Monday, April 30, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: We’re Just Not That Important

Harlow Shapley did the scientific work necessary to show that humans are not at the center of everything and then he took the argument to the next level, showing how such discoveries are changing the human perspective. Perhaps most importantly, he provided a road map for where we might go in the future with our self-perception and our place in the universe. All of that concocted in 1918 and expounded on throughout the early days of space exploration. Astronomers know Shapley (1885-1972) for his observations at the Mount Wilson Observatory, which eventually lead him to conclude that Earth is actually at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. Why was this a big deal, aside from the scientific accomplishment? It was a further blow to the idea that humans are at the center of everything. It’s the progression of scientific thought from the Earth and the solar system at the center of the universe, to a wider understanding of reality. Shapley called the change in human perspective, fueled by the scientific discoveries, the fourth adjustment.

JoAnne Palmeri explores these ideas in a chapter about Shapley in the book “Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context” published by NASA. Shapley viewed anthropocentrism as a serious barrier to our development and clearly we humans still have a long way to go. We spend time speculating about meeting intelligent creatures from other planets, and yet we treat intelligent creatures from our own planet like, well, animals. Dolphins deserve much more respect than we give them. Some people have even called for dolphins to have recognized “personhood”. I enjoyed this article by Kay Holt calling for more science fiction folks to explore dolphin rights. I do remember a great science fiction story in which the aliens arrive on Earth specifically to communicate with dolphins; they’re just not that interested in us.

I only bring this up to show that anthropocentrism drives much of how we perceive the universe. This was Shapley’s main point. Such thinking builds a barrier to us better understanding the cosmos. His phrase “star-stuff” was designed to open our perspective to a wider view. He simply pointed out that the Earth and its subsequent inhabitants were formed from elements cooked-up in stars and thus humans are made of “star-stuff”. It’s a common idea now, but a bit out-there in the 1920s and 1930s. Shapley provided fuel for generations of scientists and science fiction writers alike, including Carl Sagan who used the “star-stuff” phrase frequently. Like Sagan, Shapley was an active public speaker and considered his advocacy role to be as important as his role as a scientist.

Shapley had his fair share of problems. Famously, he disputed Edwin Hubble’s assertion that there are other galaxies in the universe, at times calling Hubble’s theories junk science. We know how that turned out.

What can Shapley provide for us today? He made a powerful argument for the coordination of science, philosophy and religion. Certainly not in a sense that science should be a religion or religion should drive science. However, he did speak to a widening of the religious perspective to see the human place in the vast universe. The problem from a religious context seems to be anthropocentric. For some folks, religion teaches that humans are the center of the universe and God’s primary concern. For others, religion shows the vastness of the universe and humans are just part of the grand fabric. It’s a significant difference. Can people pray to God if they don’t have a direct pipeline to the heavens? Can God worry about humans and space aliens equally? Is Jesus the savior for humans and space aliens? How about Muhammad?

The Palmeri article does an excellent job of examining the path that Shapley took in religion. The understanding of science, and especially astronomy, lead him to religious considerations. Shapley gave lectures with topics such as “Stars and Spiritual Things and “The Religious Implications of Astronomy”. However, Shapley was also known for criticism of contemporary religious institutions. Shapley disliked the “superstitious” side of religion and the anthropocentric and rigid nature of religious institutions.

So, why worry about Shapley now? He’s an important voice in the conversation and one which may need to be recalled if we face the challenge of First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Such an occurrence would cause all sorts of seismic events in the religious communities on Earth. While some may call Shapley’s views humanist, given his anti-anthropocentric inclinations that would not be correct. His views were truly Universalist. It’s perhaps that context that we will need if we enter a new era for humanity After First Contact. 

Check out my new Alien First Contact Facebook page for more articles and links.


purplearcanist said...

I remember reading a graphic novel (adapted from a book), where part of the story is in an alternate universe. The dolphins and monkeys there are recognized as having rights, and are equipped with translating devices that allow them to communicate with humans and integrate into society. An interesting take on the issue of rights, isn't it moral to give them to anything that can demand them.

Eric said...

purplearcanist: I think it would be interesting to see what extraterrestrials think of how humans treat animals...especially intelligent species. I guess it might depend on how they treat creatures in their world. I wonder if ethical treatment of animals is part of a intelligent being development pattern?