Since the Enlightenment, technological progress has depended specifically on the creation of explanatory knowledge. People had dreamed for millennia of flying to the moon, but it was only with the advent of Newton’s theories about the behavior of invisible entities such as forces and momentum that they began to understand what was needed in order to go there.
This increasingly intimate connection between explaining the world and controlling it is no accident, but is part of the deep structure of the world. Consider the set of all conceivable transformations of physical objects. Some of those (like faster-than-light communication) never happen because they are forbidden by laws of nature; some (like the formation of stars out of primordial hydrogen) happen spontaneously; and some (such as converting air and water into trees, or converting raw materials into a radio telescope) are possible, but happen only when the requisite knowledge is present—for instance, embodied in genes or brains. But those are the only possibilities. That is to say, every putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either
-impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or
-achievable, given the right knowledge.
That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
This fundamental connection between explanatory knowledge and technology is why the Haldane-Dawkins queerer-than-we-suppose argument is mistaken—why the reach of human adaptations does have a different character from that of all the other adaptations in the biosphere. The ability to create and use explanatory knowledge gives people a power to transform nature which is ultimately not limited by parochial features, as all other adaptations are, but only by universal laws. This is the cosmic significance of explanatory knowledge—and hence of people, whom I shall henceforward define as entities that can create explanatory knowledge.