Man, the Measure of his Great Folly

The common human belief is that human intelligence is the nonpareil of the animal world, a fact that is demonstrated by our clear superiority over all other living creatures. Due to our intellectual brilliance, we have been able to overcome our many physical limitations and do incredible things like fly faster than the fastest bird, swim deeper than the largest sea creature, live in extremely cold climates, and refashion the world to suit our very peculiar tastes. This belief is encapsulated in the declaration made by the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things.”

There is at present a widespread belief among our kind that mathematics is a sort of universal language that would be understood by any other species of intelligent beings who live somewhere else in the vast Universe. We hold this belief in spite of the fact that, of the millions and millions of other species that exist on the Earth – whose numbers, incidentally, are continually declining because of us – there is not a single one of them that we have been able to convince of the truth of our mathematical propositions and scientific theories.

In addition to other criteria, we have defined intelligence as the ability to understand our terrestrial, human-developed mathematics – an ability, let it be remembered, that can only be acquired with many years of diligent study, and has been possessed by only a small percentage of human beings during our species’ much longer existence. In other words, we have made our particular human abilities the measure of intelligence throughout the vast Universe. If other living creatures could understand the nature of this claim and communicate their thoughts to us, they would laugh and laugh at us for our ridiculous presumption in promulgating such a narrow, human-centric definition of intelligence.

Even in our evaluation of other animals, we grade and value them according to their ability to approximate our human standard of intelligence; in other words, their ability to imitate our language, solve human-created problems such as finding their way out of a maze, and do tricks that astonish and delight us because we have trained them to perform them. But this silly human-centric evaluation of the non-human world blinds us to the many different kinds of ability and intelligence that exist in Nature.

I do not agree with the view that mathematics is a universal language. First of all, we have not the slightest evidence for this belief. Secondly, we have quite a lot of evidence against it, since there is no other terrestrial species that is able to understand our mathematical theorems and propositions. Before something can be declared to be universally comprehensible or valid, it must first be shown to be terrestrially comprehensible or valid, and our human mathematics most certainly does not pass this second, more limited test.

But what about the fact that mathematically-based scientific theories have enabled us to understand and manipulate aspects of the world in ways that humans weren’t able to prior to their discovery or development? This I readily grant. But what has been the result of this understanding and the consequent ability to change and manipulate the world to our liking?

If we are able to look at the matter objectively, that is, from a non-human perspective, something that the great majority of science and technology-addled humans have great difficulty doing, the primary effects of this understanding have been to increase our numbers to an alarming extent, far beyond the total human population that would exist on the Earth without the interventions of science, medicine, and technology, a vast increase in the total amount of energy we consume, and a proportionally great increase in the amount of destruction we are wreaking on the Earth and the natural systems and organisms on which we depend for our survival. Who in their right mind would declare that this is a wise and sensible course of action? And yet, we modern, scientifically-intoxicated and technologically-addicted human beings continue to insist that human intelligence is the nonpareil of the Universe.

Judged by its many harmful results, we cannot declare scientific knowledge to be the unmitigated boon that many of us believe it is. For it is precisely because our human ancestors were ignorant of the things that we know that they were able to survive for many hundreds of thousands of years, without the “benefits” of science, medicine, and technology. They were not able to overcome the natural limitations that every species has had imposed on it since time immemorial, and so they lived harmoniously and in balance with other species and their environment. We think we are superior to all other living organisms because we have figured out how to overcome these natural limitations, but our failure to recognize the grave danger that this breach poses to our species’ long-term survival shows in reality how stupid we are, for we fail to see that it is precisely our scientific, medical, and technological “success” that now poses the greatest threat to our species’ survival.

But if, as I claim, mathematics is not universally valid, then how are we to understand its nature, specifically the fact that it enables us to do so many wondrous things – that we are able to formulate mathematical laws that can explain and predict so many different aspects of the natural world, from the subatomic to the cosmological level?

Every sentient species of creatures has its particular way of perceiving and understanding the world. For that species, the way it views and interprets the world is valid and meaningful for its kind. Mathematics and scientific theories form a part of the way that some humans interpret the world. This knowledge enables us to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. But it does not follow from these facts and accomplishments that our mathematical and scientific theories have any validity for any other species of living organisms, including those that are presumed to exist elsewhere in the Universe. Indeed, it would truly be astonishing if such were the case.

There is another way in which the belief in the universal validity of mathematics can be interpreted. In a sense, as we gaze outwards at the Heavens, the search for intelligent life in the Universe is an attempt to find a reflection of ourselves somewhere in the distant reaches of the Universe. I do not mean this literally, of course, since the likelihood that another form of life which developed independently of terrestrial life will resemble us physically is extremely unlikely, unless this were ordained by God. I mean this in a cultural and intellectual sense. However, if we consider the extremely pernicious effects of our diabolical intelligence, it is greatly to be hoped that we never find such a reflection.

Another way that we can consider this search is as an expression of our desire to have another species, somewhere else in the Universe, laud and extol us for our many wonderful cultural and scientific achievements. Since we have not been able to find any other species on Earth to praise us for our self-declared godlike intelligence and our numerous wonderful inventions and accomplishments – since the members of these terrestrial species have not shown that they are in any way impressed by them – we now seek this praise in other parts of the Universe. Like a child that is inordinately proud of its achievements and wants everyone to know about them, we have sent space probes and messages into outer space in order to tell others about our extraordinary accomplishments.[1] Truly, our human vanity knows no limits.

[1] Consider, for instance, the gold-plated copper discs that were placed in the Voyager space probes that eventually left our solar system. Given the immense dimensions of the Milky Way Galaxy, most of which, like the rest of the Universe, consists of empty space, the likelihood that these discs and the rest of the probes’ contents will be discovered by the members of some other species is pretty much zero. Moreover, these discs, which were recorded with music that was meant to represent the musical history of our species, would not have been able to be understood or listened to by our own human ancestors from just a few centuries ago. And now that more and more music is recorded and listened to in digital format, the music on these discs is accessible to a smaller and smaller part of the Earth’s human population. In other words, even if these discs had mysteriously appeared on the Earth randomly during our species’ history, it is only during a period of one or two centuries, out of several millions of years of existence, that human beings would have been able to decipher and listen to their contents.