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The Philosophy of Humanism

Kevin Baldeosingh • 11 June 2005 • 1,499 words

If there is one phrase which can sum up humanist philosophy, it is "Man is the measure of all things".This was written by the Greek philosopher Protagaras,who lived about 2500 years ago. So humanist ideas goback a long way. In fact, Protagaras paid the price for his beliefs. He wrote a work called Concerning the Gods, of which only the first sentence was preserved. It reads, "About the gods I cannot say either that they are or are not, nor how they are constituted in shape; for there is much which prevents knowledge, the unclarity of the subject and the shortness of life." Protagaras was indicted for blasphemy and, though he managed to escape before his trial, he drowned while trying to cross the river to Sicily.

Now to say that human beings are the measure of all things seems a very arrogant statement. In fact, the opposite is the case - it is really a very humble assertion, because what it says is that there are limits to what we can know or do. And this is what humanism is all about. It is a very pragmatic philosophy, because it makes judgements and takes action only on the basis of what we can know and what is possible. Put another way, humanists try to operate within the limits of human knowledge and human society. In this essay, I will deal briefly with knowledge and society from a philosophical point of view - that is, epistemology and ethics.

First, epistemology. This branch of philosophy tackles four basic questions. What is knowledge? How do we acquire knowledge? What is the scope of knowledge? Is there a distinction between knowledge and belief?

Philosophers have been tackling the first and second questions for several millennia in the West and the East. The best known concept in Western philosophy is probably Plato's Ideal Forms. Plato argued that every thing we perceive in this existence has an Ideal existing on a higher plane, of which the objects we see here are imperfect copies. So the chair you are sitting on also exists as a perfect abstract Idea, which is what makes its existence possible on this material plane. For Plato, knowledge consisted of stripping ourselves of the illusions of this world, and this could only be done through philosophical thought.

Asian philosophers had a similar idea around the same time as Plato. Most familiar is the Hindu concept of maya - which translates imperfectly as "illusion". They, too, argued that what we perceive as reality is merely a facade. However, their method of stripping away this illusion to find ultimate reality was different. They recommended meditation and dharma (performing one's duty) as the method of attaining true knowledge. Interestingly, a prevalent idea in meditation was that thought itself was a barrier to acquiring true knowledge, so many meditation techniques were aimed at stopping thinking.

Both the Greeks and the Asians didn't see a personal God as the goal of acquiring knowledge. Plato's God was just a Prime Mover in what was essentially a mechanistic universe. East Asian philosophies didn't even have a Creator. In Buddhism and Taoism, for example, the universe was always there, and even in Hinduism god has so many facets that pretty much any knowledge is god-knowledge.

But with the advent of the Judeo-Christian tradition, things changed somewhat. We must bear in mind that Christianity is rooted in Jewish scripture, Greek philosophy, and Roman law. The monotheistic idea comes from Judaism, and was anticipated only once before in ancient Egypt. What was important about this combination was that it promulgated the Greek idea of an ordered universe, the Jewish idea of a personal God, and the Roman idea of rule of law. Separately, these concepts had limited intellectual and political force. Together, they helped lay a foundation for science and democracy.

In terms of knowledge, it is the Greek influence which is important. The idea of an ordered universe created by a benevolent God meant that the laws of that universe could be discovered by man. The key Greek philosopher in Christian theology was Aristotle, who was co-opted by the theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, to give intellectual confirmation to religious faith. But Aristotle was the founder of the empiricism, which is the idea that all beliefs must be based on observation or sense-data, rather than pure logic. So Roman Catholic theology actually contained the seeds of its own destruction. This is because the Christian theological approach was an important factor in the creation of the scientific method. And that method introduced a whole new way of acquiring knowledge, which superseded that of revelation.

Science is the most effective method of understanding reality ever devised. In other words, it is the surest foundation of knowledge human beings have, and probably can have. The era of modern science goes back four hundred years to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who is best known for his "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am.) Let me just say that the Hindu philosopher Sankara came to exactly the same conclusion seven centuries before Descartes. The scientific project formalised several parts of seeking knowledge. One was the need for evidence, the other was the need for logic. These were the intellectual aspects. The third part was essentially political - the usefulness of science allowed it to create institutions where the expression of scepticism was not only necessary, but welcome. This meant that persons who in previous times would have been executed, or at least ostracised, were now in a better position to influence the world.

So science provides the best answer to epistemology's second question: How do we acquire knowledge? The answer is, through experiments which are designed to prove or disprove logical hypotheses. If your hypothesis is not disproved, then you have a theory, which in science does not mean a speculation but an idea which is probably a true reflection of reality. And that brings us to Questions 3 and 4. What is the scope of knowledge? and Is there a distinction between knowledge and belief?

In science, contrary to popular belief, nothing is ever proven. It is only that a particular theory is not disproven. So real scientists never claim that they are a 100 percent certain about anything. However, they may be 95 percent certain, and that is more than enough to get by with. So, in terms of the scope of knowledge and belief, science says we can only believe in what can be observed or tested or logically deduced. It may be that there are things which exist which cannot be tested and which are illogical. But, since we have no way to know about such things, we may as well proceed as though they do not exist. This is also the humanist view.

And that brings us to ethics. Science is very good at understanding and interpreting reality, but that understanding what is does not tell us what ought to be. In fact, if there is any moral message from science, it is that the universe is morally indifferent. However, since human beings are the social species on the planet, we are moral creatures. Which is to say, we have evolved moral rules so individuals can live together in groups. In fact, without society, morality is meaningless. This is because all moral strictures are irrelevant to a person who lives in isolation. After all, he can't kill or steal or even fornicate.

But a religious believer would argue that he could masturbate or commit suicide, and these are also immoral acts. And this is where we encounter the difference between the religious concept of good and evil and the humanist concept of right and wrong. Good and evil are absolutes, so when religious believers talk about moral principles, they generally talk as though such principles are good in themselves. That is why believers argue that, without a belief in God, people cannot be moral. But, for a humanist, right and wrong are determined by their effects in the world. The humanist judges right and wrong according to just two moral axioms: one, that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated; and, two, that actions should not harm others. The first axiom is, of course, known as the Golden Rule, and it is found in all major religious traditions.

The humanist approach is more difficult, morally speaking, because it requires a thoughtful approach to making moral decisions. If you are a religious believer, then you "know" what is right and wrong, which means you never question if your decisions are causing more harm than good. A humanist, however, must always be concerned with consequences. This is why, in order to decide what the correct course of action is in respect to social and policy matters, we need to refer to human nature, history, science and politics. True morality is only possible when it is thoughtful, informed, and compassionate.



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