Against humanism

Of course we should love, honour and cherish our species, says British moral philosopher Mary Midgley. But should we have to worship it too?

Does the term “humanism” really stand for a new and better form of religion? If so, what is that religion? Or is it something designed as a cure for religion itself, a way to get rid of it on Christopher Hitchens’s principle that “religion poisons everything”?

Many people, no doubt, agree with Hitchens. But Auguste Comte, the founding father of modern humanism, would not have been one of them. For him, “humanism” was a word parallel to “theism”. It just altered the object worshipped, substituting humanity for God. He called it the “religion of humanity” and devised ritual forms for it that were close to traditional Christian ones. He thought – and many others have agreed with him – that the trouble with religion was simply its having an unreal supernatural object, God. Apart from this, the attitudes and institutions characteristic of religion itself seemed to him valuable, indeed essential. And he certainly had no wish to get rid of the habit of worship, only to give it a more suitable object. Surely (he said) worshipping human beings – who are real natural entities – would easily be able to replace the existing idle and artificial practices? So he ruled that, for instance, the enlightened citizen should start his day by worshipping first his mother, then his wife and then his daughter – after, of course, ensuring that they all did exactly what they were told for the rest of the time. And the other occasions of life could be similarly hallowed. This would all be part of his positivistic enterprise of developing the human scientific faculties that would finally enable us to abandon superstition

These precepts, however, did not work out easily. Comte’s new Christian-like institutions withered like alien vines once they were applied to their new objects, even though he carefully policed them and trained his priesthood in the newly-discovered skills of Sociology. I once saw the still extant Comtian temple in Paris, a tidy little Victorian church with round (not Gothic) arches, its walls lined with statues of the Saints of Humanity – Plato, Newton, Shakespeare, Beethoven. I asked its gloomy concierge whether she thought anybody ever worshipped there but she replied, “Nobody. I think, never.”

Plainly, Comte’s simple recipe for grafting a new object on to traditional institutions – a new head on to the old body – did not produce the improved life-form he hoped for. This may seem odd. It should (we think) surely be possible simply to celebrate and admire the lives of past and present humans without getting committed to any questionable doctrines – without those suspect claims to a background beyond familiar facts which create the poison of religion for people like Hitchens. And of course we do celebrate people unpretentiously in this way. But our doing so hardly seems to constitute an ism, a cause, a distinctive attitude that says something about the whole human species. There is also the further question – even if you want to get rid of God, is the human race the right thing to be worshipping instead? Of course it is important to us simply because it is ours, but should we think of it as central to the cosmos, or even to earthly life? Considering that it is already making other species extinct at an increasing rate, do we really want to give it a kind of divine status?

Serious celebrations of individual human merit do not usually take us in this direction. We do not celebrate people simply for being specially human but for particular things they have done or said. They have changed our attitudes to particular ideals and values, and this new thinking can inspire quite new visions of reality. When a fresh prophet – Newton or Blake or Pythagoras or Jesus or Nietzsche or Darwin or Marx or Einstein or the Dalai Lama – appears among the existing Saints of Humanity, this contribution has wide consequences. Not only can it alter our map of human life, it can also call on us to change our whole world-picture. New ideals do not just alter our conduct. They can gradually change our whole conception of reality.

The reason why we revere these people is that they have extended the bounds of human experience, showing us things that the rest of us simply had never thought of. They have therefore encountered quite new problems and have had to describe them in new language, often using rich seams of metaphor that can never be unpacked literally. Subsequent efforts to work out their meaning can call for profound shifts which make everything appear differently – including, of course, both some splendid inventions and some fearful mistakes. And these shifts often change the way in which we conceive reality itself.

In doing this, we are not forced to stick to the revelations of a particular group of prophets who were specially revered during the Enlightenment. Indeed, even if we wanted to halt there we could not do so. There is no fixed, unalterable background map of the “familiar facts” that must survive all such shifts, and certainly no fixed schedule dividing real entities from fishy, imaginary ones. Entities like Fate and Progress and the Logic of History and the Hidden Hand of the Market come and go.

Materialists take matter to be what is typically real, but matter itself is not at all what it used to be. Newton’s reassuringly solid, inert particles are long gone. Energy, which succeeded them, seems now to be dissolving into a succession of more exotic possibilities. At present, many respected physicists advocate belief in the Multiverse, by which they do not mean just a crowd of existing extra universes but an apparently limitless string of new ones that continually come into being all the time whenever a quantum event is needed to decide between two possible alternatives. This idea strikes many of us today (as it would have struck most people earlier) as not just unlikely but meaningless, yet it is now viewed as the kind of thing that can merit Nobel Prizes.

Changes like this in ontology – in what is considered to be real – are known to be so common in human history that it seems surprising when people treat a current doctrine about it as a timeless truth. That, however, is what has happened to the rather crude form of materialism that Comte himself enshrined by his positivist doctrine. Positivism got rid of Cartesian dualism – the twofold world of Spirit and Matter that had seemed so obviously final to Newton – not by rethinking it but by simply eliminating Spirit, leaving Matter to manage on its own. The main reason for doing this was undoubtedly the fear of religion. The whole concept of Spirit was seen as too dangerous because of its history, notably, of course, the political oppression of the churches. Thus, as often happens, the new insight was shaped chiefly by contrast with the previous one and taken as a final refutation of it.

But Matter had been so carefully defined by dualists as inert and alien to life that it was really hard to see how it could do all that was now expected of it – how it could be the source of conscious, active living animals, including ourselves. The unlucky consequence of this clash can be seen in what is now called the Problem of Consciousness, the desperate ongoing attempt by many scientists to find ways of talking about human experience in “scientific” language – language that has been carefully designed to make all such talk impossible.

This problem began to distress people during the 1970s because that was when the behaviourist veto on ever mentioning subjectivity finally lost its force. Behaviourists had been following positivist principles in dismissing the phenomena of consciousness as effectively unreal, since they could not be described in physical terms, and they concluded that psychologists could only study outward behaviour, taking no notice of experience.

Not surprisingly, this worked so badly that the theory was officially abandoned. Yet the general suspicion of talking about conscious experience remained very strong. Odd though it sounds, psychologists seem still to have thought that attending to subjectivity was the same thing as being subjective – that is, biased and uncritical. The world, in fact, consisted solely of objects with no subjects to observe them. As Marilynne Robinson has lately pointed out in a very sharp little book called Absence of Mind, this meant that our inner life – the place where the whole drama of human thought had till now been carried out – had somehow been scientifically proved not to exist. Thus our only source of information about the outer world was no longer available.

Despite this ruling, however, the difficulty of discussing observation without an observer – the absurdity of enquirers trying to leave themselves out of their own enquiries – increasingly bothered scientists, especially ones concerned with evolution, where the role and origin of conscious experience needed to be considered. It is all very well to eliminate God from the intelligible universe but eliminating ourselves from it blocks all sorts of enquiries. Not much of a human world is left once this is done. Accordingly, in the ’70s consciousness itself began to be officially rated as a mentionable scientific problem. A few other terms too have since gradually been readmitted to polite society, including, in recent times, even daring adjectives such as spiritual.

The emphasis is still, however, on the need to reduce these concepts to Matter as traditionally conceived – to bring them within reach of the abstractions used by the existing physical sciences. The search for a “scientific explanation of consciousness” which goes on at the yearly conference at the Center for Consciousness Studies in Tuscon, Arizona still centres not on trying to be scientific in the sense of using suitable methods, but on making consciousness respectable by somehow bringing it within the range of physics and chemistry, mainly at present through neurobiology.

What the positivist pioneers don’t seem to have noticed is that if you ditch one of two supposedly fundamental substances you have got to ditch the other. The mistake does not lie in the faults of the rejected substance but in the whole idea of dividing the world in this way in the first place. Body and Mind are not separate entities. The unit is the whole person. “Body” and “Mind” are just names for different aspects of that person which need to be studied in their own distinct ways, as do shape and size or age and position.

The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish “folk-psychology”. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose. The vocabularies of the sciences are also well adapted for their own purposes, but this means they cannot be used anywhere else. Physical truths can only be answers to physical questions. Indeed, the great achievement of Galileo, Newton and their friends consisted in narrowing the scope of those sciences to concentrate them on topics where their methods were wholly suitable. People who are now led by that success to treat them as a panacea for other kinds of problem are being naive.

The moral of all this is, I think, that Hitchens is simply wrong. The poison does not come from religion itself but from political misuses of it. The kinds of idea that we class as religious actually range from the excellent to the awful, from the poisonous to the most nourishing. But there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons. This is bound to happen simply because they have quite new kinds of truth to convey. Thus the Greeks, when they came to grasp the idea that the earth as a whole bountifully supplied all their needs, worshipped it under the name of Gaia, mother of gods and men. And thus Pythagoras, when he discovered a new mathematical order pervading phenomena from the heavens to the laws of sound, naturally conceived that order as something greater than humanity; something therefore that should be deeply venerated.

In this way many of the moral insights we value highly today – for instance, the coherence of the cosmos and the value of the individual soul, as well as the conviction that All is Number – have originally been shaped in religious contexts. If we decide to drop those contexts as obsolete we lose half the meaning of the ideas themselves. Thus, of the nine possible “saints of humanity” – that is, typical inventors of really useful concepts – whom I listed just now, five were strongly religious thinkers and only two (Marx and Nietzsche) were explicitly anti-religious. (Einstein, though no worshipper, always stressed the need for religion, while Darwin said little about it.) And if we looked beyond Western culture, this preponderance of religious sources would be even more striking.

If, then, the new kind of humanism that we hope to build aims to celebrate humanity as a whole – if it wants to pay comprehensive tribute to the achievements of our species – it has to take account of the religious thinking that has been so central to our species-life. The wider imaginative conceptions – the more hospitable world-pictures – that it uses must be taken seriously, as they were by the scholars who were called Humanists at the Renaissance, and as they have been ever since in the studies that are called “the humanities”. Much though we may want to ignore institutional religions and other strange beliefs, we cannot brush aside the individual experiences that lie behind them and the thoughts that grow out of them. William James was surely right to start investigating the matter by asking about the varieties of religious experience, confusing though those varieties are. In the whole sweep of our lives the physical sciences play only a marginal part, and the positivist approach that tries to rely only on them is not really workable.

At this point it is worthwhile to look at the message of the next prophet who shaped this concept after Comte, Julian Huxley. Huxley was largely responsible for giving this idea the form that it has today and in particular for placing the whole area so deeply in hock to science – that is, to neo-Darwinian ideas about evolution. He did, however understand that something more was needed. He was more aware than most of today’s science-worshippers of the rest of culture, particularly of the varied spiritual territories that we lump together under the name of “religion”, and he made suggestions about how humanism could occupy some of them. In particular, he grasped the ontological trouble that was making modern materialism unworkable and tried to do something about it. He is worth looking at, both because he played a great part in causing our present troubles and because he did try to do something about them.

Like Comte, Huxley retained the concept of worship and he rooted it in anthropological thinking. He writes in his Essays of a Biologist (1923), “The most fundamental need of man… [has always been] to discover something, some power, some force or tendency, which was moulding the destinies of the world – something not himself, greater than himself, with which he yet felt that he could harmonize his nature.” He quotes Matthew Arnold’s statement of the need to recognise “a power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness”. That power is (he says) not the human race itself but the evolutionary process that produced it and, behind that process, the whole evolving cosmos. Like Spinoza, he retains the term God and effectively equates it with Nature. “It is a simple fact that the conception which man has of the universe and its relation to himself exercises important effects upon his life. A name therefore is needed for this anthropological phenomenon. God is the usual name applied and we shall retain it in default of another, premissing that […] we apply it here in a peculiar and perhaps somewhat novel sense. God in this sense is the universe, not as such, but as grasped as a whole by a mind.”

Within this universe, however, he sees the human race as having a rather peculiar role at the forefront of evolution. Huxley goes to great trouble to explain – what today’s theorists usually just take for granted – why it is that he thinks humanity should be considered specially valuable and important. This (he says) is because the mental qualities that it is developing through emergent evolution – especially its capacity for intelligent worship of the universe through science – are the growing-point of the whole cosmic process. These mental properties are not something alien to the material properties that the physical sciences study but are continuous with them, so any materialism that fails to recognise their continuity is mistaken. The still-surviving Cartesian dualism that treats mind as a separate substance from matter must therefore be abandoned. Mind must be taken to have been somehow present in the cosmos from the start. “We come, that is, to a monistic conclusion […] that there is only one fundamental substance, and that this possesses not only material [but mental] properties. We want a new word to denote this X, this world-stuff; matter will not do for that is a word which the physicists and chemists have moulded to suit themselves, and since they have not yet learnt to detect or measure mental phenomena they restrict the word ‘material’ to mean ‘non-mental’.”

Huxley, in fact, saw clearly – what few of those who now exalt science seem to have noticed – that this exaltation does not make sense unless we somehow enlarge the notion of reality to make room for mind. Doing science is, after all, a mental activity; it can hardly constitute the purpose of a purely physical universe. More widely, of course, Huxley’s whole way of conceiving evolution as purposive is itself profoundly religious. Darwin himself avoided such thoughts, as do most of those who claim to follow him today. Yet people still do often take it for granted that Evolution, like Progress, is directional – an escalator bound to carry us, or at least our descendants, safely on to higher levels.

How much of Huxley’s ideas about this remains with us today? What does remain popular is the concentration on the drama of human evolution, which has indeed become an obsession. Anyone who wants to explain some current piece of behaviour now is likely to do it by speculating about the early evolution of our species, even though we have no records of this time and other kinds of explanation often seem more relevant. And behind this emphasis on evolution lies Huxley’s glorification of physical science as the supreme human activity, though without the reasoning that Huxley used to support it. That glorification was, of course, part of Huxley’s legacy from Comte, whose positivism was central to his humanism. What has vanished today is the element of worship that Huxley (like Spinoza) saw as essential to physical science, and so to humanism itself.

Huxley’s anthropological argument here is surely quite sensible. Scholars now agree with him, however gloomily, that “the most fundamental need of man has always been ‘to discover […] something not himself, something greater than himself, with which he yet felt that he could harmonise his nature’.” Such a religious quest does seem to be a human universal, leading sometimes to appalling results and sometimes to admirable ones. Scientistic thought today now admits this but explains the habit as some sort of natural mistake – perhaps comparable to an optical illusion? – a squint which has unfortunately been universal till now but can be corrected in the light of modern science.

Modern science, however, does not seem to be having this corrective effect. The religious quest still remains unquenched in our apparently scientific age, even though the visions we use to satisfy it are quite different. Scientific input does not improve these visions, in fact it makes them worse. The modern obsession with the evolutionary process surely shows many of the familiar features of a rather mean, self-serving religion. Evolution itself – more or less equated with Progress – simply takes the place of the previously expected journey to heaven, being seen as a benign force that will take us forward, however stupidly we act, through science and technology to an endless sequence of prosperity, probably in outer space.

It may well enable us to colonise alien planets, leaving earthly plants and animals to their fate on the old one. It justifies a glorification of current Western practice that is essentially self-worship. At other times, the more sinister and exciting dramas that people also require from religion are supplied by the mythology of the selfish gene, which dramatises the process as a scene of bloody-minded competition. Thus Richard Dawkins, in River out of Eden (1995): “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither cares nor knows, DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

This drama has not been revealed through physical science, which doesn’t deal in matters like evil and good. It just works through old-fashioned personification. If there is no purpose and everything is impersonal, how can DNA be actively ruling our destinies? How can it feel “pitiless indifference” and make us “dance to its music”? The Cartesian drama of inert matter and active spirit is suddenly reversed here to show humans (and animals) as helpless objects – passive “lumbering robots” – stage-managed by plotting genes (and memes) that are sometimes helped by other entities such as market forces. The myth-building capacities that surround every new world-view are surely as busy here as they are in established religions. These visions perhaps offer the worst of both worlds – an ontology that is as bankrupt morally as it is scientifically. The imagery of science is used, not, as Huxley hoped, to ground a deep reverence for the natural world but to justify human alienation from it.

What, however, needs to be done instead? Materialism as now understood, which calls on us to consider ourselves only as physical entities, really doesn’t make sense. Our inner lives are real parts of the real world. But once we grasp this and stop defining reality as confined to what can be known through physical science, we surely do not need to centre our notion of human activity on physical science at all. Comtian positivism evaporates, taking Comtian humanism with it.

There is surely no obvious reason why we should treat human scientific practice as constituting the growing-point of evolution. Indeed, a hostile witness might point out that our species, having lately been responsible for an alarming series of extinctions, does not actually have a very impressive evolutionary record – a point of which we have become much more conscious since Huxley’s time. But then there is no reason why we should expect that there would be any such single growing-point. The Spinozan reverence for nature as a whole, to which Huxley appealed, has no tendency to call for any such exclusive explanation. Nor do we need arguments like this to justify our deep love of and commitment to our own species.

Of course that species is immensely important to us simply because it is our own. We are quite right to love, honour and cherish it and to concern ourselves deeply about its future. But what sort of an ism does this give us grounds for? I am sorry but I have to say – to end where I began – that I still do not see any reason why that particular form of concern should be called humanism, nor what work that concept is needed to do.

Published 3 November 2010
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 5/2010 (English version)

Contributed by New Humanist © Mary Midgley / New Humanist / Eurozine


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