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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Humanism vs. science?

Jeremy Stangroom writes in the dogmatically anti-ideological British journal Butterflies and Wheels that "there is something wrong with humanism" — from a secular perspective!

His contention seems to be that humanism, to the extent that it is committed to anything more than "rational secularism," is just itching for a fight with science someday. Why? Because the ethical and humanistic commitments of the humanist may not be supported by scientific evidence. (Don't you just love it when a reductionist decides that other people are dogmatists?)

What then is this possible extra ingredient, properly humanist, against which the merits of scientific theories might be judged? The answer is that it is the constellation of ideas which constitutes the human-centred aspect of humanism. These ideas include: that human beings are free, rational agents; that they are, in various ways, the source of morality; that human dignity and flourishing are important; and that there are significant common bonds between people, which unite them across biological, social and geographical boundaries.

Let's be clear: Stangroom says he is troubled by the prospect that humanistic notions might somehow interfere with the conduct of scientific research. But what's his real beef? That humanism pretends to be rational and scientific, but doesn't deserve either moniker because it is more ethical than scientific? That societies might make political and ethical decisions about the applications of scientific research by appealing to non-scientific criteria, like human rights? Holy selfish gene, Batman!

By the end of the article, we come to this Dawkinsian twist:

In an endnote in his book, The Selfish Gene (2nd Edition), Richard Dawkins writes: "If . . . you are not religious, then face up to the following question. What on earth do you think you are, if not a robot, albeit a very complicated one?" It may be that complicated robots have consciousness, free will and agency; that is, that they have the things which are important to many humanists. Unfortunately, it may also be that they do not, and to deny this possibility requires a leap of faith. What this means is that it is not rationally justified to assert the truth of the constellation of beliefs which constitutes the human-centred aspect of humanism. Rather, one is forced to concur with Kurtz and Wilson's more general verdict on humanist affirmations, that they are "but an expression of a living and growing faith."

It strikes me (negatively) that Stangroom is more bothered that humanism constitutes a "faith" than he is by the notion that human societies should discard our unscientific interest in human beings as ends in themselves.

Kenan Malik, whose views Stangroom criticizes, argues back:

For Stangroom, the view of humans as both immanent in, and transcendent to, nature is ‘slightly odd’ because it seems to suggest that ‘things like consciousness, agency and free will are real’ but ‘beyond scientific . . . explanation’. Yet it is Stangroom himself who suggests that if consciousness, agency and free will can be explained mechanistically they will be exposed as illusions: in other words, that the belief in the reality of consciousness and agency and in a mechanistic science are mutually exclusive. My own view is neither that consciousness, agency and free will are illusions, nor that they are beyond scientific explanation, but rather that they cannot be fully explained by the precepts of natural science. This is the key point of difference.

Malik also adds:

Part of the problem here is in the way that we have come to understand ‘naturalism’. Originally, as the concept developed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘naturalism’ meant the ability to explain all events and phenomena without recourse to the supernatural and the divine. It came to be understood as a liberation from the dogmas of religion and the conservative social order for which they served as an ideology, as well as a declaration of independence for scientific inquiry into the nature of the world and also into human nature. In this sense I am a fully-fledged card-carrying naturalist — as I assume are all humanists.

In recent decades, though, there has been redefinition of naturalism which is now widely taken to mean, not simply the rejection of supernatural explanations, but the acceptance of the idea that the explanations of natural science suffice to explain all phenomena, not just the phenomena of nature. Naturalism has been reformulated as an all-embracing physicalism. For a naturalist such as Jeremy Stangroom it seems that the only conceptual system in terms of which the world and its processes can be reliably characterised is that of the physical sciences of nature. This is a view that appears to confuse the physical world with the real world. The social world, as I have suggested, is as real as the physical world, but cannot be understood simply in physical terms.

I'll have more to say on this topic in a few weeks, but I'm right in the middle of reading Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy and Mary Midgley's The Myths We Live By, and still digesting. (Thanks for the tip, A&L Daily, via K.S.!)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 26 August 2003 at 5:41 PM

Previous: The final frontier.
Next: Catholic crisis.

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