In one of the book clubs that I have belonged to for over 20 years, the members take turns hosting the meetings, and the host has the privilege of selecting the book to be discussed at that meeting. This arrangement has the advantage (and sometimes disadvantage) of ensuring a wider range of books to be discussed than would probably be the case if we selected the books by consensus of the group. On one occasion in the spring of 1999, the member who was hosting selected the book Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer. Singer is a professor of philosophy at Princeton whose ideas are, shall we say, out of the mainstream of conservative philosophical thought. His views include, among others, strong support for abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and in some instances infanticide.
This book club has generally thrived on the fact that the members, while entertaining diverse political and philosophical views, have generally been respectful of others’ points of view. I knew the member who made the selection to be an individual of conservative religious views, including a staunch pro-life position. (Not exactly the same as mine.) He made it clear that he had selected Singer’s book because he wanted to express criticism of Singer’s views. I realized that the host and I were going to disagree. But I also realized that one of the primary reasons for our disagreement was not because one—or maybe both—of us were using poor logic but because we were starting from such different fundamental world views and those differing starting positions led to very different conclusions. I still believe that.
So in advance of the meeting I sat down and wrote out a list of my starting assumptions, a manifesto, if you will, of my basic beliefs about the world. Early in the meeting I prefaced comments on the ideas in the book by stating my belief that any differences we might have were the result of a difference in our underlying assumptions and then I read my manifesto to the group. To be honest, it felt a little weird reading this to friends, but I was glad that I did.
Somehow following the meeting I misplaced the list and thought that it had inadvertently gotten tossed. But just this week, some 17 years later, in browsing through some of my books I came across the list, tucked inside a different book. Here it is, word for word:
- There is no god. Or, if there is a creator, he (it) plays no current role in the events of the universe.
- The universe began with a “bang” 12-15 billion years ago. Everything that’s happened since is the result of the operation of the laws of nature on that universe.
- One of the “things” that happened was the beginning and evolution of life on earth, beginning 3.5 - 4 billion years ago. The whole process, including the rise of humans, was simply a “natural” process. No divine intervention.
- The human brain is comprised of the same matter as everything else. As a result, it functions strictly in accordance with physical laws.
- All behavior, therefore, is essentially determined by the physical state of the organism, including the brain, and the operation of physical laws.
- Free will is an illusion.
- There is no such thing as a soul. When we die, it’s over. There is no existence beyond death.
- Consciousness is a by-product of brain activity. It does not control behavior. Rather, behavior (i.e., brain activity) determines consciousness. And behavior is simply the consequence of chemical activity. If this wasn’t the case, it would represent a violation of the laws of nature.
- Life has no meaning beyond what personal meaning we may assign to it.
- It is possible to be a good person without invoking god or a higher meaning to life.
One thing struck me as I read this list afresh: My viewpoint hasn’t really changed much in the 17 years since I wrote out this list. Maybe a tweak here or there, but the themes and my positions have generally remained the same. I’m not sure whether I am happy with or disappointed by that fact.
In any event, though, I suggest that the reader do the same: Take an hour or so to write out a personal manifesto, whatever it might be, and then tuck it away for an extended period before reviewing it again. Treat it like a sort of time capsule. You might surprise yourself, either by the changes that occur or by the fact that they remain the same.
And the discussion regarding Singer’s book? In the end it all went well. No one else had prepared any sort of list of basic beliefs. But I believe my doing so helped to set the tone for the discussion and to ensure, I think, that everyone maintained an attitude of respect for the differing responses to the ideas that Singer had expressed in his book.
Oh, except that toward the end of the meeting one of the other members began crying because she was feared for the fate of my soul. I assured her that I would be OK.
© 2016 John M. Phillips