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The Humanist Institute

Humanism and Beyond the Truth

 Michael Werner

Provides some answers to the question of what is there beyond truth–making of value for humanists. It sees truth-making as only one, possibly overemphasized, tool in the service of the good life. It explores such aspects as motivation, emotional intelligence, intuition, inspiration, consciousness raising, art, imagery, story telling, supportive thinking, compassion, and metaphor as tools in our larger and multiple humanist goals.

This article looks at what human tools, other than reason and science, can lead to a better humanist life. It first identifies how reason and science can lead to dystopian results and then seeks to identify those behavioral traits important in promoting human welfare. Motivation, inspiration, symbolic awareness, imagery, intuition, interpersonal skills and maturity are just some of the tools that find usefulness in reaching a full humanism. 

 Anyone with a successful marriage knows the limitations of unvarnished truth. It must give way to overlooking flaws and softening the truth for the good of the relationship. No constructive purpose is served by pointing out that the partner has put on a few pounds. In other words, sometimes in life absolute truth must yield to higher values. We need to look beyond the truth.

Yet, humanists sometimes speak as if truth were the most important value we hold, when common sense shows us that we have multiple, sometimes competing, high values. Certainly human welfare is at or near the top of most humanists' list of priorities. Some would place the priority broader in terms of earth-based commitments. In any case, we have not placed reason and science as our Godhead although they help us achieve a life of greater happiness, less suffering, and an ennobled spirit.

A basic tension arose when the Enlightenment replaced religion with critical reason and science as the bridge to a better life. The Romantic Movement countered with the view that our emotional, intuitional, prescientific awareness was more important. These dialectical polar views seemed to be synthesizing at the beginning of this century when many humanists seemed to integrate heart and mind, reason and compassion. As the century progressed, our general culture became more aware of the old dichotomy and a radical form of Romanticism has taken hold in the form of Postmodernism. During this cultural and intellectual transformation, humanism has felt the need to pick up and carry the discarded torch of the Enlightenment. As a result, truth-making and the defense of truth and science have gained a higher priority among humanists in the last quarter of the century.

The postmodern crisis challenges not just humanism, but all of intellectual and progressive thought. Modernist progressive hopes have been crushed as science and reason are attacked on many fronts, aided by traditional American anti-intellectualism.

Some may ask how one could be against reason and science. Postmodernists argue that any theory of truth is invalid and all we know are culturally derived notions. I won't try to refute the radical relativistic epistemology espoused today except to note that I agree with Camille Paglia who calls it mostly "pretentious nonsense." I'd like to focus on the more disturbing arguments about the functional problems of reason and science.

While reason and science are the best, but not only, methods of arriving at truth, they by no means insure it. More importantly, they do not necessarily lead to the good life. Very simply, we are not so much rational animals as much as we are rationalizing ones. Our overdeveloped powers of cognition are more often used to confirm our prejudices, maintain our power and control, and shield us from confronting our own irrational inconsistencies. This seems to be particularly true of the "soft science." The "hard" or natural sciences, while always susceptible to subjective bias, can ultimately move closer to theories which in fact are able to explain, predict and control the regularities found in nature. This is done in a Darwinian battle between inherently rival theories. While proving objectivity is always impossible, the natural sciences seem to work from a commonsense and historical viewpoint.

The humanities are a different story. The Enlightenment oversold reason and science's ability in law, government, ethics, art, music, sociology, history etc., to provide a rational totalizing perspective. There are limits to reason and science in all areas, but much more so in the area that talks about how to live our lives. We have not been successful in politics, ethics, and economics in defining rationally and empirically defensible overarching systems. Much of the universe is chaotic, unexplainable, or without clear-cut choice. This is why Isaiah Berlin believes, "the limits of rational choice affirm the reality of radical choice." [1] Pluralism is demanded by rational analysis because there is no rational "one way" in human affairs. In fact, when there are no overarching rational worldviews, there will inevitably be deep conflicts between incompatible worldviews and inherently rival values. The abortion issue is a case in point where there is no "right" political answer to two incommensurable worldviews.

Science and reason have also been criticized as being the tools of only the educated, rich, white, males in our society. Maybe they are great tools, but only if you have been fortunate enough to be of the right sex, class, and race to be able to obtain them. Thus they can end up being used as tools of power and control for a privileged position. Wielding the power of knowledge over a person or group can be just as powerful a tool of subjugation as the more coercive measures of days past.

Reason becomes a tool for control in other ways. For example, one can provide very good rational reasons for why one needs more information on people's lives including medical, criminal, tax, housing, educational, genetic data, etc. Looking reductively at each specific piece of information, one can build fair arguments for why a government or employer needs to collect this information. It is only when we expand our view that we see the frightening and irrational prospect of others using that data to manipulate prejudices and use that knowledge as a weapon. Some consider that bureaucracies are a natural outcome of rationalistic processes in that they are built on many, small, sound rational reasons ignoring the eventual irrational result of an inoperable, oppressive, clumsy and inefficient system. Another example of a narrowly conceived rationality is on an assembly line where looking only at the "rational economic efficiency" may ignore the human toll of that efficiency.

Don't misunderstand me, as I still believe humanism must carry the torch of the Enlightenment. In a modern technical global society, reason, science, and truth building are requisite to the good society and must be protected, nurtured and promoted. But, what other tools can sculpt a better world? I will offer a few examples. First, values emerge from a whole process of life. Postmodernists may say that values arise only from history and culture, but that is certainly too narrow a viewpoint. Our genes have impressed on us biological drives. Our environment imposes certain necessities and I for one would still hold out hope for some degree of nondeterministic choice in human affairs. Reason is indeed part of that choice making. Given the intermingling of these value-making forces, it is impossible to segregate them from each other.

Something more important is still missing from our equation for a humanist life. We may have knowledge obtained from the best of reason and science. We may have a sense of what is valued and important to us. We can have all the knowledge and all the right values, but unless we express it in our actions, our humanism is still in the head. There must be an integration of many factors including reason and science for a fully humanist life to occur. So what else besides reason and science?

Let's start with motivation and inspiration. Something must power us to action. We must be motivated to act on what we think leads to the good life. Recent studies by Antonio R. Damasio [2] have shown that it is not reason and cognition that make ethical decisions. By studying patients with damaged ventromedial connections from the emotional center in the midbrain to the cognitive centers in the neocortex, they found that the primary decision-maker for ethical decisions resides in the emotional, subconscious regions. The "I" of the "authentic self," is more hidden from view than we realized. The so-called "free will" is not so free. What these findings say is that our emotional grounding can overwhelm all sense of rational analysis.

 Still, Rational Emotive Behavioral therapy and the Cognitive therapies, the modern versions of Stoicism, have shown how our emotions are in large part a recursive result of our cognition and largely controllable. [3] The human mind must be seen more as a "committee of the minds," with rational, emotional, instinctual, behavioral etc. minds competing and interacting. We can well be on "automatic pilot" most of the time giving ourselves over to our subconscious social and biological drives. None of us has total autonomy from these forces, but we can seek, and with practice gain, a greater degree of control and rational autonomy. Still, the driving emotional forces of fear, love, hate, envy, grief, empathy, and happiness, seem to be the most powerful motivating forces. That is why Bertrand Russell said, "The good life is one guided by reason and motivated by love." Note that he did not say guided by love and motivated by reason.

The author Daniel Goldman in his book, Emotional Intelligence, [4] shows how we delude ourselves by thinking that rational thought alone leads to the good life. The most successful and satisfied people are those that have developed their social skills or emotional intelligence. The skills required in getting along with others require a different form of intelligence than critical reason. and our definition of cognitive ability needs to be expanded.

Compassion and responsibility are the practical basis for human morality and not rational ethical systems. As James Q. Wilson puts it, "Moral sense is natural." [5] Compassion is our natural empathy, reinforced by our upbringing.

 We must be able to visualize a better life. We see that "whole picture" not through the lenses of syllogistic logic, but by a more graphic lens. The Romantics showed us how the lens of art, music, drama and literature illuminate life issues and make them stick in our minds. Who can forget or not be motivated by the raw emotional images of Dickens characters of social injustice, or the overbearing social controls of small town mentality in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, or the purposelessness of contemporary America in the movie Pulp Fiction, or the inspiration to overcome and transcend adversity that is evoked in us when we hear Beethoven's 5th symphony. Visualization and metaphor provide lasting motivational images. As Albert Camus said, "If the world were clear, there would be no need for art." It has been said that the really important things we learn can only be learned indirectly and obliquely. Looking directly at a problem or the solution is blinding. One can only approach certain issues peripherally. Sometimes we only learn through hard experience. Sometimes we only learn through intense emotionally transformative experience.

Often, learning must begin with a trusting relationship where one is willing to forgo any "truth seeking" judgment of a person, and allow that person a comfort zone so that they can learn on their own. People, especially children, need supportive thinking rather than critical thinking. Ironically, with most of us, the discovery of truth is only accomplished if we do not have the truth thrust directly upon us. We must find it ourselves. This is why quiet role modeling and patience serve as some of the best mentoring and parenting. The truth becomes incarnate in our life story. Most of us can tell stories of teachers who inspired us with their love of a subject. Their inspiration rubbed off on us and no amount of rational persuasion can ever approach the power of those experiences.

Extending the circle of influence, we must include our communities. The communitarian movement has brought new vitality and insights in how our lives and happiness are shaped by the communities we share. We are not isolated egos, but intensely communal creatures. Certainly the freethought tradition of humanism has recognized how the need to conform can distort our thinking. While we must always be on guard for the subtle and not so subtle societal forces of control and conformity, we must nevertheless interweave our lives within our communities. Our humanist ideals are played out in our lives with others.

When we say that we believe in the intrinsic worth of people, we generally mean this as a prescriptive rather than a descriptive admonition. This wonderful ideal is just hollow words if we don't actually give people dignity. Yes, this is played out in the Enlightenment ideal of civil liberties and social justice, but it is expressed daily in how we treat others in our personal interactions. Interestingly, this is an area where intuitions play a dominant role in our knowledge base. Evolution has endowed us with the ability to observe others and subconsciously determine their sincerity and motivations. The ability to read the subtleties in others' facial expressions, posture, etc. grew as a non-rational adaptive survival trait. We can sense the insincerity when someone is telling us they respect us, but the body speaks another message. Therefore, our hearts must be in line with our rational thinking if our philosophy has any truth. Even when we disagree or disapprove of another, we must see the other as a human being of similar brokenness and nobleness as ourselves or our words will ring hollow. This requires not just a change in philosophy, but an emotional change of heart in our attitude toward people.

 Some religious images have helped the theistic in this change of heart. Examples can be seen such as the Christian image of seeing everyone as the image of God, or of God in all of us. Martin Buber [6] speaks of seeing each other as a "thou", or sacred being. These images in fact help redirect our appreciation and tolerance, also changing our attitudes. Do we humanists have similar, transformative, evocative imagery?

Anthropological studies have found that people across cultures spend 90 percent of their time with others telling stories. We love telling our stories to others for good reason, as these are the lessons we remember and take to heart. All religions have great stories. Jesus, the parable teller, was of that tradition. The story of the Good Samaritan is worth ten times the value of the legalistic golden rule. We humanists have many stories, but we need more. Camus' Myth of Sisyphus can be a remarkably helpful story for those dealing with the absurdity of purpose in the 20th century. Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek had the predictable format of an old medieval morality play. There were always two lessons to be learned, one about personal existence and interpersonal morality, and one about social morality and justice. In any other format, other than science fiction, it would have appeared preachy and hokey, but he made it work as a teaching and entertainment tool. Regardless which story we look at, we are called to "see" the reasoning for action. Our minds must have visualization and not just some abstract rational reasons before wisdom can occur. That is why they call it insight.

Much is being made today about intuition. Many academic feminists argue that a woman's way of knowing things is more intuitional than men's. [7] Intuition as a method of knowledge has generally been discounted since it can be merely our prejudices speaking or a fancy way of saying, "My guess is…." Much of what we now know to be true is counter-intuitive. I wake to see the sun come up and "move" across the sky. Is it any wonder the ancients thought that the earth was fixed and the sun was moving? Our racism and tribalism can be seen as an intuitional manipulation by our genes to eliminate other gene pools and enhance our own. Still, there is something at work here. Most of us would make a "gut check" before making a major decision. Our propensity to rationalize needs a countering voice. The best of intuitions are those that effectively integrate our rational knowledge, our instinctual desires, our base of real experience, and our heartfelt emotions. We call it wisdom when this subconscious, integrative insight seems to be in sync. It seems as a parent that I am trying to do this every time my son asks for permission to go somewhere. I must make a wise choice and my intuitions informed by rational thought seem to be the best way to perform this. We can never think that our intuitions are enough by themselves. So too, we can never think that our conscious minds are so good that they can filter through all the rational alternatives without bias and determine solutions for living. One task of intuition is to subconsciously sift through those rational alternatives without conscious distractions and then present choices by way of what feels right. Intuition is nature's survival tool enabling us to make quick decisions based on simple ingrained formulas. We need these alternative methods or as Carl Jung said,

The more the critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes…Over-valued reason has this in common with political absolutism; under its dominion the individual is pauperized." [8]

 This century began with a giddy optimism about the potential for reason and science to produce a progressively better world. We end this century filled with doubt, frozen hopes for progress, and more than a little anxiety that we can recollect any unified vision. In these days it is easy to fall into either a postmodern nihilism or a utopian, indiscriminate pluralism to deal with the problems we now know inherent with reason and science. The overreaction to these problems reminds me of the response many "come-outers" in the humanist fold feel when they determine that there is no God. Many are bitter at having been deluded and they consequently can see no value in any religious practices. In the same way, many today feel betrayed and cheated after their consciousness is raised concerning how impotent reason and science have been in developing a better society, how cold and unforgiving those who are "head only" can be, how science that gave us penicillin also gives us germ warfare, how limited reason is in inspiring or motivating us to the good life, and how much of our reasoning is subverted for uses of power and control. Many have tossed out the betraying lover, Reason, along with her consort, Science, and seeing no hope in larger progressive dreams, withdraw to private and less ambitious ones.

It is true that there is no absolute foundation for anything we believe. Reason and science are now known to be more two-edged swords with the potential for considerable downside at times. Over-valuing reason can neglect the inspirational and emotional aspects of our being. But withdrawing from reason and science like a jilted lover is an indulgence we can ill afford. We need to use all our abilities and not discard them, be it reason or emotions, just because there are problems associated with them.

 The successful humanism of the twenty-first century will integrate our social lives with a scientific epistemology. Science, while having no absolute foundations, can be seen as "bootstrapping" itself since it is self reflective and correcting, Joseph Margolis points out. [9] Otto Neurath saw science as a ship sailing on open water without ever having the safety of a port and which we must constantly rebuild while at sea. [10] Willard Quine sees that ship having a whole web of belief that is held together by its coherence. [11] Roger Trigg sees that web of belief as part of an integrated metaphysics that in fact describes reality. [12] George Masters has made an attempt to reconcile naturalistic science as a basis for ethics. [13] All of these philosophers are not deterred by lack of firm foundations for reason and science, or by its probabilistic, tentative nature. All see reason and science as requisite to civilized society.

The successful twenty-first century humanism will see a revitalization of their reason and science, be but humbler and more self-conscious of the potentials for harm and distortion. More importantly, it will be more aware that truth building by itself is no substitute for our larger purposes in creating a better world, and that it will require a variety of skills including interpersonal skills, art, intuition, story telling, media savvy, teaching, emotional maturity etc. to do this. As naturalists, we of all people should know that these adaptive, useful tools have been handed us by evolution and are proven to work in the real court of human affairs.


[1] John Gray, Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[2] Antonio R. Damasio, Decartes' Error (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994).

[3] Albert Ellis and Robert Harper, A New Guide to Rational Living (North  Hollywood, Calif.: Wilshire, 1975).

[4] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995).

[5] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993).

[6] Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York : Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970).

[7] M. F. Belenky, B. M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger, J.M Tarule, Woman's Way of Knowing (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

[8] Carl Gustav Jung, as quoted in George Seldes, The Great Thoughts (New York: Ballantine, 1985).

[9] Joseph Margolis, Pragmatism Without Foundations (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

[10] W.V.O. Quine  "On What There Is" in From a Logical Point Of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953).

[11] W. V. O. Quine and J.S.Ullian, The Web of  Belief (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

[12] Roger Trigg, Rationality and Science, (New York: Blackwell, 1993).

[13] Roger Masters, Beyond Relativism (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1993).

© 1999 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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