Evolutionary Naturalism: the Philosophical Foundations of Humanism

Presented by Pat Duffy Hutcheon to the January, 1997 meeting of the British Columbia Humanist Association

KEY TERMS: evolutionary naturalism -- ideology -- mythology -- mysticism -- essentialism -- postmodernism

Those who have not yet had a chance to read Leaving the Cave may wonder what evolutionary naturalism has to do with humanism. I will try to explain the relationship between the two. Let me begin by saying that I think that humanism today is in a sadly confused state -- from a conceptual and philosophical point of view, that is. In fact, I sometimes think that it is almost as much at risk from some of its supporters as from its enemies. Humanists who follow my articles in Humanist in Canada will already be aware of many of my concerns. To put it simply, I think that it is past time that we pulled up our socks and decided whether we are going to be on the side of a scientific approach to problem solving or whether we are going to continue to be seduced by secular ideologies and non-religious forms of mysticism.

Ideology has always been the Achilles Heel of humanists, just as it has been for social scientists. I view ideology as merely the flip side of mythology. Mythology represents the commitment of religious believers to holistic visions of some past Golden Age or heavenly future life, peopled and guided by gods and spirits. Ideologies propose similarly holistic visions of grand Utopias or wish-fulfilling prophecies for solving all of humanity's problems in one fell swoop. Both are closed belief systems, rather than the open, self-correcting ones characteristic of science. Mythologies and ideologies are untestable by their very nature, unalterable by refuting evidence, and thereby frozen in time. Both claim access to an immutable truth, which all adherents must accept as gospel. This is why they are subject to a splintering into cults, and to charges of heresy and excommunication -- or to even more severe punishment for "fallen-away" members. It is no surprise to me that many formerly unquestioning Marxists in the Soviet Union became, almost overnight, equally doctrinaire in their dedication to the Orthodox Church. As Hannah Arendt said, true believers are accustomed to leaning on a bannister, and it is very easy simply to change bannisters. I think it is past time that we humanists abandoned our unbecoming desire for secular certainties, just as we have previously abandoned our need for religious truths. We must be equally willing to jettison the dogmas encapsulated in Marxism, laissez-faire libertarianism, Freudianism and Jungian psychoanalysis, to name a few.

There is another pitfall on the horizon that we seem all-too-ready to fall into. I have been dismayed to discover that a few of the leading lights of humanism in Europe and North America today appear to have succumbed to a new form of mysticism. By mysticism I mean the reliance on an essentially mysterious, intuitive source of understanding which is assumed to be more comprehensive than that obtainable through science. In the case of humanists, this is now usually accompanied by the "postmodernist" belief that science is merely one among a number of competing ideologies, none of which is inherently superior to any other, because none is capable of grasping the absolute "essence" of reality. I see postmodernism as merely a set of new clothing for the mysticism which human beings, all through history, have found so seductive. And, like all mysticisms, it is closely related to the old Platonic "essentialist" way of being in the world; that is, to the belief that all things have an essence which is a sort of master blueprint for the mere phenomena mirroring their essence -- which are available to the senses. If a true grasp or copy of this essential core of existence cannot be guaranteed by science, the postmodernists imply -- and they apparently agree with the empiricists that it cannot -- then science is no better as a means of understanding reality than are a number of other, competing ways. Such as an essentially mysterious, mystical intuition, for example. So what the popular postmodernist movement has accomplished for humankind is to grant a renewed credibility to mysticism! I view this updated mysticism as merely the latest version of what has, among religious believers, often taken the form of belief in occult practices of various kinds.

Many European humanists -- because of deeply embedded cultural tendencies toward romanticism and Kantian transcendentalism -- have never really adopted the evolutionary world view implied by modern science. For them postmodernism is an all-too-easy out. It allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can avoid facing up to the implications of evolution for human behavior. They can say that, yes, science is one way of comprehending reality; but there are other, equally legitimate modes of knowing. "Most of us here are not in the least interested in Darwinian evolutionary ideology", I have been told a number of times by humanists in Europe. Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that the "postmodern" point of view, which sees all approaches to knowing -- including the scientific one -- as equally ideological in nature, is rapidly becoming the prevailing philosophy among humanists in many parts of the world.

Meanwhile, in the United States, confusion seems to be the order of the day in humanist circles. The American Humanist tends to publish a preponderance of "postmodernist" and purely nationally relevant political articles. Free Inquiry, on the other hand, has been known to devote pages to semantic discussions about which adjective should be attached to humanism -- and which terms are to be allowed within it -- rather than to in-depth discussions of the crucial concepts that must underlie any humanism worthy of the name. What does it matter what category we apply to ourselves as humanists if we fail to understand the fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality and of the knowledge-building process that all humanism must rest upon? It may well be that the American humanists are so embattled and ringed in by fundamentalists that they have lost all perspective concerning universal issues such as the defining criteria that distinguish a humanist view of the world from that of non-humanists. Is it sufficient merely to hate religion, for example, and to cleanse our language of any terms that are also used by religious believers? Is that what typifies humanism? Surely, if what defines us is a hatred of religion and the deployment of language police and refusal to indulge in any rituals or celebrations merely because religious people do this then we are in a very bad way.

I suggest that our philosophy will never spread or prosper if we are not clear on precisely this key question of what distinguishes humanism from other perspectives. We need a positive definition covering what humanists believe -- or assume -- about the nature of existence and the role of humankind within it, and about how human beings can come to know anything about that existence of which we are a part. In other words, we need to understand how the humanist way of being in the world differs from that of non-humanists. It is not enough to say that we are in favor of justice and freedom and democracy and all those motherhood goals. Many religious believers are in favor of these things too, and work equally hard to achieve them. These types of principles and objectives do not distinguish us from non-humanists; therefore they are not defining criteria.

However, there does exist a criterion capable of establishing a clear boundary line between humanists and non-humanists, whatever labels they choose for themselves. I think that it all comes down to the philosophy of evolutionary naturalism. I have some questions for you to consider. Do you accept the evolving, scientific Darwinian theory of evolution and its implication that we are an integral part of the "stuff" of an evolving natural world, and as subject to cause and effect as any other aspect of nature? Do you assume that human beings cannot know anything beyond nature, nor can they know anything by any means beyond the use of the senses and the application of reason to experience? Do you consider that any sound understanding of reality must begin with a bottom-up, empirical search for cause and effect relationships -- rather than with a priori axioms and a top-down process of deductive rationalism? Are you an agnostic when it comes to accepting propositions that are not supported by evidence, whether these propositions are labeled religious or secular? Do you think that all knowledge is uncertain, but that those conditional propositions which have thus far managed to survive refutation within the scientific inquiry process are far more reliable than are competing truth claims based on revelation and an essentially mysterious private intuition? Do you assume that language is merely a tool evolved within our species of primate and that the terms we apply to categories of experience do not carry within them any "essence" of the reality they serve to symbolize? Are you skeptical of holistic approaches to knowing, or to healing, with their grand designs for social change -- or total harmony of being -- that can be neither analyzed nor tested? Do you refuse to devote time and effort to a search for the underlying meaning and purpose of life, and for your own role in some universal cosmic plan? Do you accept the idea that the building of morality (or ethics) is a human enterprise -- the sources, guidelines and future goals of which must be found in the entire historical experience and scientifically predictable future of our species within a functioning ecosystem? If you answer "yes" to all of those questions then you are an evolutionary naturalist in philosophy -- and therefore a humanist -- no matter what adjective you choose to place before the label, and no matter what words you use to describe your perspective. Many people, who merely live out their lives as practical, skeptical inquirers without acknowledging humanism, may be closer to the position I have just outlined than are members of Humanist organizations who have rejected a belief in God, but continue to approach the problems of life in an essentialist, holistic, teleological, rationalistic, dogmatic or mystical manner.

What follows from the world view of evolutionary naturalism is that humanists must be scientific in their approach to knowing. We cannot retain either an ideological or a mystical orientation. Both are dead ends and antithetical to the scientific inquiry method. This means that we must jettison any previous wholesale commitment to holistic and essentialist belief systems. It is not enough to throw out only the religious ones. Humanism must rely for its understanding of the human condition -- and its tools for solving our social problems -- not on the conclusions of these obsolete ideologies but on reliable knowledge from an authentically scientific social science. However, it is here that we really encounter difficulties for, because of the failures of twentieth century social science, we are sadly crippled by a dearth of such knowledge.

It is with these difficulties that I am attempting to deal in Leaving the Cave. Although the book is directly about social-scientific thought it is, indirectly, of crucial significance to humanism. This is because humanism must rely on the findings of social science not only for its strength and capacity to deal with social problems, but for its very definition -- involving, as it must, fundamental premises concerning the nature of the human condition. Humanism is impotent to the degree that social science is ineffective as a source of reliable, workable and cumulative knowledge. And the philosophy required for an authentically scientific social science turns out to be the very same philosophy that underlies and defines humanism.

Leaving the Cave traces that philosophical tradition from the sixth-century BCE Hellenic Sophists and Atomists, as well as the Epicureans and Stoics, through Erasmus to those early pioneers of social science who bequeathed the precious legacy of empirical naturalism on which a host of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinkers have built. Included are numerous chapters on the lives and times and ideas of these thinkers, as much as possible expressed in their own words. In fact, this book is a case study of cultural evolution in action for over twenty-six hundred years. It follows the generational selection and transmission of the most important concepts comprising one overwhelmingly important current of thought: a current that has always taken into account the biological and evolutionary grounding of our species! The one danger I see in the new sociobiology today is that social scientists may move wholesale into that specific model without a firm grasp of the history and philosophy out of which it has come, and of the many pitfalls inevitable in any narrow focus on one determining factor in the complexities in the human condition. My hope is that Leaving the Cave, with its emphasis on the socio-cultural component in evolution, will fill a significant gap in current knowledge for sociobiologists in particular, and for social scientists and humanists in general.