Anthropocentrism is a natural but still curious thing

The most immediately curious aspect of this is probably our need to see things that aren't there. Literally. We have words for holes (which aren't there, it's the absence of material), we have words for shadows and darkness (which isn't there, it's the reduced presence of light), we have a word for zero (which isn't anything, it's the absence of some unit thing). We have words for these things, and because we do we believe that they exist. We see holes, and say "that is a hole", and mean that there "is something".

What we actually do is say that there are pattern variations in the world we observe, which we can describe with the word "hole" or "shadow" or "zero" or the like. We are biological pattern matchers. In fact most animals are. We sense patterns in what we experience, and use these patterns to determine things about the world around us. I'm not saying the behaviourists were right, but they weren't entirely wrong either.

When you start to think about Anthropocentrismm, things become tricky, because many people will feel your thoughts somehow dictate how they have to think, rather than describe how they are already thinking. So for this post in particular (though essentially for all posts on the subject) you should continue to remind yourself that what will be presented is not a new way in which things will be done, but a description of the way things have been done ever since we were advanced enough in the history of humanity to contemplate things.

A great many things we talk about do not exist in the world outside our thoughts. Take very simple things like "red" or "the edge of a table". The colour "red" is not really one colour, it's a particular frequency range of visible light that doesn't just differ per person, but also differs in the same person depending on what they are looking at. If someone is looking at a red ball then other balls will be "red" if they are close to it in colour, whereas if someone was looking at a green ball, colours that would have been rejected in the previous setting will now be accepted as "red"; "red" does not exist as a binary quality (meaning that something is either red, or is not red) but is a subjective quality - it is inside us, not inside the world; just the frequencies of visible light are in the world. The same goes for the "edge of the table": put the table in space, and all the things that are associated with the edge of a table, like things rolling or falling off, no longer happen. In fact, you can't even tell if what you call "the edge" of the table is actually on the bottom or on top (just flip a table surface on earth and what you called the edge earlier is now a angled surface on the under side). So again we have something that exists in our mind, but not objectively in the world.

This goes quite far, actually. Usually when you explain these simple examples, people will find them amusing or evocative for further thought, and they will have liked the conversation (unless they are the kind of people that do not handle new perspectives very well, in which case it's best to talk about what happened in a TV show they like rather than about something mentally challenging... but let's not dwell on those people). However, most people that like to talk about these things without giving it much thought themselves start to feel uncomfortable when the conversation moves into the area of fundamentals. Allow me to show you how this works - if after reading the rest of this post you feel somewhat unsettled or even upset with the theory proposed, you are one of these people (this is normal behaviour, don't worry. Just remember that being upset because you don't understand or like something doesn't make that something false - or true for that matter)


Take causality for instance. One might expect that causality - one thing causes the other - is one of those fundamental things in nature, but when you get down to it causality is nothing more than anthropocentric reasoning. We are temporal creatures, who think in one direction of time. When we see a queue ball hit a red ball in snooker, we think that the two balls are not linked to each other by any laws of physics before they hit, and that they are linked by newtonian laws of physics after they have hit each other.

This is silly.

From an objective point of view, the fact that the red ball moves the way it does after being hit and the white ball remains in its place, means that it has to have had a past which is conductive to this situation. In the same way a white ball rolling towards a red ball must have a future that is conductive to this situation - it cannot be that the white ball will hit the red ball and then neither of them move. The correlation between the two events is symmetric in time, so if there is a situation in which we as humans say we see causality, then the situation is just as causal the other way around. A simple example borrowed from Huw Price: say two people work in the same district and run into each other purely by chance because of this, roughly once every two weeks. Whenever they do, they agree to have a drink later that day. We see a correlation between "meeting each other" and "having a drink", but the relation also works the other way around, we see the *exact same* correlation between "having a drink" and "meeting each other". If we see an increase in them having a drink, then they meet more often, and if we see them meet more often they will have drinks more often. Causality is an anthropocentric projection on these correlations - we accept the past influencing the future, but we do not see the future influencing the past, because we can only think in one direction of time.

This is fairly drastic for most people, since it seems to say that backward causation is not just entirely possible but happens all the time, in such a way that the fatalist is right in saying everything is predetermined. The fatalist would be right in this assumption, but there is a difference between the future (or the past) being predetermined (ie, has only one set of truth values) and it being accessible (ie, being of a nature that allows us to say something about the truth values without being at the time we are talking about). Even if the future is predetermined, it's not accessible. Amusingly (and an anthropocentric perspective will have great issues with this one too:) the past is not accessible either. Only the "now" is accessible, with the past being accessible through recordings that exist "now" (such as history books). However, amusingly these do not guarantee us the truth values of the past; they only offer the truth values as someone believed them to have been.

So that basically covers causality and time... what we call causality is just the forward flavour of a time-symmetrical correlation between events, and time itself is a mostly-nonaccessible dimension except for the "now". "The past" and "the future" are once more just words for things that do not exist, like shadows or table edges.

Important is to remember that for every day life you don't need to know, believe or even remember that the future is just as correlating to the past as the other way around. On the other hand if you want to do physics, it would be ridiculous to ignore this (but you're probably not a physicist).


Another interestingly anthropocentric topic is "life", or more precisely "the quality that something posesses that allows us to say it is alive". Again you might think this is some objective quality but it turns out this too is a mere anthropocentric construction. The most constructive way to show this is by a reduction argument, which basically means taking an example that is alive, and stripping away things until we can no longer say it is alive. If we can do this, then there is some thing inherent to the objective world that determined whether something is alive or not.

Are humans alive? almost by definition, we are. Do we differ from animals in this respect? The typical answer is no, both humans and any other animal can be said to be alive. So let's start simplifying. Animals are alive. Are they alive because they have a brain? Well, we say that plants are alive too, and they do not have brains, so "alive" in the general sense has be to related to something else. Are plants and animals alive because they grow? Well that would not be very sensical because crystals grow too, but we don't call them alive. But crystals grow slowly, do things that are alive perhaps grow fast? A quick look at the speed with which certain lichen and corals grow, we can safely say "no not really" and we are forced to look at something else. Are things perhaps alive because they are made up of cells? A good initial thought, let's reduce our domain to the single-cell organisms, and then notice we call these alive too... this might be the winning ticket - but then what makes the single-cell organism alive, that causes everything else that consists of cells to be called alive too? Is it alive because it manages to ingest nutrients? well, the ingestion process is just pure physics; a certain molecular imbalance inside the cell triggers it, and the ingestion of nutrients levels the balance again. In fact, everything that happens in a single-cell organism is just pure physics. Nothing brain-like "controls" the actions because anything that even resembles a brain consists of many many cells in itself.

So this poses a problem: if a single-cell organism is really nothing more than a complex physical process, then "being made of cells" is not a criterium for being alive. In fact it would basically mean that the single-cell organism is not strictly speaking alive at all, it's just a bit of physics in action. Complex, of course, but still just physics.

What's going on here? Well, basically the same thing that happens when we think about "red". Like "red", "alive" is something we as humans project onto things. Consider what red means. It's a colour, right? Except it's not, it's far more. Consider what "red" means in different, but comparable, context: "a red apple" vs. "a red grapefruit": we know what red means, but in these instances it doesn't mean that the apple and the grapefruit are normal apples and graprefruits, but then entirely red. For apples it means that the peel is red, and for grapefruits it means the pulp is red. Nowhere in our definition of "red", however, do we every mention peels and pulps... "alive" is just as annoying, we use one word to mean many different things when we use it: "that plant is alive" and "that man is alive" mean two completely different things. What's worse, we also use it to describe things that we don't even think are alive at all, by virtue of the fact that we think that something that is alive also leads a life. "The story started leading a life of its own" - are stories alive?

And so we hit upon the unavoidable anthropocentrism. "alive" is just some pattern that we see things exhibit, and this pattern does not even need to be the same for all things that we consider alive.

A great many of the words you use in daily life are anthropocentric, and for good reason: as anthropoids it makes perfect sense that we experience the world from an antropocentric point of view.

However, whenever you want to talk or even think about things that are part of the "objective world", true regardless of whether a human describes it, you have to think about every word you use, you might be tricking yourself by reaching a conclusion using words that are meaningless when you consider them outside of an anthropocentric perspective.

Beware the anthropoid wielding language.


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