- The Enlightenment changed the course of human history, placing reason at the center of culture.
- Our current project of civilization is failing and needs a new direction.
- Learning about life in the Universe highlights the uniqueness of our planet and of life here. This knowledge should pave the way to a new Enlightenment, one with the goal of rescuing civilization.
Something extraordinary happened in Europe during the late 17th and 18th centuries, as the diversified intellectual explosion known as the Enlightenment swept across the continent.
The “light” in Enlightenment is the light of reason — a distant echo from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where the truth, so bright that it could blind you, can only be reached through the diligent exercise of reason. Philosophers and natural scientists, artists and political scientists, all of them fiercely defended an individual’s freedom to reason — without the influence of politics and religion — and to use that reason in pursuit of a society based on equal rights for all men. Thought was a person’s ticket to intellectual and political freedom.
For sure, many of the Enlightenment philosophers would nowadays be deemed racists who placed the “civilized” European white man at the apex of society. But the core message of the Enlightenment Project was the need to create a global civilization with moral values, shared and universal, that prevailed over monarchic and ecclesiastical powers. The Enlightenment declared war on the excesses of religion and of blind nationalism. That, we can use.
Adam Smith, for example, defended patriotism not only for one’s country, but as part of the great society of mankind. Immanuel Kant called this “global patriotism.” We can identify the influence of these ideas on no less a 20th-century thinker than Albert Einstein, who often defended 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 the security on the basis of law,” Einstein declared in an interview with the New York Times in September 1945, right after the end of World War II.
The contours of a new Enlightenment
Moving forward to the 21st century, we can revisit these ideas within our own reality. That is a reality where globalization is driven not 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 keep order in a highly fractured world driven by greed and resource scarcity, maybe it is time to rethink the ideals of the Enlightenment, and propose a new direction for humanity.
But which direction is this? A first step is certainly to move beyond the tribal notion of borders. But in the spirit of the original Enlightenment, which placed reason at its center, a new vision for our future should be anchored on the science of our times, even if that is different from the traditional mechanistic ways of thought that drove the original Enlightenment.
I have suggested elsewhere that modern astronomy offers a new vision for humanity, which I called Humancentrism. This form of human-centric thinking has nothing in the slightest to do with any assumed superiority of the human species, nor does it hold that we are in any way central to the Universe. (For example, Star Wars fans criticize Humanocentrism as the belief that humans are the apex of Galactic sentience.)
In a nutshell, Humancentrism is an inversion of Copernicanism, 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. Humancentrism states the opposite. Its central goal is to push humanity to find and embrace a new moral imperative. As we scan the skies in search of other Earth-like planets — using vehicles such as the sensational Kepler satellite that has found thousands of exoplanets — and as we understand better 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 link is unavoidable, given that we are deeply codependent with all other forms of life on the planet, and all forms of life are deeply codependent with the planet as a whole. There is a delicate systemic balance based on feedback loops that regulate the dynamics between planet and life, and we attack it relentlessly. Until we embrace a new life-centric perspective, our project of civilization will not be sustainable. So, Humancentrism is a branch of Biocentrism focused on what we can do as a species to guarantee our collective future.
There is no place like home
Even if there are other planets or moons with properties like Earth’s — sharing a similar mass, liquid water, and an 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 stays stable across ages, and protection from harmful cosmic radiation. Thriving on this propitious background, single-celled bacteria evolved into multicellular organisms, complex multicellular lifeforms, and finally, intelligent beings.
Each of these transitional steps was delicate and improbable, and the process is linked to the planet. Some steps transformed Earth itself, like 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 distant from us. For all practical purposes, we are alone. And we as a species matter, because we are so rare.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment viewed intelligent, complex life on other worlds as a given. Voltaire’s Micromegas is a great and fun example of this assumption, exploring human hubris from the perspective of vastly superior aliens. But our current perspective on life should be different. A complex living creature capable of wondering about its existence should also celebrate and respect its existence. And since we are here only because Earth allows us to be — no teleology implied here, only a reference to dynamic geophysical conditions — we must also celebrate our planet as being unique. Human reason and curiosity, which allow us to comprehend our place in the Universe, should lead us toward a new moral imperative, universal in its values: the equality of all creatures, and the preservation of life and of this planet.