.:Copernicus and the Sacred Humility of Science:.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’d like to suggest, for sanity’s sake, that we all adopt the Copernican Principle: whenever we think we’re the most of anything, we’re wrong. Consider it a Law of the Universe.
Once upon a time, hopelessly deluded humans believed that our planet was the center of the swirling cosmos, the axis around which the entire universe spins. Then we had a closer (or farther) look and spent a few hundred years grappling with the whiplash of that particular humiliation. Nowadays, we’d like to think we’re vastly more sophisticated than those pre-enlightenment geocentric fools, but in many ways we are still ridden with unexamined inflations:
– Humankind is qualitatively different from any other animal.
– We are the most cognitively sophisticated creature on this planet.
Some of these are just naïve folk assertions that are easily disproven by taking a closer look at the available evidence (there is plenty of science to deflate nonsense about the lack of sexual pleasure in other species). Others require more argument (qualitative differences are in the domain of the observer and thus it is as easily argued that each species is precious and unique as it is that humans have some special essence; if the complexity of language is, as many linguists believe, a reliable measure of social intelligence, then dolphins may actually have us beat, seeing as their calls seem to exhibit a syntax beyond our capacity to fully decode).
Some of these assumptions run so deep that most of us are not even aware of them:
– Our universe is the real universe, not a simulation.
– The visible (so far) biosphere is the extent of the Earth’s living ecology.
– Our civilization is the first global technological society, human or otherwise.
These and many other claims belie a pernicious and persistent need for us to believe that we are set apart, graced in some way that the rest of the world is not. It goes back a long way: what we now understand as the names of tribes (Navajo, Inuit, Iroquois) typically meant “people,” not a specific kind of person. Our correct intuition that we are blessed and divine extends only so far as our egoic affiliations –firstborns routinely get their bubbles popped when some other imposter appears on the scene to siphon the parental love that rightly belongs to them…and then they find out their parents had another child before them and put it up for adoption.
If we are to be at all scientific about this, we might as well take it as a working hypothesis (I only say “law,” because what else is a law but a trend we’ve yet to see broken) that whenever we are first, someone else came before (and perhaps there was never a “first”); whenever we’re in the middle, we’re on the fringe (and perhaps there is only fringe); whenever we’re the smartest, we’re just too dumb to recognize a greater intelligence (and perhaps there is no greatest intelligence, but each successive mind is enfolded as a participant in another still greater mind).
The history of science seems to uphold this. Every acre on the dwindling island of human uniqueness has been systematically swallowed by the mounting evidence that animals use tools, use language, have feelings for one another, play games, hand down cultural knowledge, yearn to express themselves creatively…if in any respect we can claim to be special, it’s a matter of degree (or of unique combinations of traits), not kind.
And this is equally true in the landscape of space and time. We lost geocentrism to heliocentrism. Then we discovered galaxies and even our great Sun was rendered subservient to greater forces. For a while, we still had ourselves on the pedestal of time, but eventually we had no choice but to accept that the Big Bang was one bubble in an infinite boil of quantum possibility in which our supposedly universal laws are mere contingencies, and we might as well accept that everything we consider impossible happens somewhere…whatever “somewhere” means, anymore.
(This is without even getting into the whole issue of those inexplicable megaliths, placed so carefully worldwide with a precision beyond our best modern efforts…of wheel-less African tribes that knew the exact orbital periods of star systems invisible to the eye…of ancient maps, predating the Western discovery of longitude, that nonetheless display sub-glacial Antarctic contours our own enlightened society couldn’t measure without infrared satellite photography…)
Insofar as science is the process of expanding the boundaries of our ignorance, it is a sacred mission of continual decentralization, marginalization, and humbling. But the other side to this is that we never get to mope it all the way to the bottom; we never get to claim some prized status as the lowliest or least important, and when all is said and done we are in some sense exactly where we started, because we are in the dead (nay, living) center of the human experience, just as we always were. As our technologies allow us to perceive ever-greater celestial objects, they allow us to peer deeper and deeper into the realms of the inconceivably small…but we always seem to remain poised perfectly between these two extremes, precisely in the middle of the human cosmic measure.
Just as we have the Hubble Bubble – that sphere of visible light beyond which our telescopes cannot reach – we have a sphere of size, equidistant in every direction, which grows with every passing historical epoch but remains without floor or ceiling. We have no choice but to accept a compromised identity: infinitely large and infinitely small, infinitely significant and infinitely insignificant. This perceptual sphere, we might as well recognize as a characteristic of the human body. Everybody has one. Everyone’s grows, given time and interaction.
Any ultimate border we draw on this, we would do well to recognize as a statement of defeat in the face of a mystery too exhausting to leave wide open. Institutionalized religion is the basalt that cools around the volcanic flow of revelatory experience. Theory is where inquiry throws up its hands. The stories we tell ourselves are a shell of crystallized experience, since we in our finitude have to draw the line somewhere. We all have to blink eventually.
But we don’t have to keep our eyes closed, after.
[Anaconda Lodge, Puerto Maldonado, Peru, 13 March 2011]