Humanist Values- Observation, experimentation, and rational analysis

When Humanists last endeavored to define themselves, we did it in the Humanist Manifest III, released in 2003. It is not so much a statement of what is wrong with the world, as was much of the first two Manifestos, but a statement of what could be right. There is so much in the world that is negative; it can mire one in society’s mud. An examination of the basic principles of humanism should be a positive experience, one that I need right now.

When the writers of the 2003 Manifesto included observation, experimentation, and rational analysis as the first of these virtues, they said a mouthful. These words embody the philosophically important theory of empiricism, which owes it’s beginning to the ancient Greeks. Simply put, it rejected the beliefs of the school of Dogmatism, and recommended relying on ones personal , and thus provable, experiences rather than relying on the more ethereal dependence of often-hidden phenomena. They were saying, in essence, depend upon what you can see and prove, not upon whatever you can think up.

The theory of Empiricism has had many proponents down through the ages, people such as Aristotle, Alhazen, Avicenna, Ibn Tufail, Robert Grosseteste, William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Leopold von Ranke and John Stuart Mill. You may add to this illustrious group the many other adherents of the scientific method.

Clearly, if one values observation, experimentation, and rational analysis it become very difficult to believe in things taken solely on faith, such as belief in gods, ghosts and monsters in the classic sense (unless you have actually seen one). Please also note the emphasis on “rational” which is intended to include actual experimentation, the application of the scientific method to any problem. In addition, one part of this set of theories (pragmatism) makes it clear that it is not worthwhile to seek supernatural causes for natural phenomena.

Again, these three items are noted as positive beliefs in the 2003 Manifesto, without any innate implication deriving from opposite philosophies. Still, it is clear that it is very difficult to have a believe in a mythical and unproven god if you subscribe to observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.

Obviously, we may extend our belief to things that we cannot prove of our own experience into the realm of things that have been proven by the scientific method. This is especially true with scientific theories such as gravity, which can be verified by personal experience (the orbit of the moon, the falling of the apple, etc.) and can be seen as almost equally true of other scientific experiments, such as that of Schrodinger’s cat.

The upshot is that we can try to teach adherence to empiricism, with its reliance on critical thinking, the scientific method, and skepticism, rather than throwing stones at the beliefs of the religious. If they can take to heart the lessons of empiricism, they will soon lose the belief in mystic, unproven gods. It is difficult for empiricism and the fantasy of magic to cohabit inside a single brain.

Thus can we make the world better without screaming at each other.


Humanist Values- Observation, experimentation, and rational analysis — 8 Comments

  1. Michael,
    My problem with Humanist Manifesto III was that it was not direct and hard hitting enough to be called a manifesto. It made not a ripple. They gave a party and no one came. The first Humanist Manifesto published in 1933 caused a stir, controversy, and got a lot of press. Humanist Manifesto III was a big yawn. The authors of HM III took the task on themselves, had an opportunity, but they let the humanist movement down.

  2. I like it the best of the three. The first had much talk about Humanism being a new religion. That lost me before it got started. The second was a reaction *against* things; it was more humanitarian than humanistic. It was better than the first, in some ways, but still negative in too many parts.

    The third is concise; brevity is good. It is positive; there is already to much negative in society, most of it very complex, besides. Even if it was done by a committee, it has much in its favor. I, for one, am not looking for upheaval in all things. I vastly prefer slow, steady improvement to slow, steady entropy. Sudden revolutions are messy, non-Humanistic, and non-humanitarian.

    If nothing else, positive statements are a welcome relief from what passes today as politics.

  3. I liked the first Humanist Manifesto except, I agree that, presenting humanism as a religion was a huge intellectual and strategic blunder. I liked that they clearly said they were against supernaturalism.
    For me, the third sounded too accommodationist, like they were afraid they might offend someone. Thankfully, AHA leadership is now more direct, less fearful in promoting secular humanism.
    Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris proved many people were ready for atheist straight talk.

  4. I can easily see your point.

    There will be five more of these, one for each of the other points, which I think are valid. Moreover, I believe that we need some positive right now. It appears that we are about to elect Mitt Romney, of all people, as our political leader and there is much else to be negative about in our society. So I set out in search of some positive the other night. I found some in this relatively unexciting list of values.

    And while I agree with hearty promotion of unbeliever values, I don’t think we need to run over most people with a steamroller. If we keep on making sense, appealing to logic, we will win over those who can think. We will never win over those who cannot and will not think.

    I see no point in offending that smaller group of thinkers by calling them stupid, which is what so much “straight talk” ends up saying. Keep laying out the irrefutable, and they will come.

  5. Michael,
    I firmly believe that if you had had a leading role on the committee that wrote Humanist Manifesto III, it would have been much better; better ideas, better expressed.

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