Our Apparent Anthropocentric Universe
The Copernican Revolution dethroned man and our planet from being in the center of creation. The Earth became just another planet orbiting the Sun, and the Sun became just another star adrift in a sea of stars in the cosmos. Interestingly enough Kepler’s law of equal areas in equal time explanation saved the appearances of perfection of circular orbits that Copernicus was still in the thrall of. It took Newton to outline the mathematical laws that explained orbital geometry.
Even this revolution in humanities view of itself being pushed off to the margins astronomically speaking did little to impact religion, faith, or the human conceit that our favored race was at the center of creation in a biological sense. It took Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to really dethrone man, and move man from the center of creation, to just being another animal evolving or going extinct as many other plants and animals in the long history of the Earth have.
Immanuel Kant in the” Critique of Pure Reason” postulated that what man knows is a world permeated with his knowledge, and that the laws of science are built into a framework of his cognition. In other words the mind does not conform to things; rather, things conform to the mind. By this rationality we mean there are no facts, just interpretations.
Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper pretty much brought the same identification of the limits to knowledge to science that Kant injected into philosophy. Science typically proceeds by seeking confirmation of existing paradigms and to gather facts in the light of prevailing theory. I am old enough to remember when Black Holes were just a mathematical construct and astronomers doubted such a thing really existed. Now we know Black Holes are common place objects located in the center of most galaxies and distributed around the galaxy.
Religion has been in a long retreat since the Copernican Revolution. One of religion’s major premises, the miracle, has been found seriously wanting in the light of scientific explanations for most phenomena. If you ask people they will tell you they think religion is a good idea. I take this to mean that they don’t really believe, but that they think religion will provide a good moral climate for their children. I would characterize religious sentiment such as this, as being a mile wide but only an inch deep.
Finally there is language itself. The basic modern perspective is that all human thought is generated and bound by idiosyncratic cultural-linguistic forms. The various structures of language demonstrate no connection with an independent reality. Language is a “cage” (Wittgenstein). Moreover meaning itself can be shown to be unstable, because the context that determines meaning can never be fixed. Text refer only to other text in an infinite regress. Nothing certain can be said about the nature of truth, except that it is, as Richard Rorty put it, “it is what our peers will let us get away with saying.
So where does that leave us. We appear to live in a Universe of at least a few hundred billion galaxies, with each galaxy populated by at least a few hundred billion stars on average. We live on one small planet orbiting an average sized star in one of these galaxies. The Universe is at least 13.7 billion years old according to the latest studies made using the Hubble Space Telescope to do standard candle analysis of supernova in distant galaxies. Where a personal God is embedded in all this is hard to say? The idea that the one God who presides over all this creation really came to Earth two thousand years ago in the form of his son to sacrifice himself to save our souls in a backwater location like Palestine seems immensely implausible to say the least.
And yet we find modern humans inhabiting this planet in this technological day and age who somehow still feel (think is too strong a word) that we are the center of it all. It is alright for humans to take over the planet completely and exploit every ecological niche. The oceans, well we can just strip mine them of all the large fish we can catch until the fisheries of the entire world’s seven oceans collapse. That there is no need to control our numbers and that somehow magically no matter how many of us there are science and technology will provide.
To turn a profit a very small percentage of humanity need (no, have a divine right) to be fabulously wealthy beyond the dreams of any historical king or potentate even if it undermines the stability of the Earth’s climate, or the habitability of the planet. No matter if the ocean levels raise sixty or even two hundred feet, they won’t be around when it happens, and it is their children’s, children’s problems, not theirs. Burning the 570 Giga Tons of carbon left in the remaining extractable fossil fuels will do all that, and more devastating billions of people, but that is the current standard business model.
Somehow, some way the human mind and ego has to turn a cognitive corner, have a life altering epiphany so to speak. We know intellectually that we are not the center of creation either astronomically or biologically speaking. When is the human race going to reach mature adulthood and stop being the center of creation egocentrically speaking?
This question of retaining infantile characteristics into adulthood is what is going to decide if we are a failed species from an evolutionary standpoint, that is, if we go extinct. It may well be that the development of a human cognitive intellect was a mistake; a mistake evolution is ultimately going to undo. It will be our choice really, grow up as a species, or pass life’s baton on to another species whom we know not yet.
Addendum: Many of my quotes here on Kant, Kuhn, and Popper are taken from a really good book I highly recommend to my readers titled “The Passion of the Western Mind” by Richard Tarnas published in 1991 by Ballantine Books.
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