Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on secular humanism at the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church in Carmel, Indiana.
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Music: “Constellations” by Sound Surfer
Full Text of Lecture
Thanks again for inviting me to speak with you.
While my training is in history, I have always loved philosophy, specifically ethics. In thinking through the implications of life without gods and the supernatural, I’ve come to the conclusion that giving up traditional religious doctrines requires a complementary philosophical system. I think that secular humanism is such a system, one that is a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. Today, I will present an outline for this methodology and present concise arguments in its defense. In sum, a life based on the application of one’s reason, ethical individualism, and democratic participation can facilitate a life of joy, freedom, and achievement.
To begin, I’ll outline the secular humanist’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, which is built upon three essential components: reason, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. First, reason is the foundational pillar that the other components work from. Reason is our capacity to create abstract thoughts and/or conclusions based on the concretes of reality. It is the emergent faculty of our brains that allows us to conceptualize and systematize the world. The humanist believes that reason, or our ability to perceive and then conceive, is purely natural and without the need for “faith” or “revealed wisdom.”
Philosopher Harry Binswanger has delivered a series of lectures emphasizing this point. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world. Abstraction and conceptualization, which turn our perceptions into knowledge, are processes that require discrimination and systemization of the “raw material” of perception. This is where reason comes in. Nearly anyone can perceive a quasi-spherical red object or a vibrational difference in the atmosphere with their senses; it requires reason to conceptualize that it is an apple or a song, respectively.
Faith by-passes this entire process by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, abstraction and finally conceputalization. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition. This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. In reality, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at valid conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to the creation of knowledge.
Second, we must base our perception on a solid philosophical foundation, which is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of MN comes to us from the RationalWiki:
Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses. To avoid these traps scientists assume that all causes are empirical and naturalistic; which means they can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.
MN does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but rather recognizes the complicated and often problematic investigations of the supernatural. This view is contrasted with philosophical naturalism (PN), which holds that the natural world is all there is and no supernatural exists. While some humanists defend the position of PN, MN is the applicable, default position for the creation of knowledge.
Finally, a humanist epistemology benefits from a healthy dose of skepticism. For this perspective, we turn to the master of skepticism himself, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explains the fallibility of the human mind:
The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us’d [sic] all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d [sic] to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system.
In other words, perceptions are not knowledge. They can be twisted and contradicted from what’s really actually going on. This is why the process of reason is indispensable to our lives. Reason allows us to peel back the layers of “contradictions and absurdities” and come to a more accurate conceptualization of reality. Humans are emotional and messy, often led astray by our biases and misperceptions. Skepticism guides our thinking away from our initial perceptions and requires us to investigate deeper to best approximate understanding of our world.
Moving from epistemology to ethics, a predominant theological and philosophical worldview focuses on the collective nature of human beings. In more fundamentalist strains, it can be a complete negation of a person’s thoughts, desires, and talents. For example, the ideologies of Islamism (the politicization of certain sects of Islam), fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Marxism require that the individual be subservient to the cause, or the “ideal,” of the faith.
This view wholly distorts our human nature; human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved from mostly individual, and not collective, changes. As biologist Robert Sapolsky noted in, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst:
Animals don’t behave for the good of the species. They behave to maximize the number of copies of their genes passed into the next generation. . . . Individual selection fares better than group selection in explaining basic behaviors.
This has profound ethical implications. While it would be unwise for us to directly extrapolate a system of ethics from biology, it is helpful to understand these conclusions and their relation to us as social creatures. Humans are inherently social; we desire communication and connection. However, that does not mean we should seek to achieve these connections through totally collectivistic means.
Building off of that, my view of humanism is guided by the principle of individual rights. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said, “I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This notion is bigger than biology. It is also built on the Enlightenment principle of “self-proprietorship,” outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton:
To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man.
In essence, your life belongs to you, to do with it as you see fit, so long as you do not violate the rights of another. This is a bedrock political tradition from the Enlightenment that continues to expand the rights of all people around the globe.
While “self-proprietorship” has historically been grounded on a Spinoza-esque god of nature, we can just as easily base it on the worth of thinking, sentient beings with the capacity for reason. Philosopher Corliss Lamont described this concept’s classical roots and its modern application:
It is the Humanist view that if the individual pursues activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany them; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result. This ethical doctrine goes all the way back to Aristotle and is called eudaemonism (Greek for happiness).
Therefore, that which is in accordance with the overall flourishing of the individual, within the context of their own life and their relation to others, undergirds a humanist conception of rights. Supernaturalism or gods no longer remain necessary.
Now, Individualism does not imply a short-sighted selfishness. Rather, it represents a committed recognition to the dignity of each person as well as the need for social cohesion for the flourishing of our species. Lamont, again, elucidates this point perfectly:
Humanism, then, follows the golden mean by recognizing that both self-interest and altruism have their proper place and can be combined in a harmonious pattern. People who try to serve humanity must permit humanity to serve them in turn. Their own welfare is as much a part of the welfare of humankind as that of anyone else.
Therefore, it is the ethical promise of humanism to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole, and vice versa.
This ethical interplay between the individual and their relation to others is generally called morality, which in my view, consists of two major components: the moral instinct and the moral framework. Our moral instincts are the product of natural selection; we are driven by “passing on lots of copies of one’s genes” through “maximizing reproduction.” Base emotions like fear, hunger, dominance, and justice, among others, evolved over millennia so our genes could be passed on from generation to generation. This has not only made us successful biologically; it has also made us moral. As such, actions which originally evolved to protect kin began to protect non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.
To illustrate this point, author Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He’s waiting to board the plane when he noticed that a woman had placed her infant “on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barker saw the carrier starting to fall to the ground, “made a quick stride to the left,” and his “fingertips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling towards the floor.” The mother quickly assisted him in leveling the carrier and thanked him. Now, why would he do something so moral without much intellectual consideration? Barker explains:
We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes–or closely related genes–to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.
The moral instinct compels us to carry out many actions without any need for elaborate rationalizations; we just act in accordance with our human nature. Acknowledging this aspect of who we are goes a long way to improving our ethical systems in the future.
Complementing the moral instinct is the moral framework, what we commonly call “ethics,” or a system of conceived principles that advance flourishing and limit suffering, not just in humans but in the ever-growing moral universe. One way to conceptualize the moral framework is philosopher Peter Singer’s “expanding circle.” Based on an earlier concept from historian W. E. H. Lecky, Singer’s expanding circle hinges on moral agents rationally defending their actions without prizing their own status over anyone else. In other words, it’s a more elaborate variation on the golden rule, but with a twist: make moral decisions among others as you would have others make moral decisions among you. The circle expands, as the metaphor goes, as we socially evolve to include more than just other individual humans. Within time, it will include in-group members, out-group members, communities, states, countries, the entire human race, other mammals, all sentient beings, and eventually the entire spectrum of life. Using the moral framework will challenge our culturally-ingrained notions of moral behavior, as its “principles are not laws written up in heaven. Nor are they absolute truths about the universe, known by intuition. The principles of ethics come from our own nature as social, reasoning beings.”
In using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral or immoral. As neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape, “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” While Harris is right about the importance of science in answering moral questions, we must also use ethics when discussing moral values. Both work hand in hand, with science being the investigatory component and ethics being the evaluative component. This is for a reason. Unbridled science (eugenics, atomic weapons) and unbridled utopianism (totalitarian philosophies such as Fascism and Marxism) can lead to gross immorality; it is only through what biologist E. O. Wilson called “consilience,” or a unification of knowledge, that we can make the best moral decisions. In all, the moral instinct and the moral framework serve as two sides of the same ethical coin. The instinctual and conceptual both have a say in how we advance our lives and the lives of others.
Finally, we turn to politics, which is the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of our individual and societal concerns. Democracy, the most successful and beneficial form of government, is predicated on the protection and/or fulfillment of rights through the “freely given consent of the governed.” These rights can be broken down into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are rights that the government cannot take away from you (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.), while positive rights are those that are granted by the government, such as a right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a living wage or pension system. The best encapsulation of both types of rights comes from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1941 “Four Freedoms Speech.” The “four freedoms” are: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are negative rights while the latter two are positive rights. Our modern democratic tradition hinges on these ideals, which fit nicely into a humanist framework.
Humanist scholars such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Paul Kurtz all stressed the importance of a healthy democratic society based on the bedrock of political rights. Dewey, in his essay, “On Democracy,” wrote of the necessity of negative rights:
The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute.
Negative rights ensure that individuals are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intelligence to fulfill the needs of themselves and others. To implement these values, a democracy requires a strong separation of church and state and a free press, so that all citizens can implement the values they hold dear without violating the negative liberties of others.
On the other hand, Hook notes of the “positive requirements of a democracy” in his essay, “Democracy as a Way of Life.” Among the various requirements, the most important to this discussion is Hook’s notion of “economic democracy.” He explains:
By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions.
Like Dewey, he’s leaving options open to the citizens of democratic societies, such as whether to be more capitalist and less socialist or vice versa. In doing so, Hook defends the principle of positive rights in the same fashion that Roosevelt did: to advance human flourishing.
Lastly, we come to Paul Kurtz and his thoughts on democracy from his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism. Kurtz reaffirms the considerations made by Dewey and Hook but also emphasizes the value of discourse and participation to a functioning democracy. “. . . a political democracy,” Kurtz writes, “can be effective only if its citizens are interested in the affairs of government and participate in it by way of constant discussion, letter writing, free association, and publication. In absence of such interest, democracy will become inoperative; an informed electorate is the best guarantee of its survival.”
Each of these views on democracy require citizens to use reason, from protecting their liberties and organizing their economies to discussions among others and petitioning the government for a “redress of grievances.” None of these things happen by virtue of a god or how many prayers a person can say. Rather, democracy is a human-centered, action-oriented enterprise that protects rights, builds economies, facilitates discussions, and encourages achievements.
With that in mind, a functioning democratic society relies on both science and ethics to inform our public policy. With such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty, police brutality, sex education, vaccines, and stem cell research, it is essential that we apply our best thinking to these social problems. With only science as a guide, a government falls privy to overbureactization and malfeasance, and at worst, enacts policies which violate individual rights (eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide). This is why an ethical component, based on the application of reason as well as the guidepost of human flourishing, should always play a core role in shaping policy. It will not always provide us with easy answers, but it is far better than leaving our democracy to the whims of crackpots, religious fanatics, and overzealous central planners.
Ok, so these ideas sounds great in theory, but do they work in practice? It turns out that they do. In his newest, landmark book, Enlightenment Now, Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker analyzes how the values of reason, science, and humanism have lead to a great degree of human progress. Over the last three centuries, the world has seen widespread progress on a variety of metrics, including average lifespan, infant mortality, hunger, poverty, global inequality, environmental quality, and the increase of democratic governments. Pinker rightfully connects this to the values of the Enlightenment, which prized science, skepticism, and human welfare above the parochialisms of its age. As Pinker writes, “The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism. . . . It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mere mastery.”
In closing, our age, like so many before us, falls prey to barbarism, mysticism, hero worship, tribalism, superstition, and flat-out nonsense. To avoid this, we need a philosophy of life that prizes reason over faith, knowledge over ignorance, freedom over tyranny, and, most importantly, humanity over dogma. Secular humanism is exactly that kind of philosophy. It is a way of life that puts human beings at the center of their own destiny, no longer chained to the whims of fundamentalist religion or political totalitarianism. Its openness to new ideas and diversity of thought allow for a more enlightened religion, one that is compatible with humanism’s core principles. If one has left gods behind, it gives the framework to live a moral and fulfilling life. The beauty of humanism is that it isn’t much of an “ism” at all; its essential values allow for a multiplicity of worldviews to coexist together, in something akin to Robert Nozick’s notion of a “utopia of utopias.” By leaving society free, open, and dedicated to human flourishing, all people can live among one another with more peace, prosperity, and progress. Isaac Asimov said it best when he declared that, “Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.” Thank you.
Lecture at HUUC, April 8, 2018