Les Reid: Science is important for humans – but so are ideas

Science has given us comfortable lives  and space to be creative. Picture: Getty Images.
Science has given us comfortable lives  and space to be creative. Picture: Getty Images.
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A question 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 write-up 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 (www.humanism.scot).