On secular humanism.

9780300203431After no more than three pages of Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith, a sentence gave me pause.  “Secular humanism begins, after all, with doubt.”

I had never heard the phrase “secular humanism” before arriving at college.  The first time was two months into fall quarter my freshman year, sitting in the dining hall near the science and engineering building.  I was eating dinner with Ravi, my brilliant friend…

(To be more precise, my only friend.  I was perhaps over-shy.  My first three weeks of college, I did not speak.  I was enrolled in mostly lecture courses, so no need to fear being called on and having to answer.  And I didn’t realize this was a problem until one afternoon the cafeteria card swipe woman asked how I was doing, and I opened my mouth but could not answer.  My voice would not work.  The next day, resolving to make a change, I waited after completing a quiz to turn it in at the same time as someone who looked nice, and walked out of the classroom with her, attempting to have a conversation.  That was when Ravi barreled into me, announced we were in the same organic chemistry class, asked me for advice as to where to take someone on a date in town, told me he liked my shoelaces [pink], and said I was meeting him at the gym later that afternoon.  The woman I’d waylaid excused herself in terror, and she and I never did become friends.  But I had Ravi instead.)

…and a woman he liked.  We were talking about whether or not one ought to eat meat.  The wooed woman (who would later become my roommate, for the final two years of college) said something, and my reply, which I no longer remember, made it obvious that I’d assumed she was Christian.

I was from Indiana!  In Indiana, that was always a safe assumption.

Ravi gently informed me that she was a secular humanist.  And so was he, he said.  And wasn’t I, he asked.  I was nonplused.  “No,” I told him, “I’m an atheist.”  At which point he laughed at me.  Which I suppose was fair.  Shouldn’t students at that sort of fancy college be expected to know the word secular?

But I didn’t.  I didn’t grow up with doubt.  I didn’t grow up with a contrast between secular and sacred.  My mother even took my sister and me to church every year on Christmas Eve, but that was just a short bearded man reading stories in a big room.  Teachers read stories to my classmates and me every day at school.  And my mother never told me, this is different, so I never realized that, for other people, it was.

One of my elementary school teachers said that we could bring in our favorite books and she would read them to the class.  I brought The Burro Benedicto.  I no longer remember the story, but I still remember loving it.  My teacher told me quietly that she couldn’t read it.  God was a character.  I thought that if she didn’t like that, she could use a different name.  I believe that’s what I suggested, but she told me no and I took the book back home.  Still not understanding; plenty of other books that were read had magic characters, and to me it was just a story.

As far as I can recall, most of my education progressed similarly.  I was generally oblivious, and surrounded by Christians, and was eventually informed by one of them that I was an atheist.  But all the while, it never felt like doubt.  Why would it?  I always loved reading, but since my parents had started me on diary writing well before I could actually write (glancing back at the diaries, it seems that I would scribble and then my parents would translate, asking me what I’d written and jotting the words more legibly beneath.  Unfortunately, numerous entries consist of full-page, looping scribbles that were translated as “I had a bad day”), I always had a sense of words as created things.  Math allows you to find something that pre-exists you in the world, I believed.  In math, one discovers truths.  Whereas language allows you to create sentences.

I assume that dichotomy of belief on my part is why Borges’s “Library of Babel” (see illustration below!) so thoroughly wrecked me when I first read it.  And it still has me pinned!  Yes, obviously I know the numbers involved are so big as to dwarf our to-date consumption of any language, dwarf it into a rounding error away from zero, but it hurt to realize that words possess less magic than I thought they did.  It is implausible but not impossible that a computer program could one day achieve linguistic beauty by eliminating one by one inharmonious strings.  “Writing” by deletion, chiseling away from the ridiculously large yet finite set of options rather than building up from undifferentiated clay.


So I suppose, despite my atheism, that I was not particularly secular.  I slept with what I felt to be a magic rock.  I still do, in fact.  The same rock.  About the size of my palm.  Light green, found on a beach in Michigan when I was four, carried by me, despite my father’s prediction of failure, up a precarious sand dune.  In slumber, it nestles against my belly, and my hope is that it brings me luck.

Some nights before she falls asleep my daughter will grab the rock and giggle.  Each evening, it is cool to the touch.  And by now very very smooth.

My wife, also a secular humanist, has since informed me that I am not an atheist.  She refers to, among other things, the rock.  An atheist, she feels, would not believe in luck.  Sometimes she clarifies: well, an atheist could, but not a secularist.  Because the point of secularism is that you don’t believe in the supernatural.

I fail to see how luck is supernatural.  Or rather, I can imagine one worldview in which luck is supernatural, but within that framework, free will is supernatural too.  Because I believe in free will, I have no qualms extending the same latitude to luck.  Both involve a belief that the immaterial (consciousness, karma, what have you) might somehow influence — even slightly — the material world.  And neither is strictly precluded by any findings from science; finite samplings from a truly random process could always be postulated to reflect a hidden driver.  Likewise, finite samplings from a wide variety of near-random drivers could be presumed causeless.

If all existing evidence gives you a choice to either believe in free will or not, I don’t see why anyone would choose not to.  Yes, it’s quasi-mystical.  But so what?  It contradicts no scientific principles, and, if you’re anything like me, it’ll make you feel better about the world.

Believing there is a me helps me be good.

And, for me, that is where secular humanism begins.  Not with doubt, but with belief.  I believe that I have a choice.  And I know that my presence comes at a cost to the world.  To the universe.  This physical meat shell that encases the consciousness I call me is a very orderly structure.  But the second law of thermodynamics states…

(I like thermodynamics, but I’ve always been thrown off by the word “law” as used to describe its principles.  You can test the second one with a simple thought experiment, for instance, that’s led me to both not believe in it and wish it was phrased differently.  My preferred phrasing would be this: “One over infinity is effectively zero.”  And the thought experiment is, imagine there are several gas molecules bouncing around inside a box.  Seemingly at random.  But if they ever bounce off the walls and all align in the same directions, they will do work.  The second law is invalidated.  For two molecules, this has a small chance.  If we assign a vector for the velocity of the first, then the chance the vector for the second will align is one over the number of possible options.  How many directions could the second molecule fly?  Well, if reality is coursegrained, many.  It it is not, infinitely many.  The probability of alignment is clearly very small.  But it isn’t quite zero.  With more molecules, the chance of alignment becomes exponentially smaller, but still: not quite zero.)

…that the entropy of the universe is always increasing.  Simply by existing, I limit the order possible for the rest of our universe.  Once I die and decompose, some of my order will be freed for the rest of the universe to use.  And, respiring, I use up gaseous oxygen.  As a heterotroph, I have to kill to eat (well, maim, at least).  I take up space.  Worse, I like to post essays on the internet, which uses a lot of electricity (look up the energy consumption numbers for a few servers sometime, if you want), and we’re still acquiring most of that non-renewably.

Given that I believe I have free will, and that I cause harm by existing, but would like to continue existing, how can I do enough good to counterbalance that harm?  To me, that is the root of secular humanism.  Not doubt.

Still, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Kitcher’s book (as in, beyond page three).