Humans Really Are That Important

We Think, Therefore We Matter.

“If the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him” – Blaise Pascal.

I have previously examined the contradiction at the heart of environmentalism: the denial that humans are in any way unique.

The idea that humans aren’t that special is a fashionable one. Its nadir is Stephen Hawking’s sneer that humans are just “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet”. H P Lovecraft framed the point slightly more sympathetically, with his philosophy of “Cosmicism”.

Lovecraft is best known today as a towering figure of weird fiction, but he was also an amateur, yet erudite, scientist and philosopher. For Lovecraft, the “cosmic viewpoint” was a matter of comfort rather than otherwise: “There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much”.

Both views are repeating the common notion that the scientific discoveries of the 19th and early 20th centuries dethroned not just God, but humanity as well. Astronomy, especially the discovery of the expanding universe, led to the conclusion that “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity”.

While Albert Camus would have had some sympathy with Lovecraft’s philosophy, he vehemently opposed Hawking’s disdain. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” wrote Camus. “And that is suicide.” While this might seem the most nihilistic argument imaginable, Camus concluded opposite. After all, he continues, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”.

As Camus points out, nobody ever took their life over how many dimensions the universe has, or “whether the mind has nine or twelve categories”. People who conclude that life has no meaning, he says, are apt to end it. Camus agreed with Lovecraft that human life has no intrinsic value, but, he argued, human life does have value – because we create it.

And that’s what makes humans special.

As a rule, we often tend to think of value as something intrinsic: that is, belonging to a thing by its very nature. Gold is valuable because it is gold. Marx implicitly assumed intrinsic value when he expounded his labour theory of value. Marx argued that what made commodities valuable was the cost of the raw materials plus the labour required to make them. Thus, necessarily, that labour has intrinsic value.

Nowadays, though, even Marxists (mostly) have abandoned the labour theory of value. Value is seen as a consequence of demand, that is, the desirability of a commodity.

For instance, Richard Wagner spent years composing The Ring of the Nibelung operas. On the other hand, Keith Richards composed (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction almost literally in his sleep. Which is the more desirable? An opera buff would have no hesitation in selecting Wagner; a rock fan, the Stones.

Both Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings took about 17 years to write. Which is more valuable? Sales alone leave James Joyce in Tolkien’s dust, yet culture-vultures have long disdained Tolkien’s trilogy, while near-worshipping the day in the life of Leopold Bloom.

When the Romans traded iron implements with Iberian hill tribes, both thought they were getting the better of the other. The Romans were pleased to get cargoes of silver in return for cheap ironmongery, the Spanish were amazed that the Romans gave away astonishingly useful iron tools just for some pretty but useless, not to mention plentiful, silver.

Anyone who’s ever watched kids have endless fun with the disposable cardboard box that their expensive new refrigerator arrived in can see for themselves the entirely relative nature of value.

Humans alone bestow value on an otherwise value-free universe and its contents. (Or, more correctly, persons do.) So far as we can currently tell, persons means humans. Despite efforts to extend personhood to some animals, the arguments to do so remain far from convincing.

“Man is a reed,” wrote Blaise Pascal. “But he is a thinking reed.”

The importance of that statement is hard to overstate. Call us pond scum, if you like, but remember that pond scum doesn’t know that it’s pond scum. A pond doesn’t reflect on its own being.

That basic principle, that humans are the only value-bestowing persons, extends beyond the Earth, too. Neither planets nor stars reflect on their own being, any more than the pond scum.

Nor does the universe itself. “If the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him,” argued Pascal. “Because he knows that he dies and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe knows none of this.”

It may be that there are other species of persons out there. The universe may teem with life and with persons. But we don’t know that.

All we know – for now – is that, alone in the universe, humans are capable of thinking, reflecting – and creating value.

And that makes us very special.

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