Other scientists in the first part of the 20C further torqued our understanding of how we fit. Einstein’s relativity theory (1905, 1915), Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (1927), and Godel’s incompleteness theorem (1931) said, respectively:
* There is no fixed understanding of the universe; all our observations depend on where we are and how fast we’re moving.
* We can’t even measure both our location and our speed at the same time
* We can’t prove our way out of whatever epistemological box we’re in.
Even on the “social science” side, anthropologists, led by Franz Boas at Columbia, insisted that we (i.e., the dominant Western culture (again)) had to stop evaluating all other cultures by how they measured up to our practices, history, and values. Hmm, that means that we have to respect others and not look down on them because of their differences from us. Unlike physics and biology, this effort at de-centering is ongoing. Indeed, a fair amount of history work in the last few decades is all about looking at what happened (imperially, internationally, and domestically) without starting from a stance in which we (the dominant Western culture) are patting ourselves on the back. This old style (we call it “Whig History”), made for great self-congratulatory stories in which some combination of God, luck, hard work, and good breeding (don’t get me started) led more or less ineluctably to the present day on (what Churchill called) “the sunlit uplands” of civilization. Lately, when we look at the same series of events without the filters of self-righteousness, perhaps there is less to be smug about. Such are the perils of taking multiple perspectives into account. It’s all very disconcerting.
Wow! It’s no wonder we’re all in existential angst. Life was a lot simpler to understand when we thought we were the center of everything and we could rely on whatever we saw to accurately describe things. Of course, some folks continue to believe that the Bible is the literal truth and reject either its metaphorical power or its place in history (i.e. as the product of humans who wrote down what they understood at the time 2000-3000 years ago). Such is the power of coherence and narrative.
I am one of those who think that the world is understandable and, increasingly, understood; even if I accept the possibility that there may be some “divine” force who set things up. God, as they say, works in mysterious ways; and there’s no reason he/she/it can’t construct creation via evolution or gradually reveal the mysteries of life and the universe one step at a time and arrange for their publication in various scientific journals every month. A good child of the Enlightenment, I subscribe to Kant’s challenge: “sapere aude” (“dare to know”), even as I am aware that I (and Kant, too) am a product of a particular, highly contingent development of human events (aka “history”).
So, just as Einstein’s observer doesn’t have any solid place to stand, I, too, am floating. It’s not entirely comfortable. I have to tolerate relativity, uncertainty, and incompleteness. I have to go forth without the expectation of knowing more than I do now; and make the best of it.