Archive for August, 2009

Varieties of Anthropocentrism and Human Exceptionalism

This is the first of a prospective series of posts on anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism; I hope to build on each one and then tie the subject into other recent topics of interest such as functional explanation. As the foundational post, this will mostly be groundwork. I will first attempt to describe a spectrum of anthropocentric attitudes and then add epicycles and observations to the initial scale and definition. So, what are some varieties of anthropocentrism?

Strong anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is the view that there is a significant ontological difference between humans and much of the material world. A classic and famous example of this in philosophy is Cartesian dualism, with its assertion that humans are of two worlds that seem sufficiently intuitive: the mental and the physical. Much of the rest of the world is far more mechanistic in character; humans are exceptional, then, because we consist of a mental substance somehow connected to the physical. Descartes philosophy is also heavily reliant on the existence of God and various philosophical/theological details that expand on the two distinct, yet connected substances of the world. Similarly, a lot of human exceptionalism is founded on religious beliefs, particularly those religions that describe the special creation of humans and the existence of an immaterial, immortal soul linked to an eternal, omniscent, omnipresent deity.

Moderate anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is more influenced by modern Western culture and a corresponding attention to science at a popular level. This is an anthropocentrism that acknowledges the continutity of humans with the rest of the world, usually by reference to evolution and common ancestry. However, moderate anthropocentrism remains coherent with a dualistic metaphysics.  One subscribing to moderate anthropocentrism could be a Cartesian-style believer in immaterial characteristics posessed by humans but not necessarily the rest of the world. The difference between moderate and strong anthropocentrism is the acknowledgement of a stronger continuity of humans with the rest of the (physical) world within the moderate attitude.

Weak anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism, then, anchors the other end of the spectrum. Weak anthropocentrism is coherent with a physicalist monism: the view that there are only physical substances in the world. Under this view, humans are not exceptional because they are creatures of two worlds while most beings are restricted to one, but because of other unique charactersitics of humanity. Humans are apparently more intelligent and creative than other beings, as evidenced by the existence of complex human cultures and languages. For all we know humans are the only beings with such cultural, linguistic, and creative complexity. It is this complexity and intelligence, therefore, that set humans apart from other beings (although at least, under this weak variation, humans and the rest of the world consist of the same stuff).

For each strength of anthropocentrism there are, of course, a great deal of variations. For example, in some religious thought, the existence of a soul and of a deity does not imply dualism. Indeed, the existence of a deity implies a strong monism, as everything is unified through the existence and power of the deity. This attitude can go in a multitude of directions, however– one can go from it to a Spinozistic monism, or to panpsychism, or continue to believe that, despite the unity of the world as established by the deity there is nonetheless something more or less exceptional about humans. What is true for my descriptions of the variations of anthropocentrism above is also true when it comes to this viewpoint; a metaphysical attitude leads the way, and attitudes regarding human exceptionalism follow.

With that thought, however, a psychological issue raises its head. Philosophically speaking, I think it seems clear that the metaphysics one accepts influences (if not implies, depending on the metaphysics) ones attitude towards anthropocentrism. Psychologically speaking, though, it may be the other way around. It makes sense to consider that humans are, at default, anthropocentric; we have, more or less, a preference for others of our own species, and even members of that species that bear particular resemblance to ourselves. Depending on the veracity of group selection hypotheses, there may only be so much a human can do to consider anthropocentrism from something approximating an archimedian standpoint. Between the psychological, anthropological, and philosophical, we are left with the questions: Is the anthropocentric attitude justied? Which one(s) are justified or justifiable? And even if evaluation of the justifiability of anthropocentrism is possible, how possible is it to change anthropocentric attitudes?

August 28, 2009 at 10:53 am Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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