If there was one word that summed up the first public meeting Monday in Westport of the Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County, that word would be “purpose.”
The bulk of the two-hour meeting was taken up with a viewing of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s keynote presentation to the annual conference in June of the American Humanist Association.
Carroll’s talk, titled “Purpose and the Universe,” explained that the current models in physics could completely account for the phenomena of everyday life on Earth without the need of creation or intention. However, he said, it doesn’t make sense to talk about most of our lives in terms of fundamental equations. He argued that people needed to invent meaning and purpose in their lives, and that while physics should inform those invented meanings, it cannot dictate them.
After the video, retired chemist and President of the HUUmanists Association Dr. John Hooper led a brief-but-animated debate among the approximately 30 attendees about the merits of Carroll’s presentation.
One audience member said he thought Carroll had done a poor job of talking about the bridges between physics and higher-order phenomena.
“What is the bridge between physics and neurons?” he asked.
Others questioned whether it was even useful to talk about physics to people who’ve already decided that purpose comes from a supernatural authority and aren’t interested in what science has to say about reality.
When the discussion had to be cut short because of time constraints, several people asked for more time devoted to participation. Hooper said that would be easier at future meetings, when live speakers would be coming.
Manny Ratafia, a Woodbridge resident and former president of the Humanist Association of Connecticut, agreed with the notion that there should be more time for discussion.
“I’ve led groups like this before, and one of the things I would try to do is go around the room and give each person an opportunity to speak,” he said.
He also suggested that humanist organizations expand their discussions of religion to account for more than the “big three” Abrahamic religions. Confucianism and Buddhism, for instance, are largely nontheistic, but still have dogmas attached to them.
“Including a broader range of religious traditions would change the discussions,” he said.
Still, Ratafia said he thought the organization was “off to a great start.”
Jocelyn Shaw, a psychology major at Adelphi University who grew up in Norwalk, also enjoyed the meeting. She said she particularly liked a concept presented by Carroll that stories are often more relevant to life than physics.
“I liked the idea of ‘the stories we tell,’ especially because it relates to psychology,” she said.
Hooper echoed Shaw’s sentiment. “Science is not enough,” he said. “We live by stories.”
Having been part of the humanist community for a long time, Hooper said he’s seen a shift over the years from a focus purely on rationalism to a recognition that people need one another to survive. He pointed out that many of the modern nonreligious started out as members of religious organizations.
“They loved being part of a community, and they still want that,” he explained.
To that end, the HFFC already bills itself as “a group of people who combine reason with compassion, integrating modern understanding of the world with an affirmative life view.”
While the HFFC is beginning to form its own purposes for being, it is also linking up with other resources from across the state as part of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. The meeting’s organizers said they were forming a leadership committee, and invited attendees to help.
The HFFC is hoping to hold its next meeting in September, with monthly events after that.