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Three Big Bangs

Written by Rob Deltete
January 10, 2011

Editor’s Note: Next month Holmes Rolston III, author of Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind, will deliver the second lecture of this year’s inaugural Catholic Heritage Lecture Series. In preparation for Rolston’s visit, three reading groups of faculty and staff, led by Philosophy Professor Rob Deltete, will soon be discussing Three Big Bangs.  

In this special contribution to The Commons, Deltete offers this review of the book.

Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind. By Holmes Rolston III.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.  

Any book that seeks to describe the history of the universe in 124 pages is bound to be an ambitious–indeed audacious--enterprise. Holmes Rolston’s recent book is no exception. Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind organizes this history around three central events, which Rolston often refers to as “singularities”: the beginning of the universe, the emergence of life and the appearance on Earth of self-conscious human life. The story he tells is briskly-paced, as it must be, but is not superficial. It is a rich and thoroughly documented account—there are 12 single-spaced pages of references, all of which, to my knowledge, he actually cites, usually with quotations. Rolston is evidently knowledgeable in many diverse fields: cosmology, paleontology, biology and neuroscience, for example. But although erudite, Three Big Bangs is by no means a dry, boring read, since it is written in a lively and very accessible style. 

The book is divided into three chapters, one devoted to each of the “big bangs,” as befits the title.  Chapter 1 deals with the beginning of the universe from (a conjectured) initial simplicity to cosmic and inorganic complexity. Chapter 2 discusses the emergence of life on Earth from this “pre-biotic” state and its subsequent enormous diversification and complexification. Chapter 3 traces the appearance of “mind” in humans and its development, in an incredibly short period of evolutionary time, to make possible inter alia language, culture and ethics. 

Rolston’s account is concise and well-organized, but many readers will likely have reservations with it. I did. To begin with, it seems very anthropocentric. An early section of chapter 3 (89-92) is titled “Theory of Mind: The Human Singularity”; and near the end of his book, Rolston writes: “Science gives us three data points: matter-energy, life, and mind. The first is universal; the second rare; the third is single and we are it” (121-122: my italics). For Rolston, apparently, humans are the only really “mindful” finite beings (113, 121-122). They are also for him the only uniquely “spirited” ones (115). This is a complex idea (see 116-121); and I can’t begin to explore his defense of it in a brief review, except to note that it entails the controversial conclusion that non-humans (chimpanzees, e.g.) cannot be ethical beings, since they aren’t (and can’t be) reflective moral agents (116-119). Another vexed question is whether cosmic evolution, and human evolution in particular, are accidents (contingent and hugely surprising) or things that had to happen (were necessary and predictable). Here Rolston explores the options (e.g., 74, 83-84), but does not commit himself to any of them. Like many other authors, he is fascinated by “anthropic” reasoning (e.g., 11, 14-24, 33, 109) and “fine-tuning” arguments (e.g., 5, 14-15, 21, 38, 55-56, 118-119), which claim that the universe has to be pretty much the way it is, and had to have evolved in pretty much the way it did, in order for humans to be around to wonder about cosmic origins and the beginning of human life; but he nowhere affirms that it was a “fine tuner” that made this possible. A third question is the following: Do new possibility spaces “open up” with cosmic evolution, or is there a single possibility space that has been present (perhaps front-loaded) from the beginning? Rolston discusses this in many places (see 33-37, 48-49, 53-55, 71-74, 76-77, 81-82, 85-86, 111, 122) and seems to favor the first alternative: that new possibility spaces “emerge” in the course of evolution (see 34, 73, 76, 81-82, 111, 123).  If so, how did that happen? Why did it happen? Was it chance or purpose? Accident or design? Rolston is ambivalent (see 121-124, esp. 121). A final question is whether the whole of evolution–cosmological, biological, human–has been progressive. Here I think Rolston believes that it has been (see 84, 123), but what does that mean? Is there a telos, a goal, to the process? Is there a point or purpose to it? Rolston raises the question, but largely skirts it (see 121-124). 

What to make of all this? I was struck in my reading of Rolston’s book by how much it incorporates a position that the Jesuit priest, scientist, and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin defended long ago in The Divine Milieu and The Human Phenomenon (both written in the 1920s and 1930s, but not published, for ecclesiastical reasons, until after his death in 1955). In Teilhard’s writings, as in Rolston’s book, the idea that evolution proceeds in stages, always moving from divergence, through convergence, to emergence only to repeat the process, is prominent. Here is a passage from Rolston that is very Teilhardian, both in orientation and language: “Each of the emergent steps [matter-energy, life, mind] is ‘super’ to the precedents, that is, supervenes on and surpasses the principles and processes earlier evident. Each transcends previous ontological levels. The category of the natural is elevated as it enlarges. Nature proves richer, more fertile, brooding, mysterious, than was recognized before. A spirited history, a history of spirit, supervenes on matter-energy. The generative power is lured toward spirit, evident in human spirits. And such a nature is a supercharged nature” (123). 

What this could mean for the first “big bang” I do not know, but let that pass. Surprisingly, for me, Rolston doesn’t mention Teilhard in connection with the other two. Why not?  This is certainly a question best left to him to answer in February, when he will visit the SU campus to deliver the second in our series of Catholic Heritage Lectures. But allow me to hazard a guess or two.  In the last section of his book, titled “Presence With Presence” (121-124), Rolston raises the following question: Given that humans are “spirited presence,” is this a sign and reflection of a “deeper Presence,” both immanent and transcendent? Does “supercharged natural presence” signal divine Presence? Teilhard, I think, would have answered this question with an unequivocal “Yes.” In different places, and in different wordings, he wrote “We are not human beings in search of a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings living a human experience” (HP, 201) and “as humans we are here to live God’s life on earth, through His son and our savior Jesus Christ” (DM, 126). He could be as anthropocentric in many ways as Rolston seems to be: If spirit is not alien or opposed to matter, but an outgrowth of it, we experience God precisely by uniting ourselves with the natural world and with one another, ascending to the divine by converging with the cosmos. But all of Teilhard’s writings, especially his later reflections on his scientific work, are really “Christocentric. What lay ahead (this is Teilhard writing in the aftermath of WWI and the onset of WWII) is a “new humanity in communion with Earth,” which he called a “Christogenesis” (HP, 256). 

One does not find this sort of effusive (and mystical) affirmation of Christianity in Rolston’s book. Why not, despite the fact that he is ordained Presbyterian minister, like his father and grandfather before him? In part it may be that Teilhard’s ideas are, more than half a century after his death, still controversial, even in the Catholic Church. Thanks much to Teilhard, Catholic theologians today generally interpret creation as an ongoing process (as Rolston does), not as an event that occurred once, sometime in the distant past. Within this ongoing, evolutionary process of creation, Teilhard placed the person of Jesus, the doctrine of redemption, and the whole history of (human) salvation. This is heady but still suspect stuff. Was Teilhard really a pantheist? Was he, in any case, a monist who imagined that all individuality would eventually be absorbed into a single universal whole? I don’t think he was, but that goes far beyond my review.  Suffice it say that Teilhard’s talk of the “holiness of evolution” (DM, 58) is still pretty shocking—even to Jesuit-inspired Catholics like me who embrace the Ignatian idea that God is present in all things. Another reason that Rolston didn’t mention Teilhard may be that he didn’t want to get embroiled in the currently acrimonious debate between the “new atheists” and “intelligent-design” theorists. There is certainly reason for caution here, since some of these folks (on both sides) can be unreasonable and dogmatic. But Rolston also never mentions contemporary theologians like John Haught, who are inspired (in part, at least) by Teilhard and who think that it is possible to formulate a “theology of evolution” that respects science and also respects the Biblical understanding of the special place of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things (see, eg. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2nd ed 2007). 

It’s hard to know where Rolston stands. On the one hand, he seems to think that the “singularities” of cosmic history may reveal not only something about human spirit, but about divine spirit--about Presence as well as presence (see 121, 123). But, then again, maybe they don’t. 

Rob Deltete is professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences.