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Toward a Humanist/secular narrative
Posted: 16 August 2007 01:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Alon,

I too disagree that any and all writings and ideas from Sagan are “worthless.” Fine to pick specific points to challenges, but a sweeping judgement such as this seems to reflect more that they don’t fit your personal taste or beliefs about the world. I have very little familiarity with Russell, but I found found a great deal of value in Sagan’s writings, and I think his efforts to communicate about science and it’s emotional/aesthetic qualities to the lay public were astoundingly successful. As a spokesperson for secularism and science, I’d prefer him to Dawkins any day. Again, that may just be personal taste, but if his writings resonant with my experiences, they can’t be said to be worthless.

Anyway, the larger issue is does literature and art have something to offer in the way of organizing an alternative way of thnking about the human experience that leaves behind supernaturalism. I happen to share your political leanings, such as I understand them (and I’m looking forward to reading your article), but the thread topic seems to be less about the political agenda most appropriate to secular humanism than about the role of narrative in feeding the emotional and aesthetic needs of people without resorting to religion. Any works you might feel do fit that category?

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Posted: 16 August 2007 02:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I’d prefer Sagan to Dawkins too, but then again I’d also prefer an ugly bull to Dawkins.

The people I’ve found to say serious things are those who focus more on anti-Dominionism than on anti-religion: Goldberg, Hedges, White, Phillips, Krakauer. I also like Hume very much, but that’s because at the time he was writing, convincing the academia that no supernatural explanations were needed was important.

Anyway, my point here is that the draw of religion is not esthetic, but moral and social. When confronted publicly by atheists, believers are most likely to appeal to the morality of past religious movements, such as civil rights, and one of the continuing strengths of American religion is its grip on communities. The narrative that gets used the most isn’t that religion is necessary or profound, but that it’s good. So the best way of countering it would be to bring forward an alternative morality, which can be perceived as having enough gravitas to make it unfashionable not to hold it.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 02:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Well, as an agnostic from a Catholic background, I might argue that aesthetics aren’t an important part of religion, but fundamentally I do tink the moral and social dimensions are more important. However, I think your lumping psychological needs under “aesthetics,” and I think the original post was more about the use of arft to meet these in place of religion, rather than about just creating an alternative aesthetics. Consolation and comfort, forms of expressing joy and gratitude, forms of expressing sorrow and its acceptance, are all psychological needs religions can meet, and I think the idea is to provide secular alternatives using art. Now, I absolutley support also replacing the moral system with a secular one, as you have suggested. And I think many atheists and agnostics would value a secular social network to replace those functions of religion. All the elements are important.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 03:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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People respond differently to different narratives, so no one narrative is going to work for everyone. Personally, I resonate very deeply with Sagan’s brilliance as an expositor for the ‘spirituality’ (for want of a better word) of science. Sagan was clearly interested in the deepest questions, in the historically profound issues that have got people to investigate the world since the beginnings of recorded history. He was also a wonderful wordsmith, not a small thing, and worked hard to distinguish true science from pseudoscience.

Russell was another wonderful wordsmith, one of the truly titanic figures in early 20th century logic and philosophy, and a Nobel Prize winner. Saying all that is emphatically not to say that I agree with everything Russell ever said or wrote. I certainly don’t. But taken as a whole, his writings on secularism and philosophy generally are some of the very few that IMHO will outlast this century. Even if the only thing he had done was collaborate with Alfred North Whitehead on Principia Mathematica his posterity would be secure. And his work on Religion and Science is a wonderful book as well, not to mention his Why I Am Not a Christian.

So while no one person can speak for all secularists, I would say we could do a whole hell of a lot worse than relying on Sagan and Russell to guide our views.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 03:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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retrospy, thank you for the links. I’m not suggesting that there’s any unifying principle in literature, and am aware that practically nothing appeals to everyone. The suggestion is that we look for literature, art, etc., to illustrate the model, which is developed on other grounds.

Important (and unimportant) things aren’t usually done by unanimity: not in science, not in art, not in government, not anywhere that I know of. This sort of thing will get done when enough people understand a formal Humanist system (it needn’t be the Human Faith model) and organize art, literature, history, etc., to illustrate the points made within the system. Success will come not by putting it to a vote, but by getting enough people excited about the idea and the vision to commit the resources and begin the project. I can envision Humanist schools and universities growing up around something like this, starting with pre-K education. Imagine that! Generations of students being taught in accordance with scientific naturalism, based on a sound model derived from the things we know scientifically about the human brain and how it works. That’s what this is. And then imagine that some of those people will be so moved by it, as I have been that they describe themselves as “born-again” Humanists because their way of relating to themselves and others was completely changed (which is exactly what happened with me). Imagine that! A Humanism that not only respects science and reason, but that delves deeply into human concepts of meaning and moves people in every way. And none of it is supernatural. It’s all explainable per established scientific methods.

We Humanists have the whole world to work with! We’ve won most of the major battles of the last 2-plus centuries, what with the advancement of science and democracy (that one’s precarious right now for a lot of reasons). This long string of victories predates the Enlightenment of the late 18th century, but really took off at that time. And yet our formal organizations struggle. To my eye, that’s because no one has presented a Humanist system that is really a system. Instead, we’re still stuck in the essay model of social science. The Human Faith model moves beyond that. It’s a real system, grounded in the way the human mind operates.

As for you reaction to the word “faith,” I said exactly the same thing. In fact, the first thing I did when Dr. Chatlos announced the project: I tried to talk him into using another word besides faith. Do you have enough Faith in me to accept (on Faith for now, since you don’t know) that I know what I’m talking about - enough to explore further, at any rate?

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Posted: 16 August 2007 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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mckenzie, “All the elements are important.” That’s exactly it. That’s what religion ought to be, the attempt to take all things into account and make sense out of each piece and the whole as best we can. It’s not about arguing over what aesthetics is, for example, or whether it’s 10% of the puzzle or 1% or 50%. That won’t get us very far, especially when we’re talking about a narrative. Narratives appeal to people on a more intuitive level, and still they can be understood according to reason. That’s why great artists can appreciate other great artists. They won’t agree unanimously, but there will be widespread agreement on who the greats are. Bo Diddly has his place, but his work does not have the same capacity for moving people to tears as Mahler’s work, for example.

If I could make one change in Humanist/naturalist thinking, it is that we need to be more creative and less eager to pick things apart before they get started. There’s no such thing as a perfect system, and when we insist on perfection as a condition to moving forward, we keep ourselves from ever doing anything. That was one of the fundamental lessons in the Faith project.

As always, comments appreciated. Thank you.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 04:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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less eager to pick things apart before they get started

Absolutely! It seems an unfortunate (though perhaps inevitable?) fact that freethinking, intellectual, strong-minded folks such as tend to be found in the secular humanist tradition are prone to schism, each wanting to work out the “perfect” system and then see it realized. I’ve lamented before that we here on this forum, sharing so much of our point of view that we collectively do not share with the larger society, spend much of our time picking to pieces each other’s politics, social agendas, approach to religion, etc. We’ve had interminable debates on who is or is not fit to be called a humanist. Now, debate, like the processes of peer review in science, can be invaluable for winnowing ideas and making those that endure stronger. And stong skeptical criticism is often an ally in the struggle to refine out thinking. But I sometimes think we’d be happier, and more effective as a community, if we weren’t so contentious and insistent on developing and defending our individual schemes, and if we were more open to working together on shared priorities, leaving aside differences when possible.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 05:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Yes, well, any quasi-political movement needs its “think tanks”, which is what I see part of our role as an open forum for ideas. Any open forum will devolve into argument and disagreement, and quite often, as one has trouble starting a discussion on a topic on which everyone agrees. And all you need are two to have an argument.

So what will happen here is a lot of “picking apart” ... it’s more of a hothouse atmosphere, trying out ideas with others.

The hardcore political stuff has to be more centrally directed in order to be effective. But it also helps to build ourselves up as a group of like-minded individuals, expose ourselves to a variety of different ideas and then help out whichever groups we see as best suited to our personal tastes.

In this I don’t see freethinkers as any different from any other social or political enterprise. I am certain that our so-called “cultural competitors” have fora that are just as contentious as ours. Perhaps even moreso.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 05:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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I watched an interview of Dawkins last night and realized one thing that I can’t stand about him - his two valued logic.  In this case he was describing mutations as either being bad or good in and of themselves, not because they may be the basis of development of a useful characteristic in combinations with future mutations.  I’m absolutely opposed to two valued logic such as statments that someone’s writing is absolutely worthless.  LOL  I realize that some people grow into two-valued logic as they get older.  Children universally seem to start out that way, but as they mature the brighter ones move beyond it.  Unfortunately, some of the brightest ones, because they were almost always right when they were younger and dealing with less complex issues, see no value in doing so.

Occam

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Posted: 16 August 2007 06:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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mckenzie and Doug, great stuff.

Take something like the so-called Ten Commandments. What’s wrong with it? We usually focus on the attempt to offer absolutes and the irrelevance of the first three commandments. However, based on the Human Faith model, there’s another, equally basic problem: none of it ever goes beyond “thou shalt not.” In his paper, which you can find on the Internet, Chatlos describes the components of dignity full-blown. What I realized after living and working with the system for a while is that distinctions can be made along the lines of development/attainment. The “Ten Commandments” operates at the lowest level of attainment, which is another crippling flaw. It’s only exploring the distinction between evil and not evil. That’s first-level attainment. Second level might be not evil versus good—- actually doing good instead of just avoiding evil. Third level: best versus merely good. Fourth level: transcendant best, which is what wisdom represents in the intellectual domain - only by then the virtue is cutting across the domains because we can’t be wise without deeply appreciating the emotions.

I live and breathe this stuff. Hope it isn’t boring to you.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 10:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Not boring at all, PLaClair. I would only wonder about the third and fourth levels, the fourth in particular. I do understand doing good versus doing evil (or better versus worse), but I don’t really get my mind around “best” and certainly not “transcendent best”. I doubt that there are very often “best” courses of action, except in the sense that there are better and worse ones. I don’t understand what “transcendent best” could be.

But I do know, and have argued other places, that often in politics, religion, society and elsewhere, ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. That is, that searching for perfection in these things often leads to worse outcomes than would be achieved by simply looking to do good rather than evil. Many of the worst villains in history were people who believed themselves capable of making a utopia on earth. On the other hand, many of the most workable governments are those that assume that people often act for base ends, and so do not invest any one person with complete power.

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Posted: 16 August 2007 11:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Doug, it’s not about perfection. I’d have the same problem with that as you do.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m referring to. Let’s take the domain of intellect, our relations to each other.

Level 1: Acknowledgement, as in “I acknowledge that you are a human being.” This is the distinction the Arabs and Israelis can’t get past - so no wonder they keep killing each other, they can’t even formally acknowledge each other’s humanity. If I don’t even acknowledge your humanity, I submit that is evil. Mere acknowledgement isn’t quite good, but at least it’s the absence of evil.
Level 2: Understanding, to understand another person. That’s more than mere acknowledgement. We’re at the level of good.
Level 3: Appreciation, a step beyond understanding. This begins to cross outside of merely intellect into emotion, so that as we progress in development we employ more and more parts of our experience and more and more parts of the brain.
Level 4: Wisdom. This is the level at which transcendance outside the self becomes characteristic. It was happening all along, but at this level it characterizes the thought. I don’t just appreciate the other at this stage; I’m thinking far enough outside myself to understanding what’s really driving the other, what really matters to the other.

Caveat 1: Don’t be thrown by the word. I’ve read Paul Kurtz’ Transcendental Temptation. This doesn’t refer to that kind of transcendance. It refers to transcending our own egos, getting outside ourselves to relate deeply and effectively with others.
Caveat 2: These are only words. They don’t matter as much as the distinctions. Try to think about the categories more than the words. The words are only a shorthand, their main use being to remind us of the distinction. To the extent the words throw you off, try not to think about them.

Using these four levels I can usually spot where I’m stuck in my relationships with others, or even myself. We don’t always appreciate ourselves, for example. When we begin to do it, after having not done it, we see and feel the doors open. At least that has been my experience.

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Posted: 17 August 2007 02:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Thanks, Occam. But for the record, my reactions to most pundits have been a lot more measured than Dawkins’ gene-centrism.

I’m not saying those other things aren’t important… it’s just a question of priorities. Mostly, if you believe Huntington - and I don’t - then religion’s greatest pull is that it provides people with a social identity. So it’s worthwhile to try and look for a way to shift those things away from religion. The main reason I bring the left as an alternative isn’t political; more often than not, I can’t stand left-wing moralists. Rather, it’s that the left’s managed to carve out places where large numbers of people really don’t need religion, while no other moral system, or for that matter esthetic or psychological view, has.

And as for Russell, I must say that the Principia doesn’t impress me at all. It was a very well-crafted failure, like Gould’s punctuated equilibrium thesis. Ultimately, the greatest formal logician of the 20th century was Gödel, followed by Kleene, Turing, and Church; Russell only appears further down the list. And his philosophy is, as far as I can tell, a well-written version of the technocratic elitism that underlies 1950s science fiction. There are a lot of philosophers who I disagree with, or hold in contempt for political reasons, but them I’d just disagree with. If you don’t believe me, start a conversation on Heidegger, or Sartre, or Wittgenstein. Russell, in contrast, seems almost begging not to be taken seriously, or else he wouldn’t have written the Reader’s Digest of philosophy.

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Posted: 17 August 2007 02:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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PLaClair, there are a few cases where political problems stem from lack of acknowledgment…the I/P conflict just isn’t one of them. The best example I can think of is segregation, but even then, it was about more than just acknowledgment.

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Posted: 17 August 2007 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Alon, it’s always about more than just one thing. In addition, there are levels of acknowledgement. A person may admit if he’s formally pressed that “those Jews over there” (for example) are human beings, but everything in his cultural experience is telling him they’re not. When white European settlers in North America were destroying Native American populations a century and a half ago, many of them literally argued that the Native peoples were not human. Compare and contrast that with my own experience growing up on a dairy farm in rural Michigan, being raised by extremely well-meaning and good-hearted people who nevertheless always spoke of “Negroes” as other. My parents would never have said “they’re not human,” but how close does the constant message “those people are ‘other’” come? “Other than what” would be a legitimate question, and the honest answer would be “other than us,” but the implicit message always was that we were the normal, the chosen ones. So there are degrees in these things. It would be important, of course, to do good scholarship and get the details right.

In the end, the point is that within each of these distinctions are nuances and gradations. Again, the point of the system is not to spend our time arguing about what fits and what doesn’t, but to accept that there are elements in a great many strains of thought that bring up one of these category distinctions.

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