Monday, January 30, 2006

The joy of quoting out of context...

'The blossoming of humanism coincided almost exactly with an upsurge in prosecutions for witchcraft.'

- Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, in 'Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City'

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Man Who Has No Alias...

...wrote, over in Marco's blog:

"I don't really have to explain secular humanism, do I?"

No, that is what Wikipedia is for! I have had a read of a number of the manifestoes etc. cited in the Wikipedia article, which I will reproduce below with- until I get tired- my glosses to them (like so: < Clamgloss>) saying where I find myself in disagreement with the precepts of Secular Humanism.

The 10 Points of Humanism: A Definition (From "The Philosophy of Humanism" - 8th edition by Corliss Lamont pps 13-15)

How can someone find out if they may be a Humanist? That question is one that is asked frequently. I gave a simple definition on the introduction to this section but for those who wish to have a more detailed explanation of what makes up the Humanist philosophy, I offer a selection from Corliss Lamont's book The Philosophy of Humanism. I think he sets out good points as to what Humanism is about.

First, Humanism believes in a naturalistic metaphysics or attitude toward the universe that considers all forms of the supernatural as myth; and that regards Nature as the totality of being and as a constantly changing system of matter and energy which exists independently of any mind or consciousness.
< This is a statement of faith, which may or may not be true. It is critically dependent on the definition of the word ‘Nature’. If ‘Nature’ is that entity which we call the ‘Universe’ which apparently came into being in the ‘Big Bang’, I think this statement has a vanishingly small probability of being true. If ‘Nature’ is something bigger, then sure: but we are without any empirical knowledge of what that something is.>

Second, Humanism, drawing especially upon the laws and facts of science, believes that we human beings are an evolutionary product of the Nature of which we are a part; that the mind is indivisibly conjoined with the functioning of the brain; and that as an inseparable unity of body and personality we can have no conscious survival after death.
< sounds fine>

Third, Humanism, having its ultimate faith in humankind, believes that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems, through reliance primarily upon reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision.
< a hopeful statement of faith, but consistent with all the evidence obtained thus far. I agree with it for all practical purposes.>

Fourth, Humanism, in opposition to all theories of universal determinism, fatalism, or predestination, believes that human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the shapers of their own destiny.
< aye, sounds good. Much more in my line than Professor Holliday’s.>

Fifth, Humanism believes in an ethics or morality that grounds all human values in this-earthly experiences and relationships and that holds as its highest goal the this-worldly happiness, freedom, and progress—economic, cultural, and ethical of all humankind, irrespective of nation, race, or religion.
< this has two parts. The first dodges the question of whether human values are objective or subjective: if they are held to be objective, I have no objection to their basis in earthly experiences and relationships. The second is much too narrow, and makes a perfect soft-target for Marco’s criticism.>

Sixth, Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community.
< is good.>

Seventh, Humanism believes in the widest possible development of art and the awareness of beauty, including the appreciation of Nature’s loveliness and splendor, so that the aesthetic experience may become a pervasive reality in the lives of all people.
< is good.>

Eighth, Humanism believes in a far-reaching social program that stands for the establishment throughout the world of democracy, peace, and a high standard of living on the foundations of a flourishing economic order, both national and international.
< is good.>

Ninth, Humanism believes in the complete social implementation of reason and scientific method; and thereby in democratic procedures, and parliamentary government, with full freedom of expression and civil liberties, throughout all areas of economic, political, and cultural life.
< is good.>

Tenth, Humanism, in accordance with the scientific method, believes in the unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions, including its own. Humanism is not a new dogma, but is a developing philosophy ever open to experimental testing, newly discovered facts, and more rigorous reasoning.
< is good.>

There have apparently been three 'Humanist Manifestoes', which are extensively linked to by secular humanist websites... here is the most recent one, which is the most wishy-washy and New Agey, sad to say:

Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.
< ‘recognising nature as self-existing’ is awkward to make consistent with modern physics, unless nature is defined as ‘The Universe + something else’. And we must remember that ‘things as they are’ is not something that we know, but only something that we are reaching dimly for. With these provisos, I am happy to agree with this, too.>

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond.
< this statement neatly dodges the most important question. Are ethical values objective, or subjective? It is utterly useless as a basis for ethics.Notice the word ‘human’ repeated again and again to attract our abuse. In what way and with what justification are ethical values extended to the global ecosystem? What does ‘and beyond’ mean? We should be nice to nebulae? >

We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death.
< yup.>

Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
< I guess I can let that one through, too.>

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
< yup.>

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
< right on!>

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.
< I agree, except for the one word, ‘secular’.>

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.
< This is a happy statement of faith that may or may not be true. I am not at all sure that we do have the ability to progress towards our highest ideals. We may be too flawed. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is dependent on the accidents of biology and history that formed our bodies and cultures, and on the whims of the like of exploding stars and the Cephalopod Overminds of Ceti Omicron 5, whether or not there is a God.>

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

In which Dr Clam says nothing of particular use to anyone

Q: What do they have in common, this New Scientist article about gebits that was the inspiration for my incomplete Al-Jamila story, and these articles of Robin Holliday’s about alien intelligences, brain function, and the origin of religion?

A: They are not science.

There is something that an old, wise scientist friend of mine says often, which every real scientist knows:

‘Just because the model fits the data, it doesn’t mean the model is true.’

Any theoretician worth their salt can make half a dozen models that fit the data before lunchtime. Then, you go out and do the experiments. It is not enough to say, ‘this is the simplest model, so it must be true.’ First of all, the simplest explanation is likely to be one we haven’t thought of yet. Secondly, Ockham’s razor is a rule of thumb, not a rule of nature. Remember Einstein’s dictum: ‘An explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.’

That is why we practicing scientists don’t have a great deal of patience with gebits.

Us and Them

I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position, and therefore useless.
-Lord Acton

I am rather jealous that this discussion about religion, science, and absolute and relative morality has taken off on Marco’s blog. I am not so terribly fussed how the conclusion ‘we should all stick together’ is reached, so long as it is. What is much more important is where we draw the boundary between ‘we’ and ‘not we’, and how logically defensible that boundary is.

Historically, the philosophies of advanced societies have followed one of two paths:

(1) There is a ‘soul’ that distinguishes humans from animals, and makes them ‘we’; it may be pre-existing or may be created with each new human; it may enter the body at conception, or it may enter at some later date (e.g., Aquinas’ three months). Animals and pre-ensoulment entities that are genetically human are not ‘we’. This, as you will be well aware, was the historical position of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture.

(2) Everything has a ‘soul’- or, which amounts to the same thing, everything does not. There is no essential difference between humans and animals. Societies holding this position have usually held up vegetarianism as an ideal, even if it was not realised, and had a shading of moral responsibilities from big souls to little souls.

A problem with ethics in our culture is that our habitual, traditional, instinctive line between ‘we’ and ‘not we’ is essentially that of (1), as it was drawn by the philosophers of the High Middle Ages, but this line is not consistent with post-Judaeo-Christian-Islamic core axioms, which logically support (2).

Realisation that there is no essential difference between humans and animals, 5th Century BCE: ‘Gosh, we’d better be nice to animals.’

Realisation that there is no essential difference between humans and animals, 20th Century CE: ‘Hey, we can make soap out of people, too.’