Straight from the Humanist’s Mouth

Straight from the Humanist’s Mouth January 10, 2013

James Croft and Vlad Chituc have both continued to contribute to the discussion of what exactly unites humanists.  Vlad’s put up a new post, and James has posted a clarifying comment that I’ve quoted from below.

You seem to think “Humanism” denotes a single, coherent moral system (particularly a metaethical system). He seems to think that it is some sort of equivalent to “virtue ethics” or “utilitarianism” or something.

But this is a category error. Humanism, in my understanding, can mean two things, neither of which are a single, coherent metaethical philosophy. The first sense is as a lifestance, a set of values, an orientation to the world. In this sense it is similar to “Christianity” when that term is used to describe some person’s view of the world: people talk of “my Christianity” and “their Christianity”. This is also the sense in which people say “I am a Humanist” (“I am a Christian”).

The second sense is as a tradition of thought and practice which is connected by a set of guiding questions, principles, or values. In this second sense it is sort of equivalent to “Christianity” when that term is used to refer to a tradition of Christian thought.

In neither case does the term “Humanism” – nor the term “Christianity” – give you a strong sense of one’s “moral philosophy” when that term is used in a technical way. Just as you can be a Utilitarian Christian and an Idealist Christian, you can be a Utilitarian Humanist and an Idealist Humanist (there have been prominent historical examples of both). Therefore the comment that Humanism is “vague” in comparison to discrete philosophical positions is true but not really apposite…

Notice the elements of [Wikipedia’s] description: “Humanism is a GROUP of philosophies and ethical perspectives” (which is why I say it is not a SINGLE coherent philosophy); these philosophies are drawn together by guiding values or broad principles, in that they “emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

You might say this is “vague”, but it is not so vague that almost anyone qualifies as a humanist. The majority of other ethical and philosophical traditions (including the major religious traditions of the world) do NOT (traditionally) place such value on individual human beings; they do NOT generally prefer individual thought and evidence over established doctrine or faith. They have strikingly different guiding principles and overarching values.

If this is what James Croft’s humanism is, than that’s fine, but then I just don’t care very much about that adjective.  I want to know what type of humanist he is.  Whatever the next adjective he appends is going to tell me a lot more about where he lives in moral conceptspace than ‘humanist.’  After all, I place a lot of value on individual human beings and love evidence, too.

I think Darren had a great insight in one of the comment threads:

I wonder if part of the problem is that the great triumph of Humanism, The Enlightenment, has been so internalized by almost everyone that Humanists no longer get credit.

A lot of the things that Croft is using to define the Humanist category are intuitions and methodologies that most people (at least in the circles in which I move) share.  Yes, there are groups who don’t assent, but, to be honest, they’re very hard to reach out to in debate.

So, as long as Croft and I are chatting with each other, we can take it for granted that we’re both interested in rational inquiry into what is good for humans, and the interesting question is what answers we turn up (and what we count as rational inquiry).  So let’s pin down what we mean by some of the free-variable kind of words (like “good”) and talk about where our theories and models diverge.


*I am just mature enough to not have titled this post “Humanists are particularly good finders!” but not enough to forbear from mentioning it here.

"I'd love to see a video of how it works. keranique shampoo reviews"

Welcome Camels with Hammers to Patheos!
"Logismoi (the plural of logismos) are a fairly simple concept; they are whispers from either ..."

Logismoi, Vampires, and Other Intrusive Thoughts
"I imagine I’ll do a lot more reading and pick a lot more fights over ..."

A little about the queer stuff
"You are part of a search and rescue for lost Catholics.Regular updates to the countdown ..."

I’m keynoting at a Con for ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jubal DiGriz

    I hope this continues. There is very little material out there for genuine philosophical dialogue (as opposed to debate) between humanists and Christians.

    But it hasn’t been mentioned yet that “Christian” is nearly as vague a label as “humanist”. If someone describes themselves as a Christians I can safely assume they think Jesus is pretty spiffy, but along the lines Leah is asking for I have no insight. Arguably there is greater diversity within the Christian label than the humanist- for instance, humanist have consistently always advocated for inherent good qualities in people, but Christian positions take both sides.

    Even when someone describes themselves as “Roman Catholic” I still can’t reliably know what their moral positions are on a number of pertinent issues, or even their fundamental framework for what “good” is. There’s canon law and Church teachings of course, but there are a great many Roman Catholics who either are unaware of those teachings or have substantial disagreements with them.

    The problem Leah pointed out for humanism is not unique to it, and is not truly indicative of some inherit flaw in humanism particularly. Any large grouping of religion or response to religion has the same problem… the categories are just too large to form a coherent model of individual thoughts.

    I’d suggest that the best use of these terms is one of group affiliation, and not as a philosophical descriptor.

    • Even when someone describes themselves as “Roman Catholic” I still can’t reliably know what their moral positions are on a number of pertinent issues, or even their fundamental framework for what “good” is. There’s canon law and Church teachings of course, but there are a great many Roman Catholics who either are unaware of those teachings or have substantial disagreements with them.

      The point is they know they have a disagreement with the Catholic position or at least they accept it when you make them aware of it. If Christian A says the correct Christian position is X and Christian B says I don’t agree with X he typically won’t accept that he is disagreeing with Christianity on that point. He will say he disagrees with Christian A. The true Christian position becomes unclear.

      That is not the case with Catholics. If tow Catholics disagree they can normally both tell you what the church has said on the matter. They won’t both claim to know the church is on their side.

      • Darren

        Ah, but we carry our labels even when we may no longer truly fit them.

        This is a _very_ good point by Jubal DiGriz. The Catholic Church is uncommon in having a defined body of belief, and one could presume that any self-identified Catholic could identify that teaching, but the reality on the ground, even among what could be assumed to be better than averagely educated Catholics here at Patheos is that this is often not the case. And this still does not get at what a person may _actually_ believe (as in, what they really do).

        Someone tells me they are a Catholic do they:
        Support the ordination of women
        Support gay marriage
        Support abortion
        Have extra-marital sex
        Use contraception
        Watch R rated movies
        Support the School Lunch program
        Think universal medical care is a good idea
        Think drone strikes killing multiple non-combatants for one ‘bad guy’ are justified
        Think non-catholics are going to Hell
        Think there even is a Hell

        I am reminded to the dust-up over Sativa Halappanavar. Someone want to tell me just exactly what the _official_ Catholic stance on that one is? I read the Irish Bishops statement, and I think I know, but judging by what I saw bandied about on the other Patheos: Catholic blogs, there is still no consensus…

        • If someone tells you they are Catholic and they disagree with settled Catholic doctrines then you know they are not a consistent Catholic. In that case the label is not that useful. Knowing the Catholic position does not always predict and may not even be helpful in predicting their position. What can the Catholic church do about that? People need to use words and categories properly. When they don’t them people will misunderstand what they say and mean.

          It is interesting to think about why people want to continue to be thought of as Catholic. Many of them never say anything positive about the church. Still there is something about her that makes them want to self-identify as Catholic. When I was reformed this was not an issue. Nobody wanted to say they are reformed and deny many reformed doctrines. People who were raised reformed and stopped going to church didn’t still self-identify as reformed.

          • Darren

            Oh, no argument there. I have a challenging time understanding why someone would profess only _part_ of a belief. Then again, I was raised fundamentalist and that stamps a certain all-or-nothing mentality on one. The irony here being that it was a non-compliant Catholic who first made me see this about myself.

            Considering the contraception usage statistics, though, Catholic churches would be rather empty if all those Cafeterias took their leave.

          • kenneth

            The label “Catholic” is virtually meaningless because membership is very often determined by nothing more than cultural momentum and because the Church itself does not acknowledge the possibility of ex-Catholics. Outside of adult converts, no one makes an informed, free choice to join and they are then counted as members forever regardless of practice or belief. As often as not, one is enrolled by parents who themselves don’t really believe or practice, but a baptism is done for form’s sake to keep peace with older relatives and one’s community. If someone tells you they are Catholic, and says nothing else, all that establishes is a statistical likelihood that the person hails from an ethnicity or nationality which traditionally had Catholic roots.

        • Darren, I generally think you’ve got a great point. However, a few of your listed issues (universal health care, free school lunches) are prudential questions on which the Church doesn’t have an especially defined opinion. Similarly, a libertarian and a social welfarist utilitarian are going to come to different conclusions about the utility of, e.g., universal health care. Personal ethics and politics don’t quite track.

          • A follow-up: Even in areas where the Church’s position on personal ethics is clear (contraception, sodomy), although a consistent Catholic would have to hold fast to the Church’s doctrine that these practices are wrong, personal political prudential judgments have obviously changed over the decades about whether they ought also to be illegal. The personal ethical stuff is really where adherence is key. The arguments between Team Blue and Team Red Catholics in the U.S. are, ultimately, peripheral. Not that you’d know it from listening to us.

          • Darren

            You are correct Irenest.

            I considered, shortly after writing the last post, that the variances in individual Church member compliance is a bit beside the point.

            The Catholic Church is unusual in having a defined, and accessible, codex of beliefs, do’s and don’t’s, covering a sizeable set of the entirety of human affairs. It is perfectly fair for the Church to throw down this weighty tome in challenge to any other creed and demand, “Wat’dya got?!”

            But, if we are to give the Catholic Church a pass on its non-complaint members, fairness would seem to demand that we give such a pass to other creeds. Therefore, I will rephrase Leah’s question from, “What do Secular Humanists believe?” to “What does Secular Humanism posit?”.

            Now, there is no Secular Humanist pope, no catechism. The various manifestos that I have seen have been unsatisfying.

            I think I may write my own.

    • Jubal DiGriz

      Exactly the sort of discussion I was hoping my comment would inspire. Very interesting from all parties.

      A question comes to mind after reading through: even if the RCC has a complete and consistent directive for every moral circumstance, if the bulk of those who belong to the RCC organization do not follow those directives are they not then functionally irrelevant? At least for determining what “Roman Catholic” means. And of course feel free to replace this with any other group. If Darren wrote the perfect humanist manifesto but very few humanists followed or fit it, then it would not be a description of humanists.

    • Goldstein Squad Member

      Only Christians can be true Humanists.
      Atheism, per se, provides a basis for nothing.

    • keddaw

      According to Bill O’Reilly Christianity is a philosophy, not a religion…

  • The way he talks about Christianity is precisely why I became Catholic. Christianity was ceasing to mean anything. It meant something to me but I needed more. I wanted to say Christianity was central to who I was so it had to mean something. That something had to be logical, historical and biblical. Catholicism does that. It defines a center that has real content. It does not change. It does not contradict reason. The way Croft uses Christian and Humanist makes them pretty meaningless. Christians talk nicely about Jesus. Humanists talk nicely about the value of human beings and of human reason. I guess I am both of those. So what?

    • Kristen inDallas

      “Christians talk nicely about Jesus. Humanists talk nicely about the value of human beings and of human reason. I guess I am both of those. So what”

      -Brilliant. :)) I just add a bit from the Catechism, on the value of the Human person:
      1929-1931: Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him: What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt. Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

      And on the value of human reason/ rationality:
      1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”

      • Kristen inDallas

        My point being that I suppose all Cannon-Catholics must also be humanists, according to the definition above (valuing human dignity and rationality).

        • Darren

          Well said.

          I think they can. It is perfectly valid to support the value, worth, grandeur, potential, empowerment, happiness, and all those other things for humans _as_ a unique and special creation of God.

          Thus why I think the Secular has value in Secular Humanist. The Secular Humanist just does all those things, but for humans as self-directed, autonomous, sovereign beings.

        • grok87

          I love the idea of a “Cannon Catholic”!

          Gives new meaning to the “Church Militant” I suppose…


  • jose

    You’re writing these posts as if the catechism united catholics.

    • The posted speed limit doesn’t unite all drivers in adherence to it, either. However, in contrast to either an autobahn or Protestantism, there is a posted rule you can point to if someone asks you for the official position. It’s not everything, but it’s handy.

    • grok87

      Let’s back up a bit. There is the creed, say the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed
      These creeds were drawn up to address the questions we are discussing “What do you believe?” “How are you different from others in your beliefs?”
      While various Christian groups would obviously not believe in all the points of the Catholic Catechism, I think one might safely say that all Orthodox Christians (i.e. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline protestant) believe in the Creed.
      I guess what I would be interested in whether the Humanists have ever put together a creed. There is this manifesto I suppose:

      • jose

        Hey, thanks for the link. I liked manifestos 2 and 3. Not 100% in agreement, but they’re something I can get behind. Not gonna quibble.

        The trouble comes when you get absolutist with morals. When you postulate a perfect man who writes perfect, absolute and universal moral truth. This makes compromise impossible. It’s not like you’re going to find a mistake in the rules written by someone perfect, right? The result of such absolutism is most catholics are only catholic by name.

        • grok87

          Sure no problem. here’s a better link

          some of it seems *manifestly* false though…
          “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.” try telling that to all the soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany in WW II. Those soldiers’s happiness wasn’t maximized I don’t think…

          • jose

            Sure, but then I don’t think it’s an absolutey, universally true text written by a perfect man.

  • Thinkling

    The need for good definitions is striking here. John Paul II was arguably one of the strongest humanists of the 20th century. The issue of types of humanism is paramount.

    Some humanists may object to this word, and they are free to offer the analogous one they accept, but what is needed is what –creed– does the humanist ascribe to?

    As to the inadequacy of labels, this can partially be overcome by not describing people as humanists/Christians/etc., but rather again by what creed (or synonym) they ascribe to. This clarifies differences within the same -ism, e.g., would force a humanist to be specific, would force a professed Catholic to admit whether they adhered to Catholicism or some modernist Protestant offshoot, etc.

  • thomasc

    Re:I wonder if part of the problem is that the great triumph of Humanism, The Enlightenment, has been so internalized by almost everyone that Humanists no longer get credit.

    This might be true, but only if you change what you mean by Humanism. The history of the Enlightenment as written in the late nineteenth century tended to be written (whiggishly) to suggest it was the work of antireligious humanists, but at least in seventeenth and eighteenth century Paris things are far, far more complicated. A huge amount of the development of critical historical scholarship was done by the monks of St-Germain; clerics like Malebranche have as much claim to the development of Enlightenment thinking as men like Hume. And as for love of scholarship and enquiry in the eighteenth century Church, just look at the libraries and scientific collections of the central European abbeys. The salons of Paris that Talleyrand remembered (“no-one who had not lived then understands the sweetness of life”) were full of intellectual priests as well as irreligious aristocrats.

    The trouble is we see it all through the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church significantly turns against much of what is seen as Enlightenment thought, not least because its experience of the consequences are the suppression of religious institutions, seizure of property and murder. By 1810, when the Revolution has caused the destruction of most monastic communities in France and Germany (where they were shut down and the lands given mostly to aristocrats), the imprisonment and death in custody of the Pope, mass killings in the Vendee and the Parisian terror, it is not really surprising that the institutional Church tended to be politically reactionary. This in turn tends to mean that children of the Revolution were likely to be anticlerical.

    So yes, we have internalised the Enlightenment. But Enlightenment humanism was quite compatible with being a Catholic. It is true that the institutional Church has often not been great at caring about individual human beings and independent enquiry – but the same is true of most established institutions, theist or atheist.

    • thomasc

      I think it also matters which “Enlightenment” we are talking about. The seventeenth/eighteenth century scientific revolution is, I think, quite separate from whatever we choose to call the movement that includes men like Rousseau and Voltaire. Both of these groups are people we like to claim as heroes of modernity. The “scientists” tend (with a few stark exceptions) to get on well with the authorities, Church and state alike. (Steno, anyone?) The philosophes are not necessarily that keen on individual human beings as important – enlightened absolutists despise ordinary people far more than their more selfconsciously Christian predecessors did – this is the age of cameralist economists who see the peasants and the cattle as equally there to make the Prince great, and Rousseau, for example, doesn’t seem to have been that good at moving his love of mankind into decent treatment of actual human beings. Nor are they necessarily that keen on evidence – think of the garbage they kept writing about Tahiti.

    • Darren

      All good points, thank you.

      I do tend to allow later Church hostility to color my perception and this would unsuprisingly lead me to underconsider the contributions of Church members.

  • deiseach

    If humanists are opposed to fideism, then I’m a humanist by virtue of being a Roman Catholic:

    “In 1348, the Holy See proscribed certain fideistic propositions of Nicholas d’Autrecourt (cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion, 10th ed., nn. 553-570). In his two Encyclicals, one of September, 1832, and the other of July, 1834, Gregory XVI condemned the political and philosophical ideas of Lamenais. On 8 September, 1840, Bautain was required to subscribe to several propositions directly opposed to Fideism, the first and the fifth of which read as follows: “Human reason is able to prove with certitude the existence of God; faith, a heavenly gift, is posterior to revelation, and therefore cannot be properly used against the atheist to prove the existence of God”; and “The use of reason precedes faith and, with the help of revelation and grace, leads to it.”

    There were (are?) Christian Humanists and there are Secular Humanists. Presuming that Secular Humanists set aside, at the least, and deny, at the most, any notion of revelation or mysticism or deity (capital or small “d”), is there some broad set of principles whereby one can generally say “This is what is mean by Humanism”?

  • keddaw

    “we’re both interested in rational inquiry into what is good for humans”

    I’m much more interested in how you determine what counts as good* (and whether there is a reason to force that on others), and you should be too since it’s the foundation of your argument and you’re both taking it for granted.

    *More accurately, what it’s good for and how we determine each of those things…

    • jose

      By the way, which one is it? Is morality universal and absolute, or is it relative to humans and specific to humans? The laws of physics are not relative to humans.

  • Darren

    The Secular Humanist Manifesto (as revealed to Darren (possibly on a mountaintop))


    As a wise fundamentalist Christian once said, “Secular Humanism is what you get when you take God off the throne, and put Man in his place.”

    That sounds like a pretty good place to start. Now, what was God doing on that throne? For our purposes, governing human affairs I think, even governing an individual human’s affairs. (You could also put up giving meaning to human affairs, if you like, but it is not proven that affairs have meaning, so I am not sure if it adds value to do so…)

    Secular Humanism says that we humans are responsible for our own affairs. We get the credit for our triumphs, we get the blame for our failures. For good or ill, the reins are in our hands.

    This is independent of a belief or disbelief in any Gods. Human affairs are human affairs but the Gods, if they exist at all, can keep their grubby mits off.


    So, the reins are in our hands. Now we are in trouble.

    What should we do with them? How should we, as individual humans and as collective humans (I may, as it suits me, use Man or Mankind, no sexism intended, I just don’t much care for Humankind).

    Lo, I stretcheth out mine hand and put forth these two commandments:

    Commandment the First – So long as it harm none, do as you will.

    Commandment the Second – Treat with others as you would wish to be treated, or alternatively, as they wish to be treated, or even, as you would wish to be treated if you were them.

    I strongly suspect from these commandments and some axioms we can derive a pretty thorough moral / ethical system.

    Axiom the First – I am a human. My DNA is not human. My foot is not human. My body is not human. My brain is not human. My consciousness, my thoughts, my will, my memory, my emotions, my loves and hates, my hopes and dreams _may_ be human. The unique pattern of That-which-thinks-it-is-Darren is human. Before that existed, I was not human. After that is gone, I am not human. Others who think they are someone are human as well. If someone tells me they are human, they get the benefit of the doubt.

    • grok87

      “Commandment the First – So long as it harm none, do as you will. Commandment the Second – Treat with others as you would wish to be treated, or alternatively, as they wish to be treated, or even, as you would wish to be treated if you were them.”
      “So, the reins are in our hands. Now we are in trouble.”

      I think your last sentence above has it exactly right. The Gospel says your 2 commandments are insufficent- things are unlikely to end well:

      Matthew 22:
      Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

      From The Return of the King:
      “Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.’
      ‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.”


      • Darren

        Grok 87;

        Excellent! And a perfect illustration of the divide between a Theistic Humanist and a Secular Humanist!

        A Secular Humanist is free to believe there are Gods, free to Love whatever Gods he believes in, but is under no _obligation_ to do so. And why should he? The Secular Humanist is in charge of his own destiny, his own affairs, what have the Gods done to earn his love?

        So far as being necessary for a human to be happy, fulfilled, moral, good, what have you, that a human must love something other than himself, other than his fellow humans, why Gods? Why not Truth, or Justice, or Cake?

        • grok87

          “that a human must love something other than himself, other than his fellow humans, why Gods? Why not Truth, or Justice, or Cake?”

          Hitting your capitalized words in order:
          1) St. Augustine: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
          2) One can make an idol out of Truth. There are times, as a Christian, when one is required to lie, as Victoria Leigh Soto ( reportedly did to Adam Lanza.
          3) Justice: LOTR Book 1
          Frodo: “Do you mean to say that you…have let him live on after all those horrible deeds?…He deserves death”
          Gandalf: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
          4) Cake: As a nation we seem to be well on our way to making an idol out of cake, etc.- hence the obesity epidemic…

          • Darren

            Love number 3, always have. An effective antidote for those times when my Lawful Neutral tendancies get the better of me, “The Guilty must be punished!”

        • deiseach

          I would humbly submit that, if the gods do indeed exist, and if they did indeed create or otherwise have control over the world that the humans live in, then the humans do need to pay some heed to them.

          Else, the humans may say they have control of their own destinies, but they are more like the characters in a computer game and the gods are like the players who can turn it off and wipe the characters out of existence when they are finished or get bored with the game.

          Lots of mythologies have those kinds of gods – the Babylonian and Sumerian pantheons are chock-full of some god getting annoyed by what humans were/were not doing, and deciding to smite them out of existence 🙂

          It’s different if we’re talking about gods in the Discworld sense, where the gods are more like personifications of concepts and are totally reliant on human acknowledgement and worship for their own existence. I imagine, for a Secular Humanist, Pascal’s Wager would involve finding out which kinds of deities might be out there – ones with the power to smite, or ones without?

          • Lots of mythologies have those kinds of gods – the Babylonian and Sumerian pantheons are chock-full of some god getting annoyed by what humans were/were not doing, and deciding to smite them out of existence

            So is the Old Testament 🙂

          • Darren

            Nice. Reminds me a bit of the Pascal’s Wager where one finds the God with the most horrific punishment, and believes in that one.

            When I first came across the Simulation Argument, I read a discussion on what sort of life choices a sentient program within a simulated reality should make. One strategy I found amusing was that each of us should strive to be as interesting as possible, to do interesting things, to know interesting people, to be associated with interesting events. Thus would the great Comic Book Store Guy in the sky be more likely to keep our characters around.

            By that argument, I suspect my own continued existence argues that I am actually in top level Reality. :>

    • Darren

      So, Axiom the First. It is my manifesto, I can choose my Axioms any way I like, but with this one I have taken a very big bite. I have also thrown mud right in the eye of Catholic dogma, so I would not be surprised if some object. Fair enough, let’s see if I can do better.

      I am not so sure I need an Axiom at all for this, if I were a better philosopher I suspect I could logically deduce it, but I do think I can make the Axiom part itself much smaller.

      What I am going for, here, is to define a human as something (someone) with two properties:
      1. Existence
      2. Awareness of itself

      I am leaning heavily on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum reasoning, which IMHO is probably the most profound thought ever to be thunk. Personally, I think his justification for proceeding from question to thought is less solid, so I like to stick with “I question, thus I exist.”

      Descartes did a brilliant job in his surgical amputation of all reality; it is unfortunate that he did not stop there as pretty much everything he wrote afterwards was, if not wrong, then unsupported (again, IMHO).

      From Descartes, we have one, and only one, thing that has actually be reasoned and proved: In all of existence there exists _at_least_one_thing_ and that thing is able to question its own existence. Me.

      Everything else? Conjecture. We can logically deduce things other than this, but these deductions require additional axioms which may or may not be valid. Cogito ergo sum requires one, and only one, axiom, that logic is valid (and maybe not even that, but the question of whether or not I can prove my own existence within a framework of invalid logic is beyond my philosophic abilities).

      I think it would be fair for me to stand on one single axiom, that logic is valid, and then one and only valid deduction from that axiom, that I exist and that I can question my own existence. Others can argue that more can be known, but they will have to use more axioms to do so, and so my claim is simpler.

      I trust there are no objections that each of us is able to logically deduce our own existences?

      So, having one thing in all of existence that exists and is aware of its existence, what do we call such a thing? We can call it anything we want, of course, but as I am that thing, and I think I am a Human, we might as well call that thing a human.

      So, a human is a thing that exists and is able to question its own existence. If A = A, then A = A + B requires that B be zero. Therefore, any other criteria to qualify as human are superfluous.

      Footnote 1 – yes, there are arguments against cogito ergo sum. If someone wishes to argue how something that does _not_ exist can question its existence, I will be glad to learn at the feet of the Master.

      • Alan

        I’m not sure you need an axiom to establish what a human is – you can derive it from your 2nd commandment (which I guess is itself an axiom). Anyway if the commandment is, “as they wish to be treated, or even, as you would wish to be treated if you were them,” then it follows that it only applies to that which has the capacity to wish to be treated in some way. It raises interesting questions about the treatment of animals that I think are worth contemplating (such that Humanism may be too narrow a term).

        • ^This. My transition to humanist-leaning tendencies has left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth (pun intended) when it comes to eating meat, when it seems statistically likely that the animals were treated in inhumane (interesting word…) ways. I’m not sure how self-aware animals are, but if they’re self-aware enough that cock fighting rings count as animal cruelty, then they’re probably self-aware enough that chicken farming also counts as animal cruelty.

          Incidentally, I often wonder if this is the direction morality is going to go in the next century. I wonder if future!me will look down on the moral predilections of a society that tortured and slaughtered animals for taste and profit in the same way that I look down on the moral predilections of a society that imprisoned and enslaved fellow humans for profit.

          • Darren

            You are probably right. Independent of whether or not it might be moral to eat an animal, our farming practices are certainly immoral. I maintain my own meat eating existence only through a deliberate effort at not thinking about it…

    • deiseach

      I counter your Second Commandment with the words of the prophet Shaw:

      “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you; your tastes may not be similar”.


      • Darren

        Thus the reason that rule does not work so well between my wife and I. I have tried to rephrase as “others would be treated”.

    • deiseach

      Okay, here is where we run into trouble: if your body and your brain are not human, but the miasma arising from them which some have mis-named consciousness but is really just a series of localised electrical signals in response to external stimuli, and the over-arching fiction of a single unified continuous experience which is a necessary fig leaf in order to enable some kind of function in serial time to take place may be human – how can anything be considered human, given that you seem to be presuming that mind exists independently of the brain and that is one of the basic contested questions?

      If the substrate which gives rise to, and anchors in physical reality, the memories/emotions/thoughts which in conglomerate compose the ‘entity which is considered to be human – subset Darren’ are not sufficient in themselves to be considered human, then we’re back to the hardware/software division where the computer is one thing and the programs run upon it are another. Trouble is, we can take out the CD-ROM or the flash drive or whatever storage device on which we have the particular program and carry it around, but we can’t do the same thing (yet) with the ’emotion/memory/thinking’ essence which – according to your definition – is the only truly human element.

      Either you are postulating some kind of soul, or you’re veering towards transhumanism (where the uploaded information is what counts as a human, not whatever vessel contains it, either flesh or metal or energy).

      • Darren

        Probably poor phrasing on my part. I was not intending to posit a mind/brain dualism, but rather that a brain by itself was not sufficient, that it was the contents of said brain. But, it was also not my intent to really dive down into the reductionist debate, my personal reductionist conclusions being outside of the scope of what I tried to put forth.

        I think a lot about consciousness and whether or not there actually is continuity of identity, moment to moment, for this thing that thinks it is Darren. Does Darren actually exist between clock cycles, as it were?

        This was one of the first consequences when I lost my soul; without that mind/body dualism, what was there to be continuous with?

        There are some interesting exploration of this in Greg Evans “Permutation City”, if you happen to have any interest in sci-fi of the transhumanist flavor. If you don’t mind the spoilers, there is a part in the story where experiments are run on human uploads – varying their clock speeds, computing them out of sequence, computing them in parallel, randomly routing their packets around the globe, and determining if that has any effect on the upload’s subjective experience.

    • Commandment the First is:
      1) If interpreted strongly, impossible (assuming you want to count mental harms such as upset and disappointment, which I think you must).

      2) If interpreted weakly, Egoistic.

      3) If interpreted collectively, Utilitarian.

      All of which can, I suppose, have in-depth moral codes, but all are associated with ones that can be roundly criticized.

      Commandment the Second: What about justice? Doesn’t that entail treating others how they OUGHT to be treated as opposed to how they want to be treated? I’m sure that most people would love to be able to take from everyone and would want to not be punished for it, but that’s hardly just.

      Axiom the first: Someone else already mentioned animals, and you probably want sentients here. If there’s a big flaw in humanism that we can see from your Manifesto, it is that it is too human-centric. Isn’t it one of the big arguments from the New Atheists that science has knocked us off our pedestal? You are putting humans back in there … and unlike at least some gods I don’t think humans in general are virtuous enough to hold that throne.

      • Darren

        1. What? I have to give you commandments that are _unambigous_ as well? It was deliberate. Define “harm”, define “none”; enough to keep theologians employed for centuries. This was also:
        a. a deliberate nod to pagans
        b. a juicy morsel to the Natural Law folks, who are going to be all over it
        c. an accurate statement of where I think our (soon to be) transhumanist society should be heading.

        2. Justice? If one wishes to be treated justly, then one should treat others justly, yes?
        3. Oh, being a Humanist in no way implies that humans are particularly well suited to holding the reins to their own destiny; demonstrably they are not! But who, then? Ties in to my thoughts on Democracy – it is a horrible method of governement if one wants to accomplish anything worth accomplishing (at least in the American form, Europe seems to occasionally do better, not sure why) – but, Democracy’s great strength is limiting the extent to which the majority can be abused by their rulers. To keep the minorities from being abused requires something else, a constitution and independant judiciary. All this to day, Humans may not do a particulalry good job at charting their own destiny, only better than the alternative.

  • Darren

    Being a continuation of the Secular Humanist Manifesto – Part II
    Really Good Reasons
    Really Good Reasons are those things we use to limit, amend, or abrogate a commandment, right, or freedom. They are powerful. That which is powerful is dangerous. Use them with care.
    Really Good Reasons shall actually be Really Good Reasons and not Bullshit.
    Be a Dude, not a Dick.
    Deriving from Commandment the Second.
    A Human is a free agent. None have the right to limit that freedom without a Really Good Reason. The scope and duration of that limitation is to be confined only to the needs of the Really Good Reason. The Really Good Reason shall be disclosed to all, lest Shenanigans be called.
    Deriving from Commandment the First
    A human shall speak as the human desires to speak, so long as this does not conflict with Commandment the First or Commandment the Second.
    Deriving from Commandment the First.
    A human shall believe what the human desires to believe, so long as this does not conflict with Commandment the First or Commandment the Second.
    Deriving from Commandment the First.
    Axiom the Second – Truth is better than not-Truth.
    Belief II
    A human shall desire to believe that which is True.
    Deriving from Axiom the Second.
    Speach II
    A human shall desire to speak that which is True.
    Deriving from Axiom the Second.
    Speech III – Thou Shall Not Lie
    As a free agent making decisions about his own wellbeing and the wellbeing of his fellow free agents, true and accurate information is necessary for a human to make informed and effective decisions.
    As a human is bound to the principal of treating others as he would wish himself to be treated, and as he values truth and wishes to be told only truthful things, so should he only speak truth to others.
    By Commandment the Second and Axiom the Second, a human shall not lie (unless there is a Really Good Reason, and then his lies shall be as limited in scope and duration as required by the Really Good Reason)

    And with that, I really should get back to work, and at least allow Leah to register her displeasure with my taking liberties with her blog, if displeasure there is, and to allow the masses to savage my insufferably arrogant manifestos.

    But, I hope I have provided something close enough to what Secular Humanism should stand for, with some actual concrete things to agree with or against, and there are numerous quite clear distinctions within what I have put forth to separate this creed from just about all brands of Theism at least.

    • ACN

      “Axiom the Second – Truth is better than not-Truth.”

      I reject your reality, and substitute my own 🙂

      • Darren

        “Your “reality”, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”


      • Darren

        …And that is why I put it as an Axiom; Unproven, unprovable, lovable Axioms!

    • You need to start a blog. I would bookmark that in a second.

      Also, your manifesto sounds vaguely like something out of a Stephen Jackson game. “He that hath the ‘Really Impressive Title‘ shall be given one extra ‘Really Good Reason’, but he that acteth a ‘Dick, not a dude’ shall be cursed with thy ‘Truly Obnoxious Curse‘”

      • Darren

        Well, thank you. 🙂

        So far, I am limiting myself to shamelessly blathering on in Leah’s blog, at least until she asks me to stop. I never would have thought about posting a manifesto, but the topic actually seemed relevant… I only hope to occasionally add something worthwhile to the discussion.

        Those links are awesome! I am a fan of Steve Jackson, being a big gamer nerd from ye olden days. Ah, to be a punk jr. High kid playing Killer in the University of Kansas library stacks again…

        • leahlibresco

          Since we’re deep in the weeds of the comments (and I do appreciate your contributions), want to tighten up the manifesto a little and have it appear as a guest post sometime next week?

          • Darren


            Well, that is one way of getting me to put up or shut up… 🙂

            Considering that the more I read the official Humanist Manifestos, the more I do not like them, then sure. Your orignal proposal was 500-750 words? Is that typical for your blog posts, I have never counted?

            Parts I and II are running right around 750 words combined, and I think I would like to revise Axiom 1 as above, but limiting to current content and cleaning up tenses and styles and such… sure!

          • Given that, I’ll save my in-depth criticisms for the guest post …

          • leahlibresco

            Excellent! I’m going to be travelling a bit over the next two weeks, so I may be a little slow to spot relevant comments. Can you email me at leahDOTlibrescoATgmailDOTcom, when you have text for me to put up? You can be a bit flexible on length as necessary, or split comments up into 2-3 parts. I’d like to be able to prompt discussion more than I want to be careful about length.