Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ten "Non-Commandments" for atheists and humanists: I reject eight of them.

Lex Bayer and John Figdor have a new book out: “Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century,” and I've just read a review of it.

I'm glad to see such a book.  I do hope non-religious persons and materialists and atheists and so forth will devote time and effort to defining their ethics and trying to live according to their ethics.  I think non-religious ethics are not likely to give us a sustainable world or a particularly good society.  But at least the attempt is important, and I wish them well. By the way, I consider myself most definitely a humanist. I'm a religious humanist, and there is no contradiction in that.

The review I read included the ten "non-commandments" for atheists and humanists, and I find I personally could only give full agreement or commitment to two of the ten.  

The Ten Non-Commandments:

I. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.

The world has an objective reality.  In that sense, it is real.  This world may be a contingent world, and its reality may depend upon a deeper reality.  In that sense, this world is less real than the deeper reality upon which it depends. For example, if this world is a projection, or analogous to a computer program running, then the source of the projection, or the source of the computer program, would exist in some “more real” reality than this world.  

Our desire to understand the world does not inform our understanding of the degree to which our sensory perceptions of “the world” are accurate and reveal to us “reality”.  The basis for our belief that the world is real is that other minds agree with us about what we perceive. Because I seem to see and experience the same things as others around me do, I believe what I perceive and experience is real. Shared perceptions are a basis for belief.

II. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.

I doubt that we are limited to the use of our human senses.  Empirically, I believe there are cases in which people have perceived the world while in comas, or while asleep, while dreaming, while unconscious, or even while in a state of temporary death.  The statement that “we only perceive through our senses” can be correct if we define “our senses” to include some of these seemingly non-physical abilities to perceive the world.  But people usually mean by “human senses” our ability to witness with eyes, ears, touch, and so forth, or our ability to witness the output from the machines we use to enhance our perceptions.  

I also believe our imagination, our creativity, and our intuition can perceive the world, and the perception of these non-sensory approaches, while less reliable than the perception of our physical senses, is also a valid and potentially accurate way to perceive the world. To rule out intuition, creativity, and imagination as methods for perception is to needlessly limit our understanding of human perception.

Someone might say that "human senses" take information from outside and imagination, creativity, and intuition are based on the generation of information from inside, not taking from the outside, but I think that we can access "outside" influences through intuition, creativity, and imagination. 

III. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.

Yes, I agree that we use rational thought and language, and ought to use these, while recognizing that there are probably limits to what can be understood about the world through thought, through rational thought, and through language. The nature of these limitations may be such that we cannot understand or accurately measure these limitations using thought, rational thought, and language. We don't know what we are missing, we can't perceive the limits.  So, in our attempts to understand the world, we may sometimes use things other than rational thought and language, such as trust in experts, intuitive insight, traditional wisdom, and other sources of understanding, as imperfect supplements to what we gain through rational thought and language.  Language, for example, could be defined broadly to include music, visual arts, movement, and so forth. Sometimes we understand the world through music, visual images, and other sources of communication and knowledge exchange that are not especially rational. 

IV. All truth is proportional to the evidence.

The sort of “truth” that we can agree upon amongst ourselves is proportional to the evidence.  There may be better, more accurate truths that lack evidence (the sort of evidence we find through our senses and rational thought).  There may be truths that exist in a way that defies our ability to accumulate evidence to support those truths. For such truths that lack the evidence we are capable of gathering, the truth is “weaker” only in the sense that we are less likely to reach agreement amongst ourselves about those truths. We ought to have lower expectations that people will reach a consensus about such truths.  Those truths about which we can reach consensus will be the truths that have evidence that is most widely available and acceptable. 

V. There is no God.
The term people use for “God” is a term used by human minds to refer to something beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp.  If you can narrow “God” by applying definitions and conditions to what God is, than that “God” you have imagined is, by definition, a thing that you have “created” through your thought (your definitions, conditions, your imagination, your language), and may or may not correspond to whatever “God” actually is.  When a person says, “there is no God” they mean: 
I do not accept or believe in any of the evidence that God (any "god" I can imagine) exists, and I cannot conceive of the possibility that I could be open to a hypothesis that God exists, and I hold that my attitude toward belief in God is correct, accurate, and closer to truth than the attitudes of those who believe through faith or trust in authorities who reveal truths rather than reaching truths through sensory evidence and rational thought. 
I am not such a person.  I believe that there certainly is an Unknowable Source of reality beyond our abilities to comprehend and understand. I am willing to take, (with some slight reservations), testimony of persons who claim to have direct intuitive understanding of the reality of a “God” as equally valid or even superior to the lack of evidence in what my physical senses and rational thought can give me.  So, I simply don’t agree with this commandment.  And, I do not see why it is necessary.  Certainly agnosticism is the more rational and logical approach to God, rather than disbelief.

At any rate, this all boils down to Occam's Razor and whether that particularly useful tool of logic and rational thought ought to become an object of worship to replace God.  I'm generally in favor of logic and Occam's Razor, but I don't feel obliged to deify it.

VI. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
But the sort of happiness that is associated with good moods and emotional well-being is not the only thing we pursue.  We also pursue value, connection, achievement, engagement, accomplishment, growth, right action, good reputations, perfection, beauty, intimacy, and knowledge, and we may sacrifice happiness to achieve these things.  Happiness may be the central and core thing we pursue, but it is not the only thing, and value, connection, achievement, engagement, accomplishment, growth, correctness, reputation, perfection, beauty, intimacy, and knowledge may in many cases be more important than happiness, and we may trade happiness (accept a degree of unhappiness) in order to achieve these other things.

VII. There is no universal moral truth. Our experiences and preferences shape our sense of how to behave.

There probably are universal moral truths.  Even an atheist might be able to accept them as emergent properties of the universe that, when recognized and followed by intelligent beings, increase long-term chances for survival, while maximizing happiness, growth, development, intimacy, beauty, connection, etc.  Aside from these moral maxims that probably hold true as principles that might be discovered from experiment and evolution and computer simulation or game theory, I personally believe that there are probably universal moral truths embedded in this reality by our Creator. Most of human “morality” is relative, and our experiences and preferences do shape our unconscious ideas about ethics and morality, and most of our logical argument about what is moral is an after-the-fact attempt to justify our intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. That intuitive sense of justice or morality is unconscious, and is also likely to be biased in our personal favor.  But, despite the fact that moral truth is relative, at least in general, I still think there are probably deeper moral truths in this universe that are universal, and simply emerge in slightly different forms according to different situations. 

VIII. We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.
We are more likely to act morally when our own happiness is enhanced by the happiness of others. However, we may also act morally when the growth, wisdom, knowledge, achievement, accomplishment, engagement, connection, intimacy, etc. of others increases our own happiness.  Sometimes other people need something other than happiness. 

IX. We benefit from living in, and supporting, an ethical society.
Yes.  We do.  I totally agree with this point.

X. All our beliefs are subject to change in the face of new evidence, including these.

Yes.  I agree.  This is the second point I agree with.