Liberal Humanism

Liberal Humanism

“Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
Consciousness is something we don’t actually understand all that well, but is central to ideas of humanism. I cannot actually prove that another person is conscious in the way that I am conscious. All I know is that there appear to be thoughts taking place within my head, and that those thoughts appear to be part of a single conscious entity (myself). I cannot confirm that my dog, my neighbor, or anyone else actually has the same conscious experience of the world taking place within their mind, but I can infer that they do.
Further, I cannot confirm that the way that I interpret and experience the world is the same as anyone else. Who is to say that the way that I perceive the wavelength of light that is the color red is the same as you perceive that wavelength? Who is to say that the quality of redness that we experience is the same. What if the quality that my mind places on the wavelength of light that we call green is the quality that your mind attributes to the wavelength of light that we call red? Again, since I am not inside your brain and can’t tell if you actually have thoughts and consciousness of your own or what your experience is like relative to mine.
Humanism assumes that all people are conscious and have qualitative experiences of the world that are effectively similar, but possibly different in an infinite number of ways. Liberal humanism assumes that all of these differences matter and should be thought of equally. Humans have a right, liberal humanism argues, to experience the world in their own unique way. Liberal humanism argues for human rights, that our consciousness is so special and individualized that we have unalienable rights to certain things in order to guarantee the continuation, protection, and exploration of our consciousness – our individual humanness.
Harari continues, “The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority. If we encounter an ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner voice – the voice of humanity.” Humans should not be subjugated, dominated, or forced into a specific way of understanding their consciousness or their human experiences and existence. We are equal in terms of having a conscious mind that can experience joy, pain, pleasure, fear, and the full spectrum of human emotions. Having a ruler, a deity, or anyone and anything else force a specific view and interpretation of the world upon us is a violation of our unique humanness – it is a violation of human rights. Liberal humanism celebrates the unique individuality of human consciousness above all else, and seeks to protect it from states, gods, and other humans.


I don’t know many people, in my personal life or in any of my media orbits, who I could say is definitely not a humanist. I think virtually everyone I interact with or whose thoughts I engage with subscribes to some version of humanism. It is the dominant lens through which I, and seemingly everyone else, sees the world, even if we can see that it is at some level based on myth.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena.” There is something about our conscious experience of the world that seems to set humans apart from everything else. We do not know if another intelligent species exists in the Universe, and we see ourselves as a lone and isolated bright spot in the Universe. We are worth protecting and it is worthwhile to continue the human experience if for no other reason than that we appear to be unique within the communicable reaches of our universe.
We recognize that other animals certainly appear to be conscious and have complex thoughts and emotions. Humans don’t have the largest brains on earth, but each of us individually has a rich and complex consciousness that we view as separate from the likely consciousness of dogs, whales, elephants, or fungi (does fungi count as conscious?).  Our experience is held above the experience and states of being of other creatures, and this is observed in the way we treat factory farmed chickens, the way we think about the suffering of wild animals (or don’t think about it) and the way we make charitable donations to help other humans. Even thinkers like Peter Singer who are further along the path away from humanism than most people that I can think of still places a unique value on humans for being conscious, able to reason, and possibly able to help all other living life.
In the grand cosmos which humans expect to last for billions and billions of years, humanity means almost nothing. We are matter that has arranged itself to be self-replicating and self-observing. There is no real reason to believe that humans and our conscious experience of the universe is anything more. But nevertheless, because we experience the world and are self-aware that we are experiencing the world, we view ourselves as somehow unique and special. We adopt humanist views without even recognizing that we do so.
A Few Dominant Myths

A Few Dominant Myths

“Friends giving advice often tell each other, follow your heart. But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. What we want, what we believe is possible for us, and how we experience the world is often dominated by the larger culture that we are a part of. This means that how we relate to and understand the world is constantly changing both through our own lifetimes and across the lifetimes of individuals of our entire species. What we believe, what we think is good and worthy of our time and energy, and how we go about pursuing our goals and desires changes based on the dominant myths of our time and the resources available to us.
To demonstrate this point, Harari shows how two myths, Romanticism and Consumerism can be found in the idea of follow your heart. Regarding Romanticism, Harari writes, “Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different human experiences as we can.” The value of being human, within this framework, is the experience of being alive. Doing the same thing each day, becoming really good at one particular thing, living in the same spot, and having a few consistent experiences each day is not valuable. Uniqueness, openness, and diversity are praised within the individual.
Regarding Consumerism, Harari writes, “Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product.” Within this view, things, possessions, and services are of inherent value, as is owning things and consuming services. A lack of possessions is seen as failure, and the goal is to continually obtain more, bigger, and better possessions.
It is easy to see why Harari is able to lump these two myths together. Being unique compliments buying lots of different things. Having many varied possessions, purchasing many varied services, and utilizing possessions to engage in new and diverse activities tie Romantic ideas of the individual pursuing a diverse and exciting lifestyle with the consumerism urge to possess and own things and experiences. “Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism,” Harari writes.
But there is no reason that our culture needs to favor these two myths over others. It is nice to have a diversity of experiences. It can be helpful to see and view the world from different perspectives and to understand how others live and the full potential of humanity. It is also nice to be able to purchase comforts, and a helpful byproduct of consumerism is an advancing technological landscape that rewards innovations which improve life satisfaction. But Humans can be satisfied in life with a few possessions. We can be satisfied with a stable and predictable routine. We can find joy in becoming very good at doing the same things each day and mastering those tasks. There is no reason that Romanticism or Consumerism has to be understood as better than Stoicism or Minimalism, or any other myth that we might adopt. Within the United States, few of us truly challenge the ideas of Romanticism or Consumerism. They are the dominant myths of the day, and eschewing them is strange. Even when we do try to give up one myth, it is hard to give up both. Deciding not to purchase many products and services is seen as a way of being unique and self-sufficient, a Romantic framing of non-Consumerist behavior. Minimalism often still rewards carefully curated purchases and possessions. If you are not going to have a lot of things, then you better have the absolute best of the few things you do have, many Minimalists might argue.
How we understand ourselves, the values we pursue, and how we exist in culture is often determined by myths that work well when we all embrace them in a collective manner. That doesn’t mean that one myth is inherently better than another. Additionally, myths can be complimentary to each other, and even contradictory myths can be understood as complimentary and not conflicting. We do not exist in isolation or in a vacuum, and it shows in the ways in which cultural myths influence us. Follow your heart is a message to tap into the dominant myths of the day, and it is a saying that is influenced by those same myths.

A Science Fiction Message

Larry Niven wrote a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to publish in his book, Take My Advice, and in his letter Niven offers his 19 “Niven Laws” which are his observations of how the world works. I highlighted law number 14 because it brings to life the idea that other people do not think the same way that we do, and it does so in a fun way. “14. The only universal message in science fiction: There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.”  I think that once we have graduated from high school or college our 12 to 16 years of the academic world can leave us in a place where we look for right answers and assume that there is one correct way to look at everything in the world.  Standardized tests, teachers who push a single viewpoint, and competitions to see who can have the highest grades and GPA create a world where we constantly rank our intelligence and compete to see who can have the answers that are the most in tune with the ideas of the person grading our tests.  Niven uses science fiction to show that there are incredible thinkers in this world who can use their mind as well as anyone, but who can apply it in innovative ways. The diversity of science fiction is simply a reflection of the diversity of thought in the human mind, and in todays Age of Superheroes that diversity is being celebrated despite the fact that 24 hour news networks chariot single viewpoints and commercials direct materialistic views of happiness into our homes.


Perhaps we can look at Niven’s understanding of what science fiction is, a collection of thoughts that differ from the every day, to explain why superhero movies and shows have come to dominate lately.  We want to see the world in new ways and imagine what the world could be if we adopted new view points.  This whole notion could be a counter reaction to the media surrounding what happens in the “real world”.


What first drew me in to Niven’s quote was the idea that we compare the way that we think to others.  Academics puts a mark on who thinks well, an who does not think well, and it teaches us to identify ourselves based on the quality of our thought as graded by a professor or as outlined by a series of multiple choice questions.  Years of schooling can force an individual into pre-set manners of thinking and can encourage the assimilation towards a single viewpoint.  Niven’s quote uses science fiction to show that  we do not have to judge the way other thing or the quality of their thoughts based on how aligned they are with what we consider to be normal or standard.  The idea in the quote above shows that we can celebrate other ways of thinking without judgment.


It may be argued that those who study creative subjects such as literature or art throughout school will be more open to the idea of looking at multiple perspectives while those who study science, math, or engineering are more shut out to the possibility of multiple answers.  For me this is too simple of an explanation for differences in thought and education.  My first venture into the world of quantum physics was by reading the book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav.  Zukav explains that the science of quantum mechanics, what happens at the sub-atomic level inside the atom of every element, is a shifting science with our interactions in the experiments we perform providing us with mixed results.  The most famous example of this is how we study light. Depending on the test we run and how we measure our tests, we can show light particles to behave as a wave or as an individual particle.  There is no right answer with identifying exactly what light is, and the problem can only be solved with creative people who do not accept a single right answer but can look for answers in new directions.  Another example of people abandoning the idea of a single right answer in science comes from the book I am currently reading, Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik.  In his book Miodownik dives into the world of material science and shows us how new thinking and applications of materials has changed our world in ways that are often hidden to most of us.  He explains how complex concrete is and how modern day concrete was created in part through the innovations of a gardener who simply wanted to build stronger pots.  It took the unique viewpoint of someone outside the world of material science to find an answer to concrete’s tendency to crack and crumble. Luck provided that concrete and steel have very similar coefficients of expansion, which allows for concrete to be poured around steel to give it extra tension and strength when poured in unique shapes.


If we stick to the idea that there is only one correct answer for everything, and if we assume that others think like us, then we are left in a world where we cease to innovate.  We must remember, and science fiction helps us to do so, that we do not think “better” than anyone else.  We simply all think in different ways, and combining our different ways of thinking is what builds a better world.  Science fiction today has come to celebrate unique thoughts and ideas, and there is plenty of room to expand our celebration of unique thought to areas of the world where the dominate ideas is that there is “one right answer”.

A Full Life

The end of Howard Zinn’s letter of advice to James Harmon for his Book Take My Advice is a single sentence with a completely new idea for me.  In my life I have always felt pressure to live in ways that my parents, co-workers, employers, friends, and one day possibly children would find impressive. I have always wanted to make my parents proud and have always tried to live up to pre-set standards, and in this has had negative affects for me with extra amounts of pressure on my actions. In the last line of his letter Zinn writes, “Live in such a way that your children and grandchildren will be proud of you.” At the time that I read that I left myself a note saying, “Don’t just strive to be someone your children would look up to, but live that life.”
How I have interpreted this quote is that the important idea for Zinn is to develop an identity that does not stand of injustice, does not accept the status quo, and pushes for a life of independence that is interesting, unique, and creative.  The impression of Zinn’s message is that children and grandchildren will not be impressed by stories of how one studied for years to become a lawyer or work for a large corporation to make big bucks.  Nor will a child be fascinated with a story of a climb up a corporate latter that encouraged suites and sacrificing family time for weekend business calls.
Zinn’s quote is difficult to unpack and accept because striking out on ones own in a creative journey is difficult and risky in more ways than just financial.  The corporate world of suites and increasing workloads for fewer employees is a path that many choose because we often find that we need to make personal sacrifices to provide a lifestyle that will provide opportunities for the rest of our family.  This is the greatest challenge for me at this point of my life. I am not sure which direction to go, and how to live a life that can provide for a family financially, without taking away from the relationships that I have. I do know that I can fill my life with interesting thoughts and actions that will help me live a full life regardless of my career choices. At this point I can only strive to build my mind so that I build creativity in my free time to help me find the full and interesting life that Zinn writes of.