Putting Humanity on a Pedestal

The history of the human species is, as Carl Sagan put it, a series of great demotions. Prior to the scientific age, humanity believed that we were the crowning glory of creation, and that all the universe existed merely to pay tribute to us. But the advances in understanding brought about by the dawning of the Age of Reason steadily undermined this belief, and though the partisans of superstition fought viciously against every new piece of knowledge, they have been steadily losing ground.

The first of these demotions, the Copernican revolution and the subsequent findings of astronomers, revealed that the Earth is not the center of creation, but is merely one planet among others orbiting our sun, less than a speck of dust when compared to the terrible vastness and majesty of the cosmos. The forces of religion fought against this for a long time, but they have at last, for the most part, come to accept it.

But the next blow cut against our sense of exalted specialness more keenly: the Darwinian revolution revealed that the human race is not the apex of life, specially created and separate from all other species, but rather one product among many of the process of evolution, deeply and intricately related to all other living things. Worse, the process that produced us was not one of intelligent and planned foresight, but of blind trial and error, forging species in the cauldron of random chance and ruthless natural selection. Some religious believers have come to an accommodation with this, but very many of them are still fighting fiercely against it.

And finally, in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.

Today, the iron grip that the churches once had on society has been broken, and in its place flourishes a diverse marketplace of ideas. Competing with traditional religion is a wide variety of superstitions, pseudosciences and other popular delusions. However, despite their surface diversity, I believe that all these belief trends share two remarkable similarities. One, of course, is the privileging of faith over reason and the rejection of evidence-based methods as the appropriate way to learn about the world. But the other, which I have observed that a remarkable number of superstitious beliefs have in common, is anthropocentrism – that the universe regards us as special, that human beings are in some sense built in to the laws of physics. Despite the successive scientific revolutions that have revealed progressively more of our true place in the grand scheme of things, uncritical thinkers the world over continue to cling to the belief that the cosmos holds us in special regard.

The pseudoscience of astrology is without a doubt the most glaring example. Astrologers advocate the outrageously arrogant belief that a whole galaxy of stars exists only as a backdrop to our daily lives. It is easy, from our limited perspective, to forget that the stars we see in the night sky are not just tiny twinkles of light but massive nuclear furnaces of unimaginable size and power, cosmic engines far older than our solar system next to which human beings and even the whole planet Earth are insignificantly tiny. Yet astrologers would have us believe that the suns are somehow united in concern about the lives of people.

Claims of psychic power also suffer from the anthropocentric fallacy. There is no basis in the ordinary laws of nature for such a phenomenon (the garbled versions of quantum mechanics often put forward by true believers notwithstanding). The only way such a thing could work would be if mind and consciousness were somehow special phenomena, singled out by the laws of physics and qualitatively unlike everything else that exists. But, again, there is no basis in the facts for this anthropocentric special pleading. All our scientific investigations of the mind have revealed our thoughts and our emotions are physical, neurochemical processes, no more capable of directly influencing distant events than striking a ball with a pool cue can cause another ball on the other side of the table to spontaneously jump in sympathy. We are not in a class of our own when it comes to the laws of physics; our minds are constructed according to them just like everything else.

Even certain kinds of alternative medicine, I would argue, are fallacious in this way. In particular, I would point to those varieties of non-evidence-based medicine which assert that there are “natural” cures for every possible health ailment. Only the arrogantly anthropocentric view that nature was created for our benefit, that it “owes” us cures for the things that afflict us, could lead to such a belief. Although there are many natural compounds that have beneficial effects on humans, it is unreasonable to believe that every illness can be cured by raw natural substances without significant effort or processing.

Finally, many kinds of fundamentalist religion take part in this same delusion. It is particularly acute in, for example, the young-earth creationists who literally believe that the entire universe was created for the sake of human beings, and that all it contains matters only in relation to us – that all the distant galaxies, massive stars and nebulae light-years across are significant only as “lights” for our use and admiration, and that all those stellar entities will be destroyed on our judgment day, when “the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll” (Isaiah 34:4). It is as if all the history of the cosmos is irrelevant, a prop to be waved aside as soon as our needs take priority. How can such a worldview not be described as prideful and arrogant? How can it not be described as giving a supreme importance to humans that is not supported by any evidence?

The number of times human beings have declared themselves the center of the universe, and subsequently been proven wrong, should give us a healthy skepticism of any new hypothesis that considers our existence as somehow special. Since pseudoscience and superstition are primarily about wish fulfillment, it is no surprise that many outgrowths of that basic credulity would in some way elevate us to privileged status.

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