Methodological Humanism

Posted by on March 9, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments


Humanism, as I have eluded to in the past, is not the ideal of placing humanity above the rest of the world. Humanism is doing whatever it takes to help humanity as a whole thrive. As I said in an earlier piece:

Without exception, all of humanity has, at its core, a group of physical and emotional needs that need to be met if we are to meet a minimum standard of well-being in our lives.

When we look at humanity and the conditions and needs we need to survive, we can easily identify the aspects of life that are necessary for us to thrive. Humans are animals and need all the same basics as your family pet, or as a wild bird, but we are more complex than this in that we have a very pronounced sense of self that is only present in other animals in degrees. Not to place humanity above the rest of nature, but this complexity places us in a different category than any other animal on earth. However, many of the things we say we “need” are not needs at all, but instead comforts or luxuries.

The Basics

If we look at what sustains us on the planet, our basic needs are water, air, and food. All animals on earth (excepting anaerobic bacteria) require these basics. With these three things a human can survive indefinitely, until our bodies eventually give up. The amount of time any human could exist is unknown, and much of this is determined by our genes and our heredity.

Of course it can’t be just any water, food and air. For instance, salt water like we find in the world’s oceans is undrinkable, because human bodies can’t process the impurities, and long term intake will cause diarrhea, and ironically dehydration, as the body attempts to dispose of excess salts in the system. Eventually, a human that only drinks salt water will die.

Likewise, the air that we breathe can’t be just any old air either. What we call air on earth is mostly nitrogen, which is inert to humans, but contains sufficient oxygen to be breathable and useful to human bodies. The air on Mars is far to heavy in gasses that humans can’t process, such as carbon dioxide. Without giving you a biology lesson, we breathe in all the gasses in earth’s air, but only use the oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide. The idea of “running out of air” in an enclosed environment such as a sealed room is not so much running out of air as much as it is running out of oxygen in that room. Without sufficient oxygen in our air, we become light-headed, eventually passing out, then dying.

Finally, food can’t be just any old food either. Food is the energy source that keeps the furnace of our bodies pumping, and the needs of the body in this respect must be met in order to stay alive. The food we eat must be full of the nutrients we can digest and use in our bodies. Rocks, for example, may contain some of the minerals we need, but are basically undigestible. Leaves from the eucalyptus tree contain far too many unusable substances that ingesting enough will amount to poisoning oneself. Our food needs to be nutritious and digestible. While a person is more likely to die from dehydration before dying from starvation, a lack of food, and digestible food, will eventually cause the death of a person.

On top of this, our biology demands that we sleep in order to rejuvenate ourselves. We also need sunlight to help create necessary vitamins in our skin.

This is all basic biology. Humans are biological creatures, first and foremost, but this is not what makes us human. The “humanness” in humanity comes from our self-awareness and our intelligence, our empathy and the ability to cooperate with others, and the level of consciousness we possess. No other creature on earth has these qualities to the degree that we do. It is because of this that our needs extend beyond the purely physical, and into the realm of the mental and emotional aspects of the self.

These needs are all that is required for a human to live. However, given the introspective  and self-aware nature of humanity, and the propensity to evaluate ourselves, our needs as humans extend far beyond simply existing. Instead of simply eating, breathing and eventually dying, we all need to seek a life of well-being, one where the base needs are met and exceeded. Our extended needs include survival learning, communication, and to some extent, interaction with others and the cultural aspects of living.Without getting into a huge philosophical debate about what a person needs in order to live in a state of well-being, let’s just say that there is a minimum level of well-being that we all require in order to not simply exist.

Beyond the Basics

Sam Harris talks about the well-being of humanity in his book The Moral Landscape, but many have confused the idea of “well-being” for a life of relative luxuries, where our every want and whim are met. This is not the well-being I am talking about. Well-being is a qualitative statement about the manner in which we live. Our well-being depends upon the relative health of our bodies and minds, and the quality of the relationships we have with others. These two aspects of life are co-dependent, and determine the level of well-being we can attain. In other words, if we are physically unwell, but living in an aggressive or unpleasant community, one where we fear for our lives, our well-being is compromised by this aggression and fear. Likewise, if we live in a happy and stable environment where we have no fears of others, yet we are constantly in extreme pain, our well-being is lowered.

To this, well-being is not the ability to have fast-food and do nothing with life. It is instead a state where not only can we live well, but we can enjoy our time here on earth. The idea that one person’s well-being being preferable over that of another really holds no water if we look at these basic premises of human need to acquire a state of well-being.

Of course this raises the question, “What if the well-being of one person compromises the well-being of another?” For example, imagine a small village (village A) in Africa, where the population has grown to a point that their access to food is barely met by their farming. These people have little or no money, so buying from outside the village A is not an option. They want more land on which to farm, and the neighboring village (village B) has just the right amount of land to suit the first village. However, the inhabitants of village B are in the same situation, population growth speeding their demand for more land. So, in order for village A to take the land they need to survive, they must either displace or kill the inhabitants of village B. We can all see why this is a problem, village A’s well-being relies on the destruction of village B, and likewise village B’s well-being depends upon the destruction of village A. The well-being of both villages is lowered further by the constant threat to each other from the opposing village.

Someone might use this as an example where the needs of one group would harm another, and therefore in order to increase their own well-being, they are decreasing the well-being of another group. However, this example is not about well-being at all. It is about the justification humans can use to hurt others in order to better their own situations. Do not mistake the apparent demands of village A for a demand for well-being.

Well-being is a much more fundamental principle than the idea of spreading and populating, and having more in order to “be well”. In fact, one may argue that the above example, when looked at on a global scale, actually threatens the well-being of every human, with the idea that more is better. In the above example, imagine that the basic needs of both villages is already met by their current situations. Imagine also that they both have thriving cultural lives, with celebrations and happiness for those that already exist there. The well-being of these villages is high in this respect, but they could be better off with higher rates of education on farming and health practices. While this may be a judgement call on my part, I’m simply using this as an example of a common mistake people make when looking at well-being.

Bigger Picture

In much less specific terms, the well-being of humanity depends upon so much more than simply the well-being of individuals. Humanity as a whole has spent the past centuries expanding and populating every corner of the globe. In order to do this, we have forsaken the well-being of the planet to a point where we have created the anthropocene era. This means we have altered the planet enough, and on such a grand scale, that we cannot return it to the state it was in before we started using all its resources. As a result of this, we see the degradation of forests and the atmosphere because of an apparent need to expand, and the philosophy of constant and perpetual growth. This philosophy is unsustainable, by definition, given the finite resources available to us. While this expansion of humanity has meant that many third-world countries have been able to increase their productivity, and the well-being of some individuals and communities, it is coming at a cost; the planet is changing as a direct result of human expansion, and this could mean catastrophe for us all.

The well-being of the planet as it relates to the well-being of humanity extends well past humans and into the larger world. The natural environment is critical to the survival of humankind, and this is something that is often overlooked. We talk of a planet with seven billion inhabitants, yet these are only the human inhabitants. Beyond this anthropocentric view, there are trillions of lifeforms on the planet that depend upon the natural environment to live. We in turn depend upon them for their interactions with their environment. Great forests like those in the Amazon are sometimes called “the lungs of the planet”, and for good reason too. They act as air filters, removing carbon dioxide from the air, and replace it with oxygen, which we need in order to breathe. They also act as massive carbon-storage units, keeping the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and thereby metering the temperature of the earth. The loss of single species in an environment like the Amazon may lead to the extinction of further plant and animal species, be they a pollinator, a food source, or simply a means by which seeds get spread. This highly complex interaction within rainforests also happen within dry forests, temperate grasslands, river systems and oceans. There is not a place on earth that hasn’t evolved some kinds of inter-dependence among the inhabitants of that system. Humans are not removed from this picture, and as much as we’d like to think we are self-sustaining, we too are completely dependent upon these systems for our own well-being.

The biggest problem I see with this situation is that of “want” versus “need”. It is impossible for an individual to look at the well-being of an entire planet of people without getting caught  up in the question of what it could mean to themselves. Few people on earth will give up their relative luxuries (in some cases, extreme luxuries) in order that an Fijian community can reach the kind of levels of excess that we enjoy daily, and nor should they. To raise the extreme poor up from poverty and into, at a minimum, a state of well-being that most in the west take for granted does not mean having to sell your flat-screen TV and live on canned lentils for the rest of your life. It means a focus upon the most important building tools that poorer communities require to become self-sustainable and able to communicate with the wider world. Education, above all, is key, and availability of this education is not, in a global sense, expensive at all.

The Humanist Methodology

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece “Humanism is doing whatever it takes to help humanity as a whole thrive.” Thriving is what we would all like to do, beyond just “being well”. Thriving is a state of well-being plus the ability to live in a comfortable and safe environment plus the ability to live beyond the simple basics of survival. Thriving, in this sense, does not mean unchecked and perpetually unsustainable growth. As you can see, we depend upon our planet, our only home, for our very existences, and therefore we must include the world at large, beyond humans, when we talk of the methodology of humanism. Humanism is not “human worshiping”, in fact, on this level, there is no worshiping at all. Humanism is devoid of deities, and goes beyond belief, to a space where we can evaluate what is truly important to us as a species, and work toward that for all people, regardless of their ideologies. As I have illustrated, we have much more in common with each other than we have to divide and differentiate us. There are more binding factors between humans, and the planet, than there are reasons to dislike your neighbors.

On a methodological level, humanism can take this stance, and ignoring the differences between people, move toward a better society for us all, a sustainable world, and ecologically sound world. This means looking at all the complexities of life and societies, determining those which are harmful or beneficial to the individuals and to the whole, and assessing whether any practices should be maintained or left by the wayside.

Methodological humanism makes no distinction between religious or cultural beliefs. In fact, these factors rarely come into play, unless the religious or cultural practice is harmful to individuals or the whole. For example, if a religion deems it a good thing to kill all non-believers, then obviously that is harmful. If a culture says it is acceptable to mutilate the females at birth to deny them sexual pleasure in later life, that too is harmful. It is not a matter of how long these practices have existed, nor is it a matter of taking away people’s rights. It is a matter of looking at the harm done to people and the environment against the idea of well-being and thriving, and making an assessment based upon these criteria.

By its very nature, methodological humanism is secular. However, I think this distinction between “methodological humanism” and “secular humanism” needs to be made. Secular humanism, as seen from a religious standpoint, is a threat to an individual’s right to worship their deity. Whenever the word “secular” is used, many religious people see it as a denial of religious rights. Of course by definition this is not the case, with “secular” simply meaning “attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” This does not mean “at the expense of religion”. It takes away the differentiating factor of religion, and first views all humans as the same, but it isn’t always enacted as such.

Methodological Humanism

If we first see humans as humans, understand what it is that makes us well, in conjunction with an understanding of what we require, ignoring the differences between people, our base level needs and our well-being will take care of themselves, and we can concentrate on our need to thrive. This means, not discriminating against someone based on gender, race, religion, culture or nationality, but first looking at their situation, looking at their problems and looking at their needs, and making a judgement from there as to a solution. It needs to be employed both on an individual level and as a whole.

This really just barely touches upon the many aspects of the human condition, and how a humanist methodology can be employed to help us move into the future. One does not have to be an atheist to employ methodological humanism, because this methodology doesn’t involve belief or lack thereof in deities. This methodology can be employed by anyone, with any beliefs, as long as that person sees the importance to the species of maintaining our existences. If however a person doesn’t see this importance, I am sorry, but I cannot help you. Given the sheer breadth of the topics covered in this piece, I intend to write further upon some of the individual aspects of methodological humanism in more detail.

Credit goes out to John Douglas Poole who came up with the term Methodological Humanism while I was explaining  the idea on Twitter. Follow him.

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  1. Psycopathic leaders prepared to instil fear in their people to the point that worship becomes a prphylactic to avoid horrific torture requires better levels of humanity in politics. Greed and power lust goes along with that. Most humans do not want that so we trust that mental health care will get greater credence through understanding the defective human brain.

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  2. We must behave in a responsible manner in deciding what we choose to do cause our decisions can empact those around us. How much is too much when it comes to procreation and sustainable development verses just irresponsible sex

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