Diminishing concept of human uniqueness
In 1600 philosopher Giordano Bruno was condemned as a heretic and was burnt alive in Rome, because he believed that the universe is infinite and God is the universal world soul. It is difficult for modern people to understand why the notion of infinite universe was offensive to the Roman Catholic Church. In order to get the insight of dispute, the issue must be analyzed in the context of 17th century theology. At that time traditional religious doctrines maintained that humans are exceptionally created by God and thus occupy a special place in the universe. Following this thread of thought, the earth, where humans reside, must be located at the cosmological center. However, the concept of infinite universe implies that there is no center in the universe, and therefore the earth may not be a special place at all. The Copernican model and the endorsement by Galileo, in Catholic's eyes, also demoted human from the center of the universe to a cosmic dust. The old world-view made human so special and important that all heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Under the new heliocentric paradigm that the earth orbits around the sun, human's uniqueness and the idea of God's special concern were further endangered.
Defense of human uniqueness
At first glance, the above theories seem to support the notion of a diminishing concept of human uniqueness. However, there are counter-forces against the aforementioned theories and these vocal reactions are more than significant minorities. For example, although Darwin is credited as the originator of the idea of natural selection, actually this idea was co-introduced by Darwin's contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace (Left figure). A few years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Wallace announced that natural selection was not an all-sufficient cause of the human evolution regarding higher human faculties such as moral, artistic, and mathematical abilities. Rather, he considered spiritualism the best available accounting of the overall direction of evolution at the moral/intellectual level (Smith, 1999). A similar defender of human nobility could be found in psychology. To challenge the dominance of Freud's psychoanalysis and Skinner's behaviorism, Abraham Maslow advocated "the third force"-humanistic psychology. In contrast to Freud and Skinner, Maslow emphasized the goodness of human nature and self-awareness of human mind. In his view, human are capable of going beyond lower levels of needs and reaching self-actualization. In philosophy, Max Scheler (1961) attempted to revive philosophical anthropology by rejecting theories of Darwin, Marx and Freud. In Scheler's view, human is able to "rise above" himself/herself as a living being. Human is portrayed by Scheler as an "essence" supervening upon himself/herself and the world.
From world soul to world machine
The diminishing concept of human uniqueness goes hand in hand with a mechanistic and materialistic world view, which could be found in Marxism and several schools of psychology. Three centuries ago academic theories derived from a mechanistic world-view were unthinkable because the animated cosmology was prevalent in both Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Although Christian theology was not pantheistic, it had assimilated Neoplatonistic mystic theology and Aristotelian scholasticism during the Middle Ages. The idea that the world is ensouled became the basis for medieval scholasticism and certain elements of Catholic theology. An obvious example is the divine fifth element in the Aristotelian cosmology, which was adopted by Catholic scholars. Gilbert's magnetism is another good example. Gilbert identified magnetism as the soul of the earth. According to Gilbert, attraction and repulsion express the underlying intelligence that organizes the cosmos (Westfall, 1977). This animated cosmology is termed as "world soul." In contrast, the heliocentric system developed by Copernicus and Galileo is governed soulness natural laws. This unanimated cosmology is known as "world machine."
Data are always full of fluctuations. A coherent view could emerge if and only if the researcher forcefully suppresses data noise. If the views of George Rusel Wallace, Abraham Maslow, Max Scheler are suppressed, it seems that there is a coherent movement to demote human uniqueness since the Copernican revolution. However, those perspectives are still widely adopted ands studied. The migration from the world soul cosmology to the world machine view is less debatable. Certainly we will not see any scientific theories that regard natural objects having their own will. Nonetheless, in recent years metaphysics has began to knock at the door of cosmology again. The revival of metaphysical cosmology may be just around the corner, because without the aid of religion and philosophy, it is doubtful whether cosmology alone could answer the question regarding human's place in the universe.
Berenda, C. W. (1945). Notes on cosmology. The Journal of Philosophy, 42, 545-548.