From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution  -     By: Brendan Purcell
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From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution

New City Press / 2012 / Paperback

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In a fascinating, accessible and thorough study, renowned priest Brendan Purcell explores the question of human origins. Covering a phenomenal range of material, Purcell moves easily between analysis of the various scientific perspectives on how humans are unique (emerging from a perhaps seven million year hominid sequence) and his suggestion that what is really needed is a look at why humans are unique. This pushes the zoological/paleontological discussion into the realm of philosophy and theology and gives new life to considerations of human emergence suggesting, even, that humans are better understood as an unprecedented cultural and spiritual event.

Product Information

Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 370
Vendor: New City Press
Publication Date: 2012
Dimensions: 8.50 X 5.50 X 0.80 (inches)
ISBN: 1565484339
ISBN-13: 9781565484337
Availability: Usually ships in 24-48 hours.

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Author Info

Brendan Purcell is Adjunct Professor in the School of Philosophy at Notre Dame University, Sydney. Having studied philosophy at University College Dublin and theology at the Pontifical Lateran University Rome, he lectured in Logic and Psychology, retiring as Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy in 2008.

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  1. Joseph McCarroll
    Dublin, Ireland
    Age: 55-65
    Gender: male
    5 Stars Out Of 5
    New light on creation, evolution and the person
    March 20, 2012
    Joseph McCarroll
    Dublin, Ireland
    Age: 55-65
    Gender: male
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    In CHAPTER 1, Brendan Purcell presents us with a personal invitation to explore ourselves in the company of the greatest explorers of the soul in human history. Without recovering these landmark breakthrough insights, we simply won't possess the spiritual self-understanding we're going to need to address the questions involved in discussing evolution and creation.

    It's as a result of this deeper dimension, I think, that the way he conducts his examination of the issues opts for light over heat. Running like a row of bright street lights through the book are quotations from the scientists whose specialisms he is considering. His whole approach pulses with a palpable spirituality of respect even for those with he has to disagree.

    The main theoretical tool he uses to analysis of the methods of science and other kinds of inquiry is Bernard Lonergan's massive and ground-breaking analysis of human understanding (pp. 246-248).

    In Chapters 3 and 4 Purcell challenges the frequent suggestion that because there are levels of laws from sub-atomic physics upwards, it follows that the universe and the occurrence of life in it are determined from below. In place of this determinism, he proposes Lonergan's open architecture model of 'emergent probability' for world process and the development of life on earth showing how the laws on higher levels are conditioned but not determined by the laws on lowers levels.. These sections of the book are the theoretically most elegant parts of his analysis.

    CHAPTER 4 reviews the different models of evolution from Darwin onwards and the opposing ‘-isms' in the resulting controversies, and addresses the inadequate differentiations between the appropriate methods of the natural sciences and the appropriate ways for exploring creation, (pp. 107-134).

    Then he presents Lonergan's model of ‘development', an open architecture model of reality in which the lower levels of causality do not determine higher, and the higher levels of intelligibility are not reducible to the lower pp. 134-136).

    He turns then to the relationship between the hominids and us in chapters five and six. Taking the Neanderthals, he discusses the implications FOR THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH US of their DNA, brain size, tool making, burials without grave goods, and their physiological limits for sound-making (pp. 151-163).

    He then applies Lonergan's open architecture model of development to show that similarities and differences in body structure and function between us and hominids don't entail determinism in causality from lower to higher, or reductionism in explanation from higher to lower. The similarities don't mean we are animals (164-169).

    CHAPTER 6 follows the paleoscientists search for a theoretical language for the difference between hominids and human beings, while acknowledging the similarities. He notes especially their use of the phrase, ‘the human revolution', with its sense of a break with a gradualist view of ‘evolution' as inadequate to catch the discontinuities of behaviour and physiological foundation.

    (pp. 174-177). After looking at the competing theories of where and when we first occurred, he concludes: ‘To sum up, we could say the multiregional theory, and McBrearty and Brooks theory of gradualism, both dissolve the question of specifically human emergence by collapsing the notion of the human back into the group of pre-hominids, so they can see humans emerging with the more advanced erectines anytime from 300,000 years ago. The Out of Africa theory on the other hand seems to focus better on the specifically human. Having revised its proposed dating of the human revolution backwards in time, it accepts the evidence of intentional symbolic activity, currently dated to 164,000 years ago at Pinnacle Point as the present earliest indication of the existence of Homo Sapiens.' (p. 181).

    In CHAPTER 7 Purcell shows how DNA evidence shows humankind's descent from one female ancestor (pp. 191-194) and one male ancestor (pp. 194-195). He then lines up the one-to-one correspondence BETWEEN the cluster of brain and vocal tract specificities of the human body AND the conditions needed for human language, understanding and moral freedom to occur (pp. 197-206).

    In CHAPTER 8 Purcell brings into play the immense theoretical framework elaborated by philosopher Eric Voegelin which provides a philosophical analysis of the role of symbolization in rendering articulate and transparent our human quest for the divine Ground of our existence. (pp. 35-36, note 2). He applies Voegelin's ‘depth grammar' of human symbolization (pp. 214-219) to show how we can see equivalence between our quest for the meaning of life in our relationship with the divine Origin of our existence and the quest expressed in the earliest human symbols.

    I his discussion of language Purcell again deploys Lonergan's open architecture model of development to show that there is no need to import determinism to account for the origin of language.

    In CHAPTER 9 Purcell recalls ‘the enormous breakthrough in the study of human understanding made by Bernard Lonergan' (p. 241, note 126; pp. 246-248). Lonergan's method of cognitive self-appropriation is empirically verifiable to anyone retracing his steps.

    For Purcell, John Henry Newman represents living the truth, Socrates, willingness to die for the truth, and Sophie Scholl, executed by the Nazis, willingness to die rather than back down from denouncing evil. Then he shows the incoherence of Richard Dawkins' and Daniel Dennett's determinist denials of moral freedom.

    In CHAPTER 10, Purcell shows that our interiority as human beings is constituted by ‘orientations towards beauty, meaning, truth and goodness' (p. 270) But how far do these orientations reach? Purcell answers, ‘The range of our feeling and imagination, of our understanding and our effective freedom, while still rooted in incarnate finitude, opens out to a transfinite horizon of beauty, truth and goodness.' (p. 271)

    Purcell sees the strongest revelation of our humanity in the way we treat one another in the most difficult situations. His crucial example is another Nazi victim, Etty Hillesum: ‘And whether or not I am a valuable human being will become clear only from my behaviour in more arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.' (p. 284)

    For Purcell this is the litmus test: ‘It is no accident that the clearest examples of lived truth and freedom are those made in the light of the threat of our biological destruction, since such a readiness to live out that truth and those decisions is like a crucial experiment on the human spirit.' (p. 285)

    In CHAPTER 11, the final chapter, Purcell slowly and meticulously builds up to the diamond phrase that catches his highest insight into what we are as human beings, inspired again by Etty Hillesum, ‘each one a you-for-You' (p. 296). Our person-to-Person openness to the divine is the constitutive core of our humanity, and it is on this foundation that we are all equal and unconditionally precious as human beings.

    But Purcell has one more surprise to spring on us. He asks, ‘How does a human being come into existence?' He replies by reviewing the current scientific understanding of ‘the moment of conception', drawing on the work of neurobiologist and anatomist, Maureen Condic. But how does a new human being come into existence?

    In answering that question, Purcell starts from the point the inquiry reached in chapter 10, that each of us is ‘a you whose orientation is intrinsically transfinite.'(p. 316)

    And he moves to the this magnificent conclusion: ‘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. 316)

    As a divine act of creation is needed to bring the universe itself into existence, so also, he says, quoting Voegelin, ‘the epiphany of structures in reality - be they atoms, molecules, genes, biological species, races, human consciousness, or language - is a mystery inaccessible to explanation'. (pp. 226-227; also p. 103) And the highest example in the universe of this mystery of creation is the coming into existence of new human beings, ‘each one a you-for-You'.

    I have spent most of my adult life involved in pro-life work. When I read Purcell's account of how an individual human life comes into existence, I realised this book has made a new and unique contribution to our understanding of why unborn human life is unconditionally precious.

    More generally, this book has brought something new to the discussions of the relationships between creation and evolution, the radical proposal that the practice of re-enacting the historical landmark breakthroughs in human self-understanding achieved in Classical Philosophy and in the Judaeo-Christian tradition generates in the inquirer the understanding of what human beings are that is needed to distinguish among the data of paleontology between hominid and human, and Lonergan's open architecture model of world process and development provides a way to reconcile the presence on each level of reality of characteristic range of causality without thereby entailing determinism upwards or reductionism downwards.
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