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Humanism Cannot Ground the University

Joshua Kellard is Outreach Coordinator at Christian Heritage, Cambridge. 

The most important questions about the University are ethical: those that include words like ‘ought’, ‘should’ and ‘must’. What ought the University to be? What kinds of good should it pursue? Which beliefs must we hold in order to ground these goods in something more than whim? What we say about good and evil, about the purpose and meaning of human activity, dictates what we are able to say about the mission of the University. 

While this is a basic point, it is surprising how often it is ignored in discussions of higher education. It is far easier to talk about the University in the pre-packaged terms of the culture wars, or make vague appeals to ‘human flourishing’ than it is to explain what the University should be for, and why. Big questions like these have a tendency to take us to the very roots of our worldview, and therefore into uncomfortable territory. I suspect that is why the question of ethics is usually kept at a safe distance from discussions of higher education. In philosophical terms, there is always the danger that dealing with ethics might force us to confront our metaphysics (or lack thereof). 

In the last post we saw that the Magna Charta Universitatum 2020, a document enshrining particular principles as universally binding for universities, is fundamentally humanistic. It aims to present a rationale for higher education which can make sense in a world without God: a world reducible to nature. We could say that the Magna Charta wants to give us an ethic of the University which is based on the metaphysics (or worldview) of secular humanism. 

In what follows, I want to do two things. First, I will argue that using a humanistic ethic to justify the University’s mission is impossible in principle. Secondly, I want to suggest that humanist approaches to the three tasks of the University prove unsatisfying in practice

Nature: No Place to Park the University 

The humanist worldview is based on a belief that nature is a closed system of causes and effects of impersonal origin. Carl Sagan was representative of this view when he declared that “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”  There is no God, accordingly, and the ultimate nature of reality is impersonal. In this article, I am going to term this view naturalism. I should clarify that I am not using the word in its strict philosophical sense, but as short-hand for a view of the world in which nature is all that exists. It is impossible to hold such a belief about reality without drawing some conclusions about ethics. Richard Dawkins points the way in his wonderfully crisp summary from River Out of Eden

The Universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

If uncaused nature is indeed all there is, then words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ cannot denote anything more than the subjective opinions of members of the human species. There is no ultimate standard by which to determine what goodness is, or to evaluate human lives, actions and activities. 

One way to understand naturalism’s nullifying effect on ethics is to bring it into conversation with the main schools of ethical thought. The philosopher John Frame notes that there are essentially three ways in which ethicists have tried to ground notions of good and evil. Deontologists have tried to discover duties which are more or less universal as a foundation for ethics, the idea being that goodness means conformity to certain laws of behaviour. Consequentialists have argued that moral good is found in identifying the right outcomes of actions, and then taking whatever course is necessary to achieve those ends. A third approach could be called Ethical Existentialism. This approach believes that goodness is found in an authentic expression of our inner life. On this view, ethics is a matter of acting out who we are at the most essential level. While some thinkers have combined aspects of these views, most philosophers have argued for one of them and excluded the other approaches on principle. 

What interests us here is that if naturalism is true, none of these basic ethical approaches can even begin to get off the ground. If nature is all there is, then there are no objective laws of good and evil (contra the deontologist), no objectively good ends (contra the consequentialist) and no way to determine whether our inward life and its expression is morally good or bad (contra the existentialist). Each approach fails to establish a standard beyond human subjectivity. And, as we know in our clearest moments, human subjectivity, in its individual or species-wide forms, can never be more than human subjectivity.

At this point, many are tempted to say, ‘Hold your horses. We know intuitively that certain things are good and others evil.’ And Christians can concur completely with this. Following Paul (Romans 1:28-32), Christians affirm that moral knowledge is indeed universal. The point here is not whether we know what is right or wrong, but whether we have a right to know it. And the humanist, try as she might, will find nothing in the nakedness of nature to justify (or to negate) anything in a moral sense. This is the proper meaning of nihilism: ethical nothingism. Sometimes those trying to show that ethics depends on God will use a line attributed to Dostoyevsky: ‘Without God, everything is permitted’. But this statement strikes the wrong note: if naturalism is true, and there is no God on whom all other realities depend, precisely nothing is permitted, or in principle permissible. Whereas the Bible opens with a God who creates all things and then declares His work ‘very good’, naked nature can offer no such pronouncements about itself. On naturalism, what exists has no moral quality whatsoever. An impersonal Universe of matter, space and time cannot allow for real goodness any more than it allows for real evil. It is all, as Dawkins has it, ‘blind, pitiless indifference’. 

It should be clear that humanism, insofar as it depends on naturalism, is unable to provide grounds for believing in good and evil as real, non-subjective categories. And it follows that it is just as powerless to give human life any connotation of purpose, or meaning, or progress, that does not reduce to the subjective (which in turn reduces to mere nature). The humanist cannot say that the human race is ‘for’ anything, for precisely the same reason she cannot attribute a purpose to the Universe as a whole. Consequently, she cannot say that the University is ‘for’ anything. Humanism is in principle unable to provide an ethical grounding for the University’s mission. While it clings to naturalism, humanism can neither applaud nor decry attempts to name the purpose of the University. It has literally nothing to say. 

Building in Mid-Air

The fact that humanism offers no coherent way to ground the University’s mission has not stopped humanists from attempting the feat. The creation of the Magna Charta Universitatum 2020 is a case in point. And while it is important to point out that its humanist ideals are impossible in principle, it is equally crucial to show how it is constrained to offer visions of the University’s mission which are unsatisfying in practice

In what follows we will take the three tasks of the University as set out in the Magna Charta documents – research, teaching and service to society – and ask what happens to each task if we assume a humanistic outlook. 

Research: boldly going nowhere 

The Magna Charta Universitatum (1988) enshrines the human quest for understanding at the very heart of the University’s life: ‘it’s constant care is to attain universal knowledge.’ On the face of it, this is a noble ideal. But, like every ideal, the pursuit of knowledge must be framed in terms of our worldview. And so we ask: what does the humanistic worldview do to the knowledge enterprise? Honest reflection, it would seem, points to three uncomfortable conclusions. On naturalism, the quest for knowledge is inevitably uncertain about its success, impersonal by its nature, and unaccountable as to its effects. Let’s unpack these briefly. Firstly, naked nature cannot promise even modest success for the knowing enterprise. We are informed that there is no rhyme or reason to the Cosmos, and yet simultaneously encouraged to venture out in exploration. The precise object of our enquiry remains unclear. Naturalism seeks for a ‘place to stand’ where human subjectivity can be transcended, but fails to find it. The existence of a harmony of truth, or even Truth itself beyond the human mind, is very hard to establish if nature is all that there is. 

Secondly, any knowledge possible in a universe of ‘naked nature’ will be ultimately impersonal. The consistent humanist believes all personality emerges from, and therefore reduces to, the stuff of nature. If this is so, and all reality reverts to the impersonal, then universal knowledge is not a path towards infinite joy: it is the surveying of a futile and barren mechanical landscape. The Jewish-Christian faith promises the Beatific Vision, the hope of an eternity of beholding, exploring and befriending the Infinite-Personal God. Naturalism offers us the chance to contribute to a growing inventory of parts before we dissolve into the same. As in Star Trek, it is ultimately sheer quantity (‘Space’) which is the final frontier of human understanding; certainly not quality, and definitely not personality. 

Finally, naturalism leads us to conclude that knowing, like everything else, is by nature amoral. What we discover has no moral claim on us, and is therefore manipulable in any way we see fit. Accountability becomes a constraint; a concession to the sentiments of ‘traditionally-minded’ people. There are no right or wrong uses for knowledge. There is no sense in which we are subject to what we learn: we are utterly free, even from our own enquiries. This has a certain appeal to some humanists, but it is a false attraction. This kind of freedom is not the emancipation of true discovery, which is always moral in character; it is the sentence of nihilism. And it has real-world effects. If we try to separate truth from goodness, we end up with the colonisation of technique. We find ourselves doing things just because we have the technology to do so. Creation can be polluted, bodies mutilated, and unborn children used as raw material for vaccines because neither the earth, nor the human body, nor the human person are morally significant facts. Humanism, then, is unable to hold out a vision for ‘universal knowledge’ that grounds a hope that truth, goodness and beauty are attainable and harmonious. Truth is reduced to a state of the brain, beauty rendered illusory by the impersonal culmination of all learning, and goodness (and with it purpose and progress) deemed irrelevant to research. 

Teaching: research deliveroo 

The Gate of Honour, Gonville and Caius College

Teaching has been at the heart of the life of the University for centuries; the interaction of instructor and pupil being perhaps the key human relationship in the whole enterprise. Until the last 100 years or so, the teaching at European Universities was earthed in a commitment not just to the communication of knowledge but also to the formation of character. Formation is a rich word, suggesting conformity to good standards (one for the deontologist), the pursuit of well-understood goals for human life (pleasing the consequentialist) and the cultivation of our true nature perfected by virtue (hurrah for the existentialist!). It is a concept which only makes sense in a moral universe. While we may question some of the ideals of previous generations, they at least had a conception of education that was holistic, pointing the way to the development of head, heart and (in various ways) hands. This rootedness in virtue is etched into the very architecture of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, just two minutes’ walk from where I work. Three ceremonial gates remind students of the path they are expected to walk. At the front of the College is the Gate of Humility, the essential quality of the unformed student. In the midst of the college is the Gate of Virtue, a reminder of the commitments which will carry the student to full stature. The last gate, that of Honour, is located at the side of the college, intended as the ‘exit’ for students processing to the place of graduation. There, set in stone, is a reminder that an education involves character as much as talent, with humility and virtue being the essential prerequisites of honour. Teaching is also central to the vision of the Magna Charta Universitatum in both its 1988 and 2020 iterations. The University is to spread ‘knowledge among the younger generations’, teaching them ‘to respect the great harmonies of their natural environment and of life itself.’ While this is well and good, there is no detectable emphasis on the formation of students as human beings. Mention is made of the enrichment of minds, but there is no discussion of virtue, and no indication that ‘human flourishing’ has any concrete content. Teaching, in these Magnae Chartae, seems mainly to be about the dissemination of research results, with students becoming willing receptacles of information. In the Charter, the main reason given for coordinating research and teaching is the concern that teaching may lag behind in technical accuracy: ‘tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge.’ Whatever this is, it is not formation, and arguably not education either. Yet it is difficult to see what more could confidently be said from a humanist standpoint. At the very least, the humanist vision of the Magnae Chartae produces a curious shyness in relation to the holistic education of students, and gives no room to the embarrassingly ethical concept of personal formation. 

The Service of Society: Humanism’s Blank Cheque 

The third prong of the University’s identity is its commitment to the service of society. As the Charter has it, the University must ‘serve society as a whole … the cultural, social and economic future of society requires, in particular, a considerable investment in continuing education.’ It is here that the specific question of what humanism is able to say to the University meets what it can say about the proper orientation of society as a whole. I have argued above that humanism’s bondage to naturalism prevents it from setting out any moral vision which is not arbitrary. This means that it is hard for the humanist to set forth either a vision for society in general or the University in particular which is not easily undermined. For our purposes, it is enough to note that in the absence of a clear guiding vision for society, the University’s commitment to serve it is a blank cheque. Instead of an energetic, clearly-defined contribution, the University is forced to describe its service of society in terms which are vague, hard-to-disagree-with and ultimately unexciting. What is needed is a recovery of telos: a clear understanding of why the University exists and how it can serve society distinctively. A blank cheque approach will not do. 

In Conclusion: the Wildness of Truth, Goodness and Beauty 

Any account of the University which fails to unite its three proper tasks of enquiry, formation and creative service is inadequate. That is because these three tasks point beyond themselves to the reality of truth, in the pursuit of knowledge, goodness, in the pursuit of virtue, and beauty, in the pursuit of order and productivity. Properly conceived, each of the tasks reinforces the others, and is dependent on them. Humanists sense, as do we all, that truth, beauty and goodness matter, they they are not at our beck and call, and that the University needs to pursue them in good faith. The fact is, however, that a nature-only worldview provides no basis for grounding them, nor justifying our pursuit of them. The best thinkers of the Western tradition have acknowledged that truth, beauty and goodness not only belong together, but are incomprehensible apart from each other. Together they point to their only possible source: an Infinite Person from whom they proceed, and to whom they lead. And it is this, the ‘personal conclusion’, which humanism is determined to resist. As we have seen, however, this resistance has consequences. To domesticate the goods pursued by the University within a naturalistic framework is the same as to lose them. What is needed, therefore, is a re-wilding of the University. We need to recover a worldview which allows Truth, Beauty and Goodness to be what they are, and to lead where they lead, without being redefined, relativised or reduced to something we can manage. 

In the final post in this mini-series, we will ask what the re-wilding of the University might entail, as we survey the Person-centred vision of reality set forth in the Christian Scriptures, and ask what implications it has for our understanding of the mission of the University. 


Photo Credits: School by Echo Grid on Unsplash and the Gate of Honour by Richie at German Wikipedia. – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2789074



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