Science Doesn’t Have All The Answers
Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
5 Oct 2011
Despite the giant leaps made by science over the past century, scientists are still unable to explain the huge difference between humans and all living beings, says Father Brendan Purcell.
“When science examines the origins and evolution of human beings more questions are raised than are answered,” he says.
Now Fr Purcell, Assistant Priest at St Mary’s Cathedral and an internationally renowned academic who taught philosophical anthropology at University College, Dublin for more than four decades, has written a ground-breaking book that explores these issues and answers to the ultimate question: where did human beings come from.
Called “From the Big Bang to the Big Mystery: Human Origins in Light of Creation and Evolution,” the book will be launched this Friday, 7 October by the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell at the University of Notre Dame’s Broadway campus where Fr Purcell is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy.
When it was released internationally three months ago by Irish publishers, Veritas, the book garnered widespread praise across Britain and the US.
A fascinating, accessible and detailed study of humans, their distinct differences from all other mammals and creatures on earth, Fr Purcell’s strongly argued thesis is that it is not only the human that searches for the divine but the divine that seeks out the human.
Described by an English reviewer as giving “philosophical anthropology a new lease on life,” he went on to praise Fr Purcell’s work as “an astonishing, learned and profoundly moving book where the author was able to move easily best scientific data on evolutionary genetics to mystical affirmations of God.”
In the US, reviews of From Big Bang to the Big Mystery were equally fulsome with Stephen M. Barr, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Delaware calling Fr Purcell’s book “comprehensive, wise and of startling philosophic clarity, combing combining the latest discoveries in paleoanthropology, genetics, neuroscience, linguistics and other sciences with the insights of thinkers from Xenophanes, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle to Eric Voegelin and Bernard Lonergan.”
Even before the 13th Century when Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of both science and philosophy.
The original Big Bang Theory to explain the origin of the Universe was first postulated by Belgium priest, Mgr Georges Lemaitre in 1927, and now 80 years later Fr Purcell is tackling the “Big Bang of Human Consciousness.”
But even though Lemaitre’s Big Bang theory has become the prevalent view of the world’s leading astrophysicists and astronomers, Fr Purcell points out that like the beginning of human consciousness, scientists are at a loss to adequately explain the origin of the Universe and “why there is something rather than nothing.”
Professor of Philosophy at
University of Notre Dame
He describes questions such as these, which are raised by the natural sciences but cannot be fully answered by them as “boundary questions.”
“The origin of human beings is a boundary question, one we can explore, compare and on which we can do a large amount of work, but which we still can’t explain,” he says. “We have no explanation for the development of human qualities such the mind, intellect, the concept of freedom, understanding, compassion and language. Nor can we explain self-awareness which is not apparent in any other being.”
While we know the modern facts of biology, when it comes to the principles of life Fr Purcell says we are at a loss and scientists, no matter how hard they try, cannot explain the vast difference between human beings and all other living creatures or plants.
“Humans and their level of development cannot be explained simply by what went before,” he says using the Chauvet Cave in Southern France which was discovered in 1994 as an example.
for the British launch of his book
Featuring the earliest paintings by humans and dating back between 30,000 and 32,000 years, the murals of Chauvet are almost twice as old at those discovered in France’s famous Lascaux Cave which were painted during the Paleolithic era, 17,200 years ago.
At Chauvet, which is now the subject of the just released film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 13 different species of animals are depicted including mammoths, lions, panthers, bears, rhinos and hyenas. But for Fr Purcell what is most remarkable is the fact that the cave paintings use three quick strokes around the animal in the same way modern cartoonists’ do to suggest movement and speed.
“Even in this prehistoric era at the dawn of history, people had already learned how to pick out the essentials of what they saw, and not only translate the three dimensional into two dimensions in their paintings, but they had worked out what was important and what could be omitted. This shows an understanding that goes beyond image into meaning,” he says explaining that as well as the artist, those who viewed the paintings were able to recognise the animal and in their minds, fill in the details that had been left out.
This is something beyond any other creatures’ abilities and unique to humans, even to those men and women of pre historic times whom many popularly believe were descended from apes and had only just begun to walk upright.
But the differences between humans and other living beings don’t stop there. The human frontal area of the brain is unique and deals with the reception and production of speech. Despite trials and attempts to teach language to chimpanzees and gorillas, only humans communicate and are able to understand the complexities of language, linguistics, plays on words and symbolism.
“Animals operate on instinct. But this is not built into us. We are not programmed to be human and we have to learn how to live as humans which is why human infants are so dependant for the first seven or eight years of their lives,” Fr Purcell explains. “Unlike animals, humans also continue to live many years after their ability to reproduce has disappeared.”
These are just some of the many differences in humans that cannot be explained except by a belief in God and what Fr Purcell calls “the immense Odyssey of the human spirit and its thirst for transcendence.”
All are welcome when Cardinal Pell launches the book in Australia at St Benedict’s Building, 104 Broadway at the Sydney Campus of the University of Notre Dame at 5 pm on Friday, 7 October.
From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution by Fr Brendan Purcell (Veritas, rrp $32.95) is available from the Mustard Seed Bookshop, Lidcombe.