On the opening page of Seeing Ourselves, secular humanist and patron of Humanists UK Raymond Tallis writes: “Humanism, for all its virtues, still lacks a philosophy that can compete in profundity with the religious beliefs it aims to displace.” This presents us with our first critique of humanism: Critique 1: Humanism lacks profundity.
Given that much contemporary humanist activity (in the UK at least) aims to ensure policy changes across areas like education, marriage, and so on, Tallis’ concern about lack of philosophical profundity may seem a rather peripheral one. Who needs philosophical depth when, for example, the UK is the only country in the world that imposes compulsory Christian worship in state schools by law? Also, humanism may not need to expand its philosophical remit to deal with the spiritual yearnings of its members, and if any humanists feel like some spiritual nourishment they can turn to something like Buddhism which has an extremely well-established secular movement in the West. However, for a humanist to dichotomize between the philosophical-spiritual and the political is a risky strategy as the very possibility of humanism succeeding at a political level presupposes that human beings are the kinds of beings that actually want to become humanists. And it is far from clear that humanism offers an especially convincing or engaging picture of who we are. Even after a fair amount of research, it remains unclear to me precisely what humanism is, and what is aspires to be. Thus it seems likely that any critique of humanism will be dismissed as attacking a straw (hu)man(ism) since it will no doubt bear no resemblance to the thoroughly heterodox positions of the actual movement. As a humanist said to me recently in relation to this pluralism at the heart of humanism, “there’s no Pope of humanists to say otherwise.” So perhaps the only way in which humanism can be defined is negatively: it has a problem with irrationality, and especially with that form of irrationality that it believes to lie at the heart of religion. The beating heart of humanism lies in its antipathy to religion. Perhaps a more positive definition of humanism could be built around its endorsement of the natural sciences as having the best available tools for obtaining knowledge about the world and improving it through the development of technologies. Humanism could thus be defined as the ethical wing of naturalism. The main problem with this, however, is that when naturalism extends its focus to that most perverse of natural objects, the human, the results are rather dispiriting. As many will know, much of Raymond Tallis’ prodigious output over the past thirty years has been built around a systematic undermining of the pretensions of naturalism to offer an adequate picture of the kind of being that we humans are. As he puts it early on in Seeing Ourselves: [R]ejecting a supernatural account of humanity does not oblige us to embrace naturalism, as if this were the only alternative. It does not follow from the truth that we are not hand-made by God that we are simply organisms shaped by the forces of evolution; that, since we are not angels, we must be merely gifted chimps. Seeing Ourselves could be seen as a “Raymond Tallis: Greatest Hits” collection, condensing what were once book-length analyses into powerful tightly-argued chapters. As I was reading it, I felt that Tallis has rarely been better: the combination of lucid writing, close philosophical argumentation, and witty turns of phrase made it a true pleasure to read. But this is not simply Tallis playing out old arguments from classic books like Aping Mankind, as we find, alongside well rehearsed arguments against “neuromania” and “darwinitis”, a new focus on embodiment and the centrality of the interpersonal and social world. Tallis has clearly been engaging closely with thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as evidenced by his beautiful explorations of how the “I am” of human subjectivity can take root and flourish in the “It is” of the body. For Tallis, this is a “profound mystery” as the “machinery of the flesh, however exquisite, seems stony ground for the human subject.” Elsewhere, his conclusion that “‘I’ is ‘we-tinged’ all the way down” is reminiscent of Martin Hägglund’s Hegelian analysis in This Life of the mutual constitution of individuals and society. As Hägglund puts it, “There is not first an individual and then society, or the other way round. Rather, it is in our nature to be socially formed.”
Tallis goes on to use this radical sociality and interpersonal dimension of the human subject to launch an extremely convincing critique of the philosophical foundations of the trans-humanist movement that would have us believe that our minds can eventually be uploaded onto computers, for, Tallis argues, it is only by generating a worldless ontology of the human subject that such an idea can even be considered plausible: “The reduction of the self to a worldless quasi-person is an entirely predictable consequence of starting from the idea of the self as an internally connected stream of psychological material realized in a standalone brain.”
Frederick A. Olafson wrote: “The importance of the decision one makes about where an inquiry is to begin can hardly be overestimated. That decision sets the character of its questions to be addressed; and by laying down the terms in which they are formulated, it can even carry an implicit commitment to a certain kind of answer to those questions.” It is no coincidence that Olafson was a Heidegger scholar, and Heidegger is always felt as a subtle presence throughout Seeing Ourselves, and especially in relation to Tallis’ attack on naturalism. It is important to note that naturalism is not an empirical scientific position so much as a philosophical position with clear epistemological and metaphysical theses:
Epistemological: The standpoint and method(s) of the empirical sciences are the best way to acquire knowledge of every aspect of the world, including ourselves.
Metaphysical: The world is comprised solely of the kinds of objects, properties and causal relations posited by scientific theories.
If we take the ubiquity of an impersonal, detached, theoretical stance as our philosophical starting point, then we are forced to do away with anything that appears to undermine this essentially third-personal view of the world. The culmination of this theory-driven abstraction from the first-personal standpoint is Daniel Dennett’s solution of the problem of consciousness by denying that it exists. For Tallis, those in thrall to a naturalistic metaphysics fail to see ourselves, and thus diminish humanity.
We can now add a second critique of humanism:
Critique 2: Humanism has an unhealthy relationship with the sciences that serves to distort who we actually are.
A consequence of the second critique is an ethical and political one, namely that the naturalistic tendency to show up central aspects of our subjective experience (e.g. consciousness, selfhood, free will etc.) as illusions is anti-humanist. As Michael Bavidge puts it in Philosophy in the Borders:
[The naturalists’] intention is to undermine confidence in our grip on the world and our understanding of ourselves. They want to convince us that the world we experience, and actually live and act in is, some or how other, unreal, illusory, epiphenomenal. And that we ourselves (with our beliefs, intentions and actions, even our lives and our deaths) are part of the illusion.
Critique 3: Humanism is anti-Humanist.
All of the above may be familiar enough to those who have engaged with Tallis’ work over the years, so I thought I would turn now to his analysis of religion, mystery, and flourishing without God that makes up the final part (“Flourishing without God”) of Seeing Ourselves.
Exploring the idea of a mystery is a useful way to engage further with Tallis’ idea that humanism lacks profundity, and this generates a fourth critique of humanism:
Critique 4: Humanism is uncomfortable with mystery.
In many ways the theatrical performances of the humanist Brian Cox discussing the solar system are as close as the humanist comes to a sense of mystery. Cox loves telling us how many zeroes we need to add onto some number in order to grasp the size of the space involved, perhaps in the hope that our minds will be “blown” in a manner similar to experiencing the numinous mystery of the Holy God. However, in truth, humanists are uncomfortable with mystery; instead, they deal solely in problems. Gabriel Marcel famously distinguished between the two: a problem is in principle soluble, while a mystery is “something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is not before me in its entirety”, a “problem which encroaches on its own data”. The humanist belief that there are only problems not mysteries is well captured by the humanist Richard Dawkins who insists that we live in a universe in which “everything has an explanation”, and that if we have yet to discover one, then “we’re working on it”. Such is the expectant mastery of the contemporary humanist.
We may distinguish two prominent orientations to life, one placatory and the other inflammatory. This distinction is summed up well by the Russian philosopher Leo Shestov who contrasts two ways of doing philosophy, the first placatory, and the second – using Blaise Pascal as exemplar – inflammatory:
Philosophy sees the supreme good in a sleep which nothing can trouble... That is why it is so careful to get rid of the incomprehensible, the enigmatic, and the mysterious; and avoids so anxiously those questions to which it has already made answer. Pascal, on the other hand, sees in the inexplicable and incomprehensible nature of our surroundings the promise of a better existence, and every effort to reduce the unknown to the known seems to him blasphemy.
William James is very sympathetic to this kind of contrast, referring approvingly to how the latter inflammatory mode of thinking rebukes “a certain stagnancy and smugness in the manner in which the ordinary philistine feels his security”; however, James feels that these “philosophies of uncertainty cannot be acceptable” as “a prime factor in the philosophic craving is the desire to have expectancy [of stability] defined”, such that “no philosophy will triumph which in an emphatic manner denies the possibility of gratifying this need”.
In contrast to the placatory humanist orthodoxy, Tallis is consistently inflammatory, not just in his unsettling of the pretensions of materialism but in his willingness to acknowledge genuine mysteries that are in principle beyond the reach of the scientific worldview. Although Tallis does not invoke Marcel’s distinction between problems and mysteries, it seems to be the case that he believes that “the irruption of the subject into the natural world” is a mystery in the true Marcelian sense. If the naturalist picture wishes us to endorse a seamless line from the Big Bang to Beyoncé (to use Michael Bavidge’s phrase), Tallis is keen to show that such a picture is implausible: “Evolutionary theory... cannot explain the emergence of consciousness out of insentience or the conscious subject out of sentience.” For Tallis, we are neither natural nor supernatural, but extranatural.
What are we to make of this kind of talk? One way to see it is that Tallis is operating with a rather narrow view of what constitutes naturalism, by identifying it with one highly influential version of it: reductive naturalism (also know as scientism). Someone like Martin Hägglund, for example, whose project in This Life seems to resonate with Tallis’ in so many ways and is in no way reductive, describes himself as “emphatically a naturalist philosopher” as he considers that humans “essentially are living beings who have evolved from and remain essentially dependent on nature.” Elsewhere, the phenomenologist Dan Zahavi defends the possibility of naturalizing phenomenology, despite phenomenology frequently being presented as hostile to the project of naturalization for the very kinds of reasons that Tallis outlines. For Zahavi, however, such a project would involve transforming “the very concept of naturalization as well as our very understanding of nature.” And even if, Zahavi argues, we were to take this third way between 1) assimilating philosophy into science or 2) denying that any meaningful exchange between the two is possible, this is not to deny that philosophical and scientific investigations still differ fundamentally, even if productive dialogue between the two is possible.
Perhaps then, for Tallis, to position humans as “extra-natural” is more of a provisional move – rooted in the current impoverishment of naturalist thought within the human domain – than a sign of a fundamental incompatibility even with a hypothetically enriched naturalism. Against this view, however, we find that Tallis, in line with someone like Roger Scruton, is keen to emphasize incommensurability, e.g. humans and non-human animals are incommensurable, the languages of science and freedom are incommensurable etc. The stance of incommensurability clearly does not predict an easy rapprochement between frameworks; and, of course, if we take Tallis to be a Marcelian in his embrace of mystery, then we must assume that he takes humans to be extra-natural in the strictest possible sense.
Our standing in relation to the natural world can, of course, be contemplated in abstraction. So, how does Tallis fare in his attempt to explore our hungers and yearnings for which religion has traditionally been sought as a solution? For it is within this domain that what humanists might call the unruly aspect of human life comes to the fore. A first aspect of human “unruliness” is the desire for the unattainable. A memorable example of this comes from Jerry Fodor’s review of Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. Commenting on what he sees as Dennett’s rather thin conception of freedom, Fodor writes: “What one wants is metaphysical freedom; freedom tout court. One wants to be what tradition has it that Eve was when she bit the apple: perfectly free to do otherwise. So perfectly free, in fact, that even God couldn’t tell which way she’d jump.” To this, Dennett responds that what Fodor wants is “a miracle. Or magic.” Dennett has no time for what he terms “indefensible desires” of the kind articulated by Fodor and many other unruly characters in relation to free will, i.e. those who “accept no substitutes.” As a tough-minded humanist, Dennett sees his role as to persuade us to accept that which we don’t want – and to be grateful for it. Similarly, in his “Lecture on Ethics”, Ludwig Wittgenstein describes “the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.’” This is an experience that he equates to feeling safe “in the hands of God.” And while Wittgenstein acknowledges that such talk makes no sense in the language of knowledge or science, i.e. the language of humanism (after all, as he notes, “To be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me and therefore it is nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens”), he defends this specifically religious form of language use as “a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” In fact, it is only within this kind of language that “runs against the boundaries of language” that the need for absolute love and the related institutions of transcendental reconciliation provided by religion makes sense. Whether the humanist aims to deflate such talk or simply ridicule it, either way their role is to persuade the unruly to: “Accept as meaningful in your life only that which is attainable” (with the scope of what is defined as attainable shrunk to encompass only the human domain).
One thing that sets Tallis apart from your average humanist is that he does not immediately seek a deflationary answer to such questions. He does not, for example, argue that once humans are weaned off belief in God they will find that their yearnings for the absolute magically evaporate as such an appetite had in fact only been whetted by a harmful philosophical belief system (according to this model, religious yearning is something like a contingent attachment disorder that can be remedied by some decent humanist psychotherapy). However, Tallis remains a humanist in the sense that he would not wish to frame deep forms of human yearning or longing for the absolute in supernatural terms: “The transcendence that enables humanity to live a life backlit by the supernatural is not at a distance from the human world and our humanity but within that world and within our humanity.” However, he parts from humanist orthodoxy in his recognition of the depths of such aspirations and the extent to which abandoning them would be experienced as a profound loss. For example, he raises the question of what humanism has yet to do “to fill the voids opened up in those who have lost their faith”. A question that arises at this point is what precisely humanism can do to fill such voids in the absence of the deflationary approach discussed above. David Benatar refers to “the ugly truth that our lives lack the cosmic meaning for which humans so often yearn.” It is all too easy for humanists to dismiss the desire for cosmic meaning as anything from “infantile” to “irrational” to “megalomaniacal” to “narcissistic” to “embarrassing” to “indefensible” etc., and this makes perfect strategic sense for, as David E. Cooper puts it, “Exposures of religious belief as, say, the refuge of the weak and oppressed have had more success in eroding faith than ‘disproofs’ of God’s existence”. Yet the fact remains that such yearnings persist, and are rooted in basic facts about the kinds of beings we are. As Benatar puts it: “People, quite reasonably, want to matter. They do not want to be insignificant or pointless. Life is tough. It is full of striving and struggle; there is much suffering and then we die. It is entirely reasonable to want there to be some point to the entire saga.” This opens up a fifth critique of humanism. Critique 5: Humanism cannot accept humans as they are, only as it would like them to be. The traditional – perhaps the only – move that the humanist offers in response to cosmic yearning is the deflationary one that sets it aside and emphasizes the sufficiency of what Benatar calls “terrestrial meaning”. Echoing Dennett above, Richard Dawkins refers to “laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality”. While Tallis is inevitably more nuanced than Dawkins in that he is prepared to accept that humanists “cannot, or at least should not, neglect the profound, compelling questions to which religion has seemed, to a significant portion of humanity, to provide answers”, like all humanists he is keen to emphasize the centrality of terrestrial meaning rooted in good works to alleviate human suffering. Those who would bring into question humanist ideals such as human moral progress are dismissed as “malign pessimists” or “apocalyptic nihilists”. As Tallis sums this thread up, “It is perhaps too cynical to suggest that to give up on personal salvation [i.e. cosmic meaning] may free us up to settle for the lesser but objectively more important satisfaction or destination of helping others [i.e. terrestrial meaning].” Of course, as we have seen, for a humanist like Tallis to defend this kind of position is in no way “too cynical”; rather, it is the default position. Tallis is humble and astute enough to see that humanism is currently lacking the resources (and this despite the humanist rewriting of the Bible by A.C. Grayling) necessary to speak to the many longings for which religion has traditionally been sought as a refuge, e.g. sacred places, profound belonging, and consolation. For example, one of the things that Tallis emphasizes is the importance of membership in religious life, “a sense of identity or belonging, expressed in certain modes of behaviour.” The humanist attempt to recreate the traditional Christian Sunday service testifies to their desire for community. However, it is unclear that there are many things less appealing than sitting in a chilly community centre listening to sermons extracted from Grayling’s The Good Book and singing along to Oasis songs in a room full of spiritually malnourished humanists. Besides, and to come back to the point raised at the start, what brings humanists together is their collective aversion to religion. When it comes to the more positive transcendental role that something called “mankind” can play, Tallis accepts that this “may be a colourless abstraction” and may “lack the vertical dimension of congregations who are gathered together in the name of God.” Even in his analysis of gratitude, love, art, and philosophy as “secular sources of salvation” through which “we might palliate secular despair”, Tallis frequently finds humanist options falling short of their religious counterparts. For example, he offers a lengthy analysis of Simon May’s account of human love as a form of “ontological rootedness”: “a promise glimpsed in another ‘of a home’ in the world”, such that “we increasingly rely on human love to supply the consolations of the God in whom so many no longer believe”. Tallis considers the respective virtues of romantic love and parental love (the foci of May’s analysis), but ultimately concludes that they are both inadequate substitutes for the love of God that is “not only absolute but unchanging.” While Tallis’ analysis may encourage the humanist to love a bit more and reason a bit less, he is clear that human forms of love must fall short of what the believer seeks. Similarly, while philosophy has the potential to re-enchant the world through its openness to “the fundamental mystery of human existence”, Tallis concludes that “philosophical inquiry has a fundamentally solitary heart and its existential significance, in the gaps between philosophizing, cannot be sustained by others, outsourced to a community.” He contrasts this with religious observance as “a communal activity” which allows for the collective to “conserve the profundity of ideas even when they are merely parroted by fallible individuals.” What we find with Tallis, then, is a soft-hearted humanism that stands in contrast to Dennett and Dawkins’ tough-minded humanism. Tallis sympathizes with the believer’s “unruly” needs and desires, and is happy to acknowledge that humanism falls well short of offering what the believer desires, whereas Dennett and Dawkins lack such sympathies, consider the believer guilty of succumbing to “indefensible” desires, and find the resources of humanism to be more than sufficient (“they will have to accept something a little less magical but still good enough” – Dennett). In the end, though, despite Tallis’ more generous attitude towards religious yearning, both soft-hearted and tough-minded humanism have no time for religious belief. It’s a good cop-bad cop scenario, with both ultimately seeking to convict the believer of a grievous ontological transgression. Perhaps I am being unfair to Tallis here. After all, one question that has lingered with me long after finishing Seeing Ourselves is: does Tallis actually have a problem with religious belief? Certainly he is far too sophisticated a thinker to endorse W.D. Clifford’s coarse maxim: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” And Seeing Ourselves is littered with subversions of certain axioms of hard-nosed naturalist epistemology, which are at the same time concessions to the rationality of religious belief. For example, Tallis notes that “Participation, not the outcomes of arguments, is at the heart of religion… Belonging is first, believing second.” In this, he sounds very similar to Francis Spufford, who justifies his religious belief by noting that: “It is a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I assent to the ideas.” Elsewhere, in a sentence that would surely horrify your average tough-minded humanist, Tallis writes that “we may need to learn how to reinsert our wishes into our thinking.” In this he mirrors Alexander Douglas’ questioning of the dominance of “hard-headed” naturalist philosophical attitudes: “Suppose a philosopher’s motivation in striving to glimpse an ultimate reality beyond appearance is to find comfort in the vision. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that.” Finally, Tallis notes that: “Lived meaning is not propositional,” which legitimizes the believer’s unwillingness to submit their belief to rational scrutiny of the kind favoured by humanists. As Spufford puts it, “From outside, [religious] belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue.” All of these related concessions to religious belief leave one questioning what serious grievances, if any, Tallis actually has with it. ***
If much of what Tallis discusses in Seeing Ourselves may leave many humanists feeling rather uncomfortable (it’s not very “tough-minded”, after all, and seems to give religion far more respect that most humanists think it deserves), it seems worth picking up on another crucial aspect of human “unruliness” that may make even a thinker of Tallis’ sensitivity uncomfortable, not least as it plays right into the hands of religion and is something that, to date, humanism has literally no resources for handling. It is the kind of unruliness of which the patron saint would be someone like Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Religion, as Tallis acknowledges, has given voice to the transcendental yearnings of a finite vulnerable dependent creature. Its focus on mystery – to which, as we have seen, Tallis is very responsive – is a central element of this. However, it has also voiced the transcendental horrors of life. We are an aggressive, violent, anxiety-ridden, acquisitive, cruel and lustful species. These destructive and self-destructive tendencies cohabit with ideals of fairness and fellow-feeling in the human psyche. Guilt is a deep part of the human personality. Many of us feel utterly condemned, bad beyond belief, fatally flawed at the centre of our personalities. Religion gives expression to these feelings of guilt (see, for example, Psalm 130); it expresses moral horror.
Cheerful Humanism, of the kind exemplified by a thinker even of Tallis’ undeniable depth, has no time for what Hume dismisses as “the monkish virtues”: repentance, contrition, the ascetic life etc. It sees them as pathological, backward-looking obstacles to personal and social progress. Within philosophical circles, the Cheerful Humanist tends to dismiss unruly thinkers like Nietzsche for his “sociopathic ravings” (Pinker) or his “freshman cynicism” (Tallis), but perhaps Nietzsche’s main philosophical error is to remind the Cheerful Humanist that following the Death of God “we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we lived”, and that notions of social beneficence and innate human goodness may not make a whole lot of sense without the religious infrastructures to back them up.
Similarly, the humanist sees any kind of pessimism as clear evidence of unruliness, a sure sign of intellectual weakness or resignation (“Pessimism is too easy...” muses an unborn baby in the humanist Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell). But in fact, as Mara van der Lugt points out in a wonderful recent essay, pessimism is “a philosophy that tries to give a place to the darker side of life, to the reality of evil and pain and suffering in human (as well as animal) existence.” It is “an attempt to paint an alternative picture of the reality of human life” and to remind us that “we are not justified, that it is never justified, to close our eyes to that other, darker, ‘terrible’ side of life.” This, as van der Lugt highlights, is the meaning of compassion in the ethic of pessimism. Humanists are consistently guilty of responding dismissively – and even callously – to what Benatar has called “the reasonable sensitivities of the pessimists”. Humanism, as a cheerful voice of reason, progress, and optimism simply lacks the resources to make sense of this darker side of human life. This leads to our sixth and final critique.
Critique 6: Humanism is spiritually blinded by an excess of optimism.
The unruly, with their panoply of “excessive” or “embarrassing” or “irrational” or “indefensible” needs and desires and struggles, serve to point out the limits to Cheerful Humanism in terms of what it can hope to achieve in the way of profundity. While there is no necessary connection between deep insights into human suffering and profundity, it seems plausible that the humanist move of banishing the unruly to the philosophical equivalent of the mental asylum betrays a profound dis-ease lying at its heart. Both Pinker and Tallis, interestingly, seem comfortable using terms like “sociopathic” and “psychopathic” to describe the views of those who stray too close to the unruly side of the human spectrum.
Although Tallis doesn’t shy away from this darker side of human life completely – after all, he builds much of his analysis on our mortality and the fact that this takes everything away from us – his vision of a humanism that can compete for profundity with the religions it seeks to usurp fails to do justice to the unruly element of life, an element which is in no way peripheral, aberrant or likely to be disappearing any time soon, and which has been and will continue to be a central driving force behind religious belief, as well as much of the displaced religious fervour we currently find exploding in forms of populism, fascism, and so on. A richer “warts and all” philosophical anthropology is surely required.