Friday, October 18, 2013

Anthropocentrism I

The great intellectual accomplishment of the Copernican Revolution, according to a certain version of the story of religion and science, was the displacement of humanity from the center of the cosmos. Scientific investigation is supposed to have progressively called into question the sort of anthropocentrism one finds in religious texts. The eastern wisdom traditions (Buddhism and Hinduism, in particular) do not necessarily fall prey to this sort of criticism. But the anthropocentrism of the revelatory religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which place the human being in the privileged place of being the image of God or the vice-regent of God, runs into difficulties.

What Nicholas Copernicus did accomplish was the spatial displacement of humanity for the center of the cosmos. Instead of celestial objects orbiting the earth, the earth now orbited the sun. After placing the sun at the center of the cosmos, Copernicus speculated further about the possibility others stars might also be suns in their own right, and space might be infinitely greater than almost everyone prior had dared to imagine. Over the next few centuries, scientists grew more and more confident that the location of the earth was astronomically insignificant: the sun was shown to be located in the outer reaches of the Milky Way. Our galaxy, it was further discovered, was one among a great number of galaxies, whose position had no discernible center.

An objection which can be immediately raised is that this spatial centrality and the sort of anthropocentrism found in religious texts are not necessarily equivalents to each other. Regardless whether human beings are in the spatial center of the universe or not, it is not as if human being ever cease to be at the moral center of their own universes. We act with our own intentions in mind, which makes us, in some sense, responsible for our actions.

Let's set aside moral questions for the moment and look more closely at different ways scientists might 'measure' the human being. The most notable scientific challenge to the supposed Copernican displacement of humanity from the center of the cosmos comes from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The argument presented by Darwin in The Descent of Man is that the difference between human beings and other animals is not an absolute different of kind, but a relative difference of degree. All living beings share in the same 'stuff', as it were, but that 'stuff' has a greater density and complexity in the human being than it does other creatures.

The mental capacities of human beings, which Darwin discussed at length, are a case in point. Previous thinkers had pointed to the human mind when they needed to make a case for the absolute dissimilarity between the human being and other animals. For nearly 1500 years Christian and Jewish thinkers had identified the human mind with the image of God. Human beings might share a considerable amount of bodily features in common with other animals, but the mind or the rational part of the soul, was the part of the human being that best reflected God because it was the fountain of human creativity, the seat of the human will, and that which enabled the human being to come to knowledge of the order of nature. Darwin argued that all of those features of the human mental life—memory, emotion, imagination, and even rational thought—could be found in other animals, only this would not have been developed to the same degree. His insistence human being did differ in degree from other animals still leaves the door open for an anthropocentricism of a very different sort: evolutionary superiority.