Defining Modern Humanism

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Spring, 1995), p.30-33.

KEY TERMS: cultural evolution -- naturalism -- scientific method -- creative imagination -- morality

One question bearing upon the present condition and future potential of our movement continues to puzzle and pain me. In a world culture marked by a general loss of traditional religious faith, why does official Humanism gain so few converts? It seems sadly true that most of the people in North America who tend to call themselves "free thinkers" or "nonbelievers" do not feel impelled to join any Humanist organization. And, even where umbrella groups have been formed, organizational disunity and confusion about our philosophical and historical roots and our current goals is too often the order of the day. This is a worrisome problem. On second thought, however, perhaps I should not find our lack of integration so surprising. For a glance backward at our long history reveals many variations within humanist thought, and sometimes disagreement even on fundamental premises.

This issue has forced me to the conclusion that it is past time for us to identify, in clear and positive terms, the conceptual boundaries of the world view to which we now refer so ambiguously. I would like to contribute to a healthy re-evaluation and updating of humanism as a philosophy of life, and would invite others to do likewise.

We need to understand that modern humanism is the product of at least twenty-six centuries of cultural evolution: that is, of the cumulative development and adaptation of a particular current of thought. It was rooted in the ideas of people like the Buddha and Confucius in Asia, and in the theories of a group of Ionian thinkers called the Milesian School of Atomists who lived prior to 500 BC. Its seeds were nourished by later Greek philosophers, the most remarkable of whom may well have been Protagoras, Democritus and Epicurus. These seeds were preserved through dark and unfriendly centuries by Hellenistic Greeks who moved to Rome, by Roman poets like Lucretius and Lucan, and eventually, by descendants of Hellenized Central Asians in the Byzantine and early Islamic empires.

Ultimately the seeds of humanism were spread by the Moors to Cordoba, Spain, and thence by itinerant Jews to the far-flung Christian monasteries where monks labored to preserve and transmit a message the significance of which they only dimly understood. One who probably did understand, and who breathed new life into the idea of humanism, was Desiderius Erasmus; but he scarcely dared to voice its name. It was left to pioneers of Enlightenment thought like Montaigne, Hobbes, Hume and Voltaire to define, in modern terms, the nature of the insight fueling the humanist perspective. Finally, Charles Darwin provided its ultimate philosophical grounding, although the implications of his breakthrough for human behavior and culture are still little understood.

What was that one great idea and what the source of its power to survive? It was nothing less than a defining premise about existence, and the place of humankind within it. It concerned a commonality and continuity among all existing inorganic and organic forms. It asserted that humans are an integral part of the "stuff" of the universe, no less natural than any other part. It implied that no mysterious spiritual component was interjected at any point in the process of our emergence, and that we have no mysterious access to a consciousness beyond that created by our joint, cumulative experience of nature. And it implied that human actions and relationships are as subject to causation as are those of any other existing entities. It was the philosophical premise of naturalism.

This premise has been called by different names in different stages of history: "monism" as distinguished from various versions of the established mind/body and heaven/hell dualism; "materialism" as distinct from belief in transcendental Spirit or Consciousness; or "naturalism" as opposed to "supernaturalism". Always the basic concept has been the same, and always it has challenged the conventional wisdom of the age.

The premise of naturalism, although absolutely necessary to humanist thought, is, nevertheless, not in itself sufficient. Its crucial recognition of groundedness within nature has allowed the pioneers of this minority viewpoint to focus on a second defining premise. This has to do with the distinctiveness of the human species as the only animal thus far to have developed critical consciousness and culture. This is the source and justification of humanism's emphasis on the significance of the human animal in the scheme of things -- firstly, in its role as knower, and secondly, as artist and valuer.

Humanists believe that we humans are the only species thus far to have evolved the capacity for constructing reliable knowledge of our surroundings, and about ourselves. Therefore we no longer need to resort to myths of revelation from on high, or to fictions about mysterious intuitive messages from unknowable forces beyond what is accessible to human experience. We can concentrate instead on the natural origin and use of our evolved instruments for observing and explaining experience and for testing those explanations: instruments such as reason, language and the senses. It is only by these means that humans have built knowledge with the power to predict, and thus to influence the course of events. Other so-called sources of truth have led invariably to costly error for, unlike science, they contain no self-correcting mechanism.

This is why modern humanists are committed to science as the best method yet discovered for constructing knowledge and testing its reliability. And it is why we emphasize the unity or universality of the scientific approach as a means of identifying the operation of cause and effect -- in human behavior and society as well as in the organic and inorganic forms of existence.

We understand that science, broadly and appropriately defined, is merely the disciplined use of the sum of human conceptual abilities: (1) in observing and comparing evidence of "what actually happened" in historical or experimental situations; and (2) in constructing hypotheses and attempting to test or falsify them according to a previously agreed-upon public process of collecting and communicating evidence. The first kind of knowledge describes past or present circumstances as accurately or objectively as possible. The second provides us with the means to exert a degree of control over the future.

Those propositions that survive the scientific process of inquiry have been shown throughout history to be the most reliable grounds we fallible humans could possibly discover for action. They stem from an approach to knowing that emerged out of the very symbol-manipulating capacity which led to our uniqueness as a species. It was a primitive version of this same process that led our ancestors to the use and control of fire, and to agriculture and animal husbandry. The scientific approach, then, is not merely a matter of taste for humanists, to be applied or ignored at will. It is, instead, integral to humanism, for it is necessarily implied by our governing premises of naturalism and human distinctiveness.

It is true that, periodically, the foundations of our movement have been attacked from within by the temporary appeal of Romanticism and subjectivism. Still, there always remained a core of steadfast carriers of the basic message: that it is the method of open-ended and self-regulated inquiry which defines and makes possible our precious heritage of humanism. These were the people who realized that the authenticity and very survival of a plant depends on the integrity of its root system.

Such internal attacks were led in the past by well-meaning, self-declared humanists such as Henri Bergson, Jean Paul Sartre, and even Erich Fromm: all of whom began as philosophical naturalists but eventually departed from the approach of science. Most were seduced by the siren call of an autonomous "intuitive" or "vital" entity within what they needed to believe was the essentially mysterious spiritual heart of humankind. Today the same subversive mission is being attempted by various "postmodern" and "new age" thinkers, who claim a home in humanism on social/political grounds, or because they happen to share our passion for justice. Their beliefs about the nature, sources and justification of knowledge are very different from those at the roots of humanism, however, and that difference is crucial.

Humanists identify a second aspect of human distinctiveness as our creative capacity. We believe that the human species has evolved an imagination that allows us to envision possibilities not immediately available in past or current experience. It is this recognition that lies behind our desire to celebrate the worth of our species' imaginative and aesthetic products such as architecture, music, literature and the visual arts. We cherish all the magnificent creations that have enriched world culture throughout the centuries. We cherish them, not because they are inspired by some transcending "spirit" -- but as the products of our remarkable human imagination. If they are worthy of reverence, it is because of their human origins and inevitable limitations -- not in spite of them.

Humanism focuses particularly on the significance of a third aspect of human distinctiveness -- humankind's capacity for morality. By this we mean our propensity to acquire values, to create ideals, and to make choices: choices which then function to direct and shape individual characters and thus, ultimately, to provide direction to the very culture that gave them birth. Although our concern for ethics or morality is shared by every theological and philosophical system of thought, we differ from all the others in our beliefs as to the source and justification of -- and criteria for -- values, moral principles and rules. We believe that these are grounded in the totality of the experience of the human race, from time immemorial. We recognize no other source.

Our justification for morality is the test of experience -- over the longest possible term and the widest possible expanse of space that might conceivably be touched by the ripples of consequences from our actions. Our ultimate criterion is the degree to which a particular choice contributes to personal fulfillment (or the quality of life over time) for individuals and the social groups of which they form an integral part. This criterion implies a central role for justice, kindness, and peacefulness in human affairs.

We see no inherent conflict between the welfare of the group and that of the individual. Nothing that imposes long-run damage on the human gene pool can be good for the individual organisms condemned to carry and be shaped by those genes. In exactly the same way, nothing that harms human culture in the long run can be of benefit to the individual, for individual selves are created out of social intercourse, just as organisms are created from the sexual. This is why individual freedom -- although desirable within limits -- can never be the ultimate, nor even a major, criterion against which to assess morality. No one can be granted the freedom to imperil the evolution of our species, either by damaging the physical environment (including other forms of life) which ultimately determines the nature of our gene pool, or by polluting the culture which creates and nurtures our social being.

It is precisely because of our recognition of the critical role of morality in the cultural evolution now influencing organic evolution that the subject is absolutely central to the philosophy of humanism. Believing as we do that the future course of evolution (and thus of all life on earth) is determined by the actions of humans rather than gods, we are impelled to focus on the need for worthy values and guidelines, and for responsible ethical choice. We can do no other.

Humanist organizations have made a serious mistake by attempting to define the movement in political rather than philosophical terms. The problems faced by humanity are far too complex for us to suppose that any particular program (whether socialist, populist, liberal or conservative) is the only right way to proceed. A commitment to the scientific approach in the quest for morally justifiable solutions to society's ills implies a willingness to assess and alter political means continuously, in the light of new evidence gained from experience. Such an approach carries with it no guarantee of "political correctness" or timeless truth. Let us stop alienating those large numbers of philosophical naturalists who find our dogmatic political claims both distasteful and unjustified. I am convinced that this one change in our approach would result in a rapid expansion in our numbers, along with a corresponding increase in our cohesion as a group and in our influence on society at large.

I submit, then, that modern humanism can be understood only in terms of the premise of naturalism as its necessary condition. It involves, as well, three additional beliefs implied by its major defining premise of humankind's common origin with other animals. All three stem from the distinctiveness of the human species within that common nature. They have to do with (1) an emphasis on the process of human knowing, and on the priority and universality of the scientific approach as a means of building knowledge; (2) an appreciation of the products of human imagination and technical skill; and (3) an overriding focus on morality as the unique responsibility of humankind. People who are committed to some but not all of these premises may well be valued as fellow travelers along the way, but they cannot reasonably claim to hold the world view of modern humanism.