Happy Holidays. Some Things To Keep You Thinking

Another semester done. Perhaps for some of you it was your first semester. With that, another batch of final exams to read and some very good responses to our final essay.

The essay’s essence is this: How do we–personally, or humanity as a whole–think about our place in the world in light of the scientific advances in subjects such as biodiversity, Earth science, neuroscience, and astronomy?

I enjoyed reading students’ responses. Several were personal: the topics we studied and discussed over the semester presented all of us with a new set of perspectives on the world. It seems that at times these new views bolstered beliefs that some students already held–the necessity for us humans to try to develop new, more sustainable ways of interacting with our planet for example. At other times, the ideas we explored were simply awe inspiring–contemplating the vastness of the Cosmos and its strange constituents and behavior (dark matter, expansion). Some students were downright disturbed; neuroscience’s Astonishing Hypothesis–the notion that all that we are, our perceptions, memories, impulses, fears, joys, and sorrows, even the feeling that we are the primary movers of our “Selves”, our senses of free will and self, are nothing more than a complicated dance of electrochemical action potentials  flickering around a three pound lump of matter in our craniums.

A theme that emerged in many of the essays was that our prejudice as humans, the almost reflexive instinct to place ourselves at Creation’s center, is a casualty of science’s progress. We used to consider ourselves central to the plan governing the Cosmos, yet we are continually pushed outward, to the outer provinces of the cosmic landscape we are charting: our planet isn’t central, it orbits the Sun. The Sun is merely one of some hundred billion stars in a galaxy, which in turn is one of a similar magnitude’s worth of galaxies in the observable universe. Even the remarkable discovery that almost all galaxies are rushing away from us reveals our lack of centrality. It is not evidence that we inhabit a unique location in space, but rather, that space itself is expanding. In fact, the simplest model suggests that space has no center!

Our study of Brain and Behavior only served to sharpen and personalize this theme. As I mentioned before, our sense of self, our sense that we can freely impose our will on our bodies and our surroundings is challenged by the reductive view that all of these perceptions are actually the residual by-products of the complex interchange of stimuli of neurons.

Given the accumulation of scientific understanding that is built on these assumptions–the principle that we inhabit a typical part of the Universe, the Astonishing Hypothesis–it is easy to believe that we humans are indeed marginalized, even within our own bodies. That would certainly be a consistent position, but it does not logically follow. The complexity of our microscopic selves and the emergence of our more familiar first-person sense of self and the world around us is still rich with mystery.

And paradoxically, as progress in science appears to push us to a more marginal view of ourselves, the self-same progress reveals the profound impact we are beginning to have on our cosmic home, the Earth, and our home’s fellow inhabitants. In fact, it is part of the reason that our activities are taking their toll. Through a combination of tool use, problem solving, and better forms of social organization, the human species has become a global force whose impact on other species and the overall environment is comparable in magnitude to the planetary impact that simple, single-celled life had (and continues to have).

Up until relatively recently, we as a species have remained oblivious to this strange position we find ourselves in. But we now confront uncomfortable choices: to act on the knowledge that we gain through science, accepting our important global role and beginning the process of altering our ways of interacting with the natural world, a process that is potentially painful in the short-run (although not likely to be as painful as skeptics and critics claim); or we can blithely ignore what we are learning, delude ourselves into thinking that we will somehow muddle through, and risk all of the hard won progress and achievements that we humans have made. The world will go on, life will likely go on, but drastic change can happen, and the mightiest can be laid low.

Speaking at a commencement, the astronomer Carl Sagan considered an image from space of a ray of sunlight, with a small reflective twinkle caught up in it:

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

We may not be central to the Cosmos’ workings, but the life on our world will never come again. The histories, myths and legends of our cultures will not be remembered by others. Being part of a vast and almost infinitely complex cosmos means that we are incalculably unique. Our ability to understand this and to extend it to our world as a whole is a gift. This is the view I take from science. I think it is a powerful argument to cherish this place and to relish our amazing ability to gaze outward and inward and marvel at what we find.

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