To be or not to be … a humanist

This is the second and final part of the series “To be or not to be…” The first article discussed patriotism in the light of some recent world events, and showed why patriotism can prove to be a false god. It advocated for humanism in place of patriotism, but did not provide any functional definition of humanism. This article attempts to dispel that vagueness, but in the process raises more questions than it answers.



Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

My last article on why patriotism is a bad faith resonates with John Lennon’s sentiment in these lyrics. If we look closely at the core argument behind this wonderful poetic vision of a more humane world, we will find nothing but a de-stressing on singular group-identities. In other words, the basic contention is not to be sold on the idea of some pre-established organized identity like religion, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic group, etc. Notice that unless we “imagine” away centuries of human legacies, possessing such pre-determined identities (what the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre calls facticity) is only natural, but the voluntary journey from involuntarily assigned identities to one responsibly created by oneself (what Sartre calls authenticity) is the path to humanism – something that I advocated in my last article. But what exactly is humanism?

The motto of the American Humanist Association is “Good without a God” – basically affirming the agency of human beings, individual or collective, to lead a fulfilling personal life devoid of supernaturalism, consonant with the greater good of society. In the sense that human beings can completely determine the kind of life that they wish to lead and therefore must take full responsibility of the consequences of their actions, humanism in a way reverberates the existentialist premise that humans alone can attach meaning to an otherwise amoral meaningless life. In other words, there is no deterministic aspect to human life – all the choices we make are determined by the directive will of our ‘authentic’ selves. There is, therefore, in the humanist worldview, no role of the involuntary impulse in determining our actions. However, the freedom of choice that is earned by giving up determinism comes at a steep metaphysical cost. The cost is that we must then, as humanists, give up the idea of cause and effect! Because so long as we hold on to the idea that everything in this world happens because of something else, we must admit that our so-called authentic choices are also caused by something else. Therefore, one must understand that humanism and determinism, as defined here so far, cannot both be held as true.

In the physical world it is rather difficult to maintain a position that refutes any determinism. The football moves in a certain way because someone kicked it in a specific manner – the deterministic channel of cause and effect cannot be denied. However, this orderly scheme of things is only a façade because modern physics has proved beyond doubt that in the subatomic realm, chance has a role to play (for example remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Thus the duality between determinism and the pre-destined character of certain events lie at the very heart of the entire physical world. In so far we believe that we as humans are making choices using our brains, which is no doubt a part of the physical world, we cannot deny that strict humanism (‘strict’ in the sense that it does not acknowledge the role of any facticity in human decision-making) is not possible.

Then exactly what kind of humanism are we talking about? Before answering this difficult question, let me take you to the suburbs of Berlin in 1930 where Albert Einstein is having a chat with his visitor about science and spirituality, truth and beauty, and music. The visitor is also a Nobel Laureate, but not in Physics or any of the sciences – Rabindranath Tagore won the Prize for literature in 1913, and was held by the world as a great humanist. During that conversation, many points were raised by both sides regarding the essential uncertainty of human existence that I think are very pertinent to our discussion about humanism here. I am quoting just two lines from that long conversation here.

Einstein: “Whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it…uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience…Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.”

Tagore: “And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.”

There are three major issues raised here that needs discussion in the context of providing a logically consistent functional definition of humanism.

First, notice that the quantum physicist is acknowledging the determinism of causality and also the essential uncertainty almost in the same breadth. Thus our definition of humanism also must be able to reconcile this duality.

Second, when Einstein says that it is good that we cannot see through to causality, what exactly does he mean? Here’s my interpretation: Remember the God that the American Humanist Association so dearly wanted to root out? I think God is nothing but someone or something who can see through to this causality. Therefore, for mere mortals being able to do the same would be dangerous because everyone with their authentic selves would then be empowered to cause everything in this world – a chaotic situation indeed. We as humans can only see a part of this complete causal cycle, and the rest we ascribe to chance or probability that we take to pre-determined or exogenous.[1] Therefore, a principle of humanism need not throw away the concept of God altogether, rather it would do better by acknowledging that God in the form of stochasticity exists and our job would be to learn more and more about that stochastic process. This is therefore one essential functioning as a humanist – pursuit of knowledge that explains more and more of every phenomenon in a deterministic way.

The third important aspect of humanism is the struggle between individual and universal truths as highlighted by Tagore. Let’s consider a simple example to illustrate this problem. Consider a world of three people – me and my two friends. Now, I am standing outside a closed room where both my friends are locked in with nothing but a table. Being outside I cannot know the existence of that table. Thus the existence of the table is a universal truth in this case, but my individual truth does not conform to that. Behind this apparently stupid example lies an important fact of human life, and that is that even if all of us behave authentically without any blind faith, our authenticity is shaped by our individual truths or worldviews. When these worldviews clash, violence (be it in the form of an argument or a war) is inevitable. So, Lennon’s method of achieving peace does not seem to be consistent with humanism because it is almost impossible to achieve a pan-optical viewpoint for everyone. Learning to accommodate opposing viewpoints without violence is a virtue that is independent of the essence of humanism. Thus, when as a humanist one tries to do good for others, there is a possibility that the ‘good’ for others is perceived to be different by that person and those ‘others’. Trying to reach a consensus regarding what good should be achieved for all runs the risk of drab monoculturalism.

Collating the wisdom gained from the preceding discussion, we see that there is only one feature of humanism that is essential – that is the pursuit of knowledge. Every other characteristic that is usually ascribed to humanism like achieving greater good, or denouncing supernaturalism, etc. is not internally consistent with the metaphysical justification for humanism. Now, finally if you want to be a humanist or not is completely up to you. My job here was only to shed some light on what is humanism and what it is not, so that you can make a more informed choice.

[1] For those who know anything about regression in statistics should see that what I am saying here is very similar to a regression set-up where a certain phenomenon is captured by a deterministic function of certain observed variables, y=f(x,z,…), and a residual stochastic term, e so that the final regression equation is something like y=f(x,z,…)+e . The point is that God knows e and we don’t, and that’s the reason we are still doing statistics.

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