Savage humanism

Adam Savage, that is. He and Jamie Hyneman, co-hosts of the urban-legend-debunking show MythBusters, have recently been awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Harvard Secular Society.

His entire speech is marvelous and can be read here. A choice passage:

Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening. I’ve paid attention. I’ve pictured what I want to happen in my life. I’ve meditated extensively on my family, my future, my past actions and what did and didn’t work for me about them. I’ve looked hard at problems and thought hard about their solutions.

See, I order my life by the same mechanism that I use to build things. I cannot proceed to move tools around in the real world until my brain has a clear picture in it of what I’m building. The same goes for my life. I’ve tried to pay attention. I’ve tried to picture the way I want things to be, and I’ve noticed that when I had a clear picture, things often turned out the way I wanted them to.

I’ve concluded by this that someone is paying attention — I’ve concluded that it’s me. I’ve noticed that if I’m paying attention to those around me, to myself, to my surroundings, then that is the very definition of empathy. I’ve noticed that when I pay attention, I’m less selfish, I’m happier — and that the inverse holds true as well.

I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody’s going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you’re here. And when you don’t, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I’m performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody’s going to take care of us, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That’s community.

And that, pretty much, is humanism.

I can’t praise MythBusters enough for everything it’s doing to promote a skeptical mindset. I hope it inspires its viewers to apply this kind of thinking not just to weird urban legends and unexamined truisms of conventional wisdom, but to larger and more pervasive social beliefs as well. The show has certainly proven it can be ambitious: Savage, Hyneman and company have taken on the conspiracy theory that the Moon landing was a hoax — setting up elaborate experiments and enlisting the aid of better-equipped scientists to prove the conspiracy claims false. Would they have the guts to take on religion?

I can understand how tackling the question “Does God exist?” head-on might make the network nervous (and as Adam says in the speech, the concept of a Prime Mover is unprovable either way, and there’s really not much he can say about it). But how about examining religion’s many other empirical claims? For instance: Does prayer work? The MythBusters have already done a hilarious — but legitimately scientific — segment about whether human thoughts affect plants (“busted!”); why not an episode on the efficacy of faith healers, or of large numbers of people praying with the same intent?

Or why not take on the creationists with a special episode on evolution? Perhaps make a trip down to Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum and tackle its claims one by one. And show how scientists like Richard Lenski are seeing evolution acting observably on living species today.

They might have some fun with it too. They’ve taken on idiomatic expressions like “It’s better to hit the ground running” to see if they actually hold true when taken literally; why not examine whether, in fact, God “closes a door but opens a window,” or “helps those who help themselves”? Or that old canard, “There are no atheists in foxholes”? That experiment might look something like this:

And while they’re at it, why not figure out whether the number of heavenly virgins awaiting a Muslim suicide bomber is exactly 72, or if perhaps it’s closer to 60 or 80? (Testing this would give them the requisite explosion at the end of the show, too.)

Alright, I kid about the last few — and perhaps in poor taste about that last one. But MythBusters, for all its cheerful humor, is deadly serious about refusing to take any claims for granted — and testing the world to see what’s true about it and what isn’t. Bravo.

(Images via Mac Life and Abstruse Goose)

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