A sense of scale

As human beings we have the capacity to step outside of ourselves and view things from a more detached perspective. When we do, we can see how many of the day-to-day things that concern us (buying the right car, giving good advice to a friend, finding the right words to use in a sentence) mean nothing from the viewpoint of the universe. A possible criticism of a humanist approach could therefore be that once we take this larger detached perspective, everything in our lives loses its significance. Does living a finite life in a vast and purposeless universe not make us feel small and insignificant?

A possible humanist response to consider would be that, though we may not be important in the grand universal scheme of things, nor be part of some larger supernatural plan, we are still all part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the natural world, part of humanity, and part of human history. We have already seen how, in some sense, something of us can survive our death (our shared ideas and works). The way in which we live our lives can therefore continue to have meaning after we die, and knowing this to be the case can provide a greater sense of meaning to our lives in the here and now.

Richard Norman describes the idea of a secular or worldly transcendence, in contrast to an otherworldly transcendence. He describes such experiences as those which ‘take us out of ourselves and enable us to locate our lives in a wider context, to see ourselves as part of something larger which makes more meaningful our own limited individual purposes and activities’.

He describes several examples of such experiences:

  1. Looking up at the night sky, considering our place in the cosmos, and feeling at home within it
  2. Thinking about our relationship to the natural world and other living things – a world that goes on without us
  3. Being rooted in a human community with a shared past and an ongoing history – herein may lie our struggles for social justice and the desire to pursue intellectual, artistic, or cultural ambitions, with the knowledge that others may continue where we leave off (as far as we know, we may be the only things in this universe capable of understanding it – that can give one a feeling of joint purpose in one of humanity’s great endeavours)
  4. Experiencing intimate emotional relationships and attachments – spending time and sharing experiences with others

As EM Forster said, ‘Only connect!’

But what, the critic might ask, of the fact that one day all human beings will be dead and gone? Is not our whole planet destined for oblivion? Is it not all for nothing in the long run?

A humanist might respond by saying this criticism focuses in the wrong place. Yes, we will all die. But – more importantly – we will all live. And it is the impact we can have on the quality of those lives that should motivate the goals we set ourselves in life.

Secondly, we can accept that humanity may represent merely a blip on the timeline of our immense universe, but also recognise that this is not the timescale on which most of us make sense of our lives.

‘Our perspective can stretch that far only with an extreme effort, and although such thinking is necessary for the physicist who wants to push at the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe, it is not a suitable mode for the majority of us who live in the more domestic confines of this Earth and our smaller societies within it. In practice, it is in the here and now and with other human beings that we must live.’

Andrew Copson, Handbook of Humanism

As Peter Cave says, ‘Humanism brings us back down to earth’. Things might not have meaning on the scale of the universe, but they have meaning within our lives and within the lives of others. Size is often irrelevant when it comes to what is important.

‘I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone…’

Frank Plumpton Ramsey, Foundations of Mathematics

Question: Does it matter if it’s all for nothing in the long run?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK