Most people, even many atheists and other otherwise nonbelievers, walk through life with some preconceptions that seem pretty “religious” or “supernatural” when subjected to closer scrutiny. While this does not necessarily mean that one isn’t a “good atheist,” it might give some food for thought, before taking on the next religious zealot for a sound debate (not that I in any way object to such debates, one can always hope that another lucky individual gets a chance to see life with truly open eyes).
Let me present what I would term the “arch-example” of this: A majority of people (religious or otherwise) will, if tested on the subject, admit to a feeling of superiority in relation to “mere animals.” This is not to say that people feel that they can do with animals as they please; often this superiority is conversely expressed as a feeling of responsibility for the “safekeeping” of the animals of the earth, or in a more direct version: If the choice was between saving a monkey and a child, most people would hardly think to save the monkey, even if it was perhaps one of the last of its kind. This feeling of superiority usually extends to all our surroundings (plants, nature in general–even the universe).
The notion that a human individual (a life, a soul, or whatever you would choose to call it), is somehow more precious (valuable, worthy of existence) than almost anything else in the world, seems to me to be utterly pretentious and, if considered objectively and scientifically, very close to what many religions try to teach us.
Ironically, while I might agree that a person with a lot of life-experience could be said to be of “more value,” even if such “value” has to be viewed objectively (i.e., cannot be of value only to humanity) than, say, a younger, less experienced, person or a puppy, most people would choose to save the child if the alternative was to sacrifice the child in preference to an adult (and certainly always in preference of the puppy).
I will note here that some arguments can be brought forward with relation to our genetic heritage (i.e., the instinct to protect the young to guarantee the next generation, etc.) Unfortunately, while the genetic “habits” tend to stick, present day society seldom warrants these “built in” responses. Indeed it is often the case that something more like the opposite behaviour would be more appropriate and/or beneficial to nature, our society, and in some instances even the individual(s) directly involved.
I’m not advocating that we should all try to somehow suppress those of our natural instincts that are obsolete. (I might, if I were a psychiatrist though, what a costumer-base that would present!) Nor am I saying that we should all lay down our lives for the first ant or leaf of grass that needs rescue from certain death.
What I’m opposing is the automatic assumption by so many humans, that we are anywhere near evolved enough to take on the responsibility of “managing nature,” let alone controlling it (as any tree-hugging ozone-freak would have you pay them to try to do). I also resent the attitude that we, merely because we are Homo Sapiens, have more of a claim to the earth (nature, resources, space, whatever) than have other animals. Note also how most people tend to differentiate between “animals” and “humans,” even though it has long been a proven fact that we are merely animals with an overly complex mind to compensate for our total lack of strength, agility, and other attributes that are more widely-used to ensure survival of a given species.
If we truly embrace what nature and the natural sciences are telling us, we will have to take a whole new look at such dogmas as “our right to have (any number of) children” (why should there be more humans on the earth than, say gorillas or tigers? Even if there should, aren’t we a bit over what can reasonably be considered the optimal population count?)
It would also seem appropriate that we consider it very close to hubris to presume that anything we are or aren’t doing (or indeed will be able to do or not do in the near future) will have any bearing whatsoever on the environment (in the long term at least, which is what counts). Even if there are things that it is probably not overly wise to do (such as releasing large amounts of heavy metals into the biosphere, etc.) while we might consider stopping such behaviour simply due to the possibility of future problems, it would be folly to think that we are at all capable of predicting the consequences of such and action (or inaction). When we can hardly calculate the coming weather with any kind of predictive precision more than a few hours forth, even though this is an age old science, how then would anyone even attempt predicting the state of the whole biosphere several years forth?
Some anecdotal examples on how this tendency to “homocentricity” and “hubris” (for want of a better word) have cost us dearly already, monetarily as well as in loss of precious time and effort:
- A few decades ago the world entered a state of near-hysteria over a “scientific” report that told about a “hole” in the ozone layer. In a matter of months, everyone had formed the opinion that we humans were to blame for this “overhanging danger” (pardon the pun). About a decade later, scientists (hopefully not the same scientists) realised that the “hole” in question had indeed been present (to greater and lesser extent) up through the ages, and certainly long before any human activity could have caused it. While it will probably turn out to be a good thing that the widespread use of CFC gasses was stopped (although we can’t say for sure yet) there remains the question of the countless billions (probably trillions) of dollars used worldwide to “prevent the ozone layer from being destroyed” (as if we are even close to having that kind of control over the biosphere). What about the cathalysators (essentially what is known as a catalytic converter in North America) used on so many automobiles around the world; nobody knows if this will turn out to be better or worse than letting the atmosphere take care of the problem (a cathalysator won’t remove all the pollution remember; a good portion is simply gathered inside instead of being released into the atmosphere. It has yet to be proven that any method we posses for processing this concentrated pollution will be more efficient than the natural processes of the biosphere.)
- Much has been written about “Global Warming” in the past decades (starting with the “green-house effect” spurred by the above mentioned ozone-hole hysteria). It turns out that the most likely course of events will be “Global Cooling,” leaving us in need of an igloo or a piece of African estate, which is not exactly the same as the large tube of “Sunblock 2000” that we have so long been advised to bring with us into the future. Sure this cooling will most likely begin with a brief period of warming, but again I think it will be the end result that matters in the long run (and, in the long run, there is nothing more important than the long run!)
The point is this: Our biosphere (“Gaia” if you like to hug trees) is a system of such extreme complexity that we are only just beginning to even understand how complex it actually is, let alone understand in detail how it works. It would thus be folly to think that we have any way of knowing what long term effects the emission of a given amount of some compound will turn out to have on such a system. This would be rather like precisely predicting the weather on a given day some years from now, only to go on to predict how the temperature would be different on that day, if 10,000 fat guys were to fart simultaneously tomorrow!
My argument is therefore that it might just as well turn out to be that such emissions, as those from our automobiles, are precisely what will prevent or postpone the coming of the next ice age (or global warming event, whatever theory is currently in favour). Thus we really don’t know if the widespread use of cathalysators is a good or a bad thing in the long run.
As can be seen, we humans tend to place too much “faith” (even if it might not always be the religious kind) in our understanding of our surroundings and even our ability to “predict the future” (something most people, when asked directly, will quickly denote as impossible, even while proceeding directly to blindly believe the first politician painting a devil on the wall of the future with some obscure reference to science.)
If we were all just a little bit more aware of our, so far, rather humble place in the universe (even in the context of our much smaller biosphere we can at most consider us akin to “coast-dwelling ants” as some wise person once put it) and able to live accordingly, it would be much easier for us as a species to prepare for the unknowns of our shared future. Not that it will be without sacrifice; at best we can strive to prevent to many sacrifices that later turn out to have been in vain (or, as is frequently the case nowadays, that make things even worse!)
I’d like to close with some of the more radical consequences one could imagine if a majority of the world population were to suddenly act according to their (true) place in our world:
- Consider the statement “Each child unborn is more of all-things-good for those already in the world.” It might help to grasp this concept if you start by going to the extreme: If there were only a few million humans on earth, there would be no hunger, no ghettos, and very little violence, war or terrorism (if any at all, considering the low population densities.) That is not to say that any reduction in world population, however small, won’t help improve quality of life globally as well as removing some of the strain on our biosphere (not that I, personally, think we are anywhere near any kind of “limit” in this regard.)
- A more balanced view of nature, and living things other than humans would probably also do wonders for the many thoughtless killings of endangered species for short-sighted, egocentric reasons (even though, by the same arguments, we should allow for some species to go extinct due to natural causes, even if this includes our presence, which any atheist will agree is every bit as natural as the presence of any other element of that which we call nature.)
- Finally, I will allege that attaining such an “objective world view” is paramount to our understanding of other species (alien as well as those closer to home). I am often amused by listening to highly educated people arguing how to best make “fist contact” often including elaborate ways of “initiating communication,” and this while we haven’t even been able to decipher the language of the homely dolphin (whose brains, some would argue, are capable of about the same mental potential as our own even if they utilize it in different ways). I also find the rather widespread opinion that “any advanced species will have friendly intentions” rather hilarious. Now there’s a case of vast “homocentricity,” not to mention lavish helpings of “self-deceit” (a common side effect of being too full of one’s self). (see the footnote for a discourse on this topic.)I hope that amid my ramblings, I’ve succeeded in making my point, hopefully without too many possibilities for misunderstanding, as this is a very “tender” subject since it is about how we view ourselves. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m for killing humans to save the whales (although one is sometimes tempted) or anything like that. I hope that the reader will allow for a bit of “artistic licence” and a few “illustrative exaggerations” here and there, without missing the philosophical point I’m trying to make.As the Vulcans say: “Live long and prosper!”–a goal which any reasonably logical mind will quickly see can only be achieved by severely limiting the population, no matter how much real estate is at hand. Luckily I get the impression that Vulcans lead very frugal sex-lives, so this seems not to be a concern for them.