Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Man’s place in the Universe

Industrial Technology 198
Technology and Civilization
MW 10.30-12 p.m.

Science and the Citizen: Man’s place in the Universe

The question of defining a humans place in the universe is a question that one would not expect to find in a college science course. It is a question that seems more at home in a philosophy seminar where students think up questions such as who am I? What is life? What is man’s place in the universe? The stereotypical views of science is that of a cold, calculating researchers in white lab coats gathering data from microscopes or that of Mr. Spock chanting precise logical explanations to every unexplained phenomena and is always right.

In reality, science asks this question as much as the other disciplines. Man’s place in the universe cannot be easily defined by a single definition. There are many different layers of definitions to this question. Science can define man’s place in terms of his evolutionary history—where he came from, and can give us a description of his ancestors and his closest relatives. Religion defines man’s place in the universe in terms of his relationship with God—may it be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or any other of the many religions that man believes in. Psychology defines man’s place in the universe within the context of his mind and his ability to think and feel. History defines his place with his relationship of his past civilizations. Each discipline gives him an insight of who he is.

No single definition to man’s place in the universe is absolutely right and all others wrong. Each definition is unique in defining man—whether it is scientific, religious, and philosophic. Take an example of Nazism. Nazism is a distinct brand of fascism where the individual works and contributes to the benefit of the state. In fascism, the state takes precedent over the individual. This can be one possible definition for man’s place in the universe. Yet Nazism is a distinct branch of fascism where there is a quasi-religious belief in that the German people were a master race and all other races were inferior and should be treated as inferior. Are the religious philosophies of Nazism a right definition to man’s place in the universe? Or should the question not be whether Nazism can be a right definition to man’s place in the universe, but rather the philosophies of Nazism contributed to man’s inhumanity to his fellow man in the systematic, state-sanctioned slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe and the destruction of the Second World War? Nazism can define man’s capacity to generate evil in the universe. These questions are not right or wrong. They are questions to be open for interpretation and debate.

One interesting problem with the absence of a single absolute definition is that definitions can contradict each other. And they do. Man’s capacity to think and reason is fluid…. dynamic. Thoughts, ideas, and views are constantly being analyzed, debated as new information is discovered over time. Take the view of creation. Almost every religion has some form of explanation of how the world and man was created. The Christian belief was that God created the world and that the first man was Adam. Now in today’s society, science can provide a reasonable explanation with the fossilized evidence of how the world and man was created through the theories of evolution and geology. Both science and religion contradict the views of creation. And yet in the societies of the past, man did not understand the theories of evolution or geology—people did not turn to science for the answers to their questions. People did turn to religion for the answers of creation that they needed. Now as people are exposed to new ideas and as more knowledge becomes available, the definitions of the past contradict the definitions of today. The definitions of the past must be adapted, molded and shaped to fit into today’s world. While there might not have been a Garden of Eden and that the first man was not named Adam, the biblical story of creation does show that God created the world and man. Adam becomes a symbolic figure of the human race. The greatest problem with this explanation is that people are afraid of change.

To define man’s place in the universe is an almost universal undertaking. There are many different arguments. As long as man continues in his capacity to think, to reason and to explore his surrounding universe will he continue to evolve. Man may never find the absolute definition to his place in the universe. But his ongoing search will continue to enrich his humanity.

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