The Question of Origins

Have you wondered why matter exists? In fact, why do we exist? Scientists, philosophers and theologians have had to deal with such questions. How did stuff originate? (scientific question) Why did they originate? (philosophical question) Who caused it to be so? (theological question) These three questions of origins continue to tease our curiosity. In my series of lectures in New York, we shall consider the state of understanding for cosmogony, biogenesis and anthropogenesis.

The efforts of philosophers, scientists and theologians working in splendid isolation from each other yields more questions than answers. The time is ripe for these different fields of inquiry employing different reasoning strategies but drawing from a common resource of rationality, to seek a convergence of understanding while maintaining their disciplinary integrities.

What is the relationship between scientific inference and theological reflection with regard to the question of origins? Science infers what we believe to be true by observation and testing. Theology reflects what we believe to be true by developing spiritual insights beyond what may be measured by instrumentation. Thus, a comprehensive view of reality must draw from both fields of inquiry. The wisdom of religious insights long predate modern experimental science and was in fact the impetus behind early natural,philosophers in their quest to seek knowledge about the world to alleviate human suffering. Thus, if science describes the art of discovery, theology describes divine disclosure awaiting discovery. The modern scientific task echoes that of biblical Adam, who “named” created nature, while the modern theological task echoes the scientific goal of understanding nature. From a theological perspective, science is the discovery of divine disclosure (DDD). Some of the most important and enduring questions are “Why is there stuff (universe), life (reproducers), and us (humans) rather than not?” Their existence point to the possibility of meaning and with the natural sciences, we may be able to describe the teleological explanations of theology.

The questions of origins concern the first existence of events — how, when and why they happened. There are three types of events: (a) reproducible, (b) unpredictable, and (c) singular. A reproducible event can be scientifically repeated again and again with predictably similar or even identical results. An unpredictable event can be statistically tabulated for scientific study and provide inferences. But a singular event, such as the origins of the universe, life, humans or mind, can only be subject to legal inquiry — which can only be answered by personal knowledge of what actually happened. Science has no competence to answer any question of origins because the very object of inquiry (e.g., universe, life, humans) gave rise to the possibility of scientific methods in the first place — the human mind is needed to perceive and interpret data obtained by artifacts called tools. It is the evolution of created nature that provided the human mind with the capacity to ask such questions about itself. Any answer that the human mind can generate it conditioned by the cognitive boundaries of perceptual capacities and the vicissitudes of the human experience. This cognitive self-consciousness marks the limit of inquiry about itself.

1. COSMOGONY: ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE

Scientific investigation is premised on methodological naturalism and serves as a powerful tool to infer what happened in the past. Investigating any singular historical event demands a logical rather than a statistical inquiry - unverifiable assumptions are unavoidable. With classical and quantum physics, scientists probe the origin of the universe within the limits of modular investigations. Since it is impossible to recreate this past event, computer modeling projects backwards in time based on known variables today. Since what we know increases over time, such backward projections also change with new knowledge. The Christian doctrine of creation includes the natural world (universe) and the non-natural realm (supernatural refers only to God). The biblical accounts of creation were designed to compete with non-Hebrew accounts of the Ancient Near East and not as a historical or scientific explanation of the cosmos. However, the ancient insights hint at the prescientific awareness that the sky held secrets to knowledge about their creator. Since astrology and astronomy are so historically intertwined with cosmogony, today’s available scientific models of reality about the universe are shaped by philosophical commitments and inevitably tread on theology. Can cosmogonical inferences find convergence with a theological explanation of a creatio originalis undergoing creatio continua, to anticipate a creatio nova?

2. BIOGENESIS: ORIGIN OF LIFE

When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1859, he deliberately left out how life came about. In fact, he was careful to merely postulate the marvel of life but avoid any suggestion that he knew the mechanics of life’s emergence. The reason was that he did not know then and no one knows today. Biogenesis remains one of the greatest mysteries in science, forcing the collaboration of many disciplines. While life may be described in terms of its constituents, this cannot explain the cause that makes a pile of organic stuff sense, react, reproduce, and die. The Christian doctrine of creation describes reproductive matter as having emerged from an intentional (teleological) exercise of divine will. But until the modern experimental study of life’s origins on the planet’s crust, in the ocean and inside the rocks, as well as on extra-terrestrial localities, theology was not faced with the challenge of explaining the Bible’s silence on the ubiquity of life. The Christian origin of life lies in a creatio continua that anticipates a final creatio nova. How then may we converge biogenesis with the Christian doctrine that life is not accidental and its purpose has been declared?

3. ANTHROPOGENESIS: ORIGIN OF HUMANS

Are Homo sapiens sapiens unique in the living world? The scientific similitude of our DNA with other life forms fails to explain our unique ability, e.g., grammatical speech. Our ‘symbolic species’ is able to pass on information through time and space (by writing), possess insights to understanding reality (to guess how things work), and contemplate the future (with imagination, anxiety and hope). The Christian doctrine of creation describes us as made in the image of God (imago Dei). This does not rest merely in our capacities or physiology, but in our relationality with God. Although we share a biological continuity with the rest of nature, the origin of our humanity calls us into fellowship with our creator as ‘the praying animal’. How may we find convergence between paleoanthropology and our self-reflective, morally conscious being who worship and live in expectation of the creatio nova?

These are the questions I seek to frame for an interdisciplinary investigation.

I am an independent, interdisciplinary investigator of the geohistory and philosophy of science and religion