Sci­ence is im­por­tant for hu­mans – but so are ideas

Les Reid is im­pressed by a Scout’s ques­tion which led him to ex­plore his be­liefs as a hu­man­ist

The Scotsman - - The Scotsman 200 -

Aques­tion put to me by a teenager, and I was im­pressed by its force and rel­e­vance, was “Do Hu­man­ists think that sci­ence holds all the an­swers?”

He was re­search­ing dif­fer­ent be­liefs for a scout badge. When I was a scout 50 years ago we got badges for know­ing types of knot and how to scav­enge in the wild. Scout­ing has moved on since those days.

The ques­tion did not come out of the blue. I had al­ready told the scout troop that Hu­man­ism can be briefly summed up in the phrase “one life, one Earth, one hu­man­ity”. One life, be­cause that is all that each of us has and we must do our best to use our time well. One Earth, be­cause this planet is our only home, so we must look af­ter it and not de­stroy it with pol­lu­tion, over­pop­u­la­tion and greed. One hu­man­ity, be­cause dif­fer­ences of colour, creed, na­tion­al­ity and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion should not di­vide us – we should work to­gether for the com­mon good.

That brief sum­mary did in­di­cate some core Hu­man­ist be­liefs, but the young ques­tioner was driv­ing the dis­cus­sion into new ter­ri­tory.

I replied that Hu­man­ists do in­deed have a high re­gard for sci­ence. It has been a boon to hu­man­ity, en­abling us to un­der­stand the world and har­ness the power of na­ture for our own good.

Ev­ery time we switch some­thing on – whether a com­puter, car en­gine, or light bulb, etc – we en­joy the ben­e­fits of years of me­thod­i­cal re­search. It is thanks to the sci­ences that we can live health­ier, more pro­duc­tive and longer lives than our fore­bears. Sci­ence has also en­abled us to recog­nise er­ro­neous be­liefs in­her­ited from the past and to dis­card them.

But sci­ence is not ev­ery­thing. There is more to life than seek­ing ex­pla­na­tions for nat­u­ral pro­cesses. Hu­mans are also amaz­ingly cre­ative. For ex­am­ple, we have cre­ated hos­pi­tals, schools, law courts and sports fields and all the jobs and so­cial roles that such es­tab­lish­ments re­quire. So­cial in­sti­tu­tions like those are hu­man in­ven­tions. Like­wise, we have cre­ated all the arts – mu­sic, po­etry, TV pro­grammes, dance, lit­er­a­ture, paint­ing and the rest. Those ac­tiv­i­ties en­rich our lives and open up a world of op­por­tu­nity for all of us to ex­plore our own cre­ative ideas and to en­joy the pro­duc­tiv­ity of oth­ers.

The young ques­tioner seemed happy with that. I hope it pro­vided him with some ma­te­rial for the writeup which he would pro­duce for his badge. The next ques­tion in­quired into the ac­tiv­i­ties of Scouts when I was one 50 years ago. I in­dulged in some reminiscing, re­mem­ber­ing peo­ple fall­ing into la­trines, ropes break­ing and the like.

That was an easy and fun ques­tion, but af­ter­wards I felt grate­ful for the hard ques­tion which dug deep. Scout­ing means ex­plor­ing and that was real ex­plo­ration. ● Les Reid teaches Hu­man­ism as part of a City of Ed­in­burgh Coun­cil adult ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme. He is a mem­ber of the Ed­in­burgh branch of Hu­man­ist So­ci­ety Scot­land (­man­

0 Sci­ence has given us com­fort­able lives – and space to be cre­ative

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