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

by Brendan Purcell

Publisher's Book Information

This book is about the ultimate question or Big Mystery: where did human beings come from. One of the author’s favourite quotes is from the American-based philosopher of evolution, Michael Ruse, who’s said that: ‘Unfortunately, there is simply nothing in the literature by philosophers on human origins.’ In a facinating, accessible and thorough study, renowned priest Brendan Purcell explores this complex area and tries to make up for that lack.

Brendan Purcell is Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University, Sydney. Having studied philosophy at University College Dublin, theology at the Pontifical Lateran University Rome, and psychology at the University of Leuven, he lectured in logic, psychology and philosophical anthropology at University College Dublin, retiring as Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy in 2008. He was ordained a priest of Dublin diocese in 1967 and is at present assistant priest at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. He wrote The Drama of Humanity: Towards a Philosophy of Humanity in History (1996), and with Detlev Clemens edited and translated Hitler and the Germans, volume 31 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (1999).

Brendan Purcell's CV

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Review By Joseph McCarroll (Dublin, Ireland)
www.amazon.com review


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

But it's also a critical examination of the different approaches needed to study the different parts of this inquiry - the modern sciences of the material aspects of the universe and ourselves, the meditative self-exploration of human own self-consciousness and its relationship to the human body, and the kind of inquiry needed to understand creation. It is only by bringing these areas of investigation together, respecting the appropriate modes of inquiry of each, and exploring how they fit together without invading each other's legitimate approaches and conclusions, that we have the elements we need to reach an adequate understanding of what we are as human beings.

Like four fingers and a thumb holding and manipulating something in innumerable different ways, the book returns repeatedly to these five themes -
(i) evolution, (ii) creation and the appropriate way to understand and speak of it, (iii) the modern sciences (iv) meditative self-exploration, and (v) the search for an understanding of what we are as human beings that is adequate to the advances in all these areas. 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'". (p. 305)


A model of world process without determinism or reductionism
Those involved in the sciences studying the Big Bang and evolution should be interested in way in which Purcell shows how Bernard Lonergan's model of world process and development respects the autonomy of each science, yet entails neither determinism from below nor reductionism from above. Especially impressive are 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.

Critically grounding the distinction between animals and human beings
Scientists working on the difficulties of interpreting the data that distinguish animals/humans and hominids/humans should 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'.

A snark-free discussion of creation and evolution

Those struggling honestly to understand evolution and creation and the relationships between them, but exhausted by going-nowhere clashes between evolutionists and creationists should 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. (pp. 115-124, but also wider arc of his argument) A praxis of respect runs through the whole book. Each view and each proponent is taken seriously. This was, indeed, the aspect of Purcell's approach that impressed me most on my first reading of the book. `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.' (p. 280)

The relationship between the human body and human consciousness
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, and between revelation and reason.

A critical recovery of the way of inquiry needed to speak of creation
Apart from those engaged by the issues around evolution, I'd say
From Big Bang to Big Mystery - Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution has most to offer those working on the theme of creation. The book is studded with stunning exclamatory and discursive statements on the contingency and sheer existence of aspects of the finite universe and ourselves, moving back and forth between the pneumatic and noetic dimensions of our experience of groundedness in a transfinite Origin so profoundly explored in Chapter 1, with remarkable quotations from Parmenides (p. 41f.), Aristotle (p. 47), Les Murray (p. 48f.), Chiara Lubich (p. 79), David Walsh (p. 89), Eric Voegelin (p. 103), Czeslaw Milosz (p. 293), and Edith Stein (p. 315).

Purcell himself adverts to this dimension of his investigation repeatedly. `
As we'll suggest later, everything that exists has a question about its existence attached to it. But what makes human beings different is that we ourselves are aware of this questionability existence. Asking and to some extent receiving an answer to that question enters into the very definition of what it is to be human. If we're to be faithful to the evidence of our own consciousness then we'll have to explore another kind of origin along with our evolutionary one.' (p. 26, but see also p. 88f.) At key points, the book addresses the mode of analysis appropriate to the study of the kind of causation involved in creation, offering elements of a critical rethinking drawing on Thomas Aquinas and Lonergan (pp. 139-143).

Brendan Purcell's unforgettable name for human beings - `
each one a you-for-You'

In Chapter 11 Brendan Purcell makes his final meditative attempts to put into words what we are as human beings. `
We can say, then, that a human person is a unique embodied identity intrinsically oriented to communion with others, where the authentic unfolding of that capacity for unlimited, self-sacrificing love requires a readiness to lose ourselves for the sake of the other.' (p. 305) He coins two words to catch this constitutive innermost orientation and meaning of our being as human persons, `youwardness' and `wewardness'. (p. 295 note 7, pp. 7, 12, 32, 294, 295, 296, 310, 312, 315, 316x2, 331, 332)

But under the influence of the existential electricity of Etty Hillesum's raw representative consciousness of her own openness to the divine whom she addresses spontaneously as You, he adopts You as his name for the transfinite origin of the universe and of each of us for the rest of the book. (pp. 297, 316x3, 324, 325x2, 329, 331) Our understanding of God and of our own deepest humanity differentiate correlatively, so the moment of his arrival at his highest name for God is also the moment at which he forges his unforgettable name for who we are as human beings, `
each one a you-for-You' (pp. 296, 316, 319) 319), and in the concluding sentence of the book the youwards movement he has found to be the innermost orientation and thrust our humanity is finally described as Youwards. (p. 332)

the conception of each new unique human being is the Big Mystery'

Brendan Purcell's
From Big Bang to Big Mystery - Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is a must-read for those interested in bioethics, especially the question of the equal humanity of the human zygote and early human embryo. Indeed, I'd say it's a sort of test case for the whole argument, much as he says our willingness to die for what we believe to be true or for another person is a crucial experiment that at once discloses and proves the radical difference of the human spirit to that of an animal. (p. 285)

As he did with astrophysics, evolution, and paleontology, he starts by examining what science tells us, citing neurobiologist and anatomist Maureen Condic, "
Thus the scientific evidence supports the conclusion that a human zygote is a human organism and that the life of a new human being commences at a scientifically well-defined `moment of conception.'" (p. 306 and p. 306 note 6) He then asks what it means to say that a human zygote is a human being (p. 309) since at that stage of our lives none of us are able to speak, create meaningful symbols, understand, love or engage in free moral choices or actions. His answer is that the human zygote is `the personal concrete unity-identity-whole which includes the bodily life wondrously unfolding in the womb and the as yet dormant capacities for beauty, truth, meaning, goodness, youwardness and wewardness. The bodily part we see now; the other part we won't see until its bodily development reaches a stage that allows the self-transcending capacities to begin to operate. ... So its materiality is intrinsically meaning-, love- and you-oriented.' (p. 312)

Purcell says the unique existence of the unborn child `
is perhaps the biggest mystery available to us on earth' (p. 313), hinting at where he's bringing the arc of the argument finally to rest, in the Big Mystery of the book's title. He then turns to Aristotle's question, `At what moment, and in what manner, do those creatures which have this principle of Reason acquire their share in it, and where does it come from?' (p. 314) He notes wryly that Aristotle never managed to answer the question. His own answer shows that his treatment of this question is at the very heart of the whole inquiry he has been engaged in. `If the Big Bang poses a boundary or threshold question about the coming into existence of the universe, then the conception of each new unique human being is the Big Mystery that gave our book the second part of its title.'

After this he offers a profound reflection on Edith Stein's meditative analysis of our experience as contingent beings which I would like to quote at some length as it moves the argument towards its conclusion: `
As a matter of fact I do exist as a person. As another matter of fact, which Aristotle recognised, my parents' biological act of procreation couldn't adequately explain my existence as a person. But I'm aware both of the fact that I didn't have to exist ... and at the same time that I do exist as a you whose orientation is intrinsically transfinite. `The existence of such a contingent yet determinate transfinitely oriented reality can only be explained by a cause or ground that's capable of bringing it into being. `That is to say: I can only exist as a person because You, the absolutely personal Other exist. Only if there exists an absolutely unconditional transfinite personal reality can a being with transcendent capacities for unconditioned truth and freedom come into existence.' (p. 315f)

This clears the way for his conclusion: `
The answer to the question of human origins, then, is that each human being is constituted into existence as a you-for-You in one cooperative act: creation by an unlimited transcendent and personal source and of co-creation by the child's parents.' (p. 319) The whole argument of this painstakingly organised and argued book shows how the humanity of the human being from the moment of conception needs to bring into the picture a robust understanding of what we are as human beings that not only draws on the best available understanding from science of the development of the human body from the beginning, but also the best available understanding of what we are as human beings.
A glorious understanding of what we human beings are

This is a big book, a hard book, a rewarding book to work through, and, I believe, a book that makes significant contributions to our understanding of evolution and creation and the relationships between them, as well as to a broader richer vision of who we are as human beings. I'm conscious I've only touched on some threads. There are several others. Thus far this is Brendan Purcell's magnum opus, a long-considered, densely-argued text that brings together decades of his work as a philosophical anthropologist.

Brendan Purcell's
From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution carefully unravels what the modern sciences reveal to us about the universe and our place in it, us especially our bodily dimension, what meditative self-exploration reveals to us about human consciousness and its relationship to the human body and to the transfinite ground of the universe, and what critical reflection on our createdness and our awareness of it reveals to us about the transfinite origin meaning and purpose of our humanity, and weaves them together into a glorious understanding of what we are as human beings.

In doing so, he has moved the goalposts for philosophical anthropology, recalibrated the parameters for subsequent inquiries in philosophical anthropology - serious students may well do more, but from now on they first have to retrace the empirical, methodological, meditative, open-to-the-transfinite and jig sawing together steps Purcell has led us through in this huge investigation. Anything less forfeits the claim to seriousness.

Joseph McCarroll Ph D, Dublin, Ireland, 20th February 2012

(www.amazon.com review)

Reflection by David Walsh
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Other websites referring to this book

Video - IEC2012 – Fr Brendan Purcell
Rev Dr Brendan Purcell explores ‘the Big Mystery’ of human origins and reflects on the Eucharist and its place at the heart of cosmic, evolutionary and human history.

The Record


This version: 22nd October 2012

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