My Stammtisch recently delved into the idea that people’s world views are infused with their imagining of things to varying degrees, some a little, some a lot. I know it took me years to break out of wanting the world to be the way I had imagined it in my youth. I look around and see people who are still living inside their imaginations – the adults like this tend to suffer for not being grounded. It seems that those of us susceptible to imagery need to work consciously at controlling when and where we let the imagery in, and when and where we can safely let the magic flow over us. Are you living in your own imagination? To what degree?
The person sitting on your left on the subway might believe that an unseen all-knowing white male is in control of the universe. The person sitting to your right might believe in a vague ethereal interconnectedness in the universe that explains improbable events. The person directly across from you might claim to believe only in science, but they play a lucky lottery number. What all of these have in common is that they believe there is something supernatural in the universe, though they differ greatly in the extent to which they assign concepts to the supernatural.
I no longer sense anything supernatural in my experience. After years of education and experience I have learned the psychology behind a number of phenomena that might seem supernatural. And I’ve studied science in college and in a lifetime of reading with a discerning eye for truthfulness – thank you A. J. Ayer! But I also get that there are people who don’t get physics and psychology like I do, and I cannot fault them for ascribing agency to random events, or to physical phenomena that they have not studied. So I’m comfortable with other people claiming to perceive something supernatural. As for them ascribing concepts to something they clearly see as inexplicable, that’s another matter.
I have to disclaim that topic isn’t fully developed…
Most Humanists I’ve met have no end of opinions, nearly all of which are based on science or similar principles. But where’s the doubt? It shows up in the skeptical stance that Humanists take towards claims of the paranormal, but even there it’s not so much doubt as a reliance on hard science in an effort to debunk dubious claims.
So where’s the doubt? There isn’t much doubt in the hallmark of Humanist perspective, the scientific method. That’s a given for most humanists. It is founded on reason, which we cherish.
Doubt is present when we consider claims of rationality, particularly when we detect the scent of lingering mysteries, if not outright falsehoods. Maybe that’s the home of doubt for Humanists – at the gate where new ideas come in, when we examine them to see if they pass muster.
There are people who make more out of doubt than the typical Humanist does. I’m thinking of people I’ve heard dismiss the strength or validity of mathematics because of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or who dismiss physics because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the idea of Indeterminacy in Quantum physics. They throw out the baby (the body of science) with the bath water (the mystery). This is a case of unfettered doubt.
I’m left wondering what room Humanists have for doubt, beyond the gatekeeper for accepting knowledge.
Get a bunch of Humanists together and they are likely to discuss the follies of religion, or perhaps they explore some scientific phenomenon. But rarely in my experience do they delve into life’s mysteries, which can range from the mundane, like why the the toilet paper roll is empty when you most need it, to the sublime like the temperature of emotions evoked by rainbows.
Much of the mystery people feel is subjective, maybe all of it. Not everything is subjective though. The rock that we might stub our toe on is itself objective, and it’s fair to say that the pain we felt is objective to the extent that our neural response can be measured. But what we get from the pain, the thoughts and emotions it evokes, fall squarely in the vastness of our minds and is, to the current state of science, subjective. None of this need be mysterious however, unless we look back on why we stubbed our toe in the first place. People might see coincidence or agency in the circumstances that lead to toe hitting stone, and that’s where mystery shows up.
Supernatural – attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. (of a manifestation or event)
People who believe in the tenets of mainstream religions attribute many of life’s mysteries to their particular deities. I’m not talking about toilet paper here, but maybe rainbows. To a Humanist like me, the religious folks are ascribing meaning or at least cause,to mystery without a basis for doing so; they are creating and putting stock in supernatural explanations.
But what does the Humanist do with life’s mysteries?
Humanists don’t have supernatural solace to fall back on during dark times like those brought by yesterday’s senseless killing of children in Newtown Connecticut and by the brutal slashing of twenty school kids with a knife in China. We need something from this world to sustain our hope. One thought that is keeping me from despair is that we will make more of an effort to reach out to lonely and tormented people and help make their lives better, so tragedies like this don’t happen again. This is a very humanist mission – to find and build hope by bettering the lives of everyone. My deepest sympathy goes to all those hurt by violence against children throughout the world.
What comes first: democracy, wealth or personal growth?
A few years ago I came across this analysis of human development across the world (PDF link below). Their conclusion is that there is a consistent sequence that leads to democracy: economic development –> cultural changes (e.g. more individual autonomy, freedom, secularity) –> democracy.
Together with Jared Diamond’s resource-based explanation for variations in economic development, this paints a comprehensive picture of how things got to be the way they are.
And there are some really cool charts!
I’m in Maine helping get out the vote for Question #1 to allow same-sex couples to marry. People ask me why a straight guy from CT would drive 4 hours to ME and spend days canvassing neighborhoods and making calls for a cause that doesn’t affect me. There’s no simple answer other than that I can. And because none of us is free when any of us is not. Because none of us has dignity when any of us is denied it. Because we’re all stuck here on this rock together. Because ingroup and tribal mentality is beneath a thinking species. Because my job went to some guys in India 7 months ago and I have free days. Because I thought a trip would be fun. Because I see how happy my same-sex married friends are in CT where their marriage is recognized. Because I detest the various forms of ignorance behind homophobia. Because I find lesbians intriguing and nonthreatening. Because I am proud that I have overcome small town prejudice against gay guys. Because I had an elderly aunt who could not marry the love of her life and died before CT made it possible. People shouldn’t have to suffer waiting for others to, as Samuel L. Jackson so eloquently says, “wake the fuck up!” People shouldn’t have to suffer waiting for the future to arrive.