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.’

 

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