Sunday, October 11, 2015

Anthropocentrism

One of the concepts that comes up from time to time on this blog is that of anthropocentrism, and I thought I ought to discuss it separately to clarify my understanding of it a little. I first became aware of anthropocentrism early in school when I learned about the geocentric theory of the universe and how Copernicus provided the first version of the modern heliocentric model of the solar system. The Roman Catholic Church favored the geocentric model of Ptolemy, which corresponded better with the idea that God had made the universe with mankind at its center. Later I came to focus on how human culture overgeneralizes from some of the arbitrary preferences of our species, and most recently I have thought about how our cognitive structures as earth-evolved organisms may distort our conception of the universe in ways that are difficult for us to see beyond.

I have always enjoyed science fiction movies, books less so, but even when I was young I began to become annoyed by the fact that whenever there were aliens, they tended to be almost exactly the same as humans except for the particulars of their bodies. They were anthropocentric without being anthropomorphic. The stories often seemed like childish fairy tales arbitrarily set in space. I was already grown up by the time Star Wars came along in 1977 and found it slightly entertaining, though from a conceptual standpoint it was annoying to me. Aside from some of the technology in the story and the location in space, there was little to distinguish it from standard epic narratives or ordinary adventure novels. Although I always liked the original The Thing from Another World, from 1955, which strangely starred James Arness of Gunsmoke fame, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968, in which no alien appears, it was not until Alien came out in 1972 that I found a film with an alien that seemed plausible. The Alien alien is scary because it has no human-like feature other than a relentless drive to reproduce, hence it is not presented merely as a variation of human life.

We recently watched the latest sequel to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film that starred Charlton Heston. As usual, the apes are exactly like people, except for having difficulty speaking English, swinging from tree to tree naked and occupying the bodies of non-human primates. From a scientific standpoint the story is complete nonsense, and there may be a racial subtext. The apes and the humans each find the other group violent and untrustworthy, and by the end of the film we see that both groups are in fact violent and untrustworthy. During the course of the film we learn that the apes are like us: they take moral positions, care for their young, etc. This is anthropocentrism at its best in film. If you substitute, "primitive" for "primate," this may just be another way of saying "beneath the skin, we're all the same." The film is an iteration of the familiar Hollywood formula regarding the acceptance of others who at first seem different by recognizing ourselves in them. For me, the film fits my long-running experience, which is that most of the films made in Hollywood target children or childlike adults.

Perhaps the aspect of anthropocentrism that distances me most from conventional thinking is that I see morality as an evolutionary feature of humans that in a strict sense has no relationship to the rest of the universe. From my point of view, humans became moral as a result of a Darwinian accident that is by no means universal. In short, being eusocial and having an innate sense of empathy and cooperation turned out by accident to be sufficiently advantageous to our species to allow it to become encoded in our genes and supported in our social interactions. Thus, I have little patience with arguments that place morality anywhere beyond our collective existence as humans. Religions routinely do this by associating it with the entire universe through the will of God. There are also philosophical arguments that attempt to base morality on reason, and I find them futile.

My view of morality brings into question some ideas that are popular among many Westerners. The most obvious one has to do with invoking a higher authority such as God as a source of direction for all to follow on moral questions. Additionally, I do not believe that people are inherently good or evil; good and evil are misleading constructions, as I said earlier. For me, morality will never be more than a flexible human predisposition, and I strongly believe that it is a mistake to make anything more out of it. Specifically, problems begin to arise as soon as you attempt to apply morality to other species. We have a tendency to inappropriately project our moral beliefs onto other species. Because we empathize with other animals we unwittingly attempt to incorporate them into our moral sphere even when they could never participate in it of their own accord.

To use vegetarianism as an example, there is no simple principle that can justify it according to my views. "It is wrong to eat animals" is incorrect. My translation of that idea into an acceptable form would be: "Humans sometimes become emotionally attached to members of other species and grant them human status that precludes harming them." We are omnivorous animals that have eaten meat throughout our existence, and there is no sensible way that anyone can refute this. The best case for vegetarianism is to present it as personal preference. It is possible that someday it will be easy to obtain food that tastes exactly like meat but does not contain any actual meat, which would make it much easier to become a vegetarian, but in my view that would do nothing to validate the idea of vegetarianism. I believe that if you look at animals from their point of view, generally they have no moral sense at all, and if humans were a part of their diet they would not hesitate to kill us and eat us. A hawk doesn't hesitate to eat a mouse, and the mouse doesn't question the hawk's morality.

The underlying problem of vegetarianism is that we have difficulty modulating our moral sense when other species are involved. The same phenomenon is at work in the concern for animal rights. From my point of view, strictly speaking, animals generally have no rights. The best we can do - and I don't oppose this - is acknowledge that we sometimes feel extremely uncomfortable hurting animals because they remind us of humans, and we have no control over our feelings. Seeing the problem this way, I don't object to people who choose not to eat meat or who defend animal rights. A mistake occurs when anthropocentrism projects a human face onto other species, and I don't believe that the mindless extension of essentially human models to other species makes much sense. The notion that we somehow become more moral through animal rights awareness seems foolish to me.

Another area in which anthropocentrism distorts human thought concerns how we see ourselves in the universe. Here the problem is related to the fact that we are the only intelligent species on the planet and have nothing to compare ourselves to. There are no other species around to contest anything we think, and in the absence of alternate thoughts we blindly assume that our way is self-evident. However, I am convinced that many of our fundamental assumptions will eventually be challenged. One way that this could occur would be through contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. There is a good chance that their understanding of the universe would be completely different from ours, putting into doubt much of what we have taken for granted. But for a number of reasons there may be nothing happening on this front for many years, if ever. The obstacles to extraterrestrial contact include a small number of candidates, indecipherable languages, undetectable transmissions, distances too great for two-way communication and lack of interest. In fact our presumption that intelligent aliens would want to communicate with us may itself be anthropocentric. I think a more probable challenge to our worldview will be the development of superintelligent AI. Most people still live under the impression that AI is a tool for making human work easier and don't realize that superintelligence may be far more significant than anything they imagined. For the first time in human history there may be an intelligence present that understands the universe far better than we do, which would in some respects make it the equivalent of God, i.e., it would know more and understand more than any human ever has. I'm not putting a date on this, but it could actually occur within our lifetimes.

Through the informal study of geology and astronomy over the last few years I have become more aware of the fact that enormous, irreversible changes are not uncommon in nature, and that our frame of reference with respect to time is extremely small within the scale of the universe. Though it is difficult to imagine what life would be like if many or all of our current paradigms were shattered, it is at least worth recognizing that something on that scale could occur.

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