Three Big Bangs of Matter, Life and Mind

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* Book: Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind. Holmes Rolston III. Columbia University Press, 2010



"By dividing the creation of matter, energy, life, and mind into three big bangs, Holmes Rolston III brings into focus a history of the universe that respects both scientific discovery and the potential presence of an underlying intelligence. Matter-energy appears, initially in simpler forms but with a remarkable capacity for generating heavier elements. The size and expansion rate of the universe, the nature of electromagnetism, gravity, and nuclear forces enable the the explosion of life on Earth. DNA discovers, stores, and transfers information generating billions of species. Cognitive capacities escalate, and with neural sentience this results in human genius.

A massive singularity, the human mind gives birth to language and culture, increasing the brain's complexity and promoting the spread of ideas. Ideas generate ideals, which lead life to take on spirit. The nature of matter-energy, genes, and their genesis therefore encourages humans to wonder where they are, who they are, and what they should do."



Brendan Larson:

"The first big bang was, of course, the account from astrophysics of the origin of the universe, but Rolston argues that the subsequent origin of life (introducing "proactive, agentive" information into the universe) and of the human mind were equally big bangs through which emerged entirely new possibility spaces. He adopts "big bang" as a "metaphor for critical, exponential, nonlinear bursts" (p. ix), alongside alternatives such as "explosion," "singularity," or "phase transition." In three clearly written chapters, he justifies the significance of each big bang, tying them into a coherent account of universal evolution.

Whatever else this book might be, it is one punctuated by superlatives: one learns that a person contains more atoms (1028) than there are stars in the universe (p. 18), that DNA replication occurs at the speed of a jet plane (p. 50), and that the number of potential human thoughts (1070,000,000,000) is vastly more than the number of atoms in the visible universe (1080, p. 95). Rolston's account certainly makes you feel lucky to be part of and aware of existence: many physicists cannot help but question whether the universe was fine-tuned by the first big bang for the origin of life such as ourselves, and it really does seem remarkable that we're here and able to reflect at all. There appears to be no reason the universe couldn't have had alternate laws, but the ones it does have are just right (the so-called anthropic principle). As just one of multiple examples, if the expansion rate of the universe had been infinitesimally smaller or greater, it would not have existed long enough for life to evolve (p. 17). The "matheomorphic" structure of the universe further suggests that mind underlies it all (p. 6).

A recurring theme for Rolston is whether the subsequent big bangs were predestined from the first or whether they were governed by chance. He reviews the arguments of scholars who conclude that the evolution of life was contingent as opposed to those who conclude that if you re-ran the tape life-forms remarkably similar to those we see around us would have evolved. By the end, though, one could query the pragmatic value of the question: Rolston concludes that life is "remarkable" (p. 83) whether inevitable or contingent, whether based on nomothetic laws, idiographic events, or an admixture of both.

Throughout, the book heavily relies on Rolston's interpretation of contemporary science and in my view falls prey to scientism. Rolston acknowledges that the precision of mathematics and physics only scratches the surface of life's complexity and that a "theory of everything" would not account for the "infinitely complex" (p. 49) scale of the human being, but he doesn't take this far enough. In particular, his final big bang relies on his account of the distinctiveness of humans relative to other animals based on frequent comparison to our closest relatives, the apes. The problem is that, within the past few years, renowned journals have published evidence of self-awareness (based on mirror self-recognition) in not just humans and great apes, as he assumes, but also dolphins, elephants, rhesus monkeys, and, within another vertebrate class, in the magpie (Plotnik et al. 2006, 2011; Prior et al. 2008; Rajala et al. 2010). Recent evidence also suggests that "ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others" (Fraser et al. 2010). Though human culture and language may be distinctive, providing support for the claim that "Humans are a radically new kind of species on Earth" (p. 113), there is increasing evidence for an evolutionary continuity of animal consciousness and significant questions still remain. At the very least, these recent results raise further questions about whether the discreteness of the "big bang" metaphor is appropriate for the evolutionary realm.

In this context, it is critical to recollect the extent to which such scientific findings are shaped by the questions we ask."


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