The Humanist Lifestance: Important Issues in the Lives of Individuals
by Robert D. Finch
1. Arts and Sciences of Conduct
Our Worldview is a total philosophy of life which encompasses beliefs on the nature of existence and the universe, on how we obtain knowledge, how we should organize society and how we should and do behave as individuals. This latter part of the whole subject is sometimes referred to as our Lifestance. In the individual’s lifestance, there are three subjects of greatest relevance, namely, ethics, psychology and management. Ethics will be discussed at our next meeting and management techniques after that.
The area which we emphasize today is psychology. The science of mind and behavior began with the studies of Human Nature by Locke and Hume over 300 years ago. There are now hundreds of introductory psychology textbooks, and videos such as the recent one by Daniel Gilbert on PBS, “This Emotional Life”. Sigmund Freud was perhaps the psychologist who was most influential with the general public. His diagnosis of most mental illness in terms of sexual repression was a message which resonated with popular culture in the middle years of the past century. Nowadays we are more inclined to think that there are plenty of other hang-ups besides the sexual variety, but we still see that Freud made a great contribution in recognizing the existence of the id, the ego and the unconscious. A clearly humanistic psychology has emerged since the time of Fromm (1947).
2. Cognitive Science
It is not long since the heart was regarded as the source of thinking and emotion, the role of the brain achieving a belated recognition. Life was attributed to an immortal soul which was supposed to leave the body when a person died. Psychology has been aided by rapid advances in brain physiology and cognitive science which seem to be completing the picture of the human mind as a natural phenomenon. Modern cognitive psychology started with the discovery of the electrical transmission of impulses along neurons, the cells composing the matter of the brain. There are one hundred billion neurons in the human brain and there may be thousands of synapses on some neurons. Many emotional states have been associated with neurotransmitters, the molecules which relay signals across synapses. It is the electrical and synaptic activity of the brain, rather than that of the soul, which we now recognize as the crucial element of life. The division of the brain into left and right hemispheres is liked with the separation of holistic versus detailed modes of thinking. We now recognize the role of instinctive behavior in animals, driven by emotions, and passed on from generation to generation through the genome. From unicellular creatures to apes this behavior has grown more complex through evolutionary development. Hume (1748) was perhaps the philosopher who first understood primary role of the emotions in our psychology.
3. The Emotions
Emotions are perceptions of impulses to act, and include anger, fear, happiness, love, surprise, disgust and sadness. LeDoux has demonstrated that incoming sense data goes first to the thalamus, which relays the message to the neocortex and to the amygdala. The neocortex is the primary center for analysis and thought, a quite lengthy process, while the amygdala is a much older structure from the evolutionary perspective. It is sometimes called the lizard brain. It is however much faster acting than the neocortex. If the incoming information suggests danger to the amygdala it can pre-empt other brain activity and trigger the body’s fight or flight response, increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
Damasio is the author of “Descartes’ Error” (1994) which challenges the old supposition that emotion and reason are two separate domains and that emotion must be kept out of calm reasoning. Emotion is in fact a vital part of the reasoning process and pre-dated reasoning as the sole vehicle for behavioral in pre-human animal evolution. Emotions inform the brain of the status of the various bodily organs. Such communications may include information on modules of the brain itself. We have also learned recently that neurons can grow during our lifetimes, so that new emotional states can develop and evolve to be reflected in our maturing personalities. Albert Ellis was a pioneer in this aspect of psychology and authored several works on the use of cognitive (rational) activity in behavioral therapy, his “Guide to Rational Living” (1961) being a summary of his studies. We use our emotions in the evaluation of objects, people and behavior. In other words there are emotions felt by humans which are consequences of the experiences we encounter as we live our lives. These emotions are slow to develop and must be composites of elementary feelings. The work of psychological therapists is quite similar to that of priests and ministers of religion. A humanist leader such as Sherwin Wine addresses both the emotional as well as the cognitive functions of the mind and has presented an approach to the lifestance in such terms in his “Staying Sane in a Crazy World” (1995).
4. Humanist Psychology
Fromm’s “Man for Himself” (1947) is an embodiment of the humanist theory of psychology, and a viewpoint which could form the basis of the humanist lifestance. The book is an exposition of the interaction of psychology and ethics. Fromm sees our modern dilemma as our having lost the vision of the end for which all our technology was invented: man himself. He argues that psychology needs to return to the classical tradition of humanistic ethics in which the individual makes self-love (as opposed to selfishness) and the affirmation of his truly human self into a supreme value. We might quote Shakespeare: This above all, to thine own self be true.
5. Pleasure, Happiness and Value
Suppose people were to behave in such a way that they simply followed whatever was the desire of the moment in their own minds, regardless of any one else. We could call this hedonism, and it would be a completely subjective mode of existence. Desires are then rated as good or valuable if their fulfillment leads to pleasure. Aristotle recognized two legitimate kinds of pleasure, those associated with the process of fulfilling needs and realizing our powers; and those associated with the exercise of our powers when acquired. Happiness implies joy and spontaneity or unimpeded activity. Fromm points out that “objectively valid” does not mean the same thing as “absolute”. He believes that the concept of absolute is meaningless and has as little place in ethics as in scientific thinking in general. In the arts, including engineering and medicine, we have objectively valid norms, including common sense knowledge, theoretical and practical science. Humanistic ethics is the practical knowledge on which the art of living should be based. In living, man is both the artist and the object of the art. “Good” in humanistic ethics is the affirmation of life, the unfolding of man’s powers. Our aim should be to achieve our own greatest potential.
Rational faith is based in a confidence in one’s own experience and reasoning. The history of science is replete with instances of faith in reason and visions of truth. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all imbued with an unshakable faith in reason. For this Bruno was burned at the stake and Spinoza suffered excommunication. We have to have faith in ourselves, and others, and ultimately in mankind. We have to have faith in our children, that they will achieve their potentialities. We can have such faith because we have experienced the growth of our own potentialities, of our own power of reason and love. It is such faith and confidence in our humanist principles that is the basis for the humanist’s optimism.
People differ in their personalities which Fromm calls the sum of our inherited and acquired psychic qualities. The inherited characteristics show up most strongly in our temperatments, which we cannot change and are mainly reflective of the speed of our reactions. Our characters on the other hand are acquired. Character is the relatively permanent form in which human energy is canalized in the process of assimilation and socialization. It takes the place of the instinctive apparatus of animals. Together with habits and conditioned reflexes it enables us to respond quickly to many routine functions and also serves as the basis for a man’s adjustment to society.
6. Purpose and Meaning
One of the oldest definitions of ethics, due to Epicurus, is “Ethics deals with things to be sought and things to be avoided, with ways of life, and with the telos”. The chief good, the end, or the aim of life could be termed its purpose. Aristotle maintained that the aim of life is happiness and psychologists have made many studies of how different people find happiness. The existentialist philosophers have taught us that there are important choices, decisions and events which affect our lives crucially. The topic is often related to the “meaning of life”. Humanists often start by rephrasing the question in terms of the “meaning of death”. The Humanist understands clearly that death is the total cessation of life, as so well explained by Lamont (1990). It follows from the Humanist belief that death is the inevitable end of life, a final deep sleep, that there is no need to fear death itself, although there is indeed room for concern that the process of dying should not be painful or unusually drawn out. Guidelines for Humanist funeral services have been published.
The meaning of life then derives from achieving those purposes and objectives which we set for ourselves during the course of our lives. We see that these are the existential circumstances and choices: family background, educational and religious affiliations, careers, falling in love, marriages, having children, finding housing and location. According to Fromm, our purpose in life should be to develop our full potential. Most of us go through a series of developmental stages, as described by Maslow in “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” (1971). At each stage we find some goal or objective around which life revolves. When we are very young our task is the acquisition of basic skills; later we turn to learning to gain the knowledge and values of professional or vocational life. Education and learning are certainly held high among humanist values. In the adult stages of life, the exact nature of the goal is usually a compromise between our inclinations and capabilities and the needs of society. The exact nature of our commitment should reflect our own personal aptitudes, talents and inclinations.
7. Life Management
Our motto might be “Sana Mens in Corpore Sano” (healthy mind in a healthy body). The evidence appears to be that one might contemplate a full and healthy life almost to the end of one’s days if certain guidelines are followed. Similarly, we can manage our mental lives for normal life as explained by Butler and Hope (1995). One of the major problems in modern life is handling stress, which is the name given to the complex of behaviors resulting in the triggering of the “fight or flight” physiological response. It is in these situations that the emotional awareness recommended by Goleman (1995) is most helpful. Many of these reactions are habitual, and in extreme cases can be accompanied with drug addiction. Fortunately, the habits we have made, we can also unmake, and there are supportive organizations, such as Rational Recovery.
Neither Humanism nor the Humanist Lifestance is simple. Every individual has a lot to learn, and it is difficult to imagine how this will be done without belonging to some form of organization. Furthermore Humanism is not static and it is best developed through an organization. We need to attend meetings and conferences, to publish our ideas to get scholarly feedback. Sometimes we need to take stands on unpopular issues with friends, neighbors and fellow workers. We need Humanism to put meaning and destiny in our lives, as individuals, and as societies; to improve the world and to overcome obstacles to progress.
Butler, Gillian and Tony Hope, “Managing Your Mind”, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Damasio, Antonio R., (1994), “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human
Brain”, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Ellis, Albert (1961), “Guide to Rational Living”, Melvin Powers.
Fromm, Erich, “Man for Himself: an Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics”, originally published 1947, Owl Book Edition, 1990.
Lamont, Corliss “The Illusion of Immortality” 5th Edition, Ungar, 1990
Maslow, Abraham H. (1971) “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature”, Viking Press.
Mursell, James Lockhart, “How to make and break habits”, Lipincott (1953)