From Big Bang to Big Mystery: The Question of Human Origins

I grew up in an ecclesial context that had positively no regard for insights we might gain from evolution. During my student years at Wheaton College I learned to think of creation differently and began to open my mind to broader thought patterns on the questions of origins. Then I wandered into “strict (literal) creationism” for a sojourn of about ten years. This came about while I was preaching through Genesis in the late 1970s. I was always uncomfortable with creationists, for reasons that I will not elaborate at this point, but I felt Genesis plainly taught that creation was completed in six 24-hour days. Almost out of necessity I then agreed that this work of creation was likely finished only 12,000-15,000 years ago. (This was much harder to accept and I never fully embraced the idea!) These views continued to sit very uneasily within my mind. Later they deeply troubled my heart as well. The reason was that they required me to deny some things that I saw very clearly. But much more importantly, they forced me to interpret Scripture in a way that I increasingly came to question; e.g. an overly literal hermeneutical method. As I studied hermeneutics deeply, and understood how to read the Bible with the whole catholic church, I actually read the Church Fathers. I also read many other great Christian thinkers and devoted biblical scholars from 2,000 years of history. Many of these devout Christian scholars addressed the question of Genesis and origins. St. Augustine impacted me the most, at least initially. When I read how he interpreted Genesis, long before Charles Darwin or anyone remotely like him had lived, I realized this question was not a modern one at all. Then the great thinkers of the church, East and West, and the Protestant Reformers all challenged my literalist views.

As I have continued to study the questions of science and Scripture I have searched for authors and books that help me think more holistically about the mystery of God’s creation and the fruit of modern science. One thing I am now sure of––modern science is not the avowed enemy of the Christian faith! The fear that drives this particular debate is often hard for me to understand but having once held the literal creationist view I still respect those who sincerely believe it. What I cannot do, and keep my heart and faith strong, is fall into the trap of thinking that the only way to read Genesis is through a literalist paradigm. 

With this said I would like to introduce you to a new book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery. (I love this title!) I do this for two reasons. First, to encourage you to read this book, provided you are a rigorous thinker who can handle a pretty tight and challenging argument. Second, I publish to invite those of you who live in the Chicago area to meet the author and hear him speak at an ACT 3 Luncheon on September 12, 2012. More about this later. First, I share part one of a review of Purcell’s fine book, written by Dr. Joe McCarroll.

Dr. Joe McCarroll is Chairman of the Pro Life Campaign in Ireland, has an MA (1982) in philosophy (a philosophical critique of Eric Voegelin) at University College Dublin, and a PhD (1988) in philosophical theology (on the notion of providence in Bernard Lonergan and St Thomas Aquinas) at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He’s written four books: Marriage or Divorce: The Real Issue (Position Papers, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1985); Journey to the Centre of the Person (Radix Press, Dublin, 1986, 2nd ed. 1988); Is the School Around the Corner Just the Same? (Brandsma Books, Dublin, 1987), and; Meeting You in Scripture: Meditations for a New Millennium (Joseph McCarroll, Dublin, 1999). With permission I publish his review below.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution

A Review: Part One

Joe McCarroll

(Photo @ Left: David Walsh, Joe McCarroll and Brendan Purcell at recent book launch in Dublin)

Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is about evolution and creation, asking what they really mean, how they take place, and how they might be reconciled so that one may accept either without thereby being intellectually obliged to deny the validity of the other.

But it’s also about the different approaches available to study the data of the modern sciences of the universe and the data of our own self-consciousness, and the need to bring both of these approaches together if we are to reach an adequate understanding of what we are as human beings.

This last is the motivating core of this book, as it is of his academic work as a whole. Brendan Purcell’s quest is to attain an ever truer, broader, richer understanding of human beings (that’s you and me and the rest of the raggedy Race) so that we are may come to know ourselves more deeply and live that reality more fully.

Like four fingers and a thumb holding and manipulating something in innumerable different ways, the book returns repeatedly to these five themes – evolution and creation, the modern sciences and meditative self-exploration, and the search for a fuller understanding of what we are as human beings. Purcell uses the image of a spiral staircase: “Right through the book . . . we’ve been circling, ‘like a winding staircase always revolving around the same centre, recurring to the same topics at a higher level’” (305).

What caught his attention in the modern sciences are the scientists’ responses to discoveries of the singularities in the history of the universe resulting in critical components without which we could not exist. Thus, for example, ‘The only place hot enough to ‘cook’ the light element helium into the heavier element carbon, apparently, is the heat of a ‘dying star’” (90).

So striking are these astro-serendipities that even astrophysicists like Stephen Hawking find themselves adding capital letters to the name adopted for the event with which, they calculate, the universe begins, the Big Bang.

Hawking himself writes, “Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that is both tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is not easily explained, and raised the natural question of why it is that way” (The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, London, Bantam Press, 2010, 162. Cited and discussed by Purcell, 63).

Purcell describes these natural questions and the aspects of reality that prompt them as “boundary” or “threshold” questions experiences or issues – they “arise within, though at the edge of, each of the natural sciences but can’t be answered from within them” (28, also 25, 71, 80, 81, 83, 105, 311, 318). Purcell’s point is that at these moments the scientists are, or need to be, raising valid questions but ones that need a shift to a higher or different viewpoint to be properly addressed.

There are also bio-serendipities. Purcell gives an almost page-long set of quotes from biologist Eugene Koonin’s proposal that classical Darwinian gradualism fails to match the relationships among the data and that a sequence of what Koonin terms “Biological Big Bangs” better explains them.

In the book’s most difficult (at least for this reader) chapters, 5 and 6, on the paleosciences’ pursuit of a satisfactory theoretical foundation for distinguishing between hominids and human beings, Purcell notes some palaeontologists’ difficulties in explaining the occurrence of human beings in terms of gradualism, citing a passage from Ian Tattersall and Geoffrey H Schwartz, “unlike even our closest relations, Homo sapiens is not simply an extrapolation or improvement of what went before it . . . our species is an entirely unprecedented entity in the living world, however we may have come about our unusual attributes” (Extinct Humans, Westview Press, 2000, 9. Cited and discussed by Purcell, 173).

From the moment of their earliest occurrence, the bodily characteristics of human beings – if we may adapt Hawking’s remark – appear to have a design that is both tailor-made to support the cultural activities that mark them out as human beings, and which, if human beings are to exist, leave little room for alteration. That is not easily explained, and raises the natural question of why it is that way.

Paleoscientists acknowledging this need for a sufficient cause to explain the difference speak of a “human revolution,” and, in the opinion of this reviewer, it is the real innovation of Purcell’s book that he seeks the answer by undertaking an exploration of the inner dimension of human beings, our self-consciousness.

Purcell proposes that Bernard Lonergan’s analyses of “emergent probability” (93-98), “development” (134-136) and Lonergan’s and Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between primary or external causation and secondary or internal causation (81, 95, 105, 112, 117, 120) offer approaches to understanding the narrative unfolding in the history of the universe and the evolution of life which, on the one hand safeguard the legitimacy of the modern sciences, while on the other hand make room for philosophical and religious reflections.

I think he does succeed in showing how these approaches allow acknowledgement of an appropriate autonomy of each science’s findings and methodology without entailing any determinism from lower to higher levels of reality or any reductionism of higher to lower, and without closing off as invalid philosophy’s or theology’s attempts to understand the transfinite grounding of the finite universe prompted by reflections on the aspects of contingency and existence in the data.

Brendan Purcell is an empirical philosophical anthropologist – he’s interested in what we are, what sets us apart – empirical because a philosopher needs to be open in principle to the full breadth of the empirical evidence, and that means all the different kinds of expressions created by human beings wherever they are to be found (18).

But his predominant theoretical concern, I venture to say, has always been what are we for – and his burning conviction has always been that as persons we are primarily open to and oriented to relationships and interpersonal communion, and if I were to sum it up in a phrase I’d say he is first and foremost interested in understanding the depth grammar of interpersonal communion.

What is startling about From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is the way he interweaves his investigations of evolution, the paleosciences and the distinctive characteristics of the human body plan and the human brain and the origins of language with a meditative practice seeking to understand what we are as human beings by an exploration of one’s own self-consciousness. He combines Bernard Lonergan’s approach of critical self-appropriation (246-248) and Eric Voegelin’s approach of meditative re-enactment of key moments of individual or shared human self-exploration anywhere in history. (1f, notes 2 and 3 and 214-219).

Here is Purcell’s clarion statement of intent:

The quest presented here tells the story of how I found a thousand-and-one mirror quests in the unanticipatable multiplicity and variety of quests other individuals and cultures have undertaken throughout history. …What has driven forward the quest narrated in the pages that follow is the repeated, surprised recognition that this, that or the other human creation or artefact is an expression of the quest of another human being – uniting us as members of the same human family, no matter how far apart we are in time and space, and in the style and medium of our expression. … The self-appropriation of the questing nature of our humanity, through meditative re-enactment of the expressions of the quests of others, animates our existence with a heightened sense of the worth of human existence – our own and others’ – and grounds a sense of human family that is universal across space and time (17).

Readers not expecting this unusual combination of different kinds of approaches will have to go the way with him in order to see what he means. Gradually chapter by chapter he shows that the boundary questions emerging in each of the areas he examines all point to the need for the same shift of viewpoint, namely, to a recognition that human beings cannot be understood by the sciences of zoology.

Instead, they but demand a science dealing with a higher level of operations than are found in animals.

But since we are in fact characterised by self-consciousness that gives us direct access to these characteristic operations that mark us apart from animals – namely, understanding, symbolism and language, and love and free moral choice – a critical meditative self-exploration is indispensable if we are to explore the explanatory source which is what our characteristic body plan including our brain and vocal tract are for.

Who then may find this book helpful?

Those involved in the sciences studying the Big Bang and evolution may be interested in a model of world process and development and respects the autonomy of each science without entailing determinism from below or reductionism from above. Purcell’s critical examination of the several theories of evolution and his putting Lonergan’s model of development through its paces to show how it offers a new way of addressing the questions prompted by the quantum leap discontinuities the scientists are struggling with in their own disciplines is especially impressive.

Scientists working on the difficulties of interpreting the data that distinguish animals/humans and hominids/humans will find useful the overviews, discussions and new proposals in Chapters 5 to 8, especially on symbolism and language. The discussions show the illuminative power and flexibility of Voegelin’s theoretical apparatus of “the drama of humanity,” “the advance from compactness to differentiation” and the “equivalences of experience symbolism.”

I believe many people seriously engaged in the study of evolution or creation but exhausted by going-nowhere clashes between evolutionists and creationists will find useful clarifications in Purcell’s discussions of the way in which the light animating each side may be disengaged from the heat, opening a way for each to collaborate with the other rather than spar inconclusively (115-124, but also wider arc of his argument).

The aspect of Purcell’s approach that impressed me most on my first reading of the book is the respect he shows for those with whom he disagrees. “Having several times been in dialogue with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – whose views on the human certainly imply we’re determined by our biological makeup – my most lasting impression of them was their passionate concern for the truth” (280).

Scholars working on the issue of how the relationship between the human body and human consciousness is best understood will find in these pages a new and challenging bringing together of the fruits of the natural sciences and meditative reflection on human self-consciousness that may throw light on issues of interest to them. And I’d say the same goes for those working on the relationships between the body and the soul and between matter and form.

Tomorrow: Part 2

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