Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My Ism

I am usually reluctant to accept standard labels for my beliefs, because I try not to be a follower of any school but rather to think for myself. For example, I don't like to call myself a liberal in the sense the term is used in U.S. politics, although I am more accepting of the label in the old-fashioned sense.*

It also turns out that I have come on my own to a position that may fairly be called humanism. Wordnet gives this definition for humanism:

2. of or pertaining to a philosophy asserting human dignity and man's [sic -- sorry about that] capacity for fulfillment through reason and scientific method and often rejecting religion; "the humanist belief in continuous emergent evolution"- Wendell Thomas

Well yes, but I'm going to dig a little deeper to define my version of humanism. We find ourselves in this world. How are we to understand it, our place in it, and ourselves? Consider your resources. What tools do you have? You have your senses, which give you information about reality, and you have your reason, with which to interpret that information. You have curiosity -- you find pleasure in learning. What else do you want? You want good and sufficient food, comfortable temperatures, sexual gratification, and perhaps your acquisitiveness goes much further -- but you also want companionship, reciprocal relationships of trust and support, a community, and you want the people around you to be happy and safe and you want them to like you and you want to like them. You want to cooperate, you want to build, you feel good when you are generous and helpful.

These are your endowments. With the the knowledge we have today about the world, reason can explain them all. Computer simulations of evolution among social entities show that cooperation can readily emerge, and that a kind of morality emerges spontaneously among even very simple simulated entities, called tit for tat. Your best strategy is to trust and assist others unless they show themselves to be untrustworthy, whereupon you stop trusting and helping them. That way you'll win and keep friends, and lose the associations you don't want. In the long run, the good guys do well and the bad guys not so well. As for senses and reason, they must be giving us an accurate enough picture of what the world consists of and how it works, or our ancestors would not have survived to produce us. So let's trust our perceptions, and our instincts -- until we have a good reason to doubt them.

And what a fantastic privilege it is to have this profound, complex consciousness. Why we are conscious is a mystery, but there it is. We think, we see, we feel. The universe out there, but it is within us as well. What more does anyone need for spiritual reward?

And what should be our aspiration?

It has to pertain to this universe, not an imagined one beyond, because this is the only universe we have. And it has to be about humans, because, well, I'm with the home team. We have no idea how rare it may be for intelligence to arise in the universe. Unlike some of my friends, I would be very sorry to see humanity pass away -- something so extraordinary and, some of the time anyway, so beautiful it stabs us in the throat. There is no telling what we might one day accomplish, what we might one day become. The liberal concept of human nature, as I wrote earlier, is that it is what we make of it. Therefore let us make of ourselves a species, a community, that can live sustainably on the earth, and then look beyond it. Let's make of ourselves a single community that cares for everyone within it -- all of humanity. Let us become more than we are, and enrich and make meaningful the universe.

In the present time of crisis, then, how can we go about such a daunting project?

* From, some definitions of "liberal":

4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
6. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc. of

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