Internationally acclaimed philosopher Holmes Rolston III tells an audience drawn from across campus that the big-bang origin of the universe and its subsequent development over billions of years suggests that the start-up was a set-up, perhaps involving a transcendent presence. (Photo by Mike Zucconi)

Renowned thinker on the intersection of evolution, ecology and ‘a transcendent presence’ visits EMU

One of the 20th century’s great thinkers, Holmes Rolston III, offered a small ripple of his big-vision thoughts – on cherishing the environment and feeling awe for the evolution of life – with two low-key presentations in a morning chapel and an afternoon colloquium at Eastern Mennonite University on October 23.

Rolston summed up his message with these pithy words: “The start-up looks like a set-up.”

In the colloquium, Rolston focused on whether the big-bang origin of all matter and its subsequent exponential movement toward increasing complexity and diversity possibly “signals a transcendent presence” in the universe. He stressed that what occurred during the first few microseconds of time following the big bang has led through various uniquely synchronized processes to precisely what was necessary to eventually support the beginnings of the forms of life known to us today.

Referencing his latest book, Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind (Columbia University Press, 2010), Rolston elaborated on three big-bang points he sees over billions of years: (1) the start-up of the universe, involving the origin of matter-energy; (2) the explosion of life on earth; and (3) the development of the human mind.

Awesome human brain

Rolston pointed out that the human brain emerged suddenly about 1.5-2 million years ago and became the fastest growing organ yet seen. The development in humans of the ability to speak and form words to communicate has made non-genetic learning possible, using sophisticated methods of transmitting knowledge and culture. Unique to humans, Rolston argued, was the development of self-consciousness, leading us to detect the presence of something greater than ourselves.

In spite of the awesome capacity of the human mind today, Rolston emphasized that “some things are over our heads [and] … we just don’t know,” as in the question of whether evolution has happened due to design, chance, necessity or other factors.

Rolston’s talk drew faculty members and administrators from almost every corner of the campus – biology, environmental science, business and economics, mathematics, Bible and religion, visual and communications arts, nursing, history, language and literature, seminary, information systems, marketing and communications, physical plant, graduate studies, and the president’s office.

Rolston was clearly at home with his material – moving efficiently through his lecture points, echoed on his PowerPoint slides – before he concluded by showing an iconic scene from the 1968 movie 2001 Space Odyssey regarding the gap between a primate’s ability to wield a bone as a hammer and humans’ space travel.

Father of environmental ethics

Rolston is credited with being the first scholar to articulate a philosophical basis for protecting the environment from human abuse. He thus helped to usher in the environmental protection movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He has written numerous books, book chapters and journal articles on the subject, including Environmental Ethics (Temple University Press, 1988) and Conserving Natural Value (Columbia University Press, 1994)

At age 80, Rolston is one of several dozen living recipients of the prestigious Templeton Prize, awarded annually since 1972 to an individual “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” Rolston was the 2003 recipient, joining such influential people as Mother Teresa, Nobel Physics Laureate Charles Hard Townes, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Prison Fellowship founder Charles W. Colson, and the Dalai Lama. The 2013 Templeton Prize went to Desmond Tutu, along with $1.7 million in award money.

Rolston’s bio says he has written chapters in 80 books and over 100 articles and been cited by scholars over 1,000 times. It says his words have been translated, reviewed and cited in journals and books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Finnish, Czechoslovakian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovenian, Slovak, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese.

Native of the Valley

During his visit to EMU, Rolston alluded to growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, in Staunton, as the son and grandson of Presbyterian pastors. In his first adult career, he became an ordained minister and served as a Presbyterian pastor for nine years.

“I grew up barefoot, roaming the woods, in the rural countryside. I always had a kind of interest in the natural world that came from … having spent a lot of time with the ground under my feet and the sky over my head,” he said in a 1997 article in the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine.

After earning a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1958 and an MA in the philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1968, Rolston gained renown for his arguments in favor of viewing the natural world as having intrinsic value beyond its usefulness to humans; Rolston felt there was a religious imperative for respecting nature or creation. Others, such as poets, painters and explorers, had expressed such feelings, but Rolston was one of the first to approach the topic as an academic philosopher, laying the groundwork for the field of environmental ethics.

Rolston has been based at Colorado State University since the late 1960s and was named Distinguished Professor there in 1992. In 1997-98, he was the Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, joining an illustrious group of lecturers since 1881 that includes Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, Charles Taylor and Steven Pinker.

Rolston visited EMU as a guest of the Shenandoah Anabaptist Science Society, an EMU group promoting dialogue between science and Christian faith.