Chapter 3, “The Spark” (Parts 1 and 2) | TokCast with Brett Hall

Key Takeaways

  • As anthropocentric theories were abandoned there was a rise in anti-anthropocentrism, seen almost as a universal law
    • The Principle of Mediocrity states that there is nothing significant about humans in the cosmic scheme of things
    • The Spaceship Earth idea holds that humans inhabit the Earth as a life-sustaining ship
  • David Deutsch argues that both these ideas are false
    • The Earth is not such a friendly, sustaining place
    • If we, as a species want to survive, we need to rely on what makes us significant
      • The ability to create explanatory knowledge
    • “Today, almost the entire capacity of the Earth’s ‘life-support system for humans’ has been provided not for us but by us” David Deutsch
  • “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge” David Deutsch
    • The ability to create and use explanatory knowledge gives humans the power to transform nature, limited only by the laws of the universe
      • Humans are the only known entity capable to create explanatory knowledge
      • This is what gives us cosmic significance

Intro

The Anthropocentric Misconception

  • Most ancient accounts of reality were anthropocentric
    • They were centered on humans or super-natural human-like entities (gods)
    • Winter was attributed to a god’s sadness and good harvests to a god’s generosity
    • The geocentric theory, which placed humans at the center of the Universe, confirmed this view
  • Before the Enlightenment, anthropocentric thinking was more prevalent than we can imagine
    • Astronomers used complex geometry but believed that the stars foretold political or personal events on Earth
    • Euclidian geometry was an exception, as its points and lines were impersonal
  • Anthropocentrism is a form of parochialism
    • Parochialism refers to the error of mistaking perception for reality or rules of thumbs for universal laws
  • With the Enlightenment, anthropocentric misconceptions were overturned

What Are the Principle of Mediocrity and Spaceship Earth?

  • As anthropocentric theories were abandoned there was a rise in anti-anthropocentrism, seen almost as a universal law
  • The Principle of Mediocrity states that there is nothing significant about humans in the cosmic scheme of things
  • The Spaceship Earth idea holds that humans inhabit the Earth as a life-sustaining ship
    • The Earth is seen as a complex life-supporting system designed to perfectly sustain us
    • The outside Universe is seen as a hostile place for humans
  • Both The Principle of Mediocrity and The Spaceship Earth idea have become truisms
    • They both have a moral component against arrogance
      • We should not consider ourselves as significant
      • We should not aspire to control the world
  • Yet the ideas contradict each other
    • The first says that we are typical and insignificant
    • The second that we are untypical, specially designed to live on this planet

The Case Against Spaceship Earth

  • David Deutsch argues that both these ideas are false
  • The Earth is not such a friendly, sustaining place
    • The majority of species to ever exist have gone extinct
    • The Earth’s biosphere in its original state is incapable of supporting the life of an unprotected human for long
    • It is infested with predators, parasites, diseases, etc…
  • Environments built by humans are more supportive of human life
    • They have access to clean water, medical equipment, comfortable temperatures, etc… 
  • If we, as a species want to survive, we need to rely on what makes us significant
    • The ability to create explanatory knowledge
    • This allows us to transform the environment around us
  • “Today, almost the entire capacity of the Earth’s ‘life-support system for humans’ has been provided not for us but by us” David Deutsch
    • The Earth provided the raw materials for our survival
    • Thanks to our ability to create new knowledge we transformed those raw materials into a life-supporting system
    • “From the outset, it was only human knowledge that made the planet even marginally habitable by humans” David Deutsch
  • The Spaceship Earth idea views humans as the only “negative actors”
    • But humans are also part of the biosphere
    • The supposedly immoral human behavior is identical to what all other species do

Limits to Human Knowledge?

  • A consequence of The Principle of Mediocrity is that there is a limit to what our brains can understand
    • Our sense organs evolved to only detect phenomena relevant for our survival
      • Evolution did not waste resources to help us detect things irrelevant to our survival
    • There is no reason to expect that our brain evolved differently from the rest of our organs
      • Just as our senses cannot detect neutrinos, there is no reason to expect our brains to understand them
    • Our capacity to understand the universe is limited by our biological evolution
  • David disagrees with this view
  • “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge” David Deutsch
    • There cannot be a third option, of something that cannot be done, despite it being permitted by the laws of nature
  • The ability to create and use explanatory knowledge gives humans the power to transform nature, limited only by the laws of the universe
    • Humans are the only known entity which can create explanatory knowledge
    • This is what gives us cosmic significance
    • A computer computing algorithms neither creates new knowledge nor understands it
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Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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