Freedom and Humanism
The conviction persists that freedom and humanity are somehow inseparably linked, and that we cannot hope to understand ourselves until we have some understanding of their relationship. We ask: “Am I free to direct my life, make choices that are genuinely mine, make moral decisions that affect not only me and those about me, but possibly the larger cosmos as well? Or am I without any true volition, simply the tool of destiny–perhaps no more that a creature of blind chance?”
Any assumptions we make in these matters–and they can only be assumptions–are of prime importance, for ultimately they affect what meaning, if any, we discover in human life, and in our separate existence.
If we take the position of the determinist, we will say that individuals are not free in any way, that the whole enterprise (of which each is the minutest part) is out of their hands. The universe is a system of inflexible laws, and every particle of matter, every spark of life, every thought, every act is nothing but a reflex of those laws. Whatever influence people think they have over events is purely illusory–as if a wave were to think it had stirred the ocean into a storm.
Such concepts have their roots in 19th century scientific belief, which in turn affected other areas of thought: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, art, and even religion. Determinism is still a valid position for some philosophers, who doubtless find in it the satisfaction of knowing beyond any doubt that the universe is wholly without meaning in any humanistic sense.
If, on the other hand, we take the existentialist’s view, we will say that humankind, cast adrift on a sea of nothing, and inescapably alone, suffers a terrible freedom–a freedom in which each individual’s survival depends upon the ability to “create” self, one’s own reality of being. No purpose can be attached to the universe except what one painfully fabricates from fragments of experience that in themselves have no meaning. Humankind is absolutely alone–hence, absolutely free.
The world, in the existentialist’s view, is a kind of fortuitous dream, or rather nightmare, beset with all the terrors of undifferentiated possibility. Existentialism is unquestionably the headiest brew modern philosophy has yet concocted, though for some it lacks any soothing, any comforting ingredients. To say “man is condemned to freedom” is to say that he is forced into the terror of choosing, and perhaps choosing wrong.
The determinist and existentialist occupy extreme positions in philosophy. Most humanist thinkers, on the other hand, tend to avoid the extremes–certainly in areas as clouded with ambiguity as the subject of freedom is–and to assume that in a field of contending forces or opposing views, the truth, or what can be allowed to serve as truth, stands somewhere near the middle. They see a kind of triadic process at work here: from two opposite, interacting elements, a third, synthetic element is born that represents superior insight.
Modern science, which has provided many new insights into humanity’s physical and psychological nature, and into its evolutionary history as well, has also provided bases for new speculations of the problem of human freedom. Among such speculations is the idea that freedom may not be something that humanity either has or does not have, but rather something that it may have the capacity to create. Freedom is seen not as a gift (or a gift withheld), but as potentiality implicit in the evolutionary venture. Freedom is something to be earned.
It is quite possible that for most of its history humanity has not been free in any positive sense of the word. Human actions and thought may simply have followed guidelines inherent in the human condition, the result of a limited power over the environment and the sequence of events. According to one modern savant (Julian Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) mankind before about 3,000 B. C. was not conscious at all in the present sense of the word. Before then, Jaynes tells us, people got their signals from inner voices which they called gods. The inner voices came from the right hemisphere of the brain; the left hemisphere constituted the “human” side of the brain. This meant that ancient people lived psychologically in a bicameral world–that is, their governing faculties consisted of two relatively separate powers. Only the eventual breakdown of this arrangement (and the accompanying decay of the gods) made it possible for people to become conscious in our modern sense–to become self-conscious, self-aware, self-analytical. With consciousness, people gained the ability to deliberate, to pass between stimulus and response, to decide. No longer bound to obey external authority, they now found authority and understanding within their newly conscious self. In short, they began to be free.
Such a radical hypothesis, of course, awaits proof. Its value here is as a dramatic indicator of the direction modern thought may be moving toward: a concept of freedom as a process, a thing to be achieved when people have reached the stage where they can “deserve” it.
It can be argued that we are at that stage now. For have not the enormous powers conferred by science given us enormous freedom to use or misuse them? Through technology, we now have the power to reshape the environment along artificial, and therefore uniquely human, ways; we find ourselves deciding which species on earth we will or will not preserve; we consider how the atmosphere may be altered, how climate and weather may eventually be controlled. Already we envision our ability, through genetic management, to blueprint our biological future; cloning is only one of the more spectacular possibilities hinted at. Most significantly of all, we possess the terrible freedom utterly to annihilate the world in an atomic holocaust.
Of course, there are those who argue that all these “supposed” freedoms are but stages in a predestined plan to have humanity self-destruct at a certain point. Technology is seen as merely the means of carrying out that end.
Such thinking, however, will strike most of us as the counsel of despair. IF humanity can get past the technological crisis, IF we can avoid annihilating ourselves as well as the planet, then the possibility of almost unlimited freedom emerges: freedom to develop our intelligence by learning to use the now-unused three-quarters of the brain, to achieve new levels of spirit and creativity, to make ourselves what we have always boasted we were–the center of our universe–and perhaps the inseminator of other universes undreamed of, light years away.
Reaffirming the Humanist Belief in the Spiritual Life and the Free Mind
We are told over and over again by professors of theology and by ecclesiastics that the values prized by liberal and humane minds cannot survive without a survival or revival of the religious beliefs current in the Western world for the last two thousand years of the Christian and over five thousand years of the Hebrew tradition. There is a tendency to assume that those who believe that moral ideals or generous intentions may exist in men not committed to the supernatural are at the very least foolish and probably scoundrels and totalitarians to boot. This is not the place to argue the complex foundations of religious belief. But there are certain secular aspects of the nature of spirit and the spiritual life that it is needful to consider, and these can be briefly stated in any current discussion of religious literature.
There is no question that religious literature has a very wide public today, and the notion that religious interests are vanishing is a hangover of the complacent intellectualism of the nineteenth century. There is, further, no question that there has been a collapse of secular hopes, an uneasiness about the human future, a shattering of naive enthusiasms for the progress possible through the latter-day magic of science. There is an enormous concern (even among those not especially religious) with a basic reconsideration of the meaning of their own lives, the source and validity of moral values, the ultimate nature of the universe. Many have fled to mystical cults of the West and of the East. Others have sought a way out of the current chaos in the fixed authority of a rigid theology. In one way or another, millions have sought “peace of mind,” if only in a book that under that title seemed to promise nirvana or its facsimile. It is clear that there is a very convincing case made by those who say some faith is necessary if life is to endure at all–or to be endurable. Life itself is an act of faith; the assumption even of the next day, the next moment is a gesture of confidence, the assertion of a hope, the substance of an expectation. It is a patent, too, that there are all sorts of reasons for despair, grounds for lack of reliance on the general human future and credence in the old securities, in the radiant prospect of science for human welfare, confidence in human nature itself, or in human beings in groups. Science seems to have led us into an impasse; the fruit of our subtlest technical skills may be the widest destruction. There is a chance even that the whole planet may be blown up.
The democratic faith which was so devout during the nineteenth century seems to be less secure now. The voice of the people does not always seem to be the voice of God. Parliamentary governments, where they still persist, are weak and vacillating, and in many parts of the world they have disappeared. And the old-fashioned liberal assurance of the teachable and touchable generosities of human nature seems to have vanished, too. Psychiatry has taught us too much about ourselves, and not only the psychiatrists have taught us the hidden rottennesses in the psyche; crime commissions and the daily headlines have shown how public and rife our corruption is. It is no wonder that it is easy to agree with the gloomier theologians that there is no health in us. It is tempting to turn with them for comfort to a world elsewhere. It is not surprising that we have been told, and often agree, that we must choose between belief in the supernatural or a despairing acceptance of the natural, for in the world within or without about us there is no ground for comfort, no sustenance for hope.
There have been ages before ours that have given up faith and hope in the world, eras in which many have felt that man could be saved only by those vistas of a world beyond the world, by the supernatural as revealed in sacred writings and established churches. I do not propose to argue here with those who share this conviction. I intend simply to try to restate and reaffirm what one may call the faith of the humanist and to insist that there are thousands, nay millions, in our country and in the world (even among those attached to churches and synagogues) who at heart are humanists too, and whose faith has every right to be called spiritual, and whose conviction can only by malice be called “grossly materialistic.” There is a dedication, humane and liberal, that cherishes precisely those values which have been the heart and substance of traditional religions. Indeed, for the humanist, prophetic Judaism and early Christianity are permanent contributions to Western civilization precisely because they enshrine in dramatic myths and metaphors what ultimately counts, what basically justifies human existence and gives expression to its heights, its depths, its glories, and terrors. The Old Testament contains both Ecclesiastes and the Psalms themselves which range from rapture to despair. What, then, are the articles, if so strict a term may be used, for a religion so flexible, and one that goes further than inquiry warrants?
In the light of the current spread of despair and disillusion, it is worth reaffirming the contours of the liberal belief tethered always to what disciplined inquiry can make credible. There is, first, faith in nature itself, that creative urgency and dynamic energy which is not the dead matter of the billiard-ball physics of the nineteenth century, but the vitality that generates new planets, new lives, new creations in art and philosophy and thought. There is such a thing as “cosmic piety” that comes not from any conventional assumption of a power beyond the natural, but reverence such as a poet might have for the splendors of the sea and the brightness of the stars, the miracle of childbirth and of growth, the renewal of life in the midst of death, the forms of art that outlast the artist and his audience. Even mortality is not a cause for sorrow, for regeneration is as much a part of nature as is death itself; and as for civilization as a whole, ours must end; others, so fertile is the energy of matter, will take its place, different inevitably and not impossibly better.
Pessimists have too hastily written off faith in human nature. The Greek dramatists two thousand years ago had a profound awareness of the horrors lurking within human nature, but a profound sense, too, of the dignity of human aspiration, and the reaching, however blocked or misdirected, toward the just and the good–themselves creative visions of the mind. With all the monstrosities of which nature is capable, highlighted by twenty years of brutalitarianism, the last twenty years have revealed, too, the courage and the generosities to which under the worst pressures, the best of men bear witness. Nor is it time yet by any means to lose that faith in the generality of men which animated Lincoln and Emerson and Whitman in America, and such a quiet saint of liberalism as John Stuart Mill in England in the nineteenth century. The faith in what man may make of man is not vanquished, and all the macabre predictions of what science may do to destroy us cannot blind us to what knowledge can do when allied to the liberated good will of men. The humanist whose credo is resolutely restrained to those conditions of existence which knowledge can disclose, is not without hope, nor can be called faithless. Like the theologian, he knows man is mortal, that man is frail, that he is erring, that at times he is tragically helpless. He knows too that masses of men can be brutally enslaved, or what is worse, brutally misled. He knows that nature, so gigantic in power, can be and is ruthless to human good. But he knows, too, that nature is often benign and is the source of all we hope and all we are. He persists in the conviction that sound knowledge allied to shared experience will sustain and justify faith in man, in nature, and in all things that knowledge discloses for our discipline, our joy and our salvation.
–Irwin Edman, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University
Freedom Of The Will And Determinism
The humanist approach to life is based upon the freedom to make rational choices among significant alternatives.
Controversy exists over whether human beings are free agents. The major conflicting positions are:
- Determinism: man’s life and his actions are pre-determined or conditioned–he has no free will.
- Freudian psychology: the environment shapes man’s psyche and greatly influences his behavior.
- Sociobiology: a new form of determinism which holds that behavior is governed biologically, to ensure survival of the individual’s genes.
- Indeterminism: since at times we regret past choices, free will is a real possibility.
- Libertarianism: everyone can be free; no one needs to be bound by his character, the unconscious mind, or any other external force.
A major spokesman for determinism is B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, who argues that humanists mistakenly believe human dignity depends upon establishing a case for freedom. For Skinner, freedom is liberation from something unpleasant.
In the individual, freedom can be achieved by willingness to break old patterns and explore new pathways, and by self-imposed limitations, substituting internal for external reinforcements.
Judaism Beyond God
One of the books I’ve recently read for my August class at the Humanist Institute is Judaism Beyond God, by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. I highly recommend reading it to gain a better understanding of both Judaism and humanism. Rabbi Wine is one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
To paraphrase the author’s conclusions, humanists want to bring their beliefs and their behavior together and are eager to affirm the following:
- That they are the disciples of The Secular Revolution.
- That reason is the best method for the discovery of truth.
- That morality derives from human needs.
- That the universe is indifferent to the desires of human beings.
- That people must ultimately rely on people.
- That the humanist has a positive role to play in life.
Humanists want to translate these affirmations and commitments into an effective life-style. They need a community of believers to work with and to share with in this venture. They also need a cadre of trained leaders and spokespeople to provide scholarship and guidance.
— Flo Wineriter
The Humanist Institute
Humanism has an important contribution to make to the modern world. In order to give reality to humanist ideals and practices, humanism must be effectively organized and organization demands leadership. To provide the training of humanist leaders is the role of The Humanist Institute.
The Institute is an opportunity to study the origins and history of Humanism and to explore the ways in which Humanism offers perspectives on life’s experiences and opportunities. The course of study includes organizational leadership training.
Classes are held three weekends a year for three years in New York City. Participants are required to read from an extensive reading list in preparation for each session. Class number Seven begins in the fall of this year. If you are interested in more information about enrolling, contact Flo Wineriter.
— Flo Wineriter
A Day In The Park
Sunday, June 12, 1994 KRCL Radio presented its annual Day in he Park at Liberty Park. Booth space for non-profit organizations was available. I made up a banner that said “Humanists of Utah” and assembled some literature. Flo Wineriter and I were a little late in getting there so all the “good” spots in the shade seemed to be gone. It looked like we were doomed to sit in the hot sun. I noticed some prime real estate between a socialist workers group and a table representing Trees of Utah. We asked them both to scoot just a little to the side and make room for our modest table. It worked out very well. Flo and I spent four-plus hours talking to dozens of people about humanism. We handed out upwards of 100 “What is Humanism” and “Humanist Manifesto” flyers and had 17 people sign up for free 3-month trial subscriptions to The Utah Humanist.
KRCL-91 FM is a public supported, non-commercial radio station. Programming is almost exclusively done by volunteers from the community. Programming by and for many diverse groups is heard weekly on KRCL. I wish to thank KRCL for the opportunity to put Humanists of Utah on public display. I also would like to encourage you to give KRCL a listen. If you tune in and are totally appalled–try again in an hour or two the next day. The programming changes drastically from hour to hour. Program guides are available to subscribers.
1945 – 1994
Stan Ford, a humanist, died of a heart attack on June 16, 1994 at the age of 49. He was a 20-year veteran of the United States Army, and was employed by Unisys as a Computer Specialist. Since his next-of-kin are from out of State, no obituary appeared locally, and his remains were cremated and buried in the family plot in Montana.
Stan was a friend to his neighbors, volunteered his services to local groups, and opened his home to friends and those in need. He was known as a strong individualist, a private and solitary person, and somewhat idiosyncratic. A long time member of the American Humanist Association, he generously volunteered his computer services as the first publisher of journal of the Humanists of Utah. The Utah Humanist continues to follow the format and style which he established.
A memorial service for his many friends were held at his home.