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The monk sat meditating. Alone atop a sparsely vegetated outcrop, all external stimulus infusing psychic energy within his calm, receptive mind. Distractions merely added to his trance, assisting the meditative state to deepen and intensify. Without warning, the experience culminated unexpectedly with a fluttering of eyelids. The monk stood, content and empowered with newfound knowledge. He has achieved pure insight…

The term ‘insight’ is often attributed to such vivid descriptions of meditation and religious devotion. More specifically, religions such as Buddhism promote the concept of insight (vipassana) as a vital prerequisite for spiritual nirvana, or transcendence of the mind to a higher plane of existence. But does insight exist for the everyday folk of the world? Are the momentary flashes of inspiration and creativity part and parcel of the same phenomenon or are we missing out on something much more worthwhile? What neurological basis does this mental state have and how can its materialisation be ensured? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

Insight can be defined as the mental state whereby confusion and uncertainty are replaced with certainty, direction and confidence.¬† It has many alternative meanings and contexts regarding its use, ranging from a piece of obtained information to the psychological capacity to introspect objectively (as according to some external judge – introspection is by its very name subjective in nature). Perhaps the most fascinating and generally applicable context is one which can be described as ‘an instantaneous flash of brilliance’ or ‘a sudden clearing of murky intellect and intense feelings of accomplishment’. In short, insight (in the context which I am interested) is one which can be attributed to the genius’ of society, those that seemingly bring together tiny shreds of information and piece them together to solve a particularly challenging problem.

Archimedes is perhaps the most widely cited example of human insight. As the story goes, Archimedes was inspired by the displacement of water in his bathtub to formulate a theory of calculating the volume of an irregular object. This technique was of great empirical importance as it allowed a reliable measure of density (referred to as ‘purity’ in those ancient times, and arising from a more fiscal motivation such as gold purity). The climax of the story describes a naked Archimedes running wildly through the streets unable to control his excitement at this ‘Eureka’ moment. Whether the story is actually true or not has little bearing on the force of the argument presented; all of us have most likely experienced this moment at one point in our lives, and is best summarised by the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable odds to conquer a difficult obstacle or problem.

But where does this inspiration come from? It almost seems as though the ‘insightee’ is unaware of the mental efforts to arrive at a solution, perhaps feeling a little defeated after a day spent in vain. Insight then appears at an unexpected moment, almost as though the mind is working unconsciously and without direction, and offers a brilliant method for victory. The mind must have some unconscious ability to process and connect information regardless of our directed attention to achieve moments such as this. Seemingly unconnected pieces of information are re-routed and brought to our attention in the context of the previous problem. Thus could there be a neurobiological basis for insight? One that is able to facilitate a behind-the-scenes process?

Perhaps insight is encouraged by the physical storage and structure of neural networks. In the case of Archimedes, the solution was prompted by the mundane task of taking a bath; superficially unrelated to the problem, however the value of its properties inflated by a common neural pathway (low bathwater – insert leg – raised bathwater similar to volumes and matter in general). That is, the neural pathways activated by taking a bath are somehow similar to those activated by the rumination of the problem at hand. Alternatively, the unconscious mind may be able to draw basic cause and effect conclusions which are then boosted to the forefront of our minds if they are deemed to be useful (ie: are they immediately relevant to the task being performed). Whatever the case may be, it seems that at times, our unconscious minds are smarter than our conscious attention.

The real question is whether insight is an intangible state of mind (ala ‘getting into the zone’) that can be turned on and off (thus making it useful for extending humanity’s mental capabilities), or whether it is just a mental byproduct from overcoming a challenge (hormonal response designed to encourage such thinking in the future). Can the psychological concept of insight be applied via a manipulation of the subject’s composition (neuronally)¬† and environmental characteristics (conductive to achieving insight), or is it merely an evolved response that serves a (behaviourally) reinforcing purpose?

Undoutedly the agent’s environment plays a part in determining the likelihood of insight occurring. Taking into account personal preferences (does the person prefer quite spaces for thinking?) the characteristics of the environment could serve to hamper the induction of such a mental state if it is sufficiently irritating to the individual. Insight may also be closely linked with intelligence, and depending on your personal conception of this, neurological structure (if one purports a strictly biological basis of intelligence). If this postulate is taken at face value, we have the conclusion that the degree of intelligence is directly related to the likelihood of insight, and perhaps also to the ‘quality’ of the insightful event (ie: a measure of its brilliance in comparison to inputs such as the level of available information and difficulty of the problem).

But what of day to day insight, it seems to crop up in all sorts of situations. In this context, insight might require a grading scale as to its level of brilliance if its use is to be justified in more menial situations and circumstances. Think of that moment when you forget a particular word, and try as you might, cannot remember it for the life of you. Recall also that flash of insight where the answer is simply handed to you on a platter without any conscious need to retrieve it. Paradoxically, it seems that the harder we try to solve the problem, the more difficult it becomes. However, is this due to efficiency problems such as ‘bottlenecking’ of information transfer, personality traits such as performance anxiety/frustration or some underlying and unconscious process that is able to retrieve information without conscious direction?

Whatever the case may be, our scientific knowledge on the subject is distinctly lacking, therefore an empirical inquiry into the matter is more than warranted (if it hasn’t already been commissioned). Psychologically, the concept of insight could be tested experimentally by providing subjects with a problem to solve and manipulating¬† the level of information (eg ‘clues’) and its relatedness to the problem (with consideration taken to intelligence, perhaps two groups, high and low intelligence). This may help to uncover whether insight is a factor to do with information processing or something deeper. If science can learn how to artificially induce a mental state akin to insight, the benefits for a positive-futurist society would be grand indeed.

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Secular humanism is fast becoming one of the most popular idealogical fads of this age. An increasing unrest is brewing within the world’s intellectual elite as religion and atheism go head to head. As we stand at this crossroads, it is important to take a moment and reflect upon what this trend means to a modern society. In this article I aim to examine the current conflict between atheism and theism, and how this is dividing the opposing parties towards an increasing fundamentalism. Secondly, I also wish to introduce the life philosophy of Secular Humanism, an alternative value system that allows for spirituality and intellectual skepticism to co-exist.

Teleological thought processes seem to dominate human thought, as we attempt to look beyond what is in front of us and seek some deeper meaning or absolute truth about the world. ‘Stronger’ religions gain footholds among the populace which then snowball and spread like contagion throughout the minds of the world. In this context, a strong religion is one that 1) seems plausible to the agent, 2) appeals to human nature and 3) easily passed between people. Weak religions, by way of contrast, could be likened to cults; ideas that appeal to a small group of deluded individuals and involve overly complex ritualistic ceremonies (reducing its appeal through a lack of understanding). Thus religion as we know it is a natural emergent outcome of this process; easily communicable between individuals and groups alike, regardless of nationality or ethnicity and fiercely infectious and appealing to the inner human need for explaining the unknown.

Spirituality is undoubtedly an intrinsically human characteristic, dating back to the birth of civilisation. Therefore, it seems illogical to try and deny that which comes as second nature. It can be argued, however, that religion in its most pure and authentic form is becoming increasingly scarce. The core principles of religion are not to blame. Rather, spirituality is a human trait that should be protected at all costs. It is the distortion of religion by those in power that creates problems. The Dark Ages in medieval Europe is a prime example of such corruption. During this period of cultural and intellectual stagnation, religion came to be recognised as a source of power and control over a populace. Tapping into and exploiting the human ‘soft-spot’ for spirituality not only changed the way in which religion was taught, but created a fusion of church and state. Fortunately this has been revised in most (I use this word with emphasis due to the presence of Middle Eastern governments based on a interpretation of religion) modern constitutions and a separation of church and state is recognised as not only fair/just, but also the ethical and morally correct thing to do.

In more recent times, the rising rate of education and promotion of scientific principles has culminated in an emerging trend towards strong atheism; that is, explicitly declared, proud atheism with individuals actively asserting their disbelief in god(s) and general rejection of traditional religious ritual. Strong atheism has been spearheaded (most prominently) by the biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennet, two very vocal advocates of disbelief. While their methods and tone could be construed as (ironically) verging on the fundamentalist, it has been argued that such a strong stance is necessary in order to counter the matching (and disturbing) rise in fundamentalist religiosity. I propose that it is no coincidence that this increase (particularly radical Islamic groups) is occurring in third world countries that lag behind the Western world. Original religious teachings are becoming distorted as the evil power of theism is once again realised and abused by those in authority.

Aethism is finally becoming ‘fashionable’ (for lack of a better word). While the concept has existed since ancient Greece (indeed, Aristotle was executed for his disbelief in the Greek gods), those who spoke out against it were met with unflinching retribution. This is where we really get to the crux of the issue with religion; the way in which it can be corrupted to play out the delusions of a powerful few, and the way in which its teachings are often taken literally. Adding to the problem is religion’s unwavering stance against criticism and introspection. This is where modern society comes in, with its rising distaste for those which do not have the courage to look inward and accept the possibility of error. The education system (to a degree) promotes a healthy skepticism and questioning attitude which is finally causing a critical mass of doubters to turn around and challenge the monopoly that religion has held over our minds for so long.

There are those of us who seem to have been born with a natural deference to atheism, while others sit in the middle content to hold some belief but doubting the minor details, and finally the fundamentalists who are indoctrinated at an early age. It is to this middle group that this article appeals. Secular Humanism is not only a collection of ideas and philosophical stances, but rather matches the ability of religion to provide a framework upon which to guide conduct. Some of us seem to require such structure within our belief systems, as it seems to be human nature to hold a cynical attitude towards the behaviour of others and our own capacities for self control.

Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz, with the original declaration undergoing several revisions and now supported by a plethora of leading intellectuals and scientists. It is an amalgamation of all things ‘science’ and intellectual; a guide to living created by smart people, for smart people who want the structure and organisation of a religion, but also desire the freedom to criticise, revise and generally act in an inquisitive manner.

Ten main principles form the basis of the Humanist declaration. None are unexpected, having been selected for their universality and applicability with a scientific ethos in mind. Secular Humanism promotes ideals of;

  • Free inquiry
  • Separation of church and state
  • The ideal of freedom
  • Ethics based on critical intelligence
  • Moral education
  • Religious skepticism
  • Reason
  • Science and technology
  • Evolution
  • Education

All are self explanatory, therefore I will not go into the finer details. Suffice to say, the nub of the proposition is that humans should have the fundamental right to choose the course of their lives. Children should not be ‘born’ into a religion; essentially, every person is born an implicit atheist (they have no knowledge of religion therefore cannot make an informed choice regarding their affiliation). Equally important principles of Humanism are the freedom to critically evaluate and also empowering the individual to make their own moral decisions.

Predictably, the first counter-blow from religion comes in the form of a cynical attack; “People are incapable of making their own moral choices, religion is needed in order for people to behave morally”. This argument equates religion itself with morality, which is simply not true. Religious advocates should be gracious enough to exert the same level of faith to their fellow humans that they do to a faceless, silent god.

Certainly, there are those in society who do lack the level of freedom required of adopting the Secular Humanist position. This lack of freedom predisposes them to commit crimes, ruminate over inappropriate thoughts and otherwise act in malicious ways towards society. Whether due to biological malformations or environmental upbringing (or a combination of both) such individuals simply cannot be held responsible (in the sense that they are free to chose the course of their actions) for the crimes they commit, therefore they should not be granted such freedom in the first place.

I am not advocating a policy of preemptive incarceration, but rather a change in mindset from lumping such people together in institutions (and arguably increasing the problem through intense exposure to other like-minded individuals for long periods of time) to re-educating them and assisting them to live a harmonious life.

But is this so called ‘rise of the atheists’ without its share of doom and gloom? We must tread carefully, or risk an increasing divide of the intellectually ‘rich and poor’. Those that can adopt the Humanist position freely and without reservation must ensure and respect the freedom of those who do not wish to participate. Human diversity, even when it results in the negative, is worth preserving at all costs. Without it, there would be no critical opinion, no discussion and a stagnation of society. Opposition breeds improvement, and Secular Humanism is only too willing to hear and learn from the criticisms that the disgruntled have to offer. The days of fundamentalist religions are numbered. Secular Humanism is at the forefront of this war, empowering society to question and challenging it to grow into maturity.