The Essential Arrogance of Mankind

I have always believed that it is beyond the capacity of Mankind to fully understand the universe. Yet our continuing efforts to do so are some of our noblest undertakings. There is no doubt that we will always be able to learn more about this cosmological wonderland that we inhabit, and we can benefit immensely from that – but it is sheer arrogance to believe we might one day, as I think Paul Davies once put it allegorically, “know the mind of God”.

Historically, as I have previously written, we have tried to understand our universe through the mechanisms of Mythos and Logos (mythology built on metaphor and science built on reason). We have, ever since we acquired consciousness, struggled to understand the guiding forces of the universe whether we called them God or the Laws of Nature. But let me state categorically that we will never be able to prove that God exists and we will never derive a “Theory of Everything”.

Mythos establishes the principle of grappling with God early in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

Jacob was returning to his homeland after an absence of twenty years. He feared that his brother Esau, whom he had greatly wronged, might seek to kill him. That night he camped alone in the wild gorge of the stream Jabbok on the border of Canaan. A man appeared in the middle of the night out of nowhere and wrestled with him until daybreak. The man was unable to overcome Jacob. Finally his assailant struck him on the hip, dislocating it, just as dawn was breaking. Despite this inconvenience, Jacob refused to let him go. It occurred to him that this was no ordinary opponent. Still holding the other tightly, he asked for a blessing.

The other replied that in recognition of Jacob’s manful struggle, he would be blessed with a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob,” said the stranger, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and you have prevailed.” Then Jacob understood his night long struggle had been with God.

Now in the context of both Mythos and Logos, many of us have participated in that struggle.

It is perhaps instructive that elsewhere the Old Testament tells us that no one can look upon the face of God and live (as Jacob had done). It would have been enough, I think, just to counsel that no one alive will ever truly see the face of God.- that is to understand the guiding principles of the universe in their totality. And no doubt this is the inevitable outcome of Adam and Eve’s metaphorical decision to partake of the fruit from the “tree of knowledge”. Nevertheless we continue to try, and mostly I think that is a good thing. It is also a good thing that because we can never succeed the universe will continue to be replete with mystery.

Most rationalists tend to denigrate Mythos. But in order to get at the truth embedded in these ancient texts, we need to know how to read them.

As Karen Armstrong has written, “The true meaning of scripture can never be wholly comprised in a literal reading of the text, since the text points beyond itself to a reality which cannot adequately be expressed in words and concepts.”

Engaging with Mythos requires a very different technique to dealing with Logos. Our scientific culture trains us to look for the literal truths of the words on the page. We expect a text to express its ideas as clearly as possible. In a philosophic or historical work, we will often judge writers by the precision and consistency of their arguments; we are likely to condemn a work that is deliberately vague or paradoxical or that presents mutually exclusive arguments. And this is the principal conflict between Mythos and Logos.

But, unremarkably human arrogance has infiltrated both Mythos and Logos. Mankind’s desire to be central to everything has often distorted our judgment.

The dominant religions of the Western world, have been the so-called “religions of the book”, viz. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religions are essentially anthropocentric. Their God’s creation is principally for the benefit of Mankind and his ultimate creation is Mankind. And as usual, when the metaphorical truths of these religions are taken literally, problems arise.

Initially this created one of the major conflicts between Mythos and Logos. According to this version of Mythos, if Mankind was the ultimate object of creation, then the earth, the home of Mankind must be at the centre of the universe. Certainly the Church championed this idea.

But in the Age of Enlightenment this assumption was challenged.

Prior to this, the cosmology of the eminent Egyptian, Claudius Ptolemy held sway. Ptolemy, like most people of antiquity, believed the earth was the centre of the universe. The observations of the sun and the planets seemed to confirm that hypothesis. This model was adopted by the Christian Church which suited its purpose of placing Mankind and its physical abode, the earth, at the centre of the universe. Ptolemy’s model held sway for over 1500 years before it was eventually challenged.

But finally the model was challenged by a Polish cleric who was widely known by his Latinised name, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus’ book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (The Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs) was published posthumously and put forward the challenging hypothesis that the sun was the centre of our solar system and the earth, instead of being the centre of the universe, was merely one of the planets that orbited the sun.

Copernicus’ work was further elaborated on by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. But the challenge to conventional religious thinking came to a climax with the work of Galileo Galilei. Galileo, by refining the invention of the telescope was able to throw new light on the movement of the “celestial spheres”.

But even before Galileo, the church expressed its displeasure at having its preferred model of the solar system questioned by the burning at the stake in 1600 of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar who championed the Copernican model.

Galileo began his scientific work in Venice. At that time Venice was the hub of the Mediterranean and ambitious men flocked to work there free from religious constraint. A host of artists, artisans, adventurers, merchants and intellectuals crowded its streets.

Galileo was notable for the work he had done in fundamental science at Pisa, and had created a number of practical inventions. He was subsequently hired by the Venetians as their professor of mathematics at Padua.

A high point of his study of the heavens was his discovery of the four moons of Jupiter.

What Galileo saw in the sky contradicted the basic Ptolemaic model of the earth centred universe. He published an account of his findings supporting the Copernican model in a book called The Starry Messenger which was immediately banned by the Vatican.

In 1616 the Vatican issued Codex 1181 Proceedings Against Galileo Galilei which stated:

Propositions to be forbidden:

That the sun is immovable at the centre of heaven;

That the earth is not at the centre of heaven, and is not immovable, but moves by a double motion.

Finally Galileo in his old age was forced to appear before the Inquisition and made to recant his beliefs in fear of the rack.

Interestingly, part of the evidence given against Galileo was that in Exodus when Moses and the Israelites were escaping from the Egyptians the scriptures said the God had stopped the sun in its tracks. This must mean that it is the sun that moves and the scriptures should not be challenged. As usual the literal interpretation of Mythos created the problem.

So here we are. In the beginning a major challenge of science was to refute the anthropocentric nature of the universe. Rather than affirming Mankind’s place at the centre of the universe it became rapidly apparent the earth was minor planet in the solar system which was itself only one such among countless others strewn around the universe.

But now some eight or nine centuries after Logos had overcome Mythos with respect to cosmology, and Mankind’s place in the universe, Logos itself seems to have lost its way.

Three of the major questions confronting us in trying to understand the universe are:

  1. How did the universe originate?
  2. How did life evolve?
  3. What is the role of consciousness?

It is beyond my capacity to answer these questions. I suspect (as I have intimated above) it is beyond anyone (either individually or collectively) to solve these issues.

But I am beginning to believe that some of our scientists of late have fallen into the same trap that engulfed the Church as it struggled to understand creation, and that is that the universe is anthropocentric.

This case has been made by Paul Davies in his book first published in 2006, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that many of the fundamental constants of the universe seem somehow “just right” for the evolution of carbon-based life as we know it.

Among such constants he instances:

  • The amount of carbon formed by fusion in stars,
  • The particular values of the four forces of nature – the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravitational force,
  • The masses of some fundamental particles, and
  • The amount of dark energy in the universe.

Now I am not qualified to dispute Davies’ thesis on a scientific basis, so I will couch my reservations in a more philosophical way. The problem I have is that scientists sharing this point of view are starting to infer that the universe has somehow come together with the evolution of carbon-based life in mind and favouring the creation of Mankind in particular. Such a point of view is starting to smack of “Intelligent Design”.

Surely it is of no surprise that that the universe is supportive of Mankind. If it was not Mankind would not have evolved. All the constants Davies lists are the context within which evolution had to work.

Imagine another universe which had a different context. What say another life form evolved – perhaps not carbon based but silicon based. And if such a life form evolved to have sufficient intelligence to interrogate its origins, would it not say how wonderful its universe was in that universe seemed to be created specifically with it in mind?

It seems such a paradox that science which laboured to show the Church’s essential arrogance in propagating a model of the universe which put Mankind at its centre was in error, has now produced its own model replicating this error.

As I have argued in other essays, any special claim regarding Mankind’s place in the universe could only relate to our consciousness and how the human mind is, in fact, part of the Cosmic Mind (see for example You are the Universe by Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos).

Paul Davies would do well to remember that Goldilocks found that it was only the Baby Bear’s porridge (chair and bed as well) that was “just right”. It might be time to work at another level and come to grips with the adult bears. Or will this just produce another fairy story!