What does Doubt Mean to a Humanist, Atheist or Freethinker?

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.

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What do Freethinkers do with Life’s Mysteries?

Get a bunch of Freethinkers 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 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 Freethinker do with life’s mysteries?

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Darkness Was Here Yesterday

Freethinkers generally 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.

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What Leads to Democracy? Money + Individual Freedoms

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!


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Vote “Yes on 1” in 2012 if You Live in Maine

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.

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Philosophical and Moral Experiments

How consistent is your morality, your personal philosophy?  Here’s a website with a collection of philosophical and quizzes, created by Jeremy Stangroom, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine and formerly at the Butterflies and Wheels website…


Butterflies and Wheels (now run by Ophelia Benson alone)


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How do Humanists, Atheists and Freethinkers Celebrate Mystery, Wonder and Awe?

While we are asking questions, here’s one that religions readily answer but science refuses to even entertain:  How do we celebrate mystery, wonder and awe?  Where are the meeting places?  What are the rituals, the ceremonies?

Science doesn’t address what we don’t know or understand, like things that go bump in the night and things beyond what we know.  Sure, we can safely presume the house creaks at night because the floorboards/pipes are contracting in the cold, but what about smaller-than-Higgs or larger-than-universe or before-big-bang?  What about things that are, to us, simply improbable?  Where do we go to marvel with others at  stuff (still) in the realm of imagination?

And while science can explain the neurology of the feeling we get when standing on a mountain top, or holding a newborn, it doesn’t give us ways to revel in these experiences.  Where do we go to celebrate with others the awe and wonder we experience?

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