Chong Ho Yu, Ph.D.


The scientific shift away from geocentric accounts of the universe to heliocentric accounts and infinite cosmologies had profound influence on the European culture. The influence is multi-faceted, but the focus of this article centers around the diminishing concept of human uniqueness and the transition from the world soul cosmology to the world machine view. Although these two trends are highly visible in the Western culture, it is still an over-generalization to say that the status of human is going downward only and the modern worldview is merely mechanical and a-metaphysical

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.

It is argued that since Copernicus and Galileo, different theories in different disciplines, intentionally or unintentionally, introduced the side effect of weakening human's special status. In biology, Charles Darwin's evolution is truly explosive for it suggests that human is just an advanced form of animal on top of the evolution ladder. In economics, Karl Marx adopted a materialistic view to human nature and thus explained history in terms of economic infrastructure and class struggle for resource ownership. In psychology, Sigmund Freud painted the portrait of human as an irrational being driven by id at the subconscious level. Later B. F. Skinner stripped away human's freedom and dignity by conceptualizing human behaviors in terms of machine-like stimulus-response chains. Modern cognitive psychologists go even further to compare humans to computers. Under the input-processing-output model, our short-term memory is like RAM chips while our long-term memory is similar to a hard drive. Behind the scene, reductionism plays an active role in explaining away human nobility.

Defense of human uniqueness

Alfred Russell 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."

Although the Copernican model represents a giant step towards the world machine cosmology, it still does not cut the tie with the world soul cosmology. The Copernican model was developed in the context of the 15th century revival of Neoplatonism, which requires the governing intelligence of a world-soul. Galileo began his astronomical research with the aim of supporting the Copernican model. Galileo's theory is more mathematical than Copernicus's model and his work certainly reflects a world machine cosmology. Besides Galileo, Kepler also developed physical laws to explain planetary motions. Later these laws serve as the foundation of modern mechanical cosmology. Unlike Galileo and Kepler, Rene DeCartes did not make much contribution to physics and astronomy (his theory of vortex is incorrect), as a philosopher he introduced dualism to separate mind from matter. This dualistic worldview legitimatizes the departure of metaphysics from physical sciences. DesCartes went even further to remove God altogether from intervention in the material universe. Laster Issac Newton carried DesCartes' notion further by introducing a clock-like universe. Moreover, he removed questions of teleology and causality from his methodology. In Newtonian view, the world is governed by strict and universal natural law, and hence, God is unnecessary for the day-to-day upholding of the universe (Koszarycz, 2000).

It is undeniable that a mechanistic worldview is pre-dominant in modern days. Paradoxically, discussions of metaphysical nature could still be found among modern cosmologists (Berenda, 1945). Toulmin (1982) observed that humans study cosmology with the ambition of finding out where we stand in the world into which we have been born. A purely mechanistic and a-metaphysical cosmology would not help us to fulfill this ambition.


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.

Boorstin, D. J. 91994). The discoverers: A history of man's search to know his world and himself. Los Angeles, CA: The Publishing Mills.

Koszarycz, 2, Y. (2000). The 17th to the 20th centuries: The church in the modern era. [On-line] Available: URL:

Scheler, M. (1961). Man's place in nature. Boston, Beacon Press.

Smith, C. (1999). Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man, and Evolution: An Analytical Essay. [On-line] Available: URL:

Toulmin, S. E. (1982). The return to cosmology: Postmodern science and the theology of nature. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Westfall, R. S. (1977). The construction of modern science: Mechanisms and mechanics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.




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