Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


The British Humanist Association has a quiz on their Website encouraging people to see how much of a humanist they are.  (H/T Russell Blackford.)  I've never self-defined as a humanist, but I've never rejected humanism, either.  I'm a big fan of Renaissance Humanists like Sir Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Michel de Montaigne.  Back then, humanism was a liberating coctail mixed something along these lines: one part skepticism, one part cultural relativism, one part individualism, one part humility, one part scathing social and political criticism, and one part absurd self-mockery.  These days, humanism is a broader blanket with manifold colors, and I wouldn't assume that I fit comfortably within a contemporary conception of it. Thus, when I took the quiz, I had no interest in getting any of the answers "right."  So I was pleasantly surprised when I came out with a perfect score.

By the lights of the British Humanist Association, I am 100% humanist.  However, I have some issues with the quiz.  I do not think all of their answers are the best answers.  I always chose the answer which most resembled my true thoughts and feelings, but in some cases the closest fit still left something to be desired, and it wasn't always easy to figure out which answer was the right one for me.  Saying it wasn't easy is not the same as saying I am not sure of my answers.  I don't doubt any of my choices.  It's just that I had to think about some of them a bit, and in some cases I would have much preferred very different answers to the ones given.  I will go through the quiz, question by question, and explain what I mean.

Question 1:  Does God exist?
Answer: There is no evidence that any god exists, so I'll assume there isn't one.

I self-identify as a theological non-cognitivist, which means I don't think the existence of God is an empirical matter.  I think the question of God's existence is conceptually problematic, and so I don't think it's a matter of evidence at all.  However, if we do consider "God" to denote some historical figure who lacks supposedly supernatural attributes, if we are just talking about some being who has played a causal-historical role in the creation of mankind, then the British Humanist Association's "right" answer here is obviously the correct one.  There is no evidence that humanity has been designed, or that the earth or life in general are the work of any intelligent creatures.

Question 2: When I die . . .
Answer: I will live on in people's memories or because of the work I have done or through my children.

My choice here has to do with my conception of personal identity.  While my experiences are clearly dependent on the workings of my body, my identity is not as easy to locate in space and time.  In one sense, my thoughts exist on printed pages and online documents, and can have a sort of life of their own--not only by the consequences they have for others, but also by the way they are replicated in others.  The meme idea is useful here:  In some ways, part of me is composed of the memes I create and replicate, and so that part of me lives on when the memory of my thoughts and behaviours lives on in others.  The same goes for genes and phenotypes: I carry on some of my ancestors' genes and phenotypic traits, just as my children carry on some of mine.  So part of me does live on through them, just as I am partly an extension of my ancestors.

That said, there is another option that is at least somewhat attractive:  "When I die, that will be the end of me." This is true, in the sense that I will no longer have any experiences or thoughts.  So if I define myself as the locus of my conscious awareness, then my death is certainly the end of me.  But that is only one aspect of my identity and should not overshadow the others.  (It's also worth noting that this supposedly fundamental aspect of my identity is quite possibly an illusion, which is another reason why I chose the "right" answer.)

Question 3: How did the universe begin?
Answer:  The scientific explanations are the best ones available. No gods were involved.

I think the idea of the universe having a beginning is conceptually problematic, so I'd probably prefer not to answer this question at all.  Since I have to answer, "I don't know" wouldn't be such a bad choice, but in the context of the other answers, it would suggest agnosticism towards the idea of a divine or intelligent creator.  Thus, the "right" answer is better.

Question 4: The theory that life on Earth evolved gradually over billions of years is . . .
Answer:  True.  There is plenty of evidence . . .

That is a no-brainer.

Question 5: When I look at a beautiful view I think that . . .
Answer: We ought to do everything possible to protect this for future generations.

My younger self might have chosen the "this is what life is all about. I feel good" option, but for the last decade or so, I've been more aware of the need to protect nature from commerce and industry.  Not that commerce and industry are bad, and not that we can and should always protect nature from them.  But when I see something like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park--quintessentially "good views" in my American experience--I experience them with a sense of awe and humility.  I am lucky to have had those experiences, and I think everybody should have them or some like them.  I experience places like that with an awareness that they must be preserved.  I do not want them for myself.  I want them to share.

Question 6: I can tell right from wrong by . . .
Answer:  Thinking hard about the probable consequences of actions and their effects on people.

This makes it look like I'm a true blood consequentialist, which isn't so.  But I find that I do consider the consequences of my actions and that this does help me decide on what I think is right or wrong.  Furthermore, the other options are plainly unacceptable.  This is the only possible choice.

Question 7:  It's best to be honest because . . .
Answer:  I'm happier and feel better about myself if I'm honest.

This is just true.  I thought a lot about choosing "people respect you more if you're trustworthy," but then I realized I don't think that's true.  People don't always respect people for telling the truth, though they might trust you more if you're honest.  I sometimes think it's better to be honest to maintain people's trust, but not their respect.

Question 8: Other people matter and should be treated with respect because . . .
Answer: We will all be happier if we treat each other well.

Again, this seems obvious to me.  The answer about "they are people with feelings like mine" is not terrible, but it is not good enough.  I don't think everybody should be treated with respect just because they have feelings like mine, and I don't think only those animals with feelings like mine deserve respect.

Question 9: Animals should be treated . . .
Answer: With respect because they can suffer too.

This is a difficult one.  I chose the least wrong answer. I'm not happy with the "right" answer, though.  My own answer is too complicated to explain in a short paragraph here, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Question 10: The most important thing in life is . . .
Answer: To increase the general happiness and welfare of humanity.

It sounds like I'm an anthropocentric consequentialist, which ain't so.  Again I chose the least wrong answer.  In this case, I think the "right" answer is a decent, but ultimately unsatisfying answer.  I'm not sure what I really think is the most important thing in life, but aiming for maximal happiness and welfare isn't a bad idea as a general rule, even if it has problems and exceptions.