Humanism and the Need for Wonder
What makes us human? What simply outlines and describes a human being? Whilst I would love to delve more into this, it is not the focus. Rather my point is this: The fact that we can pose such a question is itself something to be awed about. We like to think, arrogantly, we know what “intelligence” is, what “stress”, what “being human” is. We struggle with these concepts all the time. And I find John and Mary Gribbin’s answer the most correct, in their book of the same name: “Being human simply means being one of a variety of animal on planet Earth.” (1)
So should humanism rather be considered along the lines of PETA – that bizarre organisation that has turned into a cult? Why don’t we consider people when we fight for animal rights? We know through evidence that we are animals. There is no ‘seat for the soul’ or any form of Cartesian dualism, through which a spirit can slither and take residence. We are animals – of this there can be no doubt. If you doubt me, investigate our closest cousins, chimps. Helping, sharing, caring all linger alongside warfare, brutality and conquest (2). Our genetic makeup matches theirs 99.8% – the genes are of course exactly the same. People have a hard time realising their cousins are not just swinging from tree to tree but are those daffodils underneath too. That all life on earth reproduces essentially the same way is testament to the awe-inspiring realisation that we are all related. Not just us humans but yourself and your favourite goldfish, plant or flower.
Thus: What separates us from the chimpanzees, animal rights groups are trying to “save”? David Attenborough asked this, too:
Man has credited himself with several talents to distinguish him from all other animals. Once we thought that we were the only creatures to make and use tools. We now know that this is not so: chimpanzees do so and so do finches in the Galapagos that cut and trim long thorns to use as pins for extracting grubs from holes in wood. Even our complex spoken language seems less special the more we learn about the communication used by chimpanzees and dolphins.(3)
It is these sorts of realisations that science affords which spurn people toward more supernaturalist ideologies. We might refer to these as Unweaved Rainbow Realisations, after Keats’ charge against Newton. Once people’s rainbows have shattered into a thousand tinkling shards of painful truth, they are more inclined to seek other, more industrious rainbows (4). Rainbows up in the sky dictating our births (astrology); rainbows too complex for science to demolish (god, theology and the meanings of ‘holy’ books); rainbows that disguise themselves as valid (creationism and intelligent design); and rainbows, which once tasted, heal and help (homeopathy, crystal healing, angel-therapy). The pots of gold, though illusions, are still enticing. People’s yearning for beauty, meaning and wonder are a thirst for the numinous. And, like a man denied water in a desert, the illusion can still be as enticing as the actual: A mirage is no less enticing for not being true.
How then are we to promote humanism in the teeth of “rainbows”? Even by postulating science we seem to tread on our own toes: through science we appear to reduce humanity to simply being animals. There appears to be nothing “special” about us. And science trumps rainbows again and again. Humanity’s flight from reason is beginning to sound like the blur of jet-engines. Science’s answers are breed and breathe, not helpful in defining meaning.
And in the face of this, we know people would choose mirages over empty sand. But why do people choose superstition again and again? Science appears to make life dull, meaningless and utterly worthless. As I’ve said and as is my main point: science does in itself give no answer. It is a tool to discover the world and universe. It is the most powerful tool – so powerful that we have established facts that are true throughout the universe. No superstition can make such a bold claim and justify it.
But with all its power and beauty, science appears to dissolve humans from their core into lifeless husks pushed and manipulated by bacteria and a fragile brain. As Bertrand Russell put it at the beginning of What I Believe: “Man is a part of Nature, not something contrasted with Nature. His thoughts and his bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motion of stars and atoms.”(5) People’s usual reaction is the sound of a rainbow shattering: No! I refuse to be scientifically measurable and subject to those same laws! I am special!
Yet, if we stop, if we breathe, if we ponder perhaps the rainbow reforms. Consider: a rainbow is no less beautiful in that we know it is a mixture of light and condensation. And life is no less beautiful, miraculous or awe-inspiring just because we are subject to physical laws. In fact we are not subjects, we are discoverers. The word “law” implies prescriptive, whereas Natural Laws are descriptive as the sky is blue. You can not defy gravity, deny germs. That is part of Natural Laws. Understanding these Laws has helped us create a better society (we have eradicated smallpox through our understanding of natural laws, to name a small example; we are able to make crops that help billions of chronically poor thanks to people like the great Nobel laureate Norman Borlaugh).
Yes. We are subject to the same descriptive equations that fit anything. If there is one human here and another human there, that makes two humans. Descriptions do not make it any less amazing that we are around to calculate such a simple matter! I find it incredible that I am “obeying” the same Laws as a entire planets and powerful stars (from where we all came in the first place).
I find that my connection to the universe is there, literally written in the stars. I do not want to be above the world I want to be part of it. I do not want to be some special being observing animals, I want to be part of a great animal kingdom myself. That we have touched the moon, the stars, the sky, that we all have loves, hates, fears, is testament to our need to belong. We all want to belong to something higher or greater than us – the aspirations for the numinous, by traversing the paths of rainbows – but I think humanism finally launches hooks to pull those rainbows down. Like a great sheet it must tumble. We must bring ourselves back down to earth.
We need only grasp that we are here, alone and dependant upon each other for this to work. Though the rainbows are beautiful, we must not forget they are still people. Whether you see a rainbow or a mixture of light and condensation, we are the same. We want to belong and there is nothing better to belong to than that great ape: Homo sapiens. We must eradicate the fear that science destroys the numinous and show it inspires the grandest connection of all: We are connected to the stars, the planets, the galaxies. All of us. If there is anything greater to be connected to, I have not found it. And I will even make a prediction based on the stars: I do not think there will ever be anything greater than this concurrent connection. Rejoice in your belonging to the cosmos.
And don’t forget to breathe.
1. Gribbin, J. and Gribbin, M. (1998) Being Human. London: Phoenix Paperbacks.
2. I hate the term “going ape” – I find other apes to be more civil than most humans.
3. Attenborough, D. (1986) ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ in Life on Earth: A Natural History. London: Fontana Paperbacks, p. 302
4. Dawkins, R. (2006) Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Penguin.
5. Russell, B. (2001) What I Believe. London: Routledge