News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Humanity’s Place in the Universe



An important trend throughout history is the overturning of our beliefs about humanity’s central position in the universe. We now know that the Earth, the Sun, and the Milky Way are not the center of the universe. We have learned that Homo sapiens evolved from the same genetic heritage as all life on the Earth. We have also learned that specific aspects of intelligence long held as the sole domain of humans are in fact present in other animal species, such as self recognition, the manufacture and use of tools, communication through language, social organizations, and comprehension and memory storage of vocabulary words (most recently discovered in dogs).

Many people find this trend threatening. For some reason, they feel that it is necessary for humans to be uniquely separate from everything else in the universe. If one must insist on the superiority of Homo sapiens, then one should do so while remembering that our position is by accident rather than divine decree.

There are other beliefs at work that have been or soon will be overturned, including the belief that in the entire universe life only developed on the Earth, that complexity requires intelligent intervention, that self-replication of machines is not possible, and that machines cannot be built to think as humans do.

A recent simulation supports the feasibility of self-replicating machines while new research has found that the human brain appears to follow almost exactly the laws of artificial intelligence. All of this shakes our core beliefs in what it means to be human, intelligent, and individual. The truth does not bend to our beliefs, but falls to our ability to discovery it through logic and science. In all current debate regarding science and technology, the argument can be reduced to the following: do we remain ignorant and find bliss in our beliefs, or do we learn and suffer for that knowledge. The parable of Adam and Eve suggests that we will always take a bite out of the apple because the delusions of paradise are simply too horrible to ignore.

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