There is Something Wrong With Humanism
It’s not easy to write critically about humanism from a secular perspective.
The problem has to do with the fluid nature of the concept "humanism".
It has no single, precise meaning and there is little agreement about its constituent
elements. As a result, to criticise humanism is to run the risk of being accused
of a "straw-man" fallacy; that is, the fallacy of misrepresenting
a position or argument in order to make it easier to criticise. It is easy to
see how this might happen. Humanism isn’t any one particular thing. If
a good argument can be made against any one of the things, amongst others,
that it might be, then likely you’ll find that everyone disavows that
particular thing. And then you’ve got a straw-man. It doesn’t take too many
repetitions of this pattern of criticism and disavowal before you end up with
humanism weakly specified as a kind of rationally inclined, human centred, atheism
The problem here for the secular critic of humanism is that there doesn’t seem
to be much left in this conception to be construed as objectionable. It is possible
to imagine a secularist being upset by such things as humanist funerals, but
surely not by the thought that humanism is rationally inclined, atheistic and
human centred? The humanist church, notwithstanding its godlessness, seems broad,
inclusive and inoffensive.
However, things are not quite this straightforward. To understand why, it will
help to consider briefly, for reasons that will become clear later, the rise
of "Lysenkoism" in the Soviet Union in the middle part of the twentieth
century. Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist, came to prominence as the proponent
of a theory of heredity that stood in direct opposition to Mendelianism. The
details of this theory need not concern us, except to note that it was "Larmarckist"
in its contention that it is possible for organisms to inherit acquired characteristics.
Lysenkoism dominated Soviet genetics in the 1940s. This was despite its being
wrong and the fact that the principles of Mendelianism – the correct theory
of heredity – were well understood by then. It came to dominate because it fitted
so nicely with Soviet ideology. Particularly, the idea that acquired characteristics
could be inherited held out the promise of the perfectibility of mankind. So
science followed ideology, and in the Soviet Union, the consequences, certainly
for many of the scientists involved and arguably also for its agriculture, were
What’s this got to do with humanism? At first sight, nothing at all. After
all, a tenet of humanism that probably everybody agrees on is that truth claims
must be subject to rational scrutiny and investigation. However, then the thought
occurs, what happens if science suggests hypotheses that are unpalatable from
a humanist perspective? Part of the reason that Lysenkoism gained official support
in the Soviet Union was because the Mendelian approach to genetics was not thought
to be consistent with Engels’s ideas about dialectical materialism. So are humanists
immune to this kind of tendency to select between scientific theories on the
basis of ideology rather than the balance of evidence?
A way into thinking about this question is to consider some of the objections
that might be levelled against it. Two in particular spring to mind. First of
all, it might be objected that it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about humanism
as a set of ideas solely on the basis of the actions or beliefs of individual
humanists. So what if some humanists lack impartiality? Nobody is naïve
enough to claim that all humanists are perfectly consistent. However, this objection
is weak. If nothing else, the actions of individual humanists tell us something
about the practice of humanism. But more than this, it just isn’t obvious that
one cannot learn anything about a set of ideas by looking at how well its adherents
live up to them. If it does turn out that there is a tendency for humanists
to judge the merits of scientific theories in terms of non-scientific criteria
then this might well be indicative of some tension within humanism.
The second objection is related to this thought. If humanists do indeed bring
non-scientific criteria to bear when judging scientific theories, it might be
objected that they do not do so in the name of humanism. If humanism is nothing
more than a rational secularism, then there isn’t any extra humanist ingredient
against which scientific theories can be judged. However, the difficulty
with this objection is precisely that it only works by setting up an equivalence
between humanism and rational secularism. It is true that some people see humanism
this way, but many people do not.
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. These ideas
– and variations on them – are espoused in numerous humanist writings (just
type ‘humanism’ into Google – and read at your leisure). However, the claim
is not that all humanists accept all these ideas. It is rather
that they are representative of a discernible and significant thread in humanist
thought. Or, more strongly, it is at least arguable that if a person has no
sympathy at all with these kinds of ideas, then they are not a humanist. As
Kurtz and Wilson put it, in their Humanist Manifesto II: "Views
that merely reject theism are not equivalent to humanism. They lack commitment
to the positive belief in the possibilities of human progress and to the values
central to it."
What evidence is there then that these kinds of ideas might be involved in
the judgements that humanists make about scientific theories? Let’s take, as
an example, the article by Kenan Malik, "Materialism, Mechanism and the
Human Mind", which appeared in the Autumn 2001 edition of New Humanist
magazine. In this article, Malik argues that human beings are "exceptional"
in that they "cannot be understood solely as natural beings". In pursuing
his argument, Malik attacks "mechanistic" explanations, which reduce
human beings, and the human mind, to the equivalent of sophisticated machines.
He argues that this view is flawed in that it fails to recognise that humans
are conscious, capable of purpose and agency. According to Malik, human beings
are, in a sense, outside nature, able to work out how to overcome the constraints
of biological and physical laws. In his words: "Our evolutionary heritage
certainly shapes the way that humans approach the world. But it does not limit
it, as it does for all other animals."
It is quite hard to make sense of this argument. For starters, the idea that
the evolutionary heritage of human beings does not limit the way we approach
the world is highly questionable. For example, it’s hard to see how we can rule
out the possibility that had our brains evolved differently, then puzzles that
presently seem intractable (for example, the fact that there seems to be something that
it is like to be a human being) would have long ago been solved.
But, more significantly, the whole idea that human beings are somehow outside
nature is slightly odd. It seems here to amount to the claim that things like
consciousness, agency and free will are real – though non-physical – and that
they are, in principle, beyond scientific, or at least mechanistic, explanation.
But the trouble is that Malik, in this article at least, does not argue for
this position. He merely repeats what everybody already knows – that it certainly
seems that we all have inner lives (and everything that entails), and it’s a
bit of a puzzle.
So what’s at stake here? Why not draw less hard and fast conclusions about
the proper domain of scientific explanation? Perhaps part of the story has to
do with the spectre of anti-humanism, which seems to be in the background of
all scientific attempts to get to grips with the stuff of human existence. How
this might be so can be illustrated by briefly considering Benjamin Libet’s
experiments, from the 1960s, on readiness potential. An RP is an electrical
change in the brain that precedes a conscious human act – such as waggling a
finger. Libet’s discovery was that if volunteers are asked to waggle their finger
within a 30 second time-frame, the RP that accompanies the waggling begins some
300 to 400 milliseconds before the human subject reports that they have
become aware of their intention to waggle the finger. This is disturbing, because,
as Libet puts it, the "initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to
begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he
wants to act!"
The anti-humanist threat is obvious. If our conscious acts are unconsciously
initiated, then what of free-will and agency? Perhaps we are just sophisticated
machines after all. And if we are, what does this mean, for example, for the
idea that human beings are the source of morality? It must be said that Libet’s
work is not uncontroversial, and he himself does not draw particularly radical
conclusions. However, in an important sense, this is not the point. Rather,
the point is that science is in the business of providing reductive, causal
explanations of the phenomena that it investigates. Consequently, when it turns
its gaze to the stuff of the inner life of human beings – consciousness, agency,
will, sensation, etc. – there is the possibility that these things will turn
out just to be physical, or indeed that, in one way or another, they will disappear
Malik seems to recognise this threat when he argues that the attempt to understand
human beings in mechanistic terms is motivated by an anti-humanism. But his
solution, to deny that reductive, scientific explanations are admissible in
the case of the inner life of human beings, is not yet at least rationally justified.
It is too early to rule out on a priori or empirical grounds the possibility
that science will be as successful in this domain as it is in others. The brain
is rapidly giving up its secrets to neuroscientists and there are philosophical
theories available – for example, eliminative materialism and epiphenomenalism
– which offer a way of dealing with issues of consciousness without denying
the explanatory power of a reductive, physicalist approach. To preclude the
possibility that science might be successful in this area, on the grounds that
it results in theories that are counter-intuitive, is bad science and bad philosophy.
The important point is that Malik is grappling with a tension that lies right
at the heart of humanism. If a person is serious about science then they cannot,
without fear of contradiction, embrace a doctrine which requires, as humanism
might, that human beings have free will or that the stuff of consciousness is
non-physical and causally efficacious. To escape the possibility of contradiction
by asserting the truth of the kind of science or philosophy which is, in principle,
anti-reductionist in its approach to humans is to allow ideology to govern scientific
and philosophical commitments.
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."
Jeremy Stangroom is New Media editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine.