The Myth of Anthropocentrism

William Kent

Madrid. August 22, 1991, 5 am (somewhat fragmentary)

Or, why I don’t like modern art, science, computers, technology, robots, TV, and even certain aspects of environmentalism.

(With overtones of my personal psychology – sensitivity to rejection.)

The central revolution of modern art is that the way people (humans) perceive things isn’t necessarily the only way, or the right way. By rejecting representationalism, it rejects the way that I (and other humans) see things. Modern art doesn’t correspond to the way humans visualize or feel about things. Other people may disagree with this view, but to me modern art is dehumanizing. It may be "valid" (whatever that means), but only in a sense that seems to be evolving beyond humanism, beyond the human way of perceiving.

Science has a lot to do with that kind of evolution. Truth used to be what people could understand and relate to – in human terms. The real world was some portion of the Earth. Everything else was mythology or spiritual realms such as heaven and hell. The real world was flat, stars were dots in the firmament, and solids were solid.

Today’s truth says that human perception is "out of touch" (a human metaphor of perception) with reality. Scientific truth tells us that reality exists in magnitudes both too huge and too minuscule for humans to really comprehend. The universe is vaster than we can imagine. Its stability is an illusion – things are actually flying apart at an incredible rate, and it all really began at some unimaginable big bang. Energy and matter are the same thing. Everything of any importance to our personal well being and the way things work is in terms of things too small for us to really comprehend: cells, germs, viruses, atoms, subatomic particles, ... Solid things aren’t really very solid at all, comprising almost entirely empty space. What we can "see" is an accident of the energy band our eyes are sensitive to, and the rate at which we can absorb and process information.

The "fixed points" of our ontology are determined by such perceptional bands. Things that don’t emit or reflect continuous patches of visible light aren’t tangible (wind isn’t, but clouds are). (What if we could "see" heat or electrical fields or magnetism or radio waves or...) (D&R) (Add something about continental drift.)

The "fact" that the Earth is the center of the universe, that it is flat, that it is stable, with the sun, moon, and stars rising and setting around it, has long passed into mythology (?) for most people. A lot of other things are heading that way as well: solids are solid, etc... Such beliefs are being relegated to local aberrations, tribal mythologies.

Reality isn’t what people see and experience. That’s a very parochial view peculiar to the human tribe.

Science has taught us that our place is not the center of the universe. We are off in the edge of some obscure galaxy, not even at the center of our own solar system.

It’s all so dehumanizing, depersonalizing.

(Not new thoughts. A philosophy and world view that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. There are earlier drafts somewhere.)

(Lewis Thomas’ view of the human body as a vehicle for the survival of cells.)

Ethical relativism: It used to be that the importance of humans was an unquestioned first principle. People is simply what life and the universe is all about. Human survival was an ethical first principle in itself. It still is, in most people’s thinking.

But if you think about it, evolution (especially S.J. Gould’s version) and the social contract displace all that.

The necessity of human survival isn’t an unchallengeable first principle, but an "accident" of the logic of evolution. People (creatures) who don’ t happen to believe in it are less likely to make the effort to survive. Hence what ultimately survives are mostly those that happen to believe in the principle. It "naturally" evolves to a situation where most of the survivors believe in the principle.

The social contract (John Locke, the Golden Rule) does much the same thing. Being "good", i.e., concerned for the survival and welfare of others, isn’t an ethical first principle. It’s "Let’s Make A Deal". I want to survive and you want to survive, so let’s agree to be nice to each other. Nobody else in the universe cares.

Environmentalism: The old-fashioned ethic of plunder and exploit (manifest destiny?) at least had the value (?) of being people-centered. People mattered, what people wanted was important, what life is all about is people.

Some environmentalists (and I think of myself as one) advocate a return to the American Indian concept of people as "guests" of the Earth, of our environment and its resources. The Earth (and universe and resources) have an existence of their own which ought to be respected for its own sake.

I have trouble with that, logically and emotionally. I have no reason to believe (by logic or faith) that there’s anything more important than people. Ethical principles not focused on people are to me like the sound of a tree falling in an unpopulated forest. What are ethics and morality if we aren’t talking about the welfare of people (or at least sentient creatures)? Without people, the Earth, sun, moon, and stars are just things whirling in space, and I don’t care if they survive in the absence of people.

In any case, what I’m mainly doing is pointing out how this aspect of environmentalism is contributing to a larger sense that people aren’t so important anymore.

I am an environmentalist, because I want the Earth to be a nice place for people, not to survive for its own sake.

Mass media: Before mass media, the actuality of people’s personal lives was at the center of their "important things". What life was all about was what you personally did, and the people you personally interacted with. With the advent of newspapers, radio, TV, portable phones, fax, etc., we are much more actively conscious and aware of so much more going on in the world, at a very detailed and instantaneous level. Our personal lives again become more incidental, more highly perceived as a very small thread in an immense tapestry.

This is not necessarily a bad thing (none of this necessarily is). I’m trying to do two things, and keep them separate. First, I’m trying to dispassionately observe all the ways in which life is becoming less centered on the individual person. But, secondly, I will admit to a personal prejudice: I don’t like it. That observation seems to explain my reactions to a lot of things.

(And, as hinted earlier, this in turn can be "pop psychologized" in terms of my own needs for recognition and acceptance, and fear of rejection.)

(This might also be turned into an "explanation" of some people’s religions, as a way of continuing to believe in a context in which people are of central importance.)

(Absentee landlords. Shopping malls. Big business.)

Technology: Before technology, the measure of what was possible was what people can do. We began to slowly evolve from that with the advent of tools, but in the beginning there was still the sense of human scale, under the control of humans, for the benefit of humans.

Computers, of course, make us uneasy, making us wonder whether there’s anything left that makes humans especially essential. But dehumanization by technology is creeping up on us in myriad other ways.

Think of a big truck and its driver on the highway. Does the vehicle serve the person, or vice versa?

Our landscape is also, of course, shaped by the needs of the automobile. And so are our politics, economics (including military budgets) and even our ethics (the war in Kuwait).

Believe it or not, this particular outburst was triggered by why I do not understand or like or care about Guernaca.

"Why should we do so-and-so? In order to survive, man, that’s why. Our very survival is at stake." That’s the ultimate explanation. No further explanation is needed or expected – or wanted.

Some people may feel frightened or repulsed by these thoughts. They may feel threatened, if their own sense of worth and survival is not founded on the rock of first principles. If the importance of people is accidental and incidental and, furthermore, waning, then our own individual survival is less assured – and less important.

I don’t advocate fatalism, selfishness, anarchism, nihilism, self-centeredness, or any of the other possible corollaries to this apparently negative outlook.

Quite the contrary. My abiding faith is that people are important. In a way, that’s my whole point. I’m saddened by anything that devalues the importance of people (though having too many of them is senseless), and I want others to share this concern and be aware of subtle erosions of that value. The most imortant thing is people, their enjoyment of fulfilling lives, and supporting each other in their pursuit of happiness.

It’s just harder to justify this outlook without some "manifest destiny" to motivate it all. Maybe you can’t sell this to enough people without religion.

Like I said, the believers are most likely to survive. Firm faith in the importance of people, and in the importance of each other’s welfare and survival, is essential to the welfare and survival of people. That’s not faith. That’s logic.

If you don’t care, I can’t blame you. You’re not "wrong". But I will fight you and your influence, because I want people to survive and be happy.

(Yet to be reconciled: While I believe in and wish for the survival and welfare of people as a whole, it’s something of an abstraction. There are very few people I like personally, or whose company I enjoy. I don’t think it’s a contradiction, just an anomaly.)

In the cathedral at Avila. August 22.

I prefer a vision of life and the universe in which I matter, in which people matter. Note how we equate the significance of the universe with life, implicitly human life in particular. "The meaning of life" means the meaning of the universe.

But people are moving off center stage...

The social contract (i.e., the Golden Rule) is a form of deferred gratification. I won’t take advantage of you in the expectation that you won’t take advantage of me later.

The "you" isn’t a specific you, and the later isn’t a specific time or circumstance. The whole thing depends on a vague chain of kindnesses which we hope radiates out from each person and eventually links back to benefit ourselves. It’s a network of kindnesses.

That’s much too abstract for most people. The rewards of kindness are rarely demonstrable. That’s why the system doesn’t work. Not enough people are willing to forego the short-term selfish advantage they can take of others.

The sense that the universe is not as people-centered as we once thought removes some of the motivation for human kindness. Why be kind to people in the abstract if people don’t matter? Why not just grab the short-term pleasures of the moment for ourselves?

In a way, my observations are a way of explaining some of the social decay we are currently experiencing

Perhaps in some way the increasing population, and our increasing awareness of it, themselves contribute to a diminished sense of our own importance, of our central role in the scheme of things. What’s one among billions?

These last thoughts are in partial answer to the question: What’s the point? Do my observations help to explain anything? And do they suggest any course of action?