A Theory of Mediocrity
1500 words—IT can be hard to understand other people. And who hasn’t sometimes felt, “nobody understands me?” Whenever we talk to someone, whether a stranger or our best friend, any attempt to truly understand their thoughts and feelings will be blocked by the inescapable boundaries of our own minds. No matter how many people we talk to, books we read, or places we visit, we ultimately only ever have one vantage point, one view of the world—our own. My mind is not yours, and yours will never be mine.
Further, our minds are not just our present mental state, but are also deeply affected by all the things we experienced in the past, what we’ve learned, our cultural and personal beliefs, and our desires, which are themselves all shaped by our family, friends, and communities, all in ever-widening circles of influence stretching back through time. It is as though every person is a tree with vast and hidden roots driving deep underground, and each interaction with another person is like looking at just one leaf on one branch of that tree.
How, then, can we even begin to empathize with each other? How are we even able to talk to each other and be heard? How can we learn about each other when it seems like we can only really know ourselves?
Scientists who study the universe face a similar problem. Good science, no matter the subject, requires many observation points, a robust set of data. Without these, scientific investigation is like the fable of the blind men who come across an elephant and try to describe it to each other: the man who feels the mighty thews of its legs thinks the elephant must be broad and strong like a pillar; the man who feels its ivory tusks thinks it smooth and sharp like a spear; the man who feels its agile trunk thinks it sinuous as a snake; and so on. No man is wrong, but neither is any of them entirely right. Only when they collaborate and share their knowledge does a more complete description of the elephant emerge.
When it comes to astronomy, we are like a lone blind man. No matter how many observations we make, our only vantage point is the earth. How can astronomers be sure, when gazing out upon the heavens, that they are not just feeling the tusks and missing the rest of the elephant?
One answer comes in the Copernican principle, (named after Nicolaus Copernicus and his theory that the earth revolves around the sun) which states that neither the sun nor the earth occupy a particularly special position in the universe. By extension, we earth-bound observers are not exceptional—our observations are not likely to be significantly different from observations taken in another part of the universe.
We can have some confidence in the Copernican principle because of the universe’s apparent isotropism: it looks more or less the same no matter which direction we look in. That’s not to say that the universe is identical everywhere we look—there is certainly a great deal of variety, especially on a smaller scale—but the more we widen our view, the more it appears that the universe is basically one big country governed by the same set of laws rather than a rabble of smaller provinces that each follow their own rules. Look a billion light-years away in one direction, and then a billion light-years away in the opposite direction, and you’ll see celestial bodies that are made up of the same kind of stuff and behaving in the same way as their distant neighbors.
The mediocrity principle is a more general statement of the Copernican principle, essentially saying that if we are to select an item at random from a group of items, that item is likelier to come from the most numerous group than any one of the less numerous groups. Put another way, this means that we are more likely to be correct if we assume that any one observation we make is representative of a larger set of observations than if we were to assume that our observation is somehow exceptional.
The basic idea behind the mediocrity principle is about the relationship between the observer and the thing being observed. It is a declaration that we are organic with the world around us. There is no good reason to think that we are in a special part of the universe, exactly because we are ourselves a part of the universe—the burden of proof is to show that our existence is exceptional rather than that it is not. For astronomy, this means that we can trust that our investigations into the laws of nature here on earth will translate into knowledge about the universe beyond earth’s bounds. It also tells us that the study of the stars will teach us about things here on earth, like how we now know that all the elements that make up the world were first forged in the hearts of stars.
The mediocrity principle can be a helpful concept not just in studying the stars but in everyday life. We are egotistical beings by nature—it’s inevitable that we are the most important person in our own lives, by far the most fully realized character in a story in which every other person oftentimes seems to simply be playing a small part. How could someone else really understand us without knowing what we’ve gone through? And how could we understand them? There seem to be two worlds: our inner life, and the world external to it, both of them intimately connected but forever disparate. If this is true for each one of us, then a vast gulf exists between every person. I can never truly get into your head, and you will never get into mine. I can’t even imagine what life is really like for you as yourself—I can only imagine what it might be like for me to be you.
For example, let’s take a classic question of color perception and subjectivity: if I can never experience what it’s like to be anyone else but myself, how do I know that what you call green is the same as what I call green? We might point at the same patch of grass and agree that it is green, but maybe the quality of that observation, your immediate experience of that color, is really closer to what I perceive as red.
But just because we cannot prove something by experiencing it directly does not make it probable. According to the mediocrity principle, unless we have proof otherwise, we have every reason to believe that my experience resembles yours.
It might not sound nice to think of ourselves as mediocre. And it certainly does not mean that people are interchangeable. But we can recognize that experiences are diverse enough that everyone has led a unique life and also see that because we all live in the same universe and we all experience it more or less in the same ways, there is tremendous common ground between our experiences. Accepting the principle of mediocrity begins to unmake the narcissism that defines us all to some extent. What the principle really asks of us is to accept the oneness of humanity, which is to say that we all have a great deal more in common than not.
There is good reason to treat the idea of the oneness of humanity as both a principle that is true about the world and also a goal that we should aspire towards. As a principle, we have seen how it must be true because we all live in the same world and our universal resemblance means that we all experience it in more or less the same way. As a goal, its worthiness is illustrated by the story of the blind men and the elephant: their collaboration led them to a fuller understanding of reality than any of them could come to individually.
We know that our inner lives are shaped by the world around us and shape it in turn, that there is an intimate connection between the observer and the things being observed. We can look at each other and assume that it is more likely than not that we have the same basic desires and beliefs. Whenever we encounter someone where this does not seem to be true, the burden of proof then lies on showing that you are different rather than assuming that to be the case.
So the next time you simply cannot understand someone, find it hard to empathize with them, or disagree with them, rather than starting from the assumption that you are different and can never get along, remember that you are probably a lot more similar than it might appear at first. Look for common ground. See each person as a mirror for yourself.