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Humanism and Flying Saucers

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The political philosopher John Gray has written a remarkable essay called "Humanism and Flying Saucers," which appears in his volume of collected writings, Gray's Anatomy. He takes Leon Festinger's famous study of a flying saucer cult, and the cognitive dissonance they experienced when their hopes were dashed, and applies it, in a delightfully quirky and thoughtful way, to humanists. If anyone suffers from cognitive dissonance today, he reasons, it is those who believe in human progress. Here's an excerpt:

If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. In science and technology progress is cumulative, whereas in ethics and politics progress is cyclical. Whatever they are called, torture and slavery are universal evils; but these evils cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. They recur under different names: torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, slavery as human trafficking. Any reduction in universal evils is an advance in civilisation. But, unlike scientific knowledge, the restraints of civilised life cannot be stored on a computer disc. They are habits of behaviour, which once broken are hard to mend. Civilisation is natural for humans, but so is barbarism.

The evidence of science and history is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been ...

To expect humanists to give up their myths would be unreasonable. Like cheap music, the myth of progress lifts the spirits as it numbs the brain. The fact that rational humanity shows non sign of ever arriving only makes humanists cling more fervently to the conviction that humankind will someday be redeemed from unreason. Like believers in flying saucers, they interpret the non-event as confirming their faith ...

Science is a solvent of illusion, and among the illusions it dissolves are those of humanism. Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same. Scientific inquiry may be an embodiment of reason, but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals. The fact that humanists refuse to accept the demonstration only confirms its truth.

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