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Drawing conclusions for how to live

Read about the conclusions a humanist might draw from a scientific understanding of our nature on how we should live our lives.

Modern science provides information about what we are and where we came from. For a humanist, it supports the belief that we are natural creatures and were not built for any divine purpose. But can an understanding of where we came from and our relationship towards other living things also support us when thinking about how we should live our lives? Many humanists believe it can. The scientific picture can be more than just a reduction. It can be an inspiration.

Of course, it is possible to draw somewhat negative or mistaken conclusions from a scientific understanding of our evolution:

  • Being just another leaf on the tree of life, means it is harder to claim there is anything distinctive about human beings
  • ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’: we are all in a battle for survival and only the fittest will survive – this belief has been employed to defend the argument that Darwinian principles should be applied to society, a belief that can lie behind imperialism, racism, and eugenics
  • Our genes are selfish, so human beings must surely be selfish, or being selfish must at least be in our best interests

But it is also possible to use what we learn from the theory of evolution to support the case for a more humanist approach to life. (Each of these ideas will be explored in more detail over the coming weeks.)

1) Knowledge and belief (see Week 2)

  • Before Darwin many believed that divine intervention was the only possible explanation for the complexity of the living world around us – we should learn that it is wise not jump to supernatural conclusions when we cannot explain something (see Week 2)

2) Morality (see Week 4)

  • Our moral capacity has its origins in our evolution as social animals (see Week 4)
  • Human beings are all one species – when we focus on what we share rather than how we differ, we can recognise the folly of prejudice and discrimination towards those with superficial differences to ourselves
  • We are all one extended family, all related to one another – we should therefore extend our circle of moral concern beyond our immediate relatives, perhaps even beyond our own species (see Week 4)

3) Meaning and happiness (see Week 3)

  • By accepting our animal nature and origins we can accept that we are not perfect, nor can we be – that does not mean we should not aspire to be better, but it can help us to understand why we may sometimes be tempted to do the wrong thing, and that can bring about a sense of relief and reassurance
  • Recognising the microscopic probability of everything coming together to lead to our existence (every one of our billions of ancestors survived long enough to reproduce) can help us to appreciate how lucky we are to be alive and to have the natural capacities we do (see Week 3)
  • The fact that nature is capable of producing such astonishing variety and beauty can be a source of wonder and amazement – for some, a supernatural cause diminishes this wonder that so much can come from so simple beginnings
‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

It can be argued that these conclusions support the coherence of the humanist worldview. They enable the humanist to tie together some of the rational and scientific aspects of their philosophy with some of the celebratory and ethical. Some people fear that accepting the theory of evolution might undermine what they see as the positive things about being human and also lead to dangerous consequences for how we would treat each other. But, as we have seen, they are not the only conclusions we can draw. An understanding and acceptance of our nature as evolved creatures can, for humanists, enhance our lives and provide support for arguments that can lead to a fairer and kinder world.

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

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