There is something that I didn’t think to include in my original post on humanism. There is another way that my “humanness” defines me, and I think the most important one. In nearly every sense, humanity created me.
When I think of the things I’ve come to believe and value throughout my life and the way those things have changed, I wonder how much these things were chosen by me and how much they were imposed upon me by things beyond my control. This post is not intended to be about the free will vs. determinism debate, but it seems to be leaning in that direction anyway.
I didn’t create the world I was born into. I didn’t decide which part of the world I would be born into or at what point in history it would be. The world I was thrown into (see Sartre) was already filled with values and beliefs, each of them relevant to the particular time in human history. My innocent infant body was hurdled into this world before I was given the chance to share my opinion about the matter.
A young child, today, will race home from science class to share with you that they’ve discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. They will receive a cookie and a slightly condescending pat on the back. When Copernicus, in 1543, raced home from his science lab to write a report about the same findings no one gave him a cookie. In fact, it took quite some time for most people to believe him. Everyone believed the young child who said that the earth revolved around the sun, but almost no one believed an old scientist saying the same thing. Clearly, young children are smarter than old scientists.
The world that today’s young child is born into already knows that the earth revolves around the sun. Today’s scientist doesn’t need to spend his lifetime researching this hypothesis. Instead, he can build on it and learn something new.
I am under the impression that I choose what I believe and value, but I did not choose the world that I was thrown into. What are my beliefs and values other than responses to things I encounter in this world, which I did not create? I don’t form value judgements or beliefs about things I’ve never heard of. It may be true that I choose the value judgements I make, but each of those value judgements is made in response to something that has come to my attention because of what humanity has conjured up in the time preceding my birth.
I don’t know precisely what I would do if I was put in a situation where I had to choose between an ethical value of mine and my life. I have thought about it a little, but not much. How much different would this be if I was born into a slightly different world in which I was met with this dilemma with some frequency? Wouldn’t my personal ethical inquiries take a drastically different path if this were the case?
First and foremost, I form value judgements about those things that are relevant to my surroundings, spatial and temporal. The rest of humanity created for me a mess of things to respond to. First, I responded to the pre-existing sets of values existing in the humans nearest me. Why should I discern my views on a concept that is distant and unfamiliar before I draw a conclusion about what is right before me? I did not choose which things would be right before me.
It is in this way that I am indebted to and bound by the human race. Any idea I have is a product of and a response to a world that only exists for a moment. What use is it to entertain thoughts about timeless absolutes? A human being is bound by his time. I believe it is best to forget the timeless absolutes and understand that no matter how airtight we make our personal/cultural values and ideals, in 200 years we’ll be the uncultured, inhumane, racist bastards despised by our descendants.
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