Something extraordinary happened in Europe at the end of the 17e and 18e centuries, as the diverse intellectual explosion known as the Enlightenment swept across the continent.
The “light” of the Enlightenment is the light of reason – a distant echo of that of Plato Allegory of the Grotto where the truth, so bright it might blind you, can only be attained by the diligent exercise of reason. Philosophers and naturalists, artists and political scientists, all have ardently defended the individual freedom to reason – without the influence of politics and religion – and to use this reason in the pursuit of a society based on equal rights. for all men. Thought was a person’s ticket to intellectual and political freedom.
Of course, many Enlightenment philosophers today would be seen as racists who placed the “civilized” European white man at the pinnacle of society. But the central message of the Enlightenment Project was the need to create a global civilization with moral, shared and universal values, which prevailed over monarchical and ecclesiastical powers. The Enlightenment declared war on the excesses of religion and blind nationalism. Well, we can use that.
Adam Smith, for example, championed patriotism not just for his country, but as part of the greater society of mankind. Immanuel Kant called it “world patriotism”. One can identify the influence of these ideas on no less a twentieth-century thinker than Albert Einstein, who often advocated the need to abolish international borders. “There is no other salvation for civilization and even for the human race than the creation of an international government with security based on law,” Einstein said in an interview with the New York Times in September 1945, just after the end of World War II.
The outlines of a new Age of Enlightenment
On the way to the 21st century, we can revisit these ideas in our own reality. It is a reality where globalization is not driven by the removal of political borders, but rather by easy access to information and by new scientific discoveries about our planet and our place in the Universe. Given that the United Nations alone cannot maintain order in a highly fractured world driven by greed and resource scarcity, perhaps it is time to rethink Enlightenment ideals and propose a new direction for humanity.
But in which direction is it? A first step is certainly to go beyond the tribal notion of borders. But in the spirit of the original Enlightenment, which placed reason at its center, a new vision of our future should be anchored on the science of our time, even if this differs from the traditional mechanistic ways of thinking that animated the original Enlightenment.
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I have suggested elsewhere that modern astronomy offers a new view of humanity, which I have called Humancentrism. This form of human-centered thinking has nothing to do with any supposed superiority of the human species, nor does it argue that we are in any way at the center of the Universe. (For instance, star wars fans criticize humanocentrism as the belief that humans are the pinnacle of galactic sentience.)
In a nutshell, humancentrism is an inversion of Copernicism, which states that the more we learn about the cosmos, the less important we become. Copernicanism is a doctrine of human insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Humanocentrism asserts the opposite. Its central goal is to push humanity to find and adopt a new moral imperative. As we scan the skies for other Earth-like planets – using vehicles such as the sensational Kepler satellite which has found thousands of exoplanets – and better understand the history of life on Earth , we learn something new and essential about our planet, the nature of life and who we are.
Indeed, Humancentrism is deeply linked to Biocentrism, which defends the central importance of life in the Universe, and more specifically, on this planet. The connection is inevitable, given that we are deeply codependent with all other life forms on the planet, and all life forms are deeply codependent with the planet as a whole. There is a delicate systemic balance based on feedback loops that regulates the dynamics between the planet and life, and we relentlessly attack it. Until we adopt a new perspective centered on life, our project of civilization will not be sustainable. Thus, humancentrism is a branch of biocentrism focused on what we can do as a species to secure our collective future.
There’s no place like home
Even though there are other planets or moons with Earth-like properties – sharing a similar mass, liquid water and oxygen-rich atmosphere – our planet and its geophysical properties are unique, with its large moon, its tectonic plates, its thick atmosphere, and magnetic poles. These properties are key ingredients to the success that life has had here. They have provided a climate that remains stable through the ages and protection from harmful cosmic radiation. Thriving on this auspicious background, single-celled bacteria evolved into multicellular organisms, complex multicellular life forms, and finally, intelligent beings.
Each of these transition steps was delicate and improbable, and the process is planet-bound. Some steps transformed the Earth itself, such as the oxygenation of the early Earth’s atmosphere by photosynthetic bacteria. We have learned that if there is complex life elsewhere, it will be rare – and very far from us. For all practical purposes, we are alone. And we, as a species, are important, because we are so rare.
Enlightenment philosophers took intelligent and complex life on other worlds for granted. by Voltaire Micromegas is a great and fun example of this hypothesis, exploring human hubris from the perspective of vastly superior extraterrestrials. But our current outlook on life should be different. A complex living being capable of questioning its existence must also celebrate and respect its existence. And since we are here only because the Earth allows us to be – no teleology implied here, only a reference to dynamic geophysical conditions – we must also celebrate our planet as unique. Human reason and curiosity, which allow us to understand our place in the Universe, must lead us towards a new moral imperative, universal in its values: the equality of all creatures, the preservation of life and this planet.