A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Secular Alternative to the Ten Commandments

Here’s a Secular Alternative to the Ten Commandments
Lex Bayer and John Figdor (Time Magazine, Dec. 21, 2014)
“Pics or it didn’t happen,” the mantra of the Snapchat generation, is a simple but profound reflection of how we think. 
The fact that the authors consider this to be a "profound reflection" bodes ill for how the authors think. There are no "pics" for a great many things, including the rest of their article, so they appear willing not only to toss out most of history but also to overlook such things as Photoshop. There are not many "pics" of Hannibal and his elephants; but otoh a local restaurant had "pics" on its walls of white-bearded farmers standing beside ears of corn as tall as they or pumpkins the size of a farm wagon. That is:
  • No "pics" but it did happen; and
  • "Pics" but it did not happen.
What the slogan does reflect is our tendency to demand evidence only for that of which we are personally incredulous. And of course, to think in slogans.

So here are the Ten Secular Commandments, as detailed in Time, formerly a news magazine.

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  4. Every person has the right to control of their body.
  5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  9. There is no one right way to live.
  10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
The first thing the Reader notices is that these ten replacements for the ten commandments are not in fact commandments, but simply opportunities for one to pat oneself on the back. They tell us nothing about the nature of the good. In fact, by #9 "There is no one right way to live" we need not even pay any attention to this list! In addition, since none of the statements are verifiable by the scientific method, then by #3 "The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world," the list itself is unreliable.

There are a few references to the good -- (#5 "God is not necessary to be a good [sic] person..." and #10 "Leave the world a better [sic] place...") -- but nothing about to tell of what this good consists. Do you sincerely -- with an "open" mind -- believe the world would be a better place without certain Untermenschen of your choice in it? #10 says "Go ahead." Would the world be better were it carpeted thick with factories? Why not? Again, what exactly is a "good" person? Someone obedient to the Emperor? Someone who behaves as the State commands? Someone who steals wealth for the clan? Why not?

#1 moots the question of what exactly constitutes the evidence that will change your mind. It is well known that there are no facts independent of theory; that is, the meaning of the evidence will depend on the prior beliefs that are brought to it.

#2. "Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true" is advice well-taken. For example, TOF is certain that the authors have manfully striven to understand Aquinas' Proof from Motion and were not discouraged from doing so by their wish to, if it feels good, do it, and that they ought not be judged thereby.

#3 is almost laughable, as it assumes there is a single "scientific method" when history tells us that scientists have made breakthroughs in a variety of different ways -- see #1. But many prefer the comfortable myth of the pristine Scientific Method carried out by labcoated paradigms -- see #2.

However, it does restrict the scope of the scientific method(s) to "understanding the natural world." But since #3 cannot be established by the scientific method, it is either self-refuting or it is not a statement about the natural world. In which case, we are left wondering whether statements about the natural world are the only admissible statements in human understanding. Of course, that is scientism, which we are assured does not exist.

#4. "Every person has the right to control of their body" is likewise false-to-fact (see #1 again). Does it apply to a prisoner in durance vile? To a patient in a hospital? To a contagious person carrying a potentially deadly disease? What if one's body is entirely contained in the uterus of another? (Of course, that is taken care of by declaring such beings to be non-persons. But then what stops the Reichstag from declaring some other group to be non-persons?)

It is clear that #4 is meant to insinuate the sacrament of abortion; but does this not work against #8 "We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations," given that those future generations are the very ones not being considered in this?

#5 goes on to juxtapose "a good person" with "live a full and meaningful life," although it is not clear where this "meaning" might come from. Perhaps great wealth, a la Donald Trump on his good days. These are either two alternatives (i.e. "good person" OR "full and meaningful life") or they are meant to reinforce each other and living a full and meaningful life is how one becomes a good person. Or something. The problem is that "meaningful" is not meaningful and people who worship the intellect are not often found using it.

IOW, as Stanley Fish pointed out in "Are There Secular Reasons?" (NYTimes Opinionator, 22 Feb 2010) these things always seem to smuggle the transcendent in through the back door. A "good" person -- but "good" with respect to what standards?  We should be "fair" -- but "fair" with respect to what measure? We find almost always that these piggy-back on prior notions that are not secular.

The famous atheist Freddy Nietzsche noticed this and regarded with contempt the English "flatheads" who thought they could retain Christian morality without retaining Christianity. Crazy Fred, who was not interested in retaining either -- it got in the way of the Strong dominating the Weak -- wrote:
When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands. ...

When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt.

-- Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols
#6 tells us "Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions" and "recognize that you must take responsibility for them," but says nothing about the nature of those consequences. Many a thief or murderer is mindful of the consequences of his action (obtain the jewels, eliminate the rich uncle) and gladly accepted the fruits of those actions. Furthermore, how can one foresee all the consequences of an act? Archduke Franz Ferdinand's chauffeur made a wrong turn and we got WW1 as a consequence. Welfare programs broke the Afro-American family. It would seem #6 is a recipe for paralysis.

#7 tells us to "Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated." The first part is okay, even if it was lifted from somewhere else; but the second clause renders the whole meaningless and entitles us to treat others in ways we would emphatically not like provided we can convince ourselves that the Other likes it. For example, what if we believe the simple and child-like Grolniks really want to be coddled and taken care of, or that they really need direction and control. Turn it around to see the trap. "Others should treat me as they would want me to treat them [so far so good], and can reasonably expect me to want to be treated."

A one time colleague once reasonably expected that a client was coming on to him and proceeded in an elevator to treat her as he expected her to want to be treated. Imagine his surprise! Imagine his subsequent unemployment. But he was convinced that she had led him on and set him up.

We are further abjured to "Think about their perspective" much in the way that liberals are constantly thinking about the conservative perspective -- or vice versa.

In addition, #5 "God is not necessary to be a good person..." suffers from a logical flaw. It really means to say "Recognizing God is not necessary to be a good person," since in traditional theology God just is the Good, you cannot be a good person without God, since there would be no Good. (Or anything else, for that matter.) See Romans 2: 11-16, where Paul peremptorily disagrees with Nietzsche and other atheists, and presents the subsequent doctrine of "the naturally Christian man." But you may be good even if you do not recognize the source of the good, much as a man may fly in a jet airplane without giving thought to Frank Whittle, or indeed even knowing that Frank Whittle ever existed.

One senses throughout the article that particular love of theory that is the root of all evil. Unlike the original Commandments, there is a steady whiff not of practicality but of theoretical bromides and academic huff-and-puffery that sound very kool until examined more closely.

It is not clear which of the original ten commandments they find objectionable. Even the commandment to avoid false gods is applied relative to things like White Race, the Almighty Dollar, the Fatherland, and other modern deities. And the commandment against false oaths is presumably acceptable as long as one does not believe they will be caught at it by an all-knowing deity. Otherwise, the court system collapses. Besides, we are all aware of the many words and phrases that Must Not Be Uttered in these, our modern times. Only the staunchest capitalist will demand that people work seven days a week.

So perhaps they object to honoring their father and their mother.
I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.
-- G.K.Chesterton


  1. Merry Christmas.

    Am I wrong to think that " The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world." Can be proven one of two ways. Either by a method outside of the scientific method, which is self refuting or from within the scientific method which is circular logic and fruitless.

  2. Apparently, #3 doesn't really matter when More Important Stuff is in play. Say, when you absolutely want to stem cells from embryos.

    I read this news and I feel quite puzzled, since it looks to me that the article contradicts itself:

    So, The European Court of Justice says you can commercialize and create patents on human embryos created through parthenogenesis since they cannot become human adults. So inform us even one of the scientists who denounced the previous ban. Yet, in case you were still reading, the article closes with a laconic sentence from the lawyer who won the case, "But she adds that it would be harder to argue scientifically that the most common source of human embryonic stem cells — spare human embryos – do not have this capability.".

    Behold! They already know that those embryos cannot become adults, just not scientifically! I suppose they have found some other source of such knowledge... err... say... their thirst for "the most common source of human embryonic stem cells".

    1. (Booger, blogspot ate my response....)

      The catch on each "person" having control of their own body is who gets to define "person." It's obviously not those sufficiently young, sufficiently old, disabled in the wrong way, or personally inconvenient/awkward to the definer.

      I've made a lot of noise with "scientific" folks by pointing out that their personal philosophy holding that some humans are non-persons is them trying to force their beliefs on me, while "all biological humans are persons" is a reasonable caution to avoid horrific wronging of a person.


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