Quaker Universalist Conversations

Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind – A Review by Larry Spears

Holmes Rolston III, Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind, (Columbia University Press, 2010)

by Larry Spears

We lack a story of the universe.  Genesis is the story of this world.  The first words of the Gospel of John give hinting comfort to Quakers about the origin of the universe.  But, we do not yet have a story of the universe.

In this quest for a story of the universe, religious leaders are hampered by the fear of reaching beyond their particular tradition and they fear to identify a story that will be found inconsistent with the partial stories of their traditions and sacred texts.  There is a struggle within religions over the universally recognized sources of religious authority (tradition (including scriptures) experience and reason) in developing a sound story of the universe.  It is a tough struggle.

From the number of recently published books, scientists appear to feel freer to offer a story of the universe.  There have been several propounded.  To date, none have gathered much critical mass support.  Holmes Rolston’s Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind is one such effort to tell the story of the universe.

Holmes Rolston is a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and a recipient of the Templeton Prize for his work in relating science and religion.  He also is a Gifford Lecturer. These awards give him stature in both scientific circles and in religious circles.  In this book, he seeks to develop the story that we lack.  Also, he is a Presbyterian minister and a founder of the academic field of environmental ethics.

The story of the universe that Rolston offers is simple.  There are three big events in the history of the universe, or three “big bangs” as his title indicates.  The first bang is the astrophysical beginning of the universe, as we know it, with the appearance of matter and energy. The second bang is the origin of life on this particular globe.  The third bang is the beginning of the mind in the human species.

Sometimes, authors are inclined to distort their text by offering a slick title.  The use of “Big Bang” is an accepted popular reference to the origin of the universe.  The idea of three big bangs is intriguing.  But, these bangs are only particular metaphors selected by the author as notable in the story of the universe. While these bangs are important, they do not feel fully comprehensive.  For example, where are the full dimensions of space and time?

Regarding these particular selected important bangs, Rolston is not wrong, but his treatment is incomplete.  Regarding the first bang origin of the universe, he does not fully recognize the possibility that this bang is but one of many prior and simultaneous universe origins that are repetitive and cyclical in an even larger cosmic framework in space and history. Regarding the second bang of life, there is little clarity about the precise definition of life and about the possibility of other, non-carbon based, life forms.  Regarding the third bang, Rolston does not recognize the possibility that consciousness and mind has occurred in other species first, and does occur now, in other species in parallel with humans.

Rolston argues for the anthropic principle that “mind” underlies the universe because so much of the reality of the universe had to be as it is in order for humans to exist in the universe.  Rolston celebrates the heights of the human mind.  He is awed in its contemplation.  However, he seems unconcerned with the human care and compassion for healing that world and with the human abilities to meet the challenges of human sustainability.

This book is short at 160 pages, with 12 pages of bibliography and a good index.  Rolston organizes this book in three chapters.  In each, he seeks to describe the significance for humans of each of these three bangs placed in the context of a universal evolution process.  Within each chapter, there are numerical facts that boggle the mind and are effective in impressing your mother.  The numbers of atoms in a person (1028) and the number of human thoughts (1070billion) in a lifetime are big numbers.

Rolston sees a predestination of the universe as it is. He is circumspect about it, but that is his view.  The alternative explanation of chance is finally too uncomfortable for his view.  Rolston also tilts to the view that humans are unique and distinctive relative to other animals and plants, despite growing contrary scientific evidence of consciousness and interior lives in other species.  Rolston argues that there is a discrete boundary between the human mind and those animals with no mind, if such animals exist.

Recognizing that humans value the human mind, Rolston asserts, but does not justify, the high and singular regard in which he holds the human mind as the apex of reality.  His argument is the circular argument that we who do the valuing find that we are the most valuable.  Trout would make the parallel argument for their apex status.  We Homos are the ones who define that we are the sapiens.

Among human cultures, Rolston prefers the current scientific culture as the best, but without persuasive explanation, except that is where his experience lies.  In his view, less scientific cultures are lesser in value.  It is true that other human cultures do not currently do our science, but that current difference does not justify a subordinate priority designation.

This book is an example of a real and earnest quest for a story of the universe.  This one is flawed, but it indicates the struggle of big minds to comprehend and explain.  In order to avoid smugness, if the Rolston story is finally unsatisfactory, what we can say is that this is a story of the universe of which we are a part.  Then, how do we communicate that story of the universe to Quaker children?  Rolston’s effort is significant as a standard against which we can measure our story of the universe.  In the absence of a story of our own, Rolston’s story shines alone.

In the very last sentence at the end of the book, Rolston makes reference to our not being alone in the universe.  We are accompanied by a larger Presence.  This last gesture will be interpreted as a gesture offered to funders who are committed to showing the existence of God, which may be unfair.  But, positively, this last reference to an accompanying Presence shows the elemental human desire to make sense of the universe and to see understanding and purpose in the universe.  The fact that we have not yet found that powerful story is not a reason to celebrate its absence.

We cannot leave this task of formulating the story of the universe to Rolston alone or wait for another brilliant mind to discern the story of the universe.  This is a task that each person must address.  We can rely only weakly on the incomplete stories of our traditions.  In the silence, we must seek to pass through the awe of humanity to understanding and then turn this experience into communication with others, particularly as we seek to adjust our practice to our newly clarified faith.  This is a universal task with universal benefits.  What is our alternative story of the universe?

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