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Theoretical Physicist Admits That Humans Are Unique

In his forthcoming book, Marcelo Gleiser challenges us to acknowledge our responsibility to save the planet

Yesterday, I noted a new book by Durham University philosophy professor Philip Goff, Why? The Purpose of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 2023). Notwithstanding his choice of topic, Goff is a panpsychist, not an intelligent design theorist. He originally tried approaching the massive evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe by supposing that there must be a very large number of flopped universes out there (multiverse theory). But he realized that that assumption is simply pulled out of thin air. We have no evidence for the existence or conditions of any other universe. So he is now working with the assumption that the universe is itself conscious in some sense.

Significantly, Goff is given a respectful hearing despite having touched a Third Rail in science writing. That’s probably because the pointless universe is not working out well as an explanation for fine-tuning. For one thing, there is more evidence for fine-tuning coming in all the time and no obvious materialist explanation… Perhaps the rule is subtly changing: “As long as it is not intelligent design…”

Tiptoeing around the Third Rail

In that context, it is interesting to note that Dartmouth College theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser is also wandering among the cables in a new book, The Dawn of a Mindful Universe: A Manifesto for Humanity’s Future (HarperOne, 2023). In a recent piece at Big Think, excerpted from the book, he offers some unexpected thoughts about the nature of life: It differs from lifeless matter in that “Living matter doesn’t simply undergo passive transformations. Life is ‘animated’ matter, matter with purpose, the purpose of surviving.”

Purpose? In a purposeless cosmos? Then, about human beings, he says,

But deep as their emotions might be, animals don’t ponder the meaning of their existence. They don’t have the urge to tell their stories and wonder about their origins. We do. – Marcelo Gleiser, “‘Biocentrism’: A scientific answer to the meaning of life,” Big Think, August 27, 2023

All of this will seem no more than thoughtful common sense to many of us. But for a long time, the concept that there is any such thing as human uniqueness has been another Third Rail in much science writing. The more we know, so the usual patter runs, the more we will see that we are not much different from chimpanzees. Now here is a respected source pointing out differences that, while obvious, are deeply uncomfortable to many.

And of course, because we are not merely animals, Gleiser tells us that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of… what?

We have turned our backs to the teachings of our ancestors and Indigenous cultures, who worshipped the land as their mother and the animals as their peers. We can tame much of what we fear, from fire to lions, and this power makes us giddy. But our ancestors knew, as we do, that we can’t tame Nature… We lost touch with our evolutionary origins, with our roots in the wild, and we have forgotten who we are and where we came from. We have desecrated the land that sustains us, treating the world as our property. – Gleiser, “Biocentrism”

Faced with a virtually Scriptural denunciation, one is tempted to ask, “Against Whom have we sinned?” Is Nature a goddess after all?

But to focus on that part would be to miss Gleiser’s critical tacit admission: We are not just animals. Mind matters. And we can choose. But once the existence of abstract thought and conscious free choice are admitted, the existence of an immaterial world is inescapable. And that’s why human uniqueness is the Third Rail.

Gleiser, of course, quickly darts back to safety: “The time has come for new humans, humans who understand that all forms of life are codependent, who have the humility to position themselves alongside all living creatures, and not above them.”

Wait. If we are going to sound like the Old Testament, we must observe its ground rules. First, humans are different. We can know about things that other life forms cannot, including abstractions like “humility.” And, of course, it’s not really a question of how we “position” ourselves. Being human is fundamentally different, whether we choose to admit it or not. We can read and understand Gleiser’s book and the endangered species cannot. The distinction makes all the difference in the world.

Is biocentrism a philosophy or a faith? Or both?

Gleiser is not a panpsychist like Goff. He is a biocentrist. Biocentrism as a philosophy originated in the environmental movement in the late twentieth century:

The fundamental tenet of this biocentric view is that a planet that holds life is sacred. And what is sacred must be revered and protected. A planet that holds life is profoundly different from the countless barren worlds spread across the vastness of space, marvelous as they might be. A planet that holds life is a living planet, and a living planet is where Cosmos and life embrace each other and create an irreducible wholeness. And of all the planets that may hold life in this galaxy and others, ours is a beacon of hope for being home to a species of storytellers. – Gleiser, “Biocentrism”

It sounds like a nascent religion when we are told: “To transform Earth into one of our barren solar system neighbors would be the greatest crime humankind could commit against itself, against all life, against the Cosmos.” But is the Cosmos an entity against whom a crime can be committed? How does such a crime differ from the traditional concept of a sin?

Marcelo Gleiser

He approaches the Third Rail cautiously again: “It [biocentrism] reaches beyond pre-Copernican human exceptionalism (we are the center of all Creation) and Copernican nihilism (we are nothing in the cosmic vastness), given that it weaves humankind into the web of life, the irreducible wholeness that enshrines the planet.”

Gleiser is safer than some near the Rail because he approaches it in the context of ecology: Precisely because we are something more than animals, we alone can save the planet. Deny that and the planet is doomed! But if the price of our planet’s salvation in a biocentrist cosmos is tacitly admitting that humans are unique, Gleiser has in fact gone well beyond the safety zone: Humans can only be unique and responsible for our actions if the immaterial world is real.

But we are not here to push Gleiser, or Goff for that matter, off the platform, right onto that Rail…

You may also wish to read: If panpsychism is now mainstream, is fine-tuning next? In his new book, panpsychist Philip Goff argues for fine-tuning of the universe and cosmic purpose. Can Goff get science gatekeepers to accept fine-tuning simply by slamming traditional religion? If he does, we will certainly know that things are changing.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Theoretical Physicist Admits That Humans Are Unique