Most hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies before the Industrial Revolution believed that humans were a “special” species and held an “important” role within the grand scheme of the cosmos. This specialness was usually culturally connected to be related to “centeredness”. We were the center of life. The center of our cultural universe. The center of the solar system and the universe. Through what can best be described as the on-going “Copernican revolutions”, views of this nature are becoming increasingly difficult to hold.
In the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus demonstrated that we did not live in a geocentric solar system, but rather a heliocentric solar system. This evidence proved to be a radical rupture in the way humans had to understand themselves in relationship to the cosmos (even though heliocentrism would eventually take a hard fall when we discovered that our solar system wasn’t the center of the universe either). Since Copernicus’s time many scientific disciplines have participated in a similar “de-throning” of humanity from a place of special significance in the universe:
- Biology has shown us that we are not a privileged species atop a Aristotelean hierarchy of beings, but rather a species that shares a common heritage with all other organisms in a diverse and complex web of life.
- Chemistry has shown us that we are not made of “special stuff”, but rather a combination of some of the most common elements in the universe that also compose other organisms and were forged in the centers of massive first generation stars billions of years ago.
- Anthropologists have shown us that particular cultural traditions are not inherently better than other cultural traditions and that we can embrace diversity and different “ways of knowing”.
- Anthropologists and biologists also demonstrated that humans were not the only cultural and technological beings on the planet.
- Twentieth century astronomy showed us that our galaxy was not even unique, but instead one of billions of other galaxies throughout the observable universe.
All of these developments in science can be seen as doing away with particular types of centrism. Whether it be geocentrism, heliocentrism, or galactocentrism. Our species does not represent the “center of life”; our chemical composition is not special or unique among organisms; the cultural group we happen to identify with is not “special” or “privileged” in the cosmos related to other groups; and even our galaxy is not unique, in fact it’s quite average. But intellectual revolutions of this nature may not be over. There are three major “centrisms” that remain: biocentrism, intellicentrism, and universecentrism.
Biocentrism is the view that our island of life is special. From a scientific point of view this perspective is still tenable considering we only have evidence that life evolved once in the universe. However, seriously holding this view still requires a great deal of faith in the face of the overwhelming astronomical data that our planet is not all that special. It seems like every week scientists find new planets that could be described as “Earth-like” (even planets within our stellar neighbourhood). We now know that each of the 200-400 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy has on average 1.6 planets per star. We also know that abiogenesis, the natural process whereby biology emerges from chemistry, occurred relatively quickly in Earth history, and that the simplest organisms can inhabit almost any environment on the planet. This all adds up to the dominant position among the scientific community that simple life is probably quite common throughout the universe (perhaps even ubiquitous).
With that being said, we still have no evidence of another sample of life. We have nothing to compare Earth life to. We don’t know how easily abiogenesis really is. We don’t know how easy it is for life to survive on other planetary environments. And so the idea that life is unique here on our tiny pocket of complexity in the universe still retains some twisted form of academic credibility (even though it can quite simply be logically deduced to be incorrect). The only way this centrism can truly meet its demise, as geo-, helio-, and galacto-centrism before it, is to find another island of life. (So the sooner we go to Europa the better).
Like biocentrism, intellicentrism is still plausible, but not incredibly likely. Intellicentrism holds that even if life is not unique, intelligent life surely is and that wherever we look in the universe, we should not expect to find any other high intelligence.
The question of whether “we are alone” in the universe usually refers directly to intellicentrism. Are we the only self-aware technological beings in the universe? Or are we not? I’ve tried to discuss this difficult question in the context of intelligence in the Milky Way before, as I find it to be one of the most intellectually stimulating questions we can ask. In an attempt to simplify a difficult topic, we can simply state that organizations like SETI have been listening to the radio spectrum of our little region of space-time for over 50 years now, and have not collected any data of extraterrestrial intelligence. Nothing.
With that being said, we have only thoroughly searched through a couple of thousand star systems in a galaxy of hundreds of billions and a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies. And we are only searching for signals encoded in radiowaves, when an intelligent species may be communicating with a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, communicating with forms of matter and energy that we are still clueless about (i.e., dark matter, dark energy), or opting to not communicate with the rest of the universe at all. Or maybe… we have been detecting intelligent civilizations, and just don’t realize it.
Either way, like life in the universe, we have no signs of intelligent civilizations, and so intellicentrism still exists. Of course, it is almost assured that intelligence is far rarer that we should expect simple life to be. The fraction of planets that develop life is likely to be far higher than the fraction of planets with life that go on to develop intelligence. Unlike life, we have every reason to believe that high intelligence takes a long time (on the order of billions of years) and that even a healthy thriving biosphere could exist for a great deal of time without producing a species that can contemplate its own existence and attempt to contact other islands of life.
Arguably the most difficult of the “centrism’s” to explain away is universecentrism. Many people believe our universe is unique and “finely-tuned” for existence. Of course, we have no empirical evidence that there are universes other than the one we inhabit. Some cosmologists have proposed ways of demonstrating the existence of other universes. The most popular idea includes scanning the cosmic microwave background radiation for signs that our universe’s expansion was influenced by a gargantuan external gravitational force of some kind. On the other hand, theoretical physicists believe that the closer they get to understanding the fundamental laws of nature, the closer they will get to proving that our universe is but one of many potential universes that exist within a larger reality (perhaps a multiverse of some kind). I’ve actually discussed ideas before about how a larger multiverse could generate other universes in a “natural selection” type of way.
However, like bio- and intelli-centrism, universecentrism remains intellectually tenable (perhaps the most intellectually tenable of the three). Furthermore, it is the centrism that, at least in my opinion, is the most likely to be correct. It would be unfathomably unlikely if we lived in a universe with the size, extent, and homogeneity of the one we observe, and be the only region that developed life and intelligence. In contrast, I don’t think we know enough about the universe (or potentially the larger reality that may exist) to say whether our universe is the only one or not. We can certainly reason that it isn’t likely to be the only universe. I mean, reality does not seem to produce anything in units of one. Reality seems to produce things in unlimited units. Why would our universe be any different?
But just because something can be philosophically reasoned doesn’t make ti so. Maybe our universe is singular and infinite. We don’t know how large it really is. We have an idea of how large the observable universe is, but have no idea to what extent it extends beyond the visible horizon.
And that knowledge may be forever beyond our grasp.
Not the Center, but that’s Okay
This article may seem depressing. However, we don’t need to understand ourselves as the “center” of things to feel “special” or “unique”. As I mentioned briefly above, we are a species attempting to understand the universe. We are self-aware “star stuff”. How bizarre is that? Our minds are all that there is. What is there other than consciousness? Consciousness brings meaning to the universe. That sounds pretty special to me regardless of whether our life is unique, our intelligence is unique, or our universe is unique.
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