More Beating Up on Lazy Humanism

There was a link to the definition from Webster’s that the Council for Secular Humanism highlights at the top of their “What is Secular Humanism?” page (ellipses theirs):

Secular. “Pertaining to the world or things not spiritual or sacred.”

Humanism. “Any system of thought or action concerned with the interests or ideals of people … the intellectual and cultural movement … characterized by an emphasis on human interests rather than … religion.”

Holy False Dichotomy, Batman!

I would never accuse religion of not being concerned with the interests or ideals of people (except probably Cthulhu-placation).  What we’re really accusing them of is being wrong about what is in the interest of people.  The people who are totally unconcerned about human interests are nihilists, and I’m all for ganging up with religious people to beat up on them.

You don’t need an airtight, comprehensive philosophy to be allowed to complain about other people’s ideas.  We can dismiss the child-beating philosophy of Michael Pearl without having an answer to the First Mover problem because it looks savage and cruel, and the Pearl clan hasn’t come up with a good reason why we should override our anti-infant-beating intuitions.  But if we’re arguing with more sophisticated interlocutors, we need to be able to say more than “We like humans!  And things that are good for humans!”

Looking over the “What is Secular Humanism?” page, I don’t see anything that goes beyond pablum.  I’ve excerpted the blockquote below, so double check the page to see if I missed something meaningful:

Secular humanism is comprehensive, touching every aspect of life including issues of values, meaning, and identity. Thus it is broader than atheism, which concerns only the nonexistence of god or the supernatural. Important as that may be, there’s a lot more to life … and secular humanism addresses it.

Secular humanism is philosophically naturalistic. It holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method. Naturalism asserts that supernatural entities like God do not exist, and warns us that knowledge gained without appeal to the natural world and without impartial review by multiple observers is unreliable…. Secular humanists see themselves as undesigned, unintended beings who arose through evolution, possessing unique attributes of self-awareness and moral agency.

Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results. This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. “No god will save us,” declared Humanist Manifesto II (1973), “we must save ourselves.” Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.

Being a consequentialist isn’t a get-out-of-metaphysics-free card.

I have very little patience for people who waive aside philosophizing and say, “I’m just practical.  I just act according to expected outcomes.”  For one thing, they tend to spend less time studying bias and probability than necessary to forestall charges of negligence.  But, more to the point, preferring certain outcomes to others still requires an answer to the question: What is a human and what ends fulfill its nature?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Jack

    Michael Pearl (fundamentalist), not Daniel Pearl (journalist).

    • leahlibresco

      Yikes! Thanks for the catch.

  • deiseach

    “I would never accuse religion of not being concerned with the interests or ideals of people (except probably Cthulhu-placation). ”

    I am sorry to see you jumping on the bandwagon of easy anti-Old One prejudice, Leah; this is the type of misunderstanding that plagues the cults keeping the secrets alive. Of course they are concerned with the interests and ideals of people, it’s just that those interests and ideals may not be yours. As the cultist, Old Castro, revealed in his interrogation after the successful police raid in New Orleans on a meeting of a group of devotees (in “The Call of Cthulhu”):

    “The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. ”

    Now, who doesn’t want to share in joy and liberty? Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn! :-)

  • Ray


    You really are trying to start a fight here, aren’t you? Oh well, here goes.

    “Being a consequentialist isn’t a get-out-of-metaphysics-free card.”

    If you’re going to demand that people must do metaphysics, perhaps you ought to elucidate what metaphysics is supposed to be in the first place. This is likely to be a difficult task for the would-be-metaphysician given that the first sentence of the Stanford Encyclopedia article on metaphysics boldly states “it’s not easy to say what metaphysics is.” From what I can tell, it looks an awful lot like arguing over the definitions of words that were never explicitly defined in the first place.

    And then there’s this:

    “But, more to the point, preferring certain outcomes to others still requires an answer to the question: What is a human and what ends fulfill its nature?”

    No it doesn’t. I don’t need to know why I prefer one thing over the other in order to prefer it. The only way I can interpret this statement is as a demand that a consequentialist reword their ethical views in the format of virtue ethics. Now I don’t have a huge problem with virtue ethics as such — it seems like a sometimes useful way of expressing ones own moral intuitions, but unless the author of the “what is secular humanism?” page wants to deny all the things he or she said in the second paragraph about philosophical naturalism, virtue ethics terminology is not the ONLY way to do it.

    Now, I can see a legitimate critique of only mentioning consequentialism as an ethical framework, rather than filling in the utility function which actually defines the ethics. But virtue ethics has the same problem, only worse. Pretty much everyone agrees that increases in societal literacy, employment, life expectancy, aggregate happiness, etc. are good consequences all other things being equal, but pretty much no one agrees on the telos of the human person, or even that such a thing as a telos inherent in human nature exists in the first place.

    • Ray

      Also, the secular humanism folks seem to have done quite a lot to head off the one thing I thought was a legitimate criticism, in this page: . So I don’t really see what more you could ask from them short of taking explicit stances on controversial political issues.

  • Christian H

    “It holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method.”

    This would mean that none of the humanities (absolutely none of them–no history, no economics, no political sciences, let alone culture studies or philosophy) produce reliable knowledge, because they don’t use the scientific method unless that method is so broadly defined as to be meaningless. It’s not just metaphysics that go out the window; it’s axiology at anything more than a knee-jerk response level that goes out the window, too. As does mathematics, I guess. It’s not empiricism but rather rationalism, so it’s not the scientific method.

    Also, it would be fun if they defined nature. It looks to be an equivocation here (in the first case, nature=not of the supernatural; in the second case, nature=the world understoof through physics, chemistry, biology), but I can’t really know that unless they define it.

    • Ray

      whoa — how do you get from “world of everyday physical experience” to “world understood through physics, chemistry, and biology.” And how do you get from “best understood” to “only understood.” I think they have done a fine job of hedging their bets, but even if they hadn’t I don’t think your objection works. It’s quite clear that physicists, chemists, and biologists are describing the same world that historians are describing. Do you think any historian would deny that Julius Caesar had a heart and a liver, or more directly relevant to the business of historians, that Genghis Khan had a Y chromosome. Ditto for Economists, when they talk about the humans described by Biology exchanging the 79th element of the periodic table of the Chemists, for the electrically transmitted energy described by the physicists. Even when the exchange involves paper money, the economists are not denying that dollar bills are made of atoms, and I think most of them would consider you rather daft to doubt such a claim.

      The moral. Don’t be so knee jerk in assuming that everything smelling remotely of “scientism,” whatever that is, is wrong.

    • Ray

      Oh, and as far as issues of method go. If mathematics is not part of the scientific method, then physicists aren’t scientists. Also, if historians have no use for the scientific method, I suppose no historian ever sends a document to a lab for carbon dating etc. I really don’t think you’ve thought this thing out at all.

      • Christian H

        No, actually, I have thought this out quite a lot; I am perhaps communicating poorly. (I’m trying to do that thing about not taking offense at something that sounds offensive to me, as per Leah’s post a while ago, but can I suggest you don’t make assumptions about how much others have thought about something? I’m a humanities student who has lived with science students and had to defend the humanities on a weekly basis for three years; I just finished a graduate course on the history of university disciplines; I’ve taken a course on the philosophy of mathematics. My opinions may be wrong, but they are well considered.)

        Yes, many disciplines use the scientific method for some things. But most of the humanities have others methods of knowledge generation than the scientific method (generally stuff that gets filed under “interpretation,” but you’d be hard pressed to put most archival work under the scientific method) that they use far more often and far more centrally, and for the questions posed by those disciplines, the scientific method cannot be the best method because it is not even a viable method. This has nothing to do with whether things are made out of atoms. I am sure they are. This also has nothing to do with supernaturalism; I don’t know anyone in the humanities (at the graduate level, I should add) who takes supernaturalism as a necessary premise to their work. This includes me. I don’t think I said that they did, though. So, yes, there are chromosomes, atoms, elements, and livers. I don’t doubt that, and I don’t think historians do. But historians don’t primarily use the scientific method, even though they may take as given what has largely been discovered through its use.

        On the question of nature, I get from one to the other because of that scientific method thing; in its first use, it’s the physical world of everyday reality (and I’ll just assume that they also mean things like advanced power dynamics which can only be abstractly conceived, etc., because while reducing these phenomena to particle physics would prevent us from understanding them, we do know that the actors involved are made of particles), but in the second it’s what can be studied by the scientific method…so the physical world as understood by those disciplines which generate knowledge primarily (though not exclusively) through the scientific method. But I’ll admit that I always get anxious when I see people use the word “nature” like it’s well-defined or consistently defined, because in many cases, if not most cases, it’s very problematic and often internally contradictory. I may have been off on that in this particular case, however (which is why it was an addendum rather than the main point of my comment).

        On mathematics: No, math is not science. Science is (technically) empiricism; you do experiments with physical matter or energy and you gather results; you use induction to make new theories, which then become hypotheses; eventually, sufficiently-supported theories become laws until (eventually, maybe, not always) there’s a paradign shift, and so forth. Mathematics starts with a priori statements and reasons by deduction. This is rationalism. Sometimes physics looks a lot like rationalism. Sometimes physics is rationalism, in which case we can ask seriously whether it’s still science (since it no longer uses the scientific method). For instance, there are some physicists who are asking whether M-Theory is actually science at all, because it’s not falsifiable (or demonstratable). It’s so bad it can’t even be wrong; it’s just nonsense. (But that’s well over my head, so all I can do is report that there are accredited physicists making those claims–or at least so I have been informed. I haven’t spoken to them, so I suppose I can’t even attest to that?)
        However, yes, Hawking used mathematics to demonstrate the existence of black holes before any were discovered empirically. This strongly suggests that rationalism and empiricism have some kind of bridge we just haven’t found yet (unless you’re a pragmatist?). This is why I put “I guess” after my claim about mathematics; I’m not entirely sure, so I flagged that uncertainty. I wanted to mention it though because it might interest Leah.

        Finally, on why this matters (yes, I’m well into tl;dr territory, but I want to dignify your concerns with a full response): I haven’t the faintest idea why I care so much about how the atheist community organizes itself so long as it doesn’t start actual persecution, but for some reason I do. One of the things that bothers me is that there seems to be this prevalent assumption (among rational materialist atheists in particular, but not only among them) that sciences=knowledge and humanities=opinion, or less-real-knowledge, or something like that. This severely limits the possibilities of knowledge generation and it also makes it somewhat frustrating to talk to atheists who subscribe to this conception of knowledge because the sorts of critiques they consider valid of strangely narrow (and I don’t mean supernaturalism here; I mean philosophy and cultural analysis). It seems related to this terribly naive position where you can get rid of metaphysics (as Leah laments), as though the grounding for your position is something you can just take. It isn’t! And if you want to look at the grounding of your opinions, you need to do interpretation. You need to know how language works, you need to know how your culture works, you need to know how reasoning works, and you need to know the history of the ideas you are engaged with. This isn’t some woolly relativism; this is acknowledging that your methods and beliefs are results of processes which preceded you and that require your attention. There are ways of dealing with these questions: they are the domain of the humanities. Lots of science-types, though, think you don’t need to do this. And I suppose you don’t need to in the sense that you’ll still be doing science and you’ll still be breathing and the world still spins, etc. But sometimes you get scary stuff as a result of methodological naivety (ie. a lot of evolutionary psychology, and other things which get oughts from genes). I should add that I’ve seen religious folk do this as well as irreligious folk. So my academic biography is deeply implicated in this question, yes, and I admit that emotion is coming from that, but it also strikes me as startlingly and dangerously naive to privilege scientific inquiry in this way. There are other very important modes of inquiry, and none of them doubt that Caesar had a liver.

        • @b

          >>they don’t use the scientific method unless that method is so broadly defined as to be meaningless

          When they say Science assume they mean the contemporary academic consensus.

          They know the sciences are a continuum. The word “science” isn’t controversial inside universities, only amongst those who distrust them. And even then only when the particular expert opinion just happens to undermine their own organisation’s mission or teachings.

        • Ray

          That’s a much better response. Thanks.

          I still disagree, but this seems more reasonable. What you seemed to be doing before was imposing a very uncharitable reading on a one-paragraph summary of a philosophical position, written for a general audience, and assuming no other reader would interpret it differently. (I assume you didn’t intend to go so far as to imply that the author of the summary intended to deny that the disciplines of mathematics and history were sources of reliable knowledge.)

          So, where do I disagree: I think you have a very narrow interpretation of the scientific method. So narrow in fact that it doesn’t describe what scientists actually do, which really seems like it ought to be a problem:

          1) Science as empiricism — this is really only correct if you contrast empiricism to rationalism in the “no empirical input whatsoever” sense. It is not true that scientists treat models as equivalent, just because they agree equally with experiment (there’s a big bonus awarded to the theory with fewer free parameters.) It is certainly not true that scientists treat deductive arguments as irrelevant. And it’s also not true that scientists don’t take appeals to human judgment seriously (peer review anyone?) What scientists do tend to object to is excuses along the lines of “it’s not empirically testable because I say so.” i.e. it’s supernatural. People in the humanities, at least outside of things like theology, do not make these sorts of excuses, and will happily submit their hypotheses to scientific testing when available — the best examples are in history, which now makes extensive use of things like carbon dating and ancient dna, but you can find examples in everything from musicology to economics and even in philosophy (e.g.

          2) String theory — I think your impression of scientific opinion regarding string theory is heavily colored by a very loud minority (most notably Peter Woit and Lee Smolin.) No one, including string theorists, is particularly convinced that string theory is right, mind you, but they are pretty clearly doing science (albeit of a very speculative sort.) The situation, is that we have two very well tested theories of physics (standard model quantum field theory and general relativity) which disagree about what will happen at very high energy densities (something like 15 orders of magnitude larger than what current particle accelerators can deliver.) So we know or theories are incomplete, but have no particular reason to suspect that whatever replaces them will be testable in practice. String theory is a possibility for what a unification of these two theories might look like, but there are others like loop quantum gravity. If anything, it seems more likely that string theory will produce practically empirically testable predictions than loop quantum gravity, but there’s really no reason to expect we’ll be able to answer the question we’re trying to answer any time soon in either case. Considering that a lot of the criticism of string theory comes from loop quantum gravity (which has pretty much the same problems with testability) I don’t think it’s entirely fair to take it at face value. My attitude is that as long as they aren’t making unwarranted assertions about the correctness of string theory in describing our universe, string theorists are engaging in informed speculation, which is an essential part of science.

          3)Mathematics — The relationship between mathematics and empirical research is a bit funny but it’s definitely there. Historically, mathematics was used to predict eclipses and seasonal changes in the weather, and to figure out how to cut blocks of wood so they would line up when you built a house or a temple out of them. Then it moved into a more abstract, axiomatic framework, but even this is empirically testable by way of automatic theorem proving and the like. And of course, like the sciences, mathematics uses peer review, which can be thought of as an empirical test (if this theorem is wrong, or rather if the proof I provided is invalid, then this human experimental subject will notice and say so.) It’s a bit funny to think of peer review this way, but if mathematicians didn’t think it worked, they wouldn’t use it.

          4) Evo psych and other “cargo cult science”– I find that most of the criticism of this sort of thing comes from the sciences, not the humanities. Now I wouldn’t say all evo psych is bad, but the most incisive criticisms I’ve seen (e.g. “not everything is an adaptation”) come from biologists. Likewise, the original essay on “cargo cult science” was written by Feynman. As far as grounding normative ethics in evolution goes. I see this as an engineering vs science question not a science vs humanities question (i.e. if you’re trying to be normative rather than descriptive, you’re doing engineering, not science. I think this is a much clearer distinction than the one between science and the humanities. Although feel free to call engineering, “art,” if it makes you feel more appreciated as a humanities scholar.)

          and, although you didn’t mention it in this post.
          5)Econ — I think the problems with econ arise not from inappropriate use of the scientific method, but from the fact that people with money have incentives to lie about economic theory.

          • Christian H

            Hmm. OK, yes, I see I came on too strong. I can assure you that lots of criticism of ev psych also comes from the humanities, I just don’t know that anyone’s listening. I think a lot of my response was that secular humanists I have encountered in real life really do consider science to be more valid than the humanities and social sciences, which is personally bothersome and not very good for knowledge widely. Also, the people I tend to encounter who are in science tend not to know very much about the philosophical basis of their own discipline (the histories of empiricism, rationalism, mathematics, and so forth), so I tend to bias the definitions that come from there rather than the working ones. But I wouldn’t colour universities either as holding so much consensus (they don’t) or being unanimous about what science is (they aren’t); university science departments may well be unanimous, but universities aren’t. But these personal encounters made me suspicious of whoever wrote this definition of humanism. In retrospect, I see this is precisely the same kind of error that others make when they think I’m anti-science because I’m Christian and/or in the humanities. I’m not (I geek out about science on a daily basis); I just don’t like it when people act as though it’s the only game in town.

          • Christian H

            Oh, I should also add that I don’t think string theory is so bad it’s nonsense, and neither to my knowledge does Smolin. (I haven’t read that other guy you mentioned.) But there is still a question of whether it’s science. To say that it isn’t wouldn’t make it bad or wrong, though, or even out of place in a science department. (After all, it’s unclear whether departments are organized by object of study or by method.)

            The so-bad-it’s-nonsense claim comes from my old philosophy of mathematics prof. Not that he held that view, either; he was quoting someone else (not sure who–I no longer have my notes). The critique is that no one can ever check to see whether the equations are right. Those equations are crunched by supercomputers, and it would take all living physicists the entirety of their lives to check one tenth of the program, or something mind-boggling like that. So it’s not theoretically impossible to go through and make sure there wasn’t an error somewhere, but it is actually impossible. As a result it can’t be found right or wrong, and from a particular way of conceiving truth/meaning, that makes it so bad it’s nonsense. I don’t think that’s the case–any claim about probability would therefore become nonsense–but it is a thing that people in the field are saying. And since my point is that methods are heterogenous and not always experimental, I thought it was relevant.

        • keddaw

          Pet peeve: “you use induction to make new theories, which then become hypotheses; eventually, sufficiently-supported theories become laws”

          Observation leads to hypothesis. Experimentation to attempt to falsify hypothesis leads to theory (assuming falsification fails). Subsequent publication, peer review and replication of results encourages widespread acceptance of the theory. That’s it. Laws etc. are simply theories. There is no route for a theory to become a law (evolution, germ theory and gravity are among the best backed theories going and they are not laws!)

          No response to the substance of your post, just a bit of pedantry from a BA with an MSc.

          • Christian H

            Yes, I realized even when I was writing it that this is not the only position on how science works. I included the law thing because lots of folks get angry if you don’t (ie. evolution are theory or law?). So pedantry recognized.

          • Anonymous

            And if we can prove that there is a time-dependence in the observability condition, such that we can point to intervals of time for which falsifiable science will be wrong?

  • Emily

    I almost entirely agree with you, and find the dismissal of vast swathes of human inquiry really frustrating and close minded as well. I would only like to add that as rationalism isn’t the same as the scientific method, neither is empiricism, it’s just a part of it. For instance, psychology and anthropology both rely on empirical evidence, but psychology uses the scientific method to collect it, while anthropology uses field observation in which variables are inherently uncontrollable, it is neither ethical nor practical to run experiments, and exact replication is impossible. I would say that these are both empirical fields, based on observations in the physical world, but anthropology is less scientific. That’s not to say it’s less valid, or even that non-empirical fields cannot produce meaningful knowledge! I’m really just nitpicking when I overall think you are correct :)

    • Emily

      Oops. Christian, that was a reply to you, but I hit some accidental keystroke that refreshed the page and my comment box didn’t wind up where I thought it was.

    • Christian H

      I was thinking of scientific method as a subset of empiricism, not a synonym. Sorry for being unclear!
      (Though even that is unclear. The scientific method is more than just empiricism, but it is grounded in empiricism as mathematics is grounded in rationalism; both exceed those categories, are nonetheless limited by them.)

  • Eli

    “preferring certain outcomes to others still requires an answer to the question: What is a human and what ends fulfill its nature?”

    Yeah, this still needs to be explained, cause otherwise it looks awfully question-begging.

  • fester60613

    “What is a human and what ends fulfill its nature?”
    I think there are at least as many answers to that question as there have been solipsistic humans to ask it…. probably far more since we humans seem to need to ask the question at various times in our life process.
    We know that most theists / religious don’t care about the answer but throw their anchor high into the sky, hoping to hook onto whatever deity may be willing (they don’t doubt its ability) to drag them up into some warm lavender scented afterlife bliss.
    Others are to busy to ask the question, much less come up with an answer that makes sense to them, and even others will ask the question repeatedly and argue philosophy long into the cold starless night of existential angst.
    And then there are those who answer the question with eloquence and dignity – without even knowing they’ve asked the question: by being their for the family, for their friends, for their neighbors.
    So, in my opinion, a human is a reproducing animal. The ends that fulfill its nature are to develop complex social relationships that serve to subvert the darkness of impending mortality and the meaningless of existence.
    “Life is a banquet – and some poor bastards are starving to death!” ~Auntie Mame

    • Joe

      ….subvert the darkness of impending mortality….

      Could you elaborate please? How can morality be a threatening darkness that must be subverted by complex social relationships? I thought an impending morality would enrich such relationships.

  • fester60613

    …of course I mean to type “…by being there for their family…”

  • Pingback: squelchtoad

  • Pingback: Beating Up on Lazy Anti-Humanism: Leah Libresco on Atheist Groups