Sunday, 1 August 2021

Neither we nor the Earth are special?

Annaka Harris, the wife of Sam Harris, says in a recent article:

Each transformative shift in our understanding of the universe has delivered the ego-shattering message that we’re not special—Earth is not the center of the universe, and life, including the human brain, is made up of the same particles as the stars.


This is a widespread view, particularly amongst academics. But, I don't regard it as being accurate. 

We need to bear in mind that the notion that we are not special is, to a large measure, a result of the birth of the mechanistic philosophy in the 17th Century and the materialism it engendered (see my Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia). 
At least amongst educated people, this resulted in the widespread conviction that we are merely sophisticated biological machines and that our apparent free will is illusory.  This, in turn, seemed to imply that there is no God, no soul, that we are mere puppets of external forces, and, to cap it all, this is the only life we have.

However, as I have extensively argued in this blog, we have no reason to believe any of this. On the contrary, we are obliged to conclude the following:

  1. Consciousness is fundamentally different from any material thing or process (see my Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out).
  2. That it's very much an open question whether brains somehow produce consciousness (see my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife).
  3. That our consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious (see my A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism).

   

What about the Earth?  Is it true that it is not special?

It might be true that Earth isn't at the centre of the Universe.  Indeed, current understanding tells us there is no centre.  But, nevertheless, Earth might be special, indeed extremely special should the rare Earth hypothesis be correct.   The argument here is life arose on Earth due to a long series of extremely improbable events, all of which had to take place before the Earth had any chance of developing complex life. 

Then there is the fact that the constants of nature appear to be eerily fine-tuned so as to allow life to appear in the Universe (even if the Earth is the sole planet in the Universe to actually harbour complex life).

Then there is the nature of the material world and the laws that govern it. Our  investigations of the microscopic realm have revealed the existence of a bewildering plethora of subatomic particles whose behaviour is described by quantum mechanics rather than the classical mechanics of commonsense.  If the world were as it seemed prior to just 200 years ago -- that is governed by Newtonian mechanics and lacking such an intricate structure -- then virtually none of our modern technology would have been possible.  Is this just fortuitous, or is something else going on?

On this note it is curious that the world, on the one hand, is of sufficient complexity to allow the existence of our modern-day technology, but, on the other, is not so abstruse that we human beings are unable to grasp it and profit from its complexity in the creation of our technology. A complexity that human beings are capable of fathoming, but apparently no other animal on this planet.
So, arguably, it is almost as if the world were contrived, somehow, to be like this?

I think we live in a very curious and perplexing Universe.  Not only stranger than we imagine, but, perhaps, stranger than we can imagine. Indeed, arguably, it seems contrived by something -- whoever or whatever that something might be -- to allow for the existence of complex life, even if it only exists on this one planet. In summary, in my opinion, we lack compelling reasons to justify the assertion that neither we nor the Earth are special.

2 comments:

  1. I think we have to differentiate. Life and consciousness are special, but not the human being as such. And why should the belief in God necessitate the belief in human's exceptionalism? We might well believe that God did not create the universe for us, bit for life and the emergence of consciousness, and that we are not something particularly special in the evolutionary history. Eventually we will be surpassed by a more evolved species making us appear as monkeys in comparison.

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    Replies
    1. I grant that human beings are not of a different *type* to other mammals. Indeed, contrary to many scientists beliefs in this regard, I believe that other mammals are just as conscious as we are and that they can experience most of, if not all, the emotions that we humans experience. That is, I believe mammals can feel love, jealousy, and fear etc. My beliefs here are derived from my own experience with dogs and cats and from what I have read. All this also seems to be consonant with the lessons of evolutionary theory.

      Most pertinently, if we reject that brains in human beings somehow produce consciousness then this surely applies to other mammals brains too. Hence, if our essence is a soul and we survive our deaths, then so will other mammals too and perhaps all conscious animals.

      So human beings are not special in the sense of being of a radically different nature or essence to other animals. But human beings are special in that we seem to be more intelligent than other animals. We do appear to be very different, although not always in a good way.

      I imagine that any type of "God" wouldn't create the Universe exclusively for us. Maybe we're the most important, maybe not. I feel probably not, but . .God knows.

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