4 min read

The Principle of Mediocrity: Debunked

The Principle of Mediocrity: Debunked

Humanity has gone from "everything revolves around us" (literally and symbolically) to "we are nothing but chemical scum" (Stephen Hawking). This is called the Principle of Mediocrity.

Here's why this seemingly scientific idea is completely wrong.

This is a story in 3 parts:

  1. Humans are dumb* (the origin)
  2. Humans get smart (the Scientific revolution)
  3. Humans over-correct (the Principle of Mediocrity)

*Of course, this is a complete exaggeration.

1. The Origin

For most of humanity, people explained the world only in relation to themselves. Even phenomena in the sky had an explanation related to humans' actions. For example, there is thunder because the gods are mad at us.

The perfect example of our anthropocentric worldview was the Earth-centric model. Indeed, most people believed that the Sun and the other planets revolved around the Earth (Ptolemaic model). Some astronomers had guessed differently, but that was rare.

2. The Scientific Revolution

This is the part where we get smart. Around 1514, Copernicus published the first explicit presentation of the heliocentric model in a rigorous way. We learned that we are not at the center of the Universe.

A hundred years later, Galileo and Kepler built on that model to develop modern astronomy. More broadly, this was one of the spark of the Scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. This has led to our greatest period of progress.

3. The Principle of Mediocrity

All of this is great. So where did we get things wrong?

In a few words: We over-corrected from humans are at the center of the Universe to humans don't matter in the cosmic scheme of things. Let me explain.

As our knowledge of the Universe expanded, we learned that it is more vast than we could ever imagine. Our star, the Sun, is one among hundreds of billions in our galaxy, the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is one galaxy among trillions.

So it's not surprising when learning about the scale of the Universe, that some conclude that there is nothing special about Earth and humans. This is the Principle of Mediocrity. And many believe it is arrogant to say otherwise.

It's often said that it's part of 3 most important realizations in humankind:

  1. We are not at the center of the Universe (Copernicus)
  2. Our species has not been specially created (Darwin)
  3. We are not the master of our own mind (Freud)

Before I tell you why it's wrong, here's a quote from one of the most acclaimed scientist or our time, Stephen Hawking:

"The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies."

It doesn't take away from his wonderful contributions to astrophysics to say that the first part of his quote "The human race is just a chemical scum" is wrong. Even in the cosmic scheme of things, humans are significant. Here's why.

If you want to explain any part of the Universe, you will have to look at "Are there people there?" What do I mean by that? You cannot explain the phenomena in a region of Space with only the "traditional" laws of the Universe. You have to evoke humans.

One simple (mind-blowing) example: the only known place in the Universe with below 1 degree Kelvin temperature is... on Earth (in physics laboratories)! How do you explain this phenomenon in the cosmic scheme without taking into account humans?

Another simple example: an alien observe the Earth and see a bunch of metallic satellites orbiting the Earth and transmitting some kinds of waves back and forth to Earth. How will it explain that with just the laws of physics?

So explaining the Universe requires to know where there are humans.

You may think that this only matters around Earth, but that is a parochial mistake for 2 reasons:

  • There could be knowledge creation happening in other parts of the Universe. It's just that we are the only known entity to do that.
  • We are early in our history. In millennia, we will be exploring other parts of the Universe.


Humans started with a really anthropocentric worldview. Our explanations of the Universe were based only on humans. Thanks to the development of science, we learned to create much better explanations. But our philosophy of humans took a bad turn in the process.

Humans are, in fact, special. It's due to our ability to understand and transform the physical world. You cannot explain the Universe without knowing if we are there. It may not appear that way because we have only been impacting the Solar system. But that's just a start...

So let's stop with the misanthropic worldview that we are nothing significant. The pendulum has swung too far: the Enlightenment opposed the arrogance of our anthropocentric explanations. Now, we should oppose the factually false "Principle of Mediocrity".

All credit for the good ideas to David Deutsch. If you are interested to learn more, read The Beginning of Infinity or listen to the podcast TokCast by Brett Hall.