epistemology not a metaphysics.  But by treating “existence” as an “accident” that an “essence” (a purified idea) may or may not have and therefore is irrelevant to the “being” revealed by the essence in question, despite his “realist” intentions, it is reasonable to ask, as many have, if he has not structurally confined himself to ideas.

The primacy of the “idea” characterizes Stein’s thinking as well, even though her position, following Aristotle’s critique of Plato (she is, after all, a Thomist), gives less independent reality to ideas than Husserl does.  But even while admitting that “essence” (form) only exists embedded in a concrete existing “thing,” by sustaining the scholastic principle that “being comes through the form,” her philosophy does not transcend an “essentialism” that runs counter to the discoveries of science about the real world.  For we have learned from evolution that “essence” (form, what things are), in fact, does not come first; “existence” (survival) comes first, and things evolve the form that works for survival.  This radically impacts Stein’s scholastic assumptions about the separate existence and primacy of “spirit” and of a rational creator-God who inserted “essences” (form) into “matter.”

In her 1929 essay comparing Husserl and Aquinas she herself also suggests Husserl’s thought is “idealist.”  One may assume her allusions there to students who were not convinced by his disclaimers include herself.[1]  In her own work Stein clearly tried to subordinate her phenomenology to Thomism’s “moderate realism,” but as with Husserl himself it is fair to ask whether the very tools she employs, like Husserl’s epoché added to Thomas’ essentialist dualism, do not lock her into a world of ideas, her best efforts notwithstanding.


In the cosmo-ontology that I espouse (see The Mystery of Matter, p. 93ff) the temporality experienced by the human organism is immediately seen to be the very condition of material existence itself; it is correlated with the body of knowledge amassed by science.  It is not just an “idea” or a human experience.  The “phenomenon” of temporality corresponds to what all other “things” in our cosmos are going through simultaneously with us.  We are all subject to the same sequence of past-present-future at the same pace, with the same consequences for survival.  Matter exists as an unbroken continuum and “time” is the mental construct we have created to represent that continuity.  Non-being is a fiction.  There is no such thing as “non-being.”

Temporality is a mental derivative of matter’s energy itself.  Everything made of matter — organic or inorganic, atomic or molecular, sub-atomic particles or pre-particle energy — continues in existence as itself moment after moment in a way that creates what human biological organisms experience as “time.”  “Being” and “time” and “non-being” are mental constructs; they are our ideas for what we are experiencing as the conditions for continuity (survival).  Living organisms must learn how temporal sequence affects their vital needs, their food sources and their predators, or they will not survive.  Time is a function of material identity — organic continuity.  By the organism insisting on continuing in existence (surviving), the existential energy (matter) that is the structural “stuff” of the living material dynamism creates “time.”  That “insistence on existence” in the human organism is experienced as the conatus.  And the result of this insis­tent continuity, “staying the same” (surviving), we experience as “being-here in time.” 

Beyond Platonic Christianity: an immanent “God,”

Stein’s idealism is not unique.  We have to take a broader historical view and recognize that Platonic idealism was itself the “hard science” of its day, believed to rationally supersede the naïve naturalist worldview represented by the ancient cosmic theogonies and the immanentist monotheism that they gave rise to.  Platonic ideas were thought to be “fact” of the most superior kind, groun­ding the transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” that gave humankind (as the only “spirit” in a material world) full, absolute and unaccountable dominion over material “nature.” But the price we had to pay was exorbitant.  In exchange for our lordship over creation we were forced to disown the matter of our bodies and maintain the illusion that we were disembodied spirits exiled from another world.  Mind over matter and life after death became the leitmotiv of the culture nourished by Christianity.  The failure of the mediaeval philosophical “science” that was conjured to justify these illusions was the direct cause of the development of modern empirical science.  Thomas’ holistic insistence, for example, that body and soul in man are only one thing, was immediately contradicted by the simultaneous claim that the “soul” lived on after death.  If Thomas’ Aristotelian subtleties were disregarded by the people, we should not be surprised:   people are not stupid.  A soul that lives after death has got to be a “thing” in its own right, and because it goes to heaven or hell, it is the only “thing” that matters.

Modern science evolved from the work of religion’s most ardent defenders, men like Aquinas, partly in reaction to them and partly by employing the analytical principles and standards of probity they had refined from the inheritance of ancient times.  In promoting Aquinas and his scholastic worldview, Stein’s “return to roots” only reached those closest to the surface.  To find roots with enough depth and pre-scientific authenticity to support new growth one would have to go back before Platonic Christianity.

This is not the only way to rethink Christianity in the post-modern idiom but it is a fruitful avenue, and one that offers an ultimate continuity for the Christian.  It attempts to understand the worldview and mindset of Jesus and his immediate followers, and discovers an entirely new set of heuristic principles that turn the so-called “traditional” Christian value assumptions on their head.  A pre-platonic immanent “God,” for example — generally rejected as “pantheist” by the mediaeval Church — a “God” who is near to every one of us, clearly and unapologetically evoked by Paul in Acts 17 and Colossians 1, and John throughout his writings, stands in glaring contrast with Plato’s “Pure Spirit” who is inaccessible to all things material, including human beings, and requires a divine mediator (and his Imperial Church) to bridge the gap between humankind and “God.”  Plato’s remote and distant “Spirit” provides the context for understanding Nicaean Athanasius’ obsessive need to dogmatize Jesus’ “divinity” and set it in metaphysical stone.  If “God” were naturally near us (which is what Jesus believed), there would be no need to insist that Jesus was “God.”  And quiet as it’s kept, Jesus himself insisted he was not “God.”  Theosis would be open to all and human moral goodness and a selfless attitude would be its manifestation and confirmation.  The mechanisms of a Church which were claimed necessary to overcome a metaphysical incompatibility between “God” and humankind would revert back to what they originally were and should have always remained: rituals that evoke and poetically enhance human moral commitments based on attitudes that imitate Jesus’.

In this light, the entire dogmatic edifice of traditional western (Constantinian-Augustinian) Christianity is revealed as the institutionalized displacement of Jesus’ message from the moral to the metaphysical  plane, from the arena of moral action and attitude to that of conferred status, office and ownership.  The “sacraments,” similarly, were displaced from being the symbols of personal transformation and commitment, to being quasi hydraulic mechanical devices — magic ATM machines — delivering a “currency” (grace as “coin-of-the-realm”) needed to secure a “place” in the “other world.”

It was Platonism that created “the other world” and the only evidence for it was the human mind and the ideas that swim in it.  A Christianity wedded to Platonism — made insuperable by the insistence on the immortality of the disembodied “soul” — results in the alienation of the individual’s sense of the sacred and renders humankind defenseless against the maneuvers of self-appointed “holy rulers” who control a mystified population convinced their destiny is in that other world, and that the priests alone hold the keys to it.  Entrance to the “other world,” dependent on “good behavior” and the means of accumulating “grace,” put enormous power in the hands of the hierarchy.  It turned out to be the most efficient mechanism of social control ever devised.  The fact that it came to be correlated to money was a clue to its true function.  It ran Europe unchallenged for 1700 years, and is even today, far from extinct.

Clearly this was not Stein’s intention, nor, I feel assured, was it Thomas’.  But it is my contention that once you define “being” as an idea and “bracket” the real material conditions under which its energy is activated, you have skewed the picture so radically that whatever later you derive from those premises is bound to go in the wrong direction.  In this case we were off by 1800.   We are not “spirits” that belong in another world; we are biological organisms spawned by and at home on this planet earth.  It confirms what many post-modern Christians say: that we have labored under a distorted vision of ourselves — as disembodied spirits — and from there we have projected an equally distorted image of “God.”  Our Christian tradition took both “God” and ourselves out of the real world, the world of matter … and left the material universe and our human bodies a godless wasteland.

The crux of that error lies in the denigration of matter: the divinization of ideas and the substantial “spirit” they supposedly represent.  It is the creation of a false and unwarranted division in reality that results in the human alienation from its own material organism.  It is responsible for the pathology of Western Man that fulfills the definition of what Thomas Szasz has called “autogenic disease”: a disease in which the organism identifies its own body as the enemy and tries to destroy it.[2]

[1] Stein, op.cit, Knowledge and Faith, pp 32-33

[2] Cf. Thomas Szasz, M.D., “On Autogenic Diseases,” The Freeman, Ideas On Liberty, May 2004.