Some of the most brilliant minds on our planet respond to this year’s Edge question suggested by Steven Pinker. The question is: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?
There are many good entries but I was especially intrigued by the responses from Sean Carroll, a Theoretical Physicist, and P Z Myers, a Biologist. Both argue that the concept that people need to grasp to better comprehend our place in the universe is to understand that we are not special. In Carroll’s words:
This isn’t an obvious way for people to think. Looking at the universe through our anthropocentric eyes, we can’t help but view things in terms of causes, purposes, and natural ways of being. […] Human beings like to insist that there are reasons why things happen. The death of a child, the crash of an airplane, or a random shooting must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan. When Pat Robertson suggested that Hurricane Katrina was caused in part by God’s anger at America’s failing morals, he was attempting to provide an explanatory context for a seemingly inexplicable event. [more]
Myers calls it the “mediocrity principle”:
The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren’t special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn’t the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident. The rules of inheritance and the nature of biology meant that when your parents had a baby, it was anatomically human and mostly fully functional physiologically, but the unique combination of traits that make you male or female, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed were the result of a chance shuffle of genetic attributes during meiosis, a few random mutations, and the luck of the draw in the grand sperm race at fertilization. [more]
This has been a recurrent theme on this blog (see, for instance, Seekers of Depth and Profundity). Our innate proclivity to seek deeper and hidden meanings in everyday events, struggles and conflicts is responsible for making us seek higher meaning in the existence of life itself. But science (more specifically, evolution) tells us otherwise: we are products of a random, unsupervised and impersonal process. Just like apes, monkeys, whales, bugs, worms and bacteria. Our existence is not a part of any Grand Scheme (supervised by a Supreme Being). We just exist.
However, this needn’t be disheartening. Carroll sums it up succinctly:
None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it and give it value.