Not your ancestors’ universe

If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.
-Ronald Wright

Ptolemaic unverse
A term we hear used with some frequency these days is “paradigm shift” as in “(the concern, topic, person, etc) needs/is undergoing/experienced a paradigm shift”. In its original meaning, the term was intended to describe changes in fundamental scientific understanding but its more common usage concerns any perceived change in basic assumptions. As for me, I’ve made use of the term within a fairly narrow band, primarily because “basic assumptions” (basic in the sense that humanity as a whole tends to buy into them) can be hard to find. For the purposes of this complicated argument, I am suggesting that our conceptions of human identity have undergone two or three paradigm shifts as a result of science itself.

Language and how we use it can reveal a great deal about our conceptions of self. Of greatest importance for my purposes is the notion of “self-centredness”, a term I’m confident we all understand. I ask you to think about the term and where it comes from. Why is the “centre” so important to this critique of personality? Consider further all the ways in which we suggest the predominance of something through the use of the term: centre of attention, central character, health centre, political centre, city centre, etc.

While early Greeks and others in the ancient world posited a world view with the earth circling the sun, the prevailing view of the middle ages saw earth occupying that place. Copernicus theorized that the earth wasn’t at the centre and Galileo suffered at the hands of a church unwilling to accept what he presented as scientific proof of the same. Have you ever wondered why it mattered? What was at stake? Religious authority alone?

Inasmuch as the Western world was dominated by the church, in many aspects of life and culture, the religious principle was important but, putting religion aside for a moment, consider our sense of self in relation to our position in the cosmos. If all of us – humanity – are placed at the centre of “creation”, doesn’t that suggest something about our place in the scheme of things? Again, granted, this comes out of a religious conception of a “created” universe, but more importantly, it speaks volumes re humanity’s perception of its importance in the midst of this thing called the cosmos. We are the “centre of the universe”. If that doesn’t contribute to ego (leaping ahead a few centuries), I can’t imagine what would.

Whether theologically or in some other way, it isn’t that hard to see meaning expressed through our placement at the “centre” of all things. For the church at the time, this conception had theological significance: it suggested our importance in the order of creation. Even if you imagine that we exist these days in a post-religious time, the legacy of humanity’s exalted sense of self isn’t hard to see.

Imagine then the paradigm shift in perception/conception required as it begins to dawn on you that rather than being a resident at the centre of all things around which the entirety of creation revolves, you are at home on a small planet in an obscure solar system in a universe that calculates galaxies in the billions. Not that the average person would give it much thought but, with the passage of time, this shift inevitably became the accepted view of the nature of physical reality for all but a few outliers.

You are here
Without meaning to do so, Copernicus – and all those who came after him – not only altered our understanding of the universe, but also dealt a crippling blow to our longstanding sense of self-importance, even if no one made especial note of it immediately. We could still argue that human beings were pretty special but now we needed to base that upon something other than inherent preeminence. As with so many things, this shift came with consequences, both good and bad. (to be continued)

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