“It’s a sort of curious phenomenon that God is somehow not quite as nice as the devil; the devil doesn’t punish you for behaving well, but God punishes you for behaving badly.”
―Jacob Bronowski

“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free” ― Baruch Spinoza

image1

Featured

Take Nobody’s Word For It

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

― Robert Wright

In fortunate circumstances, one can find the capacity to reach beyond the confines of a narrowly defined identity and unleash the seed of intellectual enlightenment after years, even decades, in darkness. That this seed can grow at any point in time, with no prior interest in the sciences, history, art, philosophy, introspection and discourse, is a remarkable aspect of the human condition.

Humanism as a lifestyle, and community, offers people a unique opportunity to explore these realms and develop their potential. There is no need to set boundaries when considering meaningful ways to extend the Humanist community outreach. If we only focus on critiquing others attempts at social engagement (like humanist chaplaincy), then we miss the real point; what can humanists bring to the social table? We need to embrace those who seek ways to spark interest and invent spaces for building connection in the world, not discourage them. There are infinitely more pleasant ways to discharge such energy.

My main pre-occupations as a humanist revolve around mental health and biology, free thought-speech, and exploring the dimensions of human identity. When the private sphere can be safely navigated through meditation and education- then the chamber of one’s mind can gradually be understood. This understanding can open many doors and bolster confidence for those who wish to go on and explore the public sphere; with the voice of Pericles echoing down the ages, ‘Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you’.

Humanism has manifested its spirit in many quarters. In the East, a ninth-century Zen teacher by the name of Lin Chi is said to have once uttered the words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road—kill him”.  In the West, The Royal Society used a comparably wise motto since the founding of the academy of science in 1660, ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as- “take nobody’s word for it”. While the latter encourages us to falsify and test the diversity of facts we are drawn too, the former asks us to examine our moment to moment experience and discard our sectarian idols.

Take nullius in verba too far, however, and we arrive at Malcolm Robert’s recent misunderstanding of the empirical method. According to him, critical thinking means rejecting the evidence of NASA, and most other leading authorities on climate change. In contrast to this muddled thinking, the maxim in fact challenges us to seek evidence, adopt a healthy and rational scepticism, and most importantly, cultivate reasonableness in both the private and public spheres. Reasonableness, as defined by Karl Popper, is the spirit of, “I may be wrong, and you may be right, but by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth”.

Eastern meditative traditions also have their excesses. Examining the concepts such as the Japanese, ‘mushin no shin’ (Mind without mind), and the Chinese ‘Wu wei’ (Action without action), are intellectual points of departure that often lead to a journey of self-discovery. However, hard-nosed types often feel disappointed when representatives of the various spiritual camps stubbornly distinguish themselves based on the grandiose concepts they promote. The intended point frequently loses its flavour and instead we are served a bland and rotten excuse for a banquet. The actual intended recipe, as with most things of value, requires the ingredients of discipline and audacity – ‘Kill the Buddha -and find out for yourself’. This strategy of introspection and free thinking as a means of improving mental health, has serious merit, and can provide an effective method for understanding the universal experience of suffering. As Robert Wright says in his recent book ‘Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment’, “natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.”.

Seeing clearly sparks new interest in the world and new interest in the world makes us see clearly; the effect becomes the cause. Humanist volunteers and community support groups have a unique opportunity to spark such interest, and so I was delighted to recently take on the role of assistant editor of the Humanist Society. To join the ‘second wave’ of Humanism that Australia is currently undergoing and incorporate my own vision of a movement that helps empower those wrestling with mental and spiritual afflictions.

Providing environments to listen and argue reasonably, help develop social connections that bind us to a shared vision of humanity, based on freedom and compassion. Providing guidance for spiritual development and truth seeking, is the blueprint for a thriving community. So long as dogma and irrationality are not permitted to imprison our minds, and superstition rejected, then, evidence, reason, and understanding, still have the power to open hearts and minds and as Kant petitioned, ‘sapere aude’ – “dare us to know”.

Karl Popper’s recipe for the humanist is still unsurpassed and a new wave of humanism with these sentiments in mind, can only succeed.

‘The emphasis upon the dualism of facts and decisions determines also our attitude towards such ideas as ‘progress’. If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. For to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings.

‘History’ cannot do that; only we, the human individuals, can do it; we can do it by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice. Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.’

 

ALL MINUS ONE- John Stuart Mill’s Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated

Heterodox Academy has produced a new book based on John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty to make it accessible for the 21st century. Here’s what makes the edition special:

1) It’s just the second chapter (out of 5), because that chapter gives the best arguments ever made for the importance of free speech and viewpoint diversity;
2) We have reduced that chapter by 50% to remove repetitions and historical references that would be obscure today, producing a very readable 7000 word essay;
3) Editors Richard Reeves (a biographer of Mill) and Jon Haidt (a social psychologist) have written a brief introduction to link Mill and his time to the issues of our time, and
4) Artist Dave Cicirelli has created 16 gorgeous original illustrations that amplify the power of Mill’s metaphors and arguments.

All Minus One is ideal for use in college courses, advanced high school classes, or in any organization in which people would benefit from productive disagreement.

https://heterodoxacademy.org/mill/

Nobody’s Word Is Final | Callum Golding

As a member of the Canberra Humanist society, I felt a spark this year when I heard that some of the members had been investing energy into an activity called Humanist Chaplaincy. This service provides ethical and moral support from a non-religious perspective in institutions such as hospitals and universities, employing the most important tool available– the art of listening. While the title ‘humanist chaplain’ sounds like a contradiction in terms to some ears, others have not overlooked its potential and significance. There is not only the positive function this role can serve in the community, but the scope for other community work that would only be limited by our imagination. Indeed Council of Australian Humanist Societies President Lyndon Storey has called for Australian humanists to explore as wide a range as possible of volunteer community service roles under the banner of being “humanist community workers”. By this he means for humanists to feel free to be as creative and forward looking as possible in developing new forms of community engagement for the 21st century. While accepting that sometimes these new forms will have to use old terminology, such as humanist “chaplaincy” the key goal is to encourage humanist community workers as much as possible, whether they focus on chaplaincy or something else. As humanists, we need to be open to our sense of compassion and our ethical imagination to develop new ways of connecting with people. That is the strength of humanism, and what distinguishes it from mere atheism, its focus on developing positive values for living life.

If Aristotle thought ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it’, I think it is the mark of an open mind, to entertain a thought without rejecting it. I know from experience how powerful the art of imagination can be. As an incredibly fortunate specimen, I somehow found myself capable of reaching beyond the confines of my narrowly defined identity and noticing a seed of intellectual enlightenment grow after decades of darkness. If that seed can grow at thirty years of age, with literally no prior interest in the Sciences, History, Art, Philosophy, introspection and discourse– then it can happen to anyone, any time.

As far I can tell, there is no need to set boundaries when exploring meaningful ways to extend the Humanist community outreach. Focussing only on critiquing other’s attempts at social engagement, or criticising such attempts, like humanist chaplaincy, as too similar to religion, misses the real point; what can humanists bring to the social table? What we need is more encouragement for those who seek ways to spark interest and invent spaces for building connection in the world, not fruitless attempts at criticism. These smack of privilege mixed in with a dose of intellectual elephantiasis. There are infinitely more pleasant ways to discharge such energy. For example, a humanist alternative to anonymous addiction groups could be one such way. If the private sphere can be safely navigated through meditation and group discussion- then the chamber of one’s mind can be slowly understood. This understanding can open many doors and bolster confidence for those who wish to go on and explore the public sphere. As Pericles said, ‘Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you’.

I am proposing that rather than leave it to religiously inspired values to drive voluntary addiction support and self-help projects, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, we can develop humanist alternatives. This need not mean simply putting the word humanist in front of an existing model. It can also mean drawing upon our own imagination and creativity to create new, and better, approaches.

Furthermore, there are ways to bring together an Eastern and Western approach that can enhance our thinking and experience. A Zen teacher by the name of Lin Chi is said to have once uttered the words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road—kill him”. The Royal Society of Science have used a comparably wise motto ever since their founding in 1660, ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as- ‘take nobody’s word for it. While the latter encourages us to falsify and test the diversity of facts we find ourselves interested in, the former asks us to examine our pre-existing concepts and beliefs, and undertake a clinical observation of our minds sprightly, and frequently neurotic, modes. These attention seeking modes are a constantly active part of the brain known to Neuroscientists as the ‘Default mode network’.

Neither of these two statements suggests that the authority or wisdom of experts and sages should be wholly rejected. For example, when we saw Malcolm Robert’s recent misunderstanding of the empirical method, somehow lead him to reject the evidence of NASA, and most other leading authorities on climate change, we all felt a cold shudder. Instead of this muddled thinking, the statements challenge us to seek evidence, adopt a healthy and rational scepticism and cultivate a curiosity for both the private and public spheres.

By contrast, Eastern meditative traditions that have concepts such as the Japanese ‘mushin no shin’ (Mind without mind) and the Chinese ‘Wu wei’ (Action without action), are often intellectual points of departure that can lead to a process of self-discovery. For the sceptical and hard-nosed types, it can raise a red flag when it becomes apparent that intellectual representatives of various traditional camps start to distinguish themselves based on the grandiose claims and concepts they stand for. The intended point frequently loses its flavour and instead we are served with a bland and rotten excuse for a banquet. The intended recipe, as with most things that are worthwhile, requires discipline — ‘Kill the Buddha – investigate for yourself’. These ideals, that stimulated the East throughout history, are interpretations of a universal experience that is best understood through determined observation of subjective experience. This can of course render a conversation about these states of consciousness, not only confusing, but very nearly futile.

That said, there are few conversations that are completely pointless and some effect is always made. Popular physicists would understand this well. A verbal explanation of quantum mechanics, for instance, is no doubt lost on most us mere mortals and it is not far-fetched to say that only a small minority of the population possess the mathematical stamina to understand the quantum world in depth. Nevertheless, physicists continue to promote their subject with great zeal, and they know that those who get a small spark of interest in the subject are just as important as those who pursue a deep understanding.

So let’s see where a small spark of interest in humanist volunteering might lead us. Volunteers and peer support groups can play a significant role not just for people struggling with addictions but for others on the mental health spectrum also. This, of course, is not a substitute for the important role of social workers, psychologists and councillors, in fact it would drive in their direction. The ‘accountable’ mental health professionals who play a pivotal role in society are not always as approachable as they like to imagine. Many people who suffer on this planet need time to warm to the idea of professional help. Of course there are also many who simply cannot afford professional help or simply don’t trust the idea that compassion and support really are compassion and support when they are commodified into “professional” services.

People suffering from addiction and other afflictions can draw help in the right circumstances from volunteers who are intellectually honest, empathetic, and share in a similar historical struggle. To be safely exposed to both honest and empathetic support, and where necessary- inconvenient truths, can prove indispensable on the journey to not just recovery, but self-understanding and realization. The art of listening and providing open spaces to talk aloud creates connections that can continue to maximize compassion in the future: as long as dogma is not permitted to imprison our minds and superstition is rejected. Evidence, reason, and understanding have the strength to open hearts and minds and as Kant petitioned, ‘sapere aude’ – dare us to know.