Werner Heisenberg in his book “Physics and Philosophy” wrote: “It is probably true quite generally that in the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet. These lines may have their roots in quite different parts of human culture, in different times and different cultural environments or different religious traditions, hence if they actually meet, that is, if they are at least so much related to each other that a real interaction can take place, then one may hope that new and interesting developments will follow.”

And thus what does important mean? Are we important in relationship to whom and to what? By important we mean any conversation, observation, fact or theory about the human experience that describes, explains or substantiates our affect and influence in the world. What is the evidence to demonstrate that our construction of what is called civilization has resulted in importance to both the scientific way of looking at life and the world, but also the philosophical?

We explore today both the claims of both scientists and philosophers that if people are rational actors on the world stage, what evidence is there to conclude that we have a hold what are importance means for the future of the human species, and how the scientific or philosophical account writ large may inform us of just how important we are.

The problems that Physicists and Philosophers wrestle with of course needs no introduction. Scientists, theologians and philosophers have wondered how to interpret our relationship with the material world (as well as other definitions of our experience) and the kinds of vocabularies we employ to understand who we are and how we should situate ourselves physically, and psychologically and ontologically. If the sum of our accomplishments include a definition of progress that rests on achievement, what are the ways in which we can identify how we can see ourselves as unique, and therefore “important” (or not important) with and through multiple experiences.

Various accounts, including historical, sociological, theological and scientific/philosophical have provided a narrative framework for explaining how to construct our importance or insignificance. Insofar as history give us examples of how people have affected change, we want to ask how various explanations and interpretations have aligned with the assumptions we have about our place in the world. For example, if people are “thinking animals” how have they evidenced behavior that reflects uniqueness within scientific, social and political contexts?
Within the discursive landscape of science and philosophy this reflection will address the questions of our importance insofar as it will identify some of the ways in which alternate narratives explain how we understand our importance and, furthermore, how scientific and philosophical thinking may share, or not share, paradigms for who and what we are. For example, if science concerned with what is verifiable and testable, how might we understand its epistemological rigor in terms of identifying our overall importance? Furthermore, if the claims of philosophy offer a counter-narrative of what is explained as reality and truth, how does this stand in contrast to scientific truth? If the meta-narratives of religion (cultural values) tell us something about what and who we are, can we rely on this as a way of explaining our significance? Alternately, can we depend on the scientific account (i.e. the laws of science) in the hard sciences, such Physics, to properly explain the role of humans and their interaction and influence in the world?

While we want to acknowledge the length and breadth of the questions posed above, our project is investigating the role of self-reflective/objective positions in unfolding (exposing?) how we ARE or NOT important/special through the lens of scientific and philosophical inquiry and what implications this has for teaching and learning. So in this respect, our attempt to consider this subject is not exhaustive but exploratory.

Since the time of pre-Socratic philosophy, early scientist/philosophers such as Anaxagoras, Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Anaximenes speculated about the origin of life and what the world consists of. What is the nature of change? And what are we to understand that which appears to be constant or changing in the material world in relationship to ourselves. Indeed the questions that physicists ask today are ones that that early philosophers asked as well. Who are we? Why are we here? What motivates us to act the way we do? Similarly early Greek tragedians such as Sophocles and Aeschylus posed the question: if we are free to make our decisions as autonomous subjects, how is it that the will of the Gods also controls the way we act and see ourselves in the world? Or as Socrates asks: if we consider ourselves important are our actions good because they are approved by the Gods or whether the Gods approve of them because they are good. Certainly we can see this revisited in the Faust legend where one scholar is blinded by his desire to over emphasize his importance. Machiavelli takes up this theme with greater rigor, arguing that rulers need not actually be virtuous, but appear to be so …thus diminishing, as some might argue, our importance as guides of virtue.

And yet scientists like Galen, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Plank, and others let their information guide the re-construction of our importance in relationship to the coherence or correspondence theory of truth, then, unlike the theologians and mystics of the past (Boethius, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Meister Eckart and others) who drew their relationship to God as a way of signifying the importance of the supernatural in defining who and what we are, science draws on the tradition of Descartes, Hume, Locke and later philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell to re-establish the Greek tradition in observation and “following inquiry where it leads.”

So what we may be left with is an example of an ongoing epistemological struggle that makes us aware of the competing truth claims of both sides of the conversation. While it may be accepted that the discoveries and facts of scientists may be radically different from those of the philosophers, we know from the historical account, and even today, that both physics and philosophy wrestle with the same speculative questions which invariable lead us, once again, to ponder our importance. And so we ask the overriding question: Are we important?

As a physicist might ask: in relationship to the physical world how we might match to other material processes, evolutionary changes and other scientific discoveries that may make us pause and wonder about our importance as a species, as organisms controlled by entropic forces, and as evolving beings. And, as philosophers have wondered as well, what kind of beings are we to make claims of ontological importance to what we have accomplished and lived by. Has the counsel of the wise about our importance really turned out to be wisdom itself? and do the values and institutions that make up the power structures of society point to our overall importance in a metaphysical sense? Are the facts that one learns through looking through a telescope such as the moons of Jupiter, more important than the shape of a snowflake or an electron? What is the role of our importance in this respect? Similarly, do the capital T truths of Philosophy outweigh the truths acquired through hypothesis, experiment and conclusion? Has the creation of truth been more important than finding truth and importance? And what does our own impulse for certainty suggest about our importance personally and collectively?

Colin McGinn once wrote in his book “The Making of a Philosopher” that “ There are extremely general concepts that crop up everywhere—time, causality, necessity, existence, object, property identity. No scientific discipline can tell you what these concepts involve, because they are pre-supposed by any such discipline; we need philosophy to understand these concepts. For example, is causality just a matter of mere constant conjunction of events of “one damn thing after another” as A.J. Ayer used to put it—or does it involve an element of necessary connection? These are all questions human beings naturally ask. Children spontaneously ask philosophical questions, much to the frustration of their parents. The philosopher is just someone with a particularly strong interest in these age old universal questions; she is the embodiment of one kind of human curiosity—the kind that seeks the general, not the particular, the abstract, not the concrete. Of course it is easy to be impatient with such questions, because they do not admit to scientific resolution. However, we should not run away with the idea that a question is either scientific or nothing.”

And yet the supposed insignificance of our accomplishments in relationship to the size of the universe, the power of nature to change how we live, the triumph of selfishness and ignorance throughout the ages, the reality of people behaving more like beasts endowed with intelligence more than anything close to a saint makes us ponder. The wheels of history show that our desire to overcome ourselves and our troubles throughout the language of the science and the humanities point to one shining beacon of hope: creativity. It is our creativity that allows for the hope of change in our education system, our governments and projects and plans within the artistic trajectory of technology and scientific inquiry to lead to new ways of thinking about ourselves. Along with the philosophers, it will be the creativity of the scientists as artists and the imagination of the mathematicians to assist us in seeing how important and therefore how seriously we should take ourselves in the “here and now” and in the “there and then.” Our creativity helps us to know that our desire to re-invent, re-examine, and re-focus our values of what we identify as important is what guides us to interpret the problems ahead. New systems of thought in all walks of life that re-invigorate our importance by relying on our imaginative instincts to enable us to envision a better world in which we are not systematized, and to re-invigorate a new way of seeing that the union of creativity and analytic thinking will mean new freedoms for our life worlds as people overcoming the stagnation of intellectual orthodoxy, Phillistinism and seeing the true meaning of our importance not based on hubris…or mis-placed values…but stalwart emphasis on the hope than we are better than what time has done to us. The new world order may call for the increasing technological paradigms as to how to run our lives, yet the creative impulse to solve problems through the language of scientist/philosophers will collaborate to emphasize our importance despite the overwhelming reality of our planetary insignificance.

Austrian-British philosopher of science Karl Popper, Generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century once wrote “The best thing that can happen to a human being us to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears. Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument, for grasping her. And we must hazard them to win our prize. Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game.” It is for this reason that we ask in the context of the study and teaching of Physics and Philosophy: are we important?

– John Cleary (Associate Professor of Philosophy)