Friday, December 09, 2005

Four (was: three) steps to dethronement

Throughout the history of mankind, religious beliefs have been numerous and manifold. The Egyptian belief in Ra, the Greeks in Zeus, the Vikings in Odin, and today’s belief in God, Allah, even Lucifer, shares some basic similarities. First, the belief in human centralism; that humans are (part of) the centre of universal historical events, and that God (or gods) is paying special attention to humans.

Second, humans are unique and qualitatively different from other species, and that they are the creation of a divine being. They are not only different in terms of physical, even mental, abilities. Humans are closer to the Divine Being.

Third, folk psychology tells us that each (normal) person's actions is the result of rational, conscious thought. We are the conscious, autonomous agents of our behaviour.

Finally, there is a belief that humans consist of two substances or dimensions: the physical body and the immaterial soul/mind, and that when the body ceases to exist the soul will go on.

These assumptions have been questioned by scientific discoveries long before the studies of Nicolas Copernicus and his peers. But let us recap these events briefly and contrast them to three religious dogmas presented above. We can think of these controversies in three areas: the universal centeredness of human beings; the uniqueness of human beings; and the body-soul division. In this and three following posts, I will argue that while today’s modern world does not believe in a pre-Copernican world view, the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory have yet to be understood and endorsed in its entirety. Finally, results from the scientific studies of consciousness imply that the human mind can be explained by brain structure and function alone.

And yes, this is kind of a rehash of earlier claims about human self-perception. Martin mentions that it might be Freud that once said this. I’m not sure. Anyway, I still think the idea is neat. And notice that the previous version had three steps, while I noticed that due to current consciousness science, we can add a fourth step.

Step 1 – Decentralizing Earth

No doubt, the Copernican revolution changed the way people would eventually look at the skies and how Earth was situated in cosmos. The belief that the Earth is situated at the centre of the universe was overthrown by three cornerstones in modern science: theory, observations and the willingness to re-evaluate current thought. Even in modern science, the latter is an attribute hard to find among scientists. Today, few dispute the Copernican principle that the motion of the heavens can be explained without the Earth being in the geometric centre of the system.

This is probably the easiest step, as it is also the least controversial. But it is a clear example of how scientific discoveries, over time, can influence the way in which we think of ourselves and our position in the universe.

Next step: "Evolving Sapiens"

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