:: Visionary Humanism ::

:: A philosophy which seeks to explore more holistic and interdiscipliary ways of thinking about human life and experience ::

Since 2015, I have been devoting an increasing amount of my time to developing a philosophy of 'Visionary Humanism', which is an attempt to liberate a more holistic image of the human being in the context of symbolic cognition, the collective unreality and subjective meaningfulness of our inner and outer experience, and twenty-first century scientific knowledge. Its fundamental view is that understanding human phenomena such as art, religion and language requires one to take a complex, interdisciplinary approach which must necessarily avoid hyper-rationalist dismissals of outlying human experiences as well as literalist demands that what we experience or believe must be absolutely true. This page reproduces a general, work-in-progress statement on the philosophy of 'Visionary Humanism' taken from the Introduction of my 2018 book They Shimmer Within: Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Visionary Beings.


What, then, is Visionary Humanism? Perhaps a better question would be: at the time of writing, what is my current state of thinking about Visionary Humanism? I should like to take a few pages to sketch and summarise this work-in-progress, which I have so far developed through the attacking of certain (diverse and unrelated) philosophical problems, including the so-called ‘death’ of painting, the paradox of human symbolic thought, and the question of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Note that some of the detailed justifications for the statements made in these summaries can be found in my work elsewhere, some of which has yet to be published.

Central to the position of Visionary Humanism is the unique human propensity for symbolic thought. This I believe has the potential to change everything, perceptually and epistemologically, for human self-understanding, and potentially to resolve many of the contemporary antagonisms between science and religion in a pragmatic and experiential way which does not divide reality or human life into separate realms but accepts a seamless transition from inner to outer life, and between rational scientific and irrational-but-colourful human cultural expression. It also recognises that many of the apparent paradoxes of human life are not necessarily there to be resolved, but rather to be experienced, even if that experience leads one to counterfactual situations.

The human mind is the foundation for all pragmatic, sacred and creative cultural forms, and these could not be possible without symbolic cognition, but Visionary Humanism notes also the dependence of scientific enquiry and the formulation of laws, customs and social norms upon the same symbolic propensities.

Symbolic cognition appears to have evolved out from specific Darwinian situations in the African Middle Stone Age between approximately 164 and 120 thousand years ago, if the appearance of red ochre in human lithic assemblages is to be any evidence, and is itself generated by the mixing of intelligences within the human mind, where knowledge that was once separated between different intelligence modules became integrated when the ‘walls’ dividing them came down. Mithen considers that the minds of Early Humans were heavily compartmentalised into natural history, technical (tool-making) and social intelligences, but modern humans also have linguistic and metarepresentational capacities which permit cognitively fluid communication across the whole of the human mind. Boyer’s system of intuitive biology, physics and psychology is a broadly similar model.

This cognitive set-up gave us an evolutionary advantage in being able to conceive of imaginary futures and ideal situations which permitted our ancestors to make better use of their environment, and interact with each other in more complex ways, leading to a reproductive success of our species which is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. It also is responsible for the generation of supernatural concepts, images and cultural forms, for the mixing of intelligences is primarily oriented towards the social and ‘agent-based’ experiences. Thus, the fusion of natural history and social intelligence liberates such ideas as a lion that can talk, a mountain with a soul or a tree who is an ancestor, while the mixing of technical and social forms can create such ideas as a lump of rock with a human inside it (a conceptual approach that is used by some sculptors) or a sword with a malevolent spirit. It is but a short step from these counterfactual ideas into more familiar supernatural images such as gods, spirits or ghosts.

A position derived from Sperber in his ‘Rethinking Symbolism’ is that symbolic information systems and those dependent on worldly, evidential-based experience are often sealed from each other, both in mind and in culture, and they are rarely if ever compared. Similarly, Boyer notes that ‘theological’ or consciously reflective ideas about gods are often at odds with, and again rarely compared, with the kinds of socially-founded but unconscious and minimally counterintuitive expectations humans tend to have about the same gods. Here is seen one of many paradoxes of being human, the ‘resolution’ of which is brought about through experience rather than strict adherence to reason or faith. Neither of the latter two can adequately or completely encompass the full range of often counterfactual experiences meaningfully available to human beings, nor can they effectively bring many of our most counterintuitive images to epistemological closure, except perhaps through dismissal in the case of reason, and literal confirmation in the case of faith.

Visionary Humanism is thus an attempt to respond to, explore and perhaps transcend what I have come to think of as one of the great philosophical problems of the early twenty-first century: gods do not exist but we humans nonetheless have the kind of minds that appear to generate and liberate gods at every turn. It is in this odd dichotomy that again we find ourselves at the heart of an all-too-human paradox.

Our current level of scientific knowledge makes it a reasonably safe bet that gods do not exist, and that supernatural agency without biology is impossible. Furthermore the reason that science has dethroned agency as a meaningful method of describing the world is due to an absolute paucity of evidence: fringe hypotheses such as ‘panpsychism’ aside, there seems little to suggest that the universe is filled with conscious awareness of a natural or supernatural flavour. This of course may change – scientific endeavour is always open to new information arising from empirical findings – and in view of the fact that we must hold ourselves as still relatively ignorant about how the universe works and about some elementary problems of our own experience such as consciousness, we should reasonably expect major changes to come, though not necessarily in the way we might innately expect or unconsciously desire. So, at our current state of knowledge, and without entertaining too much in the way of wild speculations about ‘quantum consciousness’ or a ‘holographic universe’, it is fairly certain to state that gods and supernatural agency cannot tell us anything useful about the universe outside our minds.

Inside our minds, it is a rather different matter. Gods and agency are central to our intuitive understandings of the world. This is often ascribed to a ‘sleep of reason’ – though it is notable that intuitive agent-led (but non-religious) concepts and explanations often captivate even atheists – as if our minds are some kind of general-purpose learning mechanism in which reason is fundamental, but a wealth of evidence from cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and even artificial intelligence research demonstrates that a domain-general mind dependent solely upon reasoning faculties cannot solve real-world problems quickly enough to survive in Darwinist evolutionary situations of survival that we know obtained for the natural world from which we have emerged.

Rather our evolved minds are content-rich, modular and (as stated above) largely domain-specific in structure, and it is the cognitive fluidity between these domains which generates our innate expectations for gods, supernatural agency and many other meaningful fantasies.

Reason, in this model of the mind, is an exapted social device whose actions and insights are ‘natural’ in social situations but ‘cultural’ in both science and religion. Indeed, much of religion is generally reasonable once the minimally counterintuitive oddities of supernatural beings are understood and integrated by the believer, while the empirically proven laws of science, especially those of quantum mechanics, are often so maximally counterintuitive as to be deeply challenging and unmemorable to the human psyche. That doesn’t make them any less correct – or the factual notion of supernatural agency any less incorrect – but we begin to see perhaps that the attraction of religion is not merely an emotive or unreasoned one, but as arising out from the very particular types of cognition that we humans exhibit.

In any case, rather than decrying gods and agency as unreasonable – they are indeed, by definition, as irrational from an empirical perspective as they are predictable from a cognitive perspective – I believe we can utilise them as ancestral tools for deeper self-understanding once we have recognised that they are products of our minds rather than the natural world. Through study and asking questions such as ‘why are gods so almost-but-not-quite-human?’ and through exploring the vivid intensity of religious experience and by evoking the ritualistic symbolism of myth, we can come to experience ourselves in potentially an entirely new way which is simultaneously ancestral and deeply authentic to our ‘human nature’.

The expectation of an ‘otherworld’ of hidden reality of forms or of a sacred world no more than a shadow away, another facet of our unique symbolic cognition, is an innate feature of the human being and one that should be celebrated. It is generated not by literal inherence of the world, but emerges from the human mind projecting itself out onto that world in an attempt to ‘socialise’ the cosmos and the unknown, and has long helped us develop creative understandings of ourselves and the world, which have been essential for artists and visionaries down the ages.

In this context, the world’s religions and mythologies can act as resources towards self-knowledge, even as we acknowledge that the deities they propose cannot possibly exist, and that the scientific method is thus far the only useful method humans have found for understanding the world as it really is. Supernatural conception is the human mind in its native context, and by approaching the field in a spirit of play, rather than worshipful belief, literalist attachment or dismissive rejection, we can come to a deeper, albeit more paradoxical, experience of ourselves.

This is not an entirely rational proposition, which is fine, because humans are not completely rational creatures, despite what neoliberal ideologues might have us believe. Some of the most valued aspects of ourselves are delightfully non-rational. Just as with gods and myths, so it can also be with visionary beings, those mercurial phenomena which also shimmer beyond the boundaries of the everyday and the known, and which in some ways can be considered cognitive and experiential relations to the more faith-based, theological gods of the major religions of the world. ‘Visionary Humanism’ thus also seeks a human-centred transcendence and capacity for visionary experience.

In this regard, a mainstream humanist view has been recently summarised by Baggini:

“The non-religious do not find meaning, purpose and value by taking a leap into the unknown and transcendental. We find it in the beauty and joy of life, and in the empathy that makes us see value in the lives of others too… These things are not facts captured by fundamental physics but nor are they religious mysteries to be taken on faith. What grounds us ethically can be found entirely on the literal ground on which we live.”

I would largely agree with his suggestion that there is deep value, sweetness and dignity in being alive as a human being in a material world, but the implication that the transcendental and the unknown should be meaningless to humans is, I think, a very damaging idea. Our minds are structured in such a way that counterintuitive, nonliteral and transcendental phenomena are interesting and attractive, and therefore often emotionally and experientially fulfilling – as Atran notes, they also often answer to deep existential anxieties that are an additional fundament to being human – and just because they have up until now been couched primarily in terms of religious literalism does not need to detract from the essential value of these underlying phenomena and their utility for self-knowledge. Indeed, Sam Harris has argued at length in his ‘Waking Up’ that spirituality and a self-transcendence can be pursued without recourse to religious forms, if one desires to do so.

But ‘Visionary Humanism’ seeks to go further, to walk the line of balance even further into the counterfactual propensities of human nature. One of the fundamental notions upon which human minds and human culture seem to heavily depend is what I call ‘collective unreality’. This might be defined as the shared acceptance of fictional ideas and experiences as not merely being real and true, but as essential for human life. Knight’s expression of symbolic culture as “an environment of objective facts whose existence depends entirely on subjective belief” is relevant here, in that it succinctly expresses yet another paradox of the human situation.

Examples of such ‘collective unreality’ include language and art as well as gods. In linguistics, for instance, the arbitrary nature of words – there is nothing cat-like about the word ‘cat’ – in relation to their referents is a fiction shared by all speakers of a given language, and most people are sufficiently unaware of this arbitrariness as to regularly mistake the symbol for its referent in a cognitive process parallel to that which exists in the minds of religious believers.

All art, too, partakes of this unreality. A painting of a woman is not actually a woman but a mere collection of pigments skilfully arranged, and while we are able to hold factual (‘it is simply paint’) and counterfactual (‘it is a woman’) ideas about an artwork in our minds simultaneously, humans often respond exclusively with the latter proposition when asked to describe the painting. We jump quite naturally to the counterfactual. This type of unreality holds from the very cognitive foundations of how art is perceived to our conscious reflections and cultural debates about art.

So I ask: why should gods alone be separated out for dismissive treatment in the context of contemporary discourse? They are no more, or less, fictional than anything else quintessentially human, and the only problem seems to be the strange movements towards metaphysics, theology and literalism that many modern religions have recently attempted, which do not appear from archaeological and textual evidence to have been such prevalent religious attitudes in the pre-modern era.

A Visionary Humanist position, then, considers that the notion of deity should be seen for what it is – an experiential, cognitive and social form of meaningful and collective unreality – and much of the metaphysical speculation and faithful literalism promulgated by organised religions of the post-Bronze Age era needs to be jettisoned in favour of the recognition that we humans have been the unconscious and cultural creators and curators of our religious images since our species emerged into the African Middle Stone Age with a predilection for non-functional objects and behaviours such as red ochre and dance displays.

Despite my political self-image as a progressive, there is a conservative flow within me that hints that we have had gods for so long that they might still be useful, and that the myths we tell (and the visions we experience) about them may yet prove to be repositories of human knowledge worth maintaining into our future. Joseph Campbell’s work on ‘creative mythology’8 is certainly relevant to the modern human, whether the modern human acknowledges it or not, and an area of ‘Visionary Humanism’ yet to be fully developed is this notion of Sacred Play, narrated only briefly in 'On Vision And Being Human'.

Thus I have sketched out in brief the current state of my thinking upon Visionary Humanism. It is hoped this general statement can help clarify my thinking regarding various problems of human life going forward.

BR, May 2017


Atran, Scott (2002), In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press

Baggini, Julian (2016), Atheists Don’t Need Faith, Any More Than We Need Religion, on The Guardian, dated May 2016, url: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/24/atheists-faith-religion-uk, retrieved June 2016

Harris, Sam (2014), Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, Simon & Schuster

Knight, Chris (2010), The Origins of Symbolic Culture, in Ulrich J. Frey, Charlotte Störmer and Kai P. Willführ (eds.), Homo Novus – A Human Without Illusions, Springer-Verlag

Rimell, Bruce (2015), On Vision and Being Human: Exploring the Menstrual, Neurological and Symbolic Origins of Religious Experience, Xibalba Books

Rimell, Bruce (2018), They Shimmer Within: Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives On Visionary Beings, Xibalba Books

Sperber, Dan (1975), Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology #11), Cambridge University Press



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