søndag 18. november 2007

Secular Anti-Humanism

It is often illuminating (or making one pause a tad, depending on my mood) to look at some of the slightly hyperatheistic blogs out there.

This time it is the fearsome pharyngula that raised my brows. One of Darwin's present bulldogs, PZ Myers, has read a rather humane Secular Humanist, Richard Norman's thoughts about the New Atheism.

Myers is as usual frank

"First, I have to confess: I'm not a humanist. I'm just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I'm not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid. Still, I sympathize with the aims of secular humanism and I'm willing to work alongside them, just as I'm willing to work with reasonable Christians and Muslims - I'm just not ever going to be one of them, and I'm not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them."

Myers touches here one fundamental dilemma when attempting to build a basis for values in an atheistic universe.

a) How to establish the dignity and value of humans (and human values at all)?
b) How to make sure this does not exclude animals (but bacteria)?

It is not an easy excercise if you want animals on your team. However, embracing squids and squirrels, does seem to provide a feeling of a moral higher ground to some (though they rarely mention snakes in the same breath) . That is fine with me, as long as one does not use it to denigrade human value. However, it is hard to avoid some stealthy anti-humanistic attitudes creeping in here, below the radar.

Whatever the psychology and moral notions involved, some atheists definitely don't consider Secular Humanism to be kosher. The very term Humanist is a red flag. Most interesting about Myers' blog this time, however, are the comments. Why is it so wrong of atheists to be Humanists? Here are some replies.
"When I began to deliberately identify as atheist I was encouraged by friends to attend humanist gatherings and I found I was generally put off by the tenets that promoted human proliferation. Although my run-ins with humanism (and Unitarianism) have given me a clear idea of what I don't believe, I'm still at a loss for what we call a philosophy that explicitly rejects speciesist views but still embraces rationality and goodwill as virtues among humans."

When human proliferation becomes a bad sign for some, it is needed to raise not one, but two eyebrows. However, all is not rational out there.

"Over the last dozen years or so I've gotten into the habit of attending humanist, atheist, skeptic, and Unitarian Universalist conferences and events. What I've found in practice is that the skeptic and humanist groups are the most oriented towards method, reason, philosophy, and science. The atheist groups are a bit more political, and I always seem to run into at least one person who's into alternative medicine, psychic powers, or some sort of wacky conspiracy theory -- and thinks that because they are "rational" enough to be an atheist their other beliefs are of course rational, too. Very frustrating."
One can imagine. So that makes for the question "What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?" Not surprisingly, one answer is

"Scientist. Seriously. It's almost 2 at night, so I won't give it any deeper thought and just say that all philosophy other than science theory is useless."
Fortunately later commentators notes that science theory is a poor basis for any philosophy. However the comment above is one of severel that indicate not only an aversion against Humanism, there is almost as much against Philosophy.

"I tend to look upon philosophizing as nothing more than mental doodling, but not all of it is useless in the real world. "
Where the guy comes from may be derived from him pointing at Jiddu Krishnamurti as
"a very deep thinker, and very worthwhile reading. Of course, I'm not sure you could, strictly speaking, call him a "philosopher"".

No, not quite, which may be why he is recommended. Some, however, are a bit more willing to consider Humanism:

"Mostly, I just think of philosophy as a bunch of really hard to read books. But there is something there. Science can't be the simple answer to everything. Science doesn't give me a reason to give a crap. When I eventually admitted to myself that I was an atheist, it enabled me to answer a lot of difficult questions. But without an invisible man in the sky, I need some other place to root my values and beliefs. So here it is: Human suffering is bad, and human happiness is good. I think that's all I need to be moral. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that makes me a humanist. I'm big on principles and reason, not so much on labels."
And perhaps not on what makes for solid ground to build values on. The commentators may however agree a bit more on making sure to avoid silly and sentimental Christian values:

"I hope the lecture on the ethics of genetic manipulation does not rely on so-called "moral intuitions" that can be traced back to socialisation within a society which has long been influenced by Christian notions of morality and virtue. I'm just saying ...I mean, maybe the person giving the lecture will be a hardline transhumanist. That would be refreshing. But there are too many biocon irrationalists like Leon Kass, Jurgen Habermas, Margaret Somerville, Francis
Fukuyama, Bill McKibben, etc., etc., floating around, all claiming to base their views on secular thinking (and all, surprise surprise, at least deferential to religion)."
And you have the more profound (well, perhaps not, it takes all kinds to make commentators) thinkers:

"We are all human beings here - well, most of us anyway - whether we like it or not. Are we in any way special? In the absence of a god, who is to say? Well, actually, we can if we choose. That human beings done things of which they should be ashamed is, I would say, beyond question. Is it equally true that they have achieved things in which they may take justifiable pride? I would also say:
yes, they have. Does any of that makes us special? In some ways, but not as much as does our capacity to ask such a question."
It boils down then, to our abilty to "choose" (whatever that is to the more avid new atheists) and our capacity to ask good questions (whatever they are). However, few animals are able to ask such questions.

So this guy may be a Humanist, and hence (by the Myers Doctrine) a speciesist.

The horror.

2 kommentarer:

Martinbg sa...

Me, I agree with the one that wasn't to big on labels, at least about the label bit. I'm trying to understand this world as best I can, to separate true from false, right from wrong, and this is hard work in itself. At best, it's reasoned guesswork - most of the time, it's guesswork alltogether. Grouping and naming opinions (and people who hold them) are nothing but distraction.

However, I don't believe in higher powers, I do believe that the world exist and that can things can be reasonably guessed upon, and I'm pretty sure that morality exists as well.

Bjørn Are sa...

Good to hear that you believe the world exist, and reason and morality along with it!

Based on the comments I commented upon, then one question remains. Do you believe in humanism (whatever that is) - and what may be your (rational or philosophical) reasons for that belief? Not the least as opposed to speciesism.