What can we rely on?

‘Humanism is sceptical about claims to what is supposed to be true, including any claims that Humanism itself might want to put forward. But to live in the world with a degree of common sense we have to accept that a considerable number of things are true… If we really accept things as true then we should have some kind of rational justification for such beliefs; and whatever we believe to be true should be so irrespective of our emotions and feelings.’

Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices

We should accept the possibility that many of our beliefs may be mistaken. Still, one of the goals of humanism is to attain knowledge. To be a humanist is to be curious and to believe we can make progress in our understanding of the world. It is also difficult to live in a way in which we doubt everything all the time. We need to spend some time living, and that means we need to make some assumptions about reality. We need some foundations on which to build our worldview even if we have to accept that such foundations are not beyond question.

Humanists will reject claims to knowledge based on faith alone. To appeal to faith is to say one is unable to offer a rational argument for why anyone else should hold such a belief. It refuses to offer up reasons for holding the belief that others might endorse, contest, or reject. Richard Norman says this is ‘to forfeit any claim to the truth of the belief’.

Bertrand Russell argued that some things can reasonably be accepted without proof.

‘What sort of thing is it reasonable to believe without proof? I should reply: the facts of sense‐experience and the principles of mathematics and logic – including the inductive logic employed in science. These are things which we can hardly bring ourselves to doubt, and as to which there is a large measure of agreement among mankind.’

Bertrand Russell, The Faith of a Rationalist

That our senses of sight, hearing, touch, and so on provide us with a window to the world, allowing us to know things about it, is an assumption many of us make. Philosopher Simon Blackburn emphasises that in general it is reasonable for us to trust our senses:

‘Sights, sounds, glimpses, smells and touches all provide reasons for beliefs. If John comes in and gets a good doggy whiff, he acquires a reason for believing that Rover is in the house. If Mary looks in the fridge and sees the butter, she acquires a reason for believing that there is butter in the fridge. If John tries and tries but cannot clear the bar, he learns that he cannot jump six feet. In other words, it is the whole person’s interaction with the whole surround that gives birth to reasons. John and Mary, interacting with the environment as they should, are doing well. If they acquired the same beliefs but in the way that they might hear voices in the head, telling them out of a vacuum that the dog is in the house or the butter in the fridge, or that the bar can or cannot be jumped, they would not be reasonable in the same way; they would be deluded.

Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed’

Humanists will typically reject revelation (information allegedly received via communication with a supernatural entity or realm) as a trustworthy means of acquiring knowledge. The evidence of a high proportion of cases where revelatory beliefs have proved to be delusional is a good reason to be wary of any claims made on such a basis.

This does not mean that humanists do not also recognise that our senses can sometimes be mistaken. However, we can all agree that to place no trust in them at all would make life extraordinarily difficult. Beliefs grounded in our senses are largely reliable, and they have given us the foundations on which we have been able to build our understanding of the world. The beliefs they induce are also often open to testing. We will explore later this week how scientific investigation enables us to test the evidence provided by our senses in order to support us in our quest for knowledge.

‘Of course, we may be misled on occasion by our senses, and so humanists go further than what we have said so far and argue that we should ‘not trust the evidence of our senses blindly’ but ‘use it as a basis to predict future events’ or at least to test the theories we have invented.’

Andrew Copson, Handbook of Humanism

Question: Are some reasons for believing things more reliable than others? (Compare beliefs based on our senses, faith, and revelation.)

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK