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human nature, philosophy


I am not a humanist.

Yeah, I know that by itself, this sentence is almost meaningless.  Ask a hundred people what it means to be a humanist, and you’ll get fifty or so answers.  So, as with most topics, I’ll start at the beginning, and tell you what humanism means to me.  If you think of humanism differently, good for you.  If my critique doesn’t apply to you, then I’m not critiquing your position.  Simple, no?

Humanism is a catch-all for a kind of faith-based system of belief in the superiority, dignity, and ultimate meaning of “humanity.”  Many humanists believe that it is humanity’s destiny to “evolve” into something greater — a benevolent, egalitarian, environmentally sustainable species who values human life above all else, but maintains respect for other life forms as well.  Some humanists believe that humans have a form of “destiny” and that human concerns are the most important concerns on the planet.

Traditionally, humanism has been divided into two major camps — religious and secular.  Religious humanists believe that humans need (or at least really want) the social structure and faith elements of religion, and attempt to replace god worship with something more akin to humanity-worship or nature-worship.   Secular humanists believe that faith and worship have been superceded by naturalism, and prefer to think of their beliefs as a “life-stance,” which translates to my ears as “philosophy.”

Off the bat, I am obviously not a religious humanist.  I think faith-based belief is the greatest scourge man has ever loosed upon the world.  I give religious humanists the same treatment as liberal theists.  They are at least partially culpable for any religious evils loosed upon the world because they refuse to take a stand against faith based belief.  I’m sure they’re nice people, but their belief system is dangerous.

Secular humanism presents me with a slightly more subtle problem.  I agree with secular humanists on nearly all points of philosophy.  Like them, I believe that rationality, skepticism, empiricism, and naturalism win the day, and that anything else is a hanger-on from a less enlightened past.  I believe that in order for humans to survive, there needs to be a mass wake-up call with respect to our environment and reproductive habits.  I believe in egalitarian governments, personal liberty, and in the need for respectful tolerance.

The thing is, I don’t believe there’s anything special about humans.  Yes, I recognize that most humans think humans are special, but that doesn’t make it so.  Every animal is concerned with its own well being.  Humans are capable of second order thought, and that makes us keenly aware of our own well being as a dynamic state responding to a much larger system, but that doesn’t give our existence any kind of a priori importance outside of our own existence.

What I do believe is this:  Humans are animals, and behave instinctively just like other animals.  We, like other animals, are concerned with our well-being, and so we certainly have local importance.  That is, our desire for humanity to prosper is our purpose, and it is created solely within us as individuals and a species.  There is no reason outside of humans why our existence matters.

Recently, I found myself bristling at a comment made by one of my facebook friends.  To paraphrase, he said that the reason he’s a humanist is that it gives him “higher purpose” and a sense that humanity can become better, and “evolve mentally to new levels when they put their minds and some real effort into it.”  (Quotes are his exact words, not scare quotes.)  When I read that, I felt the same way as when a theist tells me that I can’t be moral because I’m an atheist.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand where he’s coming from.  Sometimes, it’s frustrating to look at all the brainpower we humans possess and see that there’s still war and genocide and rape, and that nations with plenty still refuse to share with the starving.  Other times, we look at how far we’ve come, and are filled with a sense of excitement.  If we’ve managed to create such egalitarian governments and societies as we have in just a few thousand years, what could we accomplish if we put all our “base instincts” to bed and used our big brains to create something even better?

I appreciate the sentiment.  I really do.  But I don’t believe in redefining human nature just because it would be awesome if human nature was different than it is.

Humans are neither good nor bad.  We are driven by the same nonzero sum math that drives all social creatures, and we are ultimately self-interested.  This, I believe, is where humanism fails ultimately.  Natural selection functions individually.  Group selection (as defined in the late 20th century) doesn’t work, and is not part of evolution.  The Selfish Gene theory, though it has been refined, and is not quite so cut and dried as when it was first presented, is still the model that works.

Because we are smart animals, we can recognize our own self-interest in broader terms than other animals.  We can make rules limiting the dumping of toxic waste because we know that ten or twenty years in the future, we will be less likely to die of cancer if we do so.  We can limit our fishing permits so that we do not over-fish and destroy a food source permanently.  We can plant grass and small shrubs on top of buildings to help absorb and convert excess carbon.  We can make biodegradable containers for coffee.  We can allow the KKK to march, even though they repulse us, knowing that their freedom is exactly the same as ours.

The thing is, we have these abilities precisely because we are animals, not because we are special in any way.  All of the beneficial behaviors I just mentioned flow predictably and unhindered from the  math of natural selection and game theory.  We don’t need higher purpose from any other source because pure old naturalism gives it to us, without having any pretense at our superiority or uniqueness.

The last reason I am not a humanist is perhaps the most important.  While I realize that many humanists would disagree with me on this point, I see the belief in human destiny as a special pleading.  It’s a kind of passive-aggressive attempt to place humanity at the center of the cosmos — again.  I also think it necessarily limits the ways in which we can think about successful survival by placing an arbitrary premium on human life.

I don’t believe all human life is worth living or saving.  I will be accused of all sorts of evil for having said that, but it’s true, and more than that — it’s compassionate.  Several of my very good friends are ultrasound techs, and one of the most disturbing segments of their schooling involves the memorization of hundreds of gross deformities in fetuses.  (Of course, I mean gross in the technical sense.)  Most of these babies, if brought to term, will live anywhere from a few hours to a few years, and will suffer greatly while alive.  They will be a drain on the emotions, pocketbook, and health of their parents, and they will not have a chance for anything approaching the happiness you or I have experienced in life.

I don’t believe in an inherent “right” to reproduce as much as we want.  We humans have passed our sustainable population threshold.  There are only a couple of solutions to this problem (if a solution is to be enacted) and none of them are very humanist.  People have to stop having babies.  Lots of them.  China’s one child per family policy is a good start, but it’s not enough.  This solution hurts, though.  If say, a third of all humans voluntarily underwent sterilization (the best of all possible solutions) the next generation would experience a horrible imbalance as geriatrics became the biggest segment of the population.  Economies would turn topsy turvy, and all attempts at social security would fail under their own weight.

Alternatively, lots of people have to die.  I don’t like that solution anymore than anyone else because I don’t want to die to save humanity, and neither do you.  Ironically, this is one of the strongest arguments against humanism I can think of.  If humanists really believed what they say — that humans are capable of being better than other animals, and that we have destiny — the most logical thing to do would be arrange for a mass suicide to reduce the population to manageable and sustainable levels.  Is anyone lining up?

In short, I don’t believe either of these things are going to happen.  And no, I don’t believe in the power of science to magically create energy reserves that simply don’t exist, or to magically convert trillions of tons of carbon back into stored energy as fast or faster than we burn it.  I believe — to put it bluntly — that we’re fucked.  I don’t know if we’re going to go extinct, but I do know that carbon fuel will run out, and when it does, our population will decrease drastically.

Still, I live my life day to day as well as I can, and I recycle, turn my lights off, walk or ride the bus, and buy my clothes from thrift stores even though I could afford off the rack.  I believe in treating other humans the way I want to be treated.  I spend hours and hours trying to help other people throw off religion and superstition so that they can live more fulfilled, self-actualized lives.  I do all of these things while still believing that humanity is ultimately going to die off, becoming one more set of fossil remains before the earth is eventually consumed by the expanding sun.

I don’t need humanism to be a good person.  I just need to be honest, empathetic, and most of all, I need to trust the power of reason over the strength of emotion.



16 thoughts on “Humanism

  1. We are indeed fucked.

    Neither gods nor aliens nor ingenuity can change the numbers.

    Posted by khan | September 18, 2009, 1:23 pm
  2. I stopped reading this post when you flatly declared group selection wrong. Sorry, bud, but *you* are flatly wrong. The vociferous denial of the efficacy of group selection is a combination of two things: (1) sloppy, non-scientific discussions of group selection bandied about by people who couldn’t find their scientific ass with both hands, and (2) a subtle error in understanding Sober & Wilson have dubbed the averaging fallacy which even some respectable scientists can’t seem to avoid. You need to read that diss I sent you, dood! 😉

    Which is not to say that group selection gets us to the hippy-dippy positivism about human destiny that you’re criticizing here: It doesn’t – which proponents of an actual scientific understanding of group selection know very well.

    Posted by G Felis | September 18, 2009, 2:16 pm
  3. I did no such thing. I said group selection as defined in the late 20th century was wrong. That is the group selection posited from the 50s to the 80s or so, in opposition to the notion of individual self interest — the idea that “what’s best for the group” somehow infuses the individual with nonselfish adaptations. Yes, I know it was more nuanced than that, but as you say, this notion is the one most people think of when they hear “group selection.”

    Posted by hambydammit | September 18, 2009, 2:33 pm
  4. Ah. The source of our misunderstanding is that “the late 20th century” encompasses way too large a sweep of time to convey the idea you intended. Yes, there were some post-synthesis versions of group selection floating around in the 50s and 60s which were awfully fast-and-loose in their reasoning – but the devastating take-down of those bad hypotheses also took place in the late 20th century (by W.D. Hamilton in 1964 and Robert Trivers in 1971, for just two examples). And it was also in the late 20th century – in 1975, to be precise – that David Sloan Wilson resuscitated group selection with a rigorous theoretical and mathematical formulation.

    Group selection – the fact that the ordinary processes of natural selection operating on variation can select for traits that benefit groups – isn’t even really debated any more by people who actually know what they’re talking about. Multilevel selection theory – the idea that under different circumstances selection pressures can and do occur at every level from individual genes to individual organisms to groups of closely related organisms to groups of loosely related or even “unrelated” organisms – is fairly well established. The remaining controversy is over whether and to what degree group selection is needed to explain the phenomena we actually observe, since many features of social behavior can also plausibly be due to mechanisms like kin selection and tit-for-tat reciprocal altruism. Unfortunately, when those debates filter down to the level of popular culture, you’re probably right that all the nuance is lost: People who really haven’t even read any of the good science popularizations about group selection (let alone the actual science) start talking about it in ways that are completely at odds with how natural selection actually operates.

    I apologize for snippiness, though: You just happened to push a big red nerd button. 😉

    Posted by G Felis | September 18, 2009, 6:04 pm
  5. Good points! I don’t refer to myself as a humanist, but I consider myself to be one because I have a very strong interest in promoting efforts to benefit people. We are unique, as you say, in our self-awareness and in the complexity of our thought. It seems to me that if we do, in our own self-interest, care for other species, they can benefit from having us around.

    That said, I have the same problem with humanism as you do. I don’t want us to get the idea that our welfare is the purpose of the universe. If and when we meet other species that equal or surpass our abilities, I want us to respect the self-interest they will probably exhibit and find ways to benefit from them rather than compete with them. It seems that such an attitude would be very likely to be in our self-interest.

    Regardless of whether we ever come in contact with equal or superior species, I feel that the continuation of our species is a worthwhile endeavor. I regard human existence as a large-scale version of personal existence. Human life doesn’t last forever, but I want mine to last as long as possible, because it’s such an awesome thing.

    Posted by Joel Justiss | September 20, 2009, 9:28 am
  6. The thing is, I don’t believe there’s anything special about humans. Yes, I recognize that most humans think humans are special, but that doesn’t make it so. Every animal is concerned with its own well being. Humans are capable of second order thought, and that makes us keenly aware of our own well being as a dynamic state responding to a much larger system, but that doesn’t give our existence any kind of a priori importance outside of our own existence.

    …I think we’ve had this discussion before (briefly), and I still call bullocks. Firstly, self-replicators in and of themselves are exceptionally rare in the universe; it’s almost certain now that Earth is the only planet within our solar system that harbors any, and we’re starting to see as we look out across the void that few other stars that are close enough to examine have a planetary configuration that would allow for an earth-like environment to form.

    Within this exceptional group, humans form the most exceptional category. We’ve entirely subjugated the planet and are busy transmitting data to each other at the speed of light across entire continents. Spare me the usual crap about other animals using tools; bending a twig an scooping-up some meat, while a neat trick, is not the same thing as constructing complex machinery. we know that no other animal can do this because they lack:

    A) The mental faculties for doing so.

    B) The opposable thumbs necessary for manipulating complex instruments.

    …How is this ‘not special’? Isn’t it the very defintion of special to be an exception among the exceptional?

    Now, that said (as I think I’ve said before), I’m not a humanist either. I’m much more partial to things that go clank and bang, anyway.

    I’ve come to the point of just shaking my head at the population problem. Pouty libertarians can shake their fists at me all day long; people will *be dying*, regardless of what their opinion on the matter is. It’s only a question of how. We can start euthanizing and sterilizing, or we can sit back and wait for the grocery stores to start going empty. Take your pick.

    The only nice thing is that, since it’s pretty obvious that we’re already firmly attached to the second choice, it’ll be another wake-up call. Perhaps 5-8 billion people dying off in just a few short years will be what gets humans into space or taking science seriously.

    Who knows.


    Posted by Kevin R Brown | September 24, 2009, 5:41 pm
  7. Gaahh, I hesitate to wade in here because I’m clearly over my head intellectually – I haven’t spent time on the question of humanism. However, ignorance never stopped me from jumping in before, so let me just ask a couple of questions.

    Doesn’t conscience separate humans? I know lots of research has been done on altruism and the human psyche – it seems to me that morality is separate from a higher level of intellectual capacity.

    I hear what you’re saying about birth rates, but the Chinese policy has been a disaster. There is a great gender imbalance there as a result of sex selection, and there is great concern about what that kind of lopsided population will look like as it ages; in particular, it is feared that an over-abundance of males will lead them to experience greater levels of depression, violence and sexual aggression. The impications for society are enormous.

    There are also economic considerations to consider. The Western European countries are forced to import labor from other countries, even when that labor is openly hostile to the host country. In Italy, where I believe the birthrate is less than 1, the implications for the economy are staggering. The developing world is reproducing at a very high rate, the developed world at a very slow rate. That implies great changes politically in the next 50 years, including greater strife based on religion.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | September 28, 2009, 9:33 pm
  8. Thanks, Susan, for asking very good questions.

    First, conscience needs to be defined well before we can say if it really differentiates humans from other animals. If we define conscience as simply “feeling bad” about doing bad things, then no. Many social animals display negative feelings after doing things that go against the accepted behavior. Dogs are a great example. One of my best friends’ dog has become incontinent as she’s aged, and when she has an accident in the house, she remembers it for hours! When we come back in the house, she is clearly upset about having done something to upset us.

    However, if we define conscience as feeling bad about breaking a principle, then yes, humans appear to be the only animals capable of doing so. Understanding a principle takes second order thinking, which seems uniquely human. However, having admitted this, we need to understand that second order thinking is built upon first order thinking, and arises from it. Without the evolutionary framework for moral behavior, we wouldn’t have the ability to think about thinking about moral behavior.

    As for China, yes. I agree wholeheartedly. Their attempt at population control has been a total disaster. I didn’t mean to imply in this entry that population control will work, or that it’s a good idea. This, in fact, is one of the reasons I’m not a humanist. I don’t think we’re “special” enough to even do something as theoretically simple as control our own population for our own survival’s sake. If we can’t do that, why would we think there’s anything special about us?

    The economic implications of population control are also staggering. I don’t see anything wonderful emerging from the imbalances coming down the chute in the next few decades. I suspect we are living in times derisively described as “interesting.”

    Posted by hambydammit | September 29, 2009, 12:20 am
  9. For me, conscience is about more than feeling badly for having violated an expectation or principle. It is about proactively living a principled life, one with integrity. Yes, the conscience provides guilt, which is a useful disincentive to behaving in an unprincipled way.

    In general, I oppose the notion that there is something “superior” about humans, so I guess that rules out humanism for me! But that doesn’t mean that we are not unique, and I think that’s what I was getting at in my question. Perhaps morality is entirely a result of second order thinking; I agree that without it, a moral construct would be impossible.

    This is, of course, what many refer to as the “soul.” I don’t know if, as an atheist, you allow for the notion of a spiritual element of humanity. It’s something I wonder about.

    Having said all that, just as I feel fortunate to have been born in the U.S., with its freedoms and incredibly high standard of living, I also feel fortunate to be human, and capable of second order thinking!

    Posted by Susan Walsh | September 29, 2009, 7:33 am
  10. OK, I just read The Soul – A simple error. Gotcha. Maybe, as studies have suggested, morality and altruism have evolved as humans learned that cooperation, collaboration and generosity were useful and beneficial to the community. And what is good for the community is good for oneself.

    And then again, I continue to wonder:

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet

    Posted by Susan Walsh | September 29, 2009, 7:47 am
  11. You know, Susan, this may sound horribly pessimistic, but I don’t mean it to be so: Sometimes I look at dogs and envy them. One of my good friends has a very cool dog. That animal lives now, and only now. When he sees a tennis ball, he is having the happiest moment of his life. Every time his food bowl gets filled, it’s like he’s never eaten before. When he is told to sit, he sits because it thrills him to make his “dad” happy. Going outside is a new adventure every time.

    Sure, humans feel a lot more complex and subtle forms of happiness, but we’ve also elevated cruelty, misogyny, greed, and killing to levels inconceivable to any other animal. I’m not always a hundred percent sure the trade-off is fair, to us or to any of the other animals whose lives we impact (usually for the worst).

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trading in my humanity. I get a lot of kicks from second order thinking. I just think we might be jumping the gun a little bit to assume that our existence is necessarily better in a qualitative way than other animals.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 29, 2009, 10:12 am
  12. Hence the term “It’s a dog’s life.”

    Posted by Susan Walsh | September 29, 2009, 10:22 am
  13. fuck this fucking shit, i am catholic and all u humanist can go suck my cock

    Posted by jojo | October 1, 2009, 4:34 pm
  14. Wow. Thanks, Jojo. Mother Mary must be very proud of you. You really told me!

    Posted by hambydammit | October 1, 2009, 5:11 pm
  15. Sure, humans feel a lot more complex and subtle forms of happiness, but we’ve also elevated cruelty, misogyny, greed, and killing to levels inconceivable to any other animal.

    Pfft. Nonsense.

    What do you figure the average lifespan on the African Savannah would be? Maybe 45 years tops, for the the apex predators and the really large herbivores? At least human beings have developed some sort of regard for the suffering of each other and other species; lions cheerily rip the guts out of wild buffalo while their prey is still kicking and screaming, and it’s the norm. There’s no lion equivalent to Green Peace out protesting the cruelty.

    Dr. Pinker actually did a rather good talk with regards to this topic at TED:

    …Simply put, humans are the least violent in contemporary times than we have ever been, and are easily the least violent species on the planet.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | October 4, 2009, 5:24 am
  16. …To append that, in the event I sound too combative, I should express that I’m actually delighted (in some ways) whenever I hear the type of cynical rhetoric Hamby has shared here. I mean, look at how high our standards are right now!

    It’s not enough for myself, Hamby, Susan or likely even our ‘Catholic’ troll (who knows at least enough to be aware of what to say in order to be perceived as inflammatory) that murder is at an all-time low, that we’re more considerate to each other than we have ever been, that open warfare is a more isolated affair now than has ever been the case in the past, etc. We insist that the bar be set higher. Nevermind that it’s a shocking accomplishment that anything at all was sent rocketing out from the Earth at escape velocity, or that it’s incredibly that social civilizations have existed for so long here – I want to push the damn envelope. We’ve got another 500,000 years or so before the sun’s luminosity becomes too great for the Earth to support life anymore, and I want – I demand – the most value for that time period.

    I don’t just sort of ‘hope’ that we manage to conquer our limitations and become de-provincialized in planetary terms; I would be (I *am*) shamed and embarassed to think that we didn’t have it in us to do that. Now consider how much higher a standard to have for the human species than would have been had even, say, 4 or 5 decades ago.

    We’re much better than we give ourselves credit for – but thank goodness for that, because it’s what drives us ahead.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | October 4, 2009, 5:49 am

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