Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsOur beliefs are often mistaken. Maybe we believe there’s more milk in the fridge, or that we don’t need to take an umbrella to the shops. Maybe we believe the Romans invaded Britain in 1066, or that Louis Armstrong was the first person on the moon. Maybe we believe the world is flat, or is run by a secret cabal of shapeshifting lizards. We are all susceptible to to wishful thinking, to illusions, and to lies. Some beliefs we might hold with a great deal of confidence. I believe I’m filming a piece for an online course on humanism.

Skip to 0 minutes and 37 secondsBut perhaps this is all just an elaborate hoax, or maybe I’m dreaming, or maybe I’m living in a computer simulation Can we be certain of anything? If you acknowledge we are open to error, if you are wary of relying on faith to decide what to believe, if you question the reliability of claims found in ‘unquestionable’ texts or made by ‘infallible’ authorities… then what can you rely on? How can we know anything about reality? How can we decide what is true?

Skip to 1 minute and 20 secondsThe questions we’ll be exploring this week are: What different reasons might we have for believing things and in what ways can our beliefs be mistaken? What is it reasonable to believe? Why might humanists believe science provides the best way of building up knowledge about the world, and what are the limits of science? What sorts of things are there no space for in a humanist understanding of reality? And what is it like to live with uncertainty? Hopefully, by the end of the week, you’ll be able to both explain and evaluate a humanist understanding of reality.

Welcome to Week 2

‘All I know is I know nothing.’

The quotation above is often attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates draws our attention to the importance of admitting one’s own ignorance. There’s obviously an awful lot we don’t know. But we should also be wary of that which we think we do know. We should never be afraid to doubt those things that are considered to be facts about the world; everything should be open to question, and we should set high standards for what we accept as knowledge. This approach to knowledge is often called scepticism, and it can be the best defence against making mistakes.

Socrates also instructed us that ‘wisdom begins in wonder’. If we are not prepared to consider the possibility that we might be wrong, then we are closing down the potential for, and the pleasures of, exploration, discovery, and progress. Humanists place great value on curiosity.

This week

Last week we looked at a humanist understanding of human beings. But where does that understanding come from. On what do humanist base their beliefs?

This week we will be exploring the question ‘How can we know what is true?’ and investigating humanist responses. This is a problem that has been argued over for thousands of years. Not all humanists devote their time to grappling with such a question, many prefer to get on with the task of living their lives and will focus their time and attention on other goals (as we’ll see in later weeks). However, many humanists believe it is important that we are prepared to spend at least some time exploring why we believe what we do believe in order that we can be more confident that our choices in life have rational and reliable foundations.

This week you will explore:

  • What does it mean to apply a sceptical approach to knowledge? Can we be certain of anything?
  • If we can’t have certainty, what can we rely on? What is the best way to make sure our beliefs are likely to be true?
  • How can reason and science support us in the quest for knowledge?
  • Are there questions science can’t answer? If so, how can we answer such questions?
  • What are the consequences of a humanist approach to knowledge on what they do and do not believe in, and on their approach to life?

Discussions and comments: a reminder

Don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the course content in the comments areas with the other learners. Please remember too that it is fine to disagree with each other but that this should be done in a way that treats other learners with respect. Constructive dialogue can often be the best way to reflect on our own beliefs and better understand those with whom we might disagree.

The FutureLearn Code of Conduct has further information and you can flag any comments you consider to involve unacceptable behaviour for the FutureLearn moderators’ attention.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Humanists UK