Things I believe

Martin Sharman, Brussels 2004

Things I believe
1. The universe is the detritus of the Big Bang, and is dominated by physics. The

universe is unimaginably immense and almost entirely inimical to life. There is no god. There are no gods. The universe does not care.
2. Life is biology in a world of physics. Biology is unimaginably rare. Although life

has evolved on many other planets in the universe, interstellar distances even within our own galaxy are so vast that each living planet is effectively alone. Life on Earth is precious.
3. Life and other interesting systems are on the border between chaos and stasis and

are ruled by complexity and emergence. Things do not follow a preordained plan. There is no master plan, no higher meaning, no grand purpose, no long-range predictability. Things do not turn out as they do for a reason. There is no destiny – except in retrospect.
4. I am self-aware. Self-awareness is a property of mind. Mind is an emergent

feature of brains, bodies, and sensory stimuli. You are not a figment of my imagination. There is no soul independent of this living mind and body.
5. This is the only life I get. There is no afterlife, no reincarnation, no transmigration

of souls. There are no ghosts. There are no guardian angels. I must manage my own life as best I can, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally and socially.
6. Spirituality arises from simplicity, awareness, thankfulness, and compassion, and

leads, finally, to wisdom. In a world where nothing exists for ever, spiritual release comes with the understanding that I cannot be happy while I search for something permanent. Purpose in life comes from within me.
7. I am a human being in a world of other living beings. I have a moral responsibility

to behave in such a way as to minimise my negative impact on them, and, where possible, to act in such a way as benefits them. My values are important because they guide my behaviour.
8. The society of my family members, friends, acquaintances and strangers

constrains, consoles, guides and helps me. I cannot make anyone else happy, or they me, but I can sometimes help to create the conditions to make it easier for others to manage their desires and emotions more effectively.
9. I contribute to society by my actions, thoughts and beliefs. My temperament, my

mood, my behaviour and my example affect others. If I am morally upright, cheerful and generous, I may make my part of society more agreeable.
10. I have a responsibility to behave towards others as I would wish that they behave

towards me. Furthermore, just as I am enjoined to leave the toilet in the state in which I would have liked to find it, so I should leave my part of the planet in good order.

Martin Sharman, Brussels 2004

Things I believe

Explanatory notes
1a. The universe is the detritus of the Big Bang, and is dominated by physics.
The first part of this sentence reiterates what most modern cosmologists believe, and I have no reason to doubt them; the universe is the continuation of the Big Bang, some 13 billion years after the initial instant. The second part of the sentence refers to the overwhelming part that nuclear and fundamental particle physics plays in the universe. Chemistry is confined largely to the surface of planets, and, in volumes that are hugely greater but reaction rates that are immensely slower, to the cold, dark regions between the stars.

1b. The universe is unimaginably immense and almost entirely inimical to life.
Human minds cannot conceive of the scale of the universe. Our planet seems vast to us, but it is a tiny speck in our solar system, whose sun is only one of 1011 stars in our galaxy. In turn, our galaxy is one of an immense wilderness of similar clouds of stars strung out in ghostly ribbons on the edges of the huge voids of intergalactic space. Most of the colossal volume of our universe is a hard vacuum bathed in hard radiation. The interesting bits of the universe consist of wisps of tenuously thin gas a few hundreds of light-years across, slowly agglomerating clouds of dust motes spun out across vast distances, the nuclear furnace of stars, and the occasional black hole where the laws of physics go quietly insane. None of this is the sort of place that life – at least the kind of life that we might recognise – can survive without the protection of an atmosphere. Or a spacesuit.

1c. There is no god.
No supernatural being created the universe. The universe in which we live has many curious properties without which life would not be possible. But if the universe didn’t possess them, we would not be here to make that observation – conditions that are observed must allow the observer to exist1. If we feel that those initial conditions are so improbable that they needed a conscious creator, we beg the question of how that conscious creator – inevitably far more complex than the universe itself – came into being. Postulating a complex creator god who exists apart from the universe does not help us to understand beginnings. The spontaneous Big Bang is a simpler and more elegant, if less reassuring, beginning. It seems to me that there is a burden of proof on the theist to support his or her belief. They have not provided that proof, because, I believe, it is impossible to do so. In the absence of objective evidence in support of the idea, people who believe in god(s) rely on faith. If a belief cannot be justified by evidence, relying only on faith, it is untenable in any logical framework. So theism (and probably atheism, since we can never prove that any non-existent thing does not exist) is logically untenable. I see no evidence of god(s), and if the idea had not already been in circulation, would have no need to invent it. In this way I justify my disbelief in god(s) and in any other superstition or appeal to the supernatural to explain observations. Since I can not disprove the existence of god, the significance of black cats, or the power of the stars to foretell anything, I have to

This is the weak anthropic principle. -1-

Things I believe

claim to be agnostic to these beliefs, although I feel strongly and viscerally that none of them is a sensible view of the world. Is there a collective word for people with such an attitude? Sceptic sounds negative, and I don’t feel that my attitude is negative. Humanist, perhaps. But that sounds species-centred and parochial. The idea of “brights” is cool, but the word itself stinks – in the context of a philosophy of life, the opposite of bright is not dark, but dim, and I don’t think that believers are necessarily dim – they are just people whose beliefs are unsubstantiated by objective evidence. And I am sure that we all carry baggage of that kind. While I find it hard to respect the beliefs of a theist, the concept of a personal god is a powerful and useful framework that provides life-enhancing solace and strength to many people. It should be cherished for the help it gives and the good it does. I am not a militant atheist in that I do not try to proselytise my views or convert believers to doubt. Unless, that is, someone tries to convert me to their beliefs. Although I do not believe in god, I still use the word in expressions like “thank God for friends!”. Our language seems to have no elegant way to express these kinds of sentiments except by referring to god.

1d. There are no gods.
Supernatural beings do not interact with our world or govern our lives or personify the forces of nature. Spirits do not inhabit minerals, animals and plants, or air, water, earth, and fire. Except in a metaphorical and poetical sense, I see no need or evidence for such a belief. Supernatural beings, like supernatural forces, are the illusory and anthropogenic products of metaphor, mysticism, mumbo-jumbo, ignorance, fear, misunderstanding, superstition and wishful thinking2.

1e. The universe does not care.
The physics of the space-time continuum decides how our universe is structured and functions. Nothing about the way the universe functions, or the experience of history, suggests the existence of a higher consciousness that cares what humans do to each other or to their planet. Nothing out there answers prayers.

2a. Life is biology in a world of physics.
The workings of our planet and solar system are dominated by physics, but to a slightly lesser extent than is the case for the universe at large. The conditions on the surface of our planet – particularly the existence of liquid water, and, since life started, oxygen – are highly propitious for chemistry. Chemistry is necessary but not sufficient for biology. If the physical and chemical conditions for self-replicating molecules are present for long enough, if the molecules are stable for reasonable periods of time, and the self-replication is capable of small and rare errors, then life is probably inevitable.


In the course of human history there has been no useful observation of the supernatural. We have no better understanding of the supernatural today than did our Neolithic ancestors. To believe in miracles or the supernatural is by definition to abandon physical laws, which is pathological; no experimental work suggests the existence of the supernatural, while the laws of physics have been soundly tested. I am repelled by appeals to ignorance (“there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”), and infinitely sceptical of any body of belief that uses words like “vibration” and “energy” without defining them. -2-

Things I believe

2b. Biology is unimaginably rare.
The SETI experiment used radio telescopes to search for radio-frequency emissions that suggest technological life elsewhere in our neighbourhood. It would have greatly surprised me if the experiment had found anyone. In our galaxy alone there is an enormous absolute volume in which life could evolve. But the proportion of the volume in which life can exist is tiny. For this reason, any random sample of the volume of the universe, even a huge sample, would almost never discover life. In this sense, life is a nearly negligible feature of a barren universe.

2c. Although life has evolved on many other planets in the universe, interstellar distances even within our own galaxy are so vast that each living planet is effectively alone.
Conditions for life are probably most frequently found in stable planetary systems in which a planet finds itself continuously in a region suitable for life-sustaining chemistry. These kinds of planetary systems may form around isolated stars, but are highly unlikely to form around binary or multiple star systems. Solitary stars are concentrated on the rims of galaxies, but they are rare in more crowded places nearer the galactic centre where multiple star systems are more likely to occur. Interstellar distances in galactic rims are measured in tens or hundreds of light years. Mean distances between living planets is perhaps of the order of thousands of light years. Nextdoor neighbours would rarely be able to converse, since the time needed to exchange messages is unlikely to be compatible with the life span of the creatures or their civilizations.

2d. Life on Earth is precious.
Earth is the only place in the solar system where water exists in gas, liquid and solid forms. It is therefore the only home available to our species. Humans may one day make bits of the Moon, Mars or Venus habitable, but at a cost vastly greater than that needed to keep bits of Earth habitable. We should behave as though this is the only planet we will ever have. Spending fortunes on looking for life on other planets makes no sense unless at least equivalent sums are spent on preserving life on this planet. Irrespective of moral considerations, humans will not survive unless we protect the lives of other organisms. Anyone who wants humans to survive should protect other life-forms here on Earth.

3a. Life and other interesting systems are on the border between chaos and stasis and are ruled by complexity and emergence.
Simple systems don’t do interesting things – they just sit there or periodically repeat patterns. Chaotic systems are messy and unpredictable3. Between order and chaos is an infinitely complicated phase transition that allows systems to be stable but interesting – that is,

Non-linear processes with feedback may display chaotic behaviour, which is characterised by infinitely sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Since the tiniest change in initial conditions can produce widely different results further down the line, chaotic systems are unpredictable. This is not because our measurements are not accurate enough. We can know the state of a chaotic system to whatever precision we like, but the subsequent behaviour of the system depends on still smaller differences. -3-

Things I believe

complex. Complex systems in this so-called Wolfram Class IV phase transition are characterised by emergence. Emergence occurs when the behaviour of the system cannot be explained or predicted by a complete understanding of the behaviour of its elements. The vocabulary that is sufficient to describe the components of the system is not sufficient to describe the behaviour of the whole, because the behaviour of the system has a nature that is unlike that of, and beyond the capacity of, its individual components. The rules that a fish follows to swim in a shoal cannot be used to predict the behaviour of the shoal. The individual cells in a brain can’t think. Self-organization, life, learning, and evolution are all emergent phenomena that take place in the Wolfram Class IV phase transition.

3b. Things do not follow a preordained plan.
History has no organising thread. Nor has the future of our civilization, or the course of an individual life. Lives, society, and history are all complex systems, characterised by emergence, and inherently unpredictable. Like a river roaring down rapids, individual lives are influenced by a sequence of largely unstructured and sometimes confusing circumstances. It is up to each of us to find our own way through our private white water.

3c. There is no master plan, no higher meaning, no grand purpose, no long-range predictability.
The meaning, purpose and predictability that we bring to our own lives are important. But no cosmic architect or accountant has a blueprint of how every insect will spend its days. Nothing in the universe or outside it has decided what the meaning of life is. Life just is. And life is complex. Organisms compete, and species evolve, but not towards some perfect future. All we have is now, and our reaction to what happened a moment ago, and our guess about what will happen in moments to come. Biological imperatives take us moment by moment through space and time. You survive long enough to reproduce, and then, if members of your species tend to leave more viable offspring by protecting their young, you protect your young. Then you get out of the way. In a very abstract, coarse sense the statement about predictability is false. We can predict with perfect accuracy that each of us will die, and we can say something about the probability that a person with a given set of antecedents and behaviours will live to a given age. But none of us in reasonable health today can say whether we will be alive by tomorrow’s nightfall. We may be able to predict many things reasonably accurately a short way into the future. But except for dull linear events, like a falling ball-bearing in a shot tower, or systems that endlessly repeat themselves, our capacity to predict is limited. If we take a long enough view, even the movement of the planets is ultimately unpredictable because they comprise a nonlinear system with feedback.

3d. Things do not turn out as they do for a reason.
After suffering some event in our lives we may draw lessons from what happened and alter our behaviour accordingly – and hence learn from experience. Lessons can be salutary, and it may be tempting to believe that this happened so that I would learn that. Ascribing reason to randomness may allow an individual to rationalise and accommodate the pain of some of the less agreeable events in life – to reify the arbitrary way in which shit happens.


Things I believe

But for things to turn out the way they do for a reason, we would have to postulate that some external agency had planned that this cause would have that effect. For this we need supernatural beings or preordained plans, which are not among the things that I believe.

3e. There is no destiny – except in retrospect.
There is no script imposed from beyond. Nothing that happens to you was inevitable from the moment of your birth – or from the instant of the Big Bang. The course of your life is not predetermined. The next few milliseconds are not predetermined. You and I write our own scripts for our lives within the constraints of physics, biology, other people and other random buffetings – and we write them even as we speak the lines and move about the stage. To see destiny, I can only look back. In my past I see an erratic web of cause and effect that now is my history. Various events in my life could not have happened without earlier milestones, but except when strictly governed by physics (such as when falling from a high place), the first event rarely leads inevitably to the second.

4a. I am self-aware.
The individuals of many species of animal are probably to some extent conscious that they exist as an entity with needs. Without dismissing the importance of this consciousness, I consider the most significant aspect of self-awareness to be the perhaps exclusively human capacity to think about values, motives, beliefs, thoughts and actions. Self-awareness is a pretty important property, because it allows me to make decisions about how I manage my life, and what kind of person I am and want to be.

4b. Self-awareness is a property of mind.
This statement could give rise to much philosophical disagreement, but it’s not something I want to spend energy on. I’m not concerned with the seat of consciousness, or the location of the sense of self. I don’t think that those questions have a meaning. Self-awareness is emergent, not supernatural. It’s a property of a pretty amazing biological system that has evolved to cope with survival.

4c. Mind is an emergent feature of brains, bodies, and sensory stimuli.
My mind, which includes how I think, what I think about, and my sense of who I am, comes not just from within, but from my history and the way I responded to that history, my memories, and senses and my interaction with the “outside” world. In this view, the “outside” world is not so absolutely outside, because it contributes to what I feel to be me. The cells that make up my brain and nervous system do not individually possess properties of mind, but the perception and function of my mind is an emergent property of these cells. There is nothing magical about mind, beyond the magic of emergence. Mysterious as it may seem to us, mind emerges from and is dependent on biological processes and structures. Brains have evolved as they have because they confer an advantage on their possessors. Brains that represent the universe inaccurately are a menace to their owner and tend not to reproduce; brains that process input faithfully, and represent the world around them accurately allow their possessors to survive to reproduce. “Red” looks red to me, and it looks red to you, too, because human brains are the result of selection pressure. There is no economic or parsimonious mechanism of selection that would produce brains in a single


Things I believe

taxon that respond radically differently to the same sensory stimulus. We all experience the universe in a strictly similar way4. Intuition is an important emergent characteristic of mind. Intuition occurs without thinking, as a sudden insight or a clear, quick, and complete realisation of something. I believe that intuition works by a slow accumulation of incoming information, much of which may be gathered and processed unconsciously, until some internal or external event abruptly triggers a flash of activity across the brain, linking all those pieces of information and bursting into consciousness as realisation.

4d. You are not a figment of my imagination.
My experiences are mine alone; if I speak of sharing an experience with you, what I mean is that we both took part in some event from our own perspectives. But that is no reason to think that the external world has no reality except in my mind. There are far too many problems with solipsism: why did I invent things that distress or hurt me or make me sick? Why did I invent languages that I can’t understand – or even ones that I do? And more generally, why don’t I understand things I want to understand? Why do I put up with boring people – or any other people at all, for that matter? How did I make me? Why did I invent the Maxwell Equations or quantum mechanics, which I can’t fathom? And climate change? If nothing exists except in my head, but I can’t control it, then there is no perceptible difference between this over-complicated and uncomfortable fantasy and external reality. The simple, parsimonious answer to all these questions is obvious – the universe exists, and you are not a figment of my imagination.

4e. There is no soul independent of this living mind and body.
We all have the impression that we exist as an observer of our lives and to some extent of our thoughts. Could we not exist somehow independently of the mind and body? My answer is simple: no. If such a thing – a soul – existed, what would it be made of? Pure energy? What energy, exactly? Electromagnetism? Gravitation? Weak or strong interactions? Fermions, or gauge bosons? Some as yet undiscovered energy in some undiscovered dimension? If to explain the soul you have to invoke some goofy unexplained vibration or undiscovered unearthly essence that mundane physics cannot measure, then the soul is at best pure conjecture, and more probably, like the explanation, hokum. There are really too many problems with the concept of an eternal ethereal wraith. Is it selfaware, and if so, what does it use for that awareness, and does it use energy to maintain its awareness? What energy, what does it convert it into, and what does it use to convert it? What does it excrete? Does it incorporate my inner essence without being me? Could a soul outside my mind and independent of my biological life have any sense of having been me5? If it is not consciously me, then is it “my” soul? If it is consciously me, what purpose does my mind serve?

I believe that this is true of all animals, to the extent that they possess similar sense organs. To survive in an inimical universe, the organism must be properly equipped to process sensory input and respond appropriately. My guess is that a dog interprets “warm”, “hot” and “scalding” in the same way that I do.

If I “had” (in this case does a soul have me, or do I have a soul?) a soul, would it just observe without learning, or change and learn as the me-soul tandem goes through life? What would it use to observe or learn? If it survives my death then it would inevitably only observe and not experience the ultimate change, which would therefore be only fully experienced by some other – biological – me. -6-

Things I believe

At what point in the history of life did souls evolve? Do trees have souls? Or starfish? Chimpanzees? Viruses? Neanderthals? What about amoebae, who are eternal? If only humans have souls, then which of our ancestral great, great grandmothers was the last not to own one? Self-awareness is not a good analogy, since one can easily envisage gradually increasing awareness of self as the brain evolves. But what would a partly-evolved soul look like? If souls exist, then what function do they serve – what do they do? Do they confer some competitive advantage on their owners, and if so, what is it, and if not, how did they evolve? Or must we throw out our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms to accommodate the sudden spontaneous occurrence of the first soul? There are just too many questions that can’t be answered. Maybe there is something about the soul that means that the questions can’t be answered because they are the wrong questions, they are meaningless. But I have a simpler explanation. There is no evidence that souls exist, so why make any more assumptions than we have to? A soul is superstitious nonsense. There is no more evidence of such a thing than for any other supernatural object.

5a. This is the only life I get.
I was born a human at a certain place and on a certain date, and have lived and experienced things, and will die at a certain place and on a certain date (which, incidentally, I will never know). Like every other biological being, I grow, get old and die only once. This is the only life I get, so I should pay attention to it. Life is so precious, yet almost every moment of every day I am lost in the past or the future and forget to touch life in the present. The more I focus on the moment, the more I appreciate, celebrate and honour life.

5b. There is no afterlife, no reincarnation, no transmigration of souls.
Nothing that is consciously me will endure after my death. At the end of my life, the cells that make up my brain will stop working and die. At that point, my mind will cease, and my personal attributes and all that goes to make up my sense of self will be no more. Since I do not believe that a soul exists independently of the living biological being, an afterlife is to me inconsistent with reason, logic, evidence or common sense. The universe doesn’t have to follow human logic or common sense. But the idea of an afterlife is artificial, and my difficulty in believing it is unlike the difficulty I have in understanding black holes, or wave-particle duality, or how the Big Bang did not explode into something but instead uncurved space-time from an unimaginably energy-dense speck. I love the image of the “silver dewdrop sliding into the shining sea” to express the final loss of self. But liking the image does not mean that it corresponds to what happens at the end of life. It is difficult and frightening to contemplate one’s own non-being, and much more comforting to imagine a continuation of being. But comfort is not a reason to accept wishful thinking. I would not try to change someone else’s belief in an afterlife. Faith in an afterlife consoles the bereaved who believe that their loved ones are somehow alive but in (one hopes) a better place. It helps them to work more easily through their grief and to accept terrible loss without emotional scars. It helps them face death with equanimity. Personally, though, I put afterlife on a level with astrology; it is an early attempt to make sense of the human condition. The belief has survived because the alternative is frightening.

Things I believe

5c. There are no ghosts.
Nothing survives death. Dead people don’t leave quasi-living echoes in our world. If some sort of afterlife existed, why could we not commune with spirits every day? What principle of physics, or metaphysics, makes the wall between the dead and the living so utterly impermeable? Or if we believe in mediums and ancestor worship, then why is it so nearly impermeable for most of us in most cultures? As an objective, measurable reality, there are no ghosts. That people see ghosts, I don’t doubt, since living minds are capable of all sorts of things. Alternative states of consciousness exist, in which the individual is transported into another world where their perceptions may be just as valid for them as are their perceptions of the normal state of waking consciousness. Shamanism is a technique of ecstasy in which the shaman makes use of spirit helpers. In that state of consciousness, spirits exist.

5d. There are no guardian angels.
I do not believe in supernatural beings, UFOs, spoon-bending, homeopathy or astrology. Nor do I believe that you need my help to get $50 million out of your benighted country. In metaphorical sense, too, I do not believe that we can depend on external agencies to get us out of difficult or uncomfortable circumstances. We have to manage on our own and we cannot depend on others to bail us out whenever the going gets tough – although of course we may sometimes get help just when we need it. In this limited sense, guardian angels, in the shape of friends at a time of need, or of happy coincidence, do sometimes manifest themselves.

5e. I must manage my own life as best I can, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally and socially.
Given all that goes before, managing my own life is entirely my responsibility. I am responsible for my own behaviour and my own physical, mental and emotional well-being within whatever constraints are set by my circumstances6. However painful or disagreeable they may be, I must cope with my own emotions – nobody else can do it for me. You may hurt me, but how I deal with that hurt is not your responsibility. If you try to take responsibility for how I deal with my emotions, you get in the way and make it more difficult for me. Each of us is ultimately alone. My spiritual orientation and moral principles7 should be clear enough to me that I can rely on them to guide my behaviour.


This assumes that I am not under medication for depression or mental illness, or in a mental hospital or other institution where people are trying to change my behaviour, for example by the use of psychotropic drugs, electric shock therapy or other ways to change my emotions by force.

The word “morality” carries with it a suggestion of obligation and constraint. Other cultures base their ethics on the concept of inner harmony, and I prefer the idea of regulating my life by seeking harmony rather than by constraint. But I like the sense of rectitude carried by “morality”, and in the context of the orientation of my life, “moral principles” carries the sense of signposts showing the way, which I also like. -8-

Things I believe

6a. Spirituality arises from simplicity, awareness, thankfulness, and compassion, and leads, finally, to wisdom.
Spiritual grace comes from within. It is simple, and does not depend on religion, or dogma, or on other people’s beliefs. I am on my own and must find my own path. Teachers may help me, but it is up to me to accept whatever teachings I find useful. Spirituality comes from the awe of the marvels that surround me8; the stars, the Earth, the wind and rain; the wonder of the intricacy and complexity of life, and the miracle of selfawareness. Humans are fortunate sometimes to experience mystic communion with nature, or with music, or with one another. This communion, like the experience of satori, or one-ness with the All, is valid and life-changing. My spiritual path is directed towards inner truth, harmony and peace. “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man”. Inner harmony stems from a deep awareness of the inter-dependency of my self on nature, other people, and my relation to everything in the universe. If I create harmony within myself, I will deal truly with myself, and with family, friends, and strangers. Inner peace provides the space for calm and patient understanding. It is born of a profound thankfulness to be sentient, a feeling of being in a state of grace, of gratefulness to life itself, and at one and the same time exhilaration and great calm. It is living in the moment. It is compassion for all living things, and a sense of cooperation with nature, my environment and myself. Spiritual growth leads, in the end, to wisdom.

6b. In a world where nothing exists for ever, spiritual release comes with the understanding that I cannot be happy while I search for something permanent.
We cannot step twice into the same river. Everything changes moment by moment, nothing in the universe is permanent. My mind and my body changes, my sense of self changes, my relationship with others changes, my position in society changes, everything changes. Change itself does not cause problems. But when something changes, what it was before is now gone. If I desire to cling to something as it is, I will suffer when it changes. It hurts to relinquish what I thought I had, and I feel loss. Loss causes pain. If I can live in the moment, and not just accept but rejoice in change, my path to spiritual growth is open. I cannot fulfil all my desires. I cannot stop unwanted things happening to me. Spiritual calm comes when I accept the moment with an open, accommodating, and peaceful heart. But this does not imply that I should be resigned to whatever happens. I can strive to improve myself, and to the extent possible, the world around me, but with awareness and from a calm centre.

6c. Purpose in life comes from within me.
Each of us can wander aimlessly through life, or develop a philosophy that gives direction and purpose to some segment of our life. If I want a purpose in my life, then I have to decide what it is and live my life accordingly. My aim in life may not be attainable, but this does not


If feeling that existence inspires awe and has a divine aspect makes one a pantheist, I am pantheistic. -9-

Things I believe

matter if it gives me direction. If I want to head north, I can use the North Star to guide me, though I will never reach it. I just use it to keep oriented. Society, especially authoritarian regimes, can sometimes impose purpose, but even then, each of us can find our own purpose within that larger purpose.

7a. I am a human being in a world of other living beings.
I am a member of a species of large bipedal terrestrial mammal. We are characterised by opposable thumbs, a large convoluted brain, complex societies, planet-wide distribution and global ecological dominance, and a brief technological history. Our important discoveries and inventions include the stone axe (2 400 000 years ago9), control of fire (about 1 400 000 years ago), writing and agriculture (10 000 years ago), metallurgy (8 000), the wheel (5 500), coinage (2 700), printing using moveable type (750), anaesthetics (160), the periodic table (150), the machine gun, and micro-organisms as causative agents for disease (both 140 years ago), heavier-than-air flight, nuclear power, the genetic code, communications satellites, cheap computation and the internet (all within the last 100 years). Despite our technology, we only survive on this planet because of the other species that share it with us. The vast majority of those species don’t need us, but we need many of them.

7b. I have a moral responsibility to behave in such a way as to minimise my negative impact on them, and, where possible, to act in such a way as benefits them.
Most of the other living beings with whom my species shares this planet are not humans. To behave morally, I should try to limit my impact on the other organisms in the world, in part by reducing my ecological footprint. I should limit my consumption of energy, water and materials to what is necessary for my life. I should limit waste, and ensure that my actions do not oblige others to use energy, water or materials to clean up after me. I should act in an ethical and responsible way towards other non-human organisms.

7c. My values are important because they guide my behaviour.
Having my own values10 allows me to make moral decisions, judgments and choices. I can stumble through moral choices without ever clearly defining my values or moral rules, by obeying the law and following society’s rules and cultural values, but this does not guarantee a moral life. But if I have insight into, and a clear understanding of my own values, my decisions about moral issues should be reasoned, informed, consistent and harmonious. By behaving according to my values I can be at ease with myself and my conscience.


You might quibble that this is not one of “our” inventions since stone tools were invented by Homo habilis, refined by its descendant species Homo erectus, and perfected by its grandchild species Homo sapiens. But this division into species is arbitrary, and one of your ancestors was the first to discover a way of making a stone tool.

My values are general beliefs or attitudes about what I desire or like, believe to be worthwhile or to have merit. My value system is the way I use my values to prioritize and make decisions. My morals are my rules and guidelines about what is right or wrong. My ideals are morally important goals or virtues worth striving for. Ethics is how I shape and examine (and use experience to rethink and reshape) my values and moral rules. A value statement says that something has worth, but does not express an “ought” or a “should”, unlike an ethical principle, which helps me to decide among moral rules and values. A moral rule guides action but doesn't tell you why it applies. Ethical principles justify moral judgments in the following way: “statement of ethical principle” therefore “statement of moral rule”: one should respect other people therefore one should not lie. -10-

Things I believe

My values are a complex web of policies and priorities based on knowledge, aesthetic considerations, practicality, or morality. Moral values are my beliefs about how I should act, but much of what I value is not concerned with morality, so not all my values are moral ones. Some of my values define moral modes of conduct, and include being cheerful, modest, trustworthy, kind, faithful, respectful, mature, responsive, open, helpful, tolerant, compassionate, loving and honest with others; they also define what I understand to be honourable or criminal behaviour, and the legitimate use of power. Some of my non-moral values are related to my personality, and include creativity, imagination, logic, selfimprovement and self-control, learning and the acquisition of knowledge. Some of my values define states of being, with both social aims (including an ecologically healthy world, social recognition and friendship), and personal aims (including health, happiness, personal fulfilment, dignity, integrity, wisdom, spiritual wellbeing, and inner peace). If I am not sure what I believe or want or if I do not know how to rank my values, I experience value conflict, and if the values are based on morals, I am in a moral dilemma. Morality has a price. Sometimes I must choose between whom I want to be and what I would like. To get out of the dilemma I must prioritize my values. My core values are those that I consistently rank higher than others. I know that there are many different and equally good goals, and many ways to reach the same goal, and that the way I choose is only one possible way11.

8a. The society of my family members, friends, acquaintances and strangers constrains, consoles, guides and helps me.
A friend is someone with whom to grow, to become a better person. I am a good friend to someone when I am generous to her, when I hear what she tells me no matter how hard it is, when I keep any secrets she tells me, when I help her to bear difficulties even if it costs me, and when remain her friend when she is in need. Although I am ultimately alone and in charge of my life, I live in society. My views, beliefs, values and behaviour are in part shaped by those of people around me. By observing others I form opinions on what constitutes morally and socially acceptable behaviour. I can improve my own sense of self-worth by learning from and emulating those whom I admire. Management of my own life may sometimes involve getting help from others; society can help me when I need, and am brave enough, to seek help.

8b. I cannot make anyone else happy, or they me, but I can sometimes help to create the conditions to make it easier for others to manage their desires and emotions more effectively.
I cannot oblige or force anyone to be happy. If someone does not want to be happy, there is probably not much I can do about it. Normally, though, when we speak of “making” someone happy, we do not mean forcing them, but doing something that allows them to feel happy. In this sense, I may be able to do something to generate happiness in others, and I hope to be able to do so for my family, friends and associates.


Moral choices arise in relationships with other organisms. What are the obligations involved that derive from my relationships with these organisms? What must I do or not do? What values are at stake? What will be the impact of my actions and obligations on my values? Will my action respect, promote, neglect, or thwart an important value? What are the effects of alternative courses of action on the other organisms? Who is affected by each alternative course of action and how? -11-

Things I believe

What lies behind this statement, however, goes beyond making people happy. It is intended in a more general way to say that I may provoke emotions in people, but I cannot take responsibility for how they manage their emotions. My responsibility involves awareness of the probable emotional reaction of others to my speech and actions. In general I should seek behaviour that tends to provoke agreeable emotions in others, and avoid behaviour that is intended to provoke pain, anger, sadness, or other unpleasant emotion. I should normally only provoke unpleasant emotions in someone else if my other options would lead to an even worse outcome. As humans we both experience desire and manipulate the desires of others all the time. Indeed, a large part of social success comes from understanding and manipulating desire. All forms of advertising are designed to awaken or guide desire, as are many of the methods used to raise children. I should seek to arouse desires that if acted upon would be good for the person concerned, for society, and for the conservation and improvement of the environment. How other people manage their desires and emotions is important to me. While I can not manage those desires or emotions for them, I should try to speak and act in ways that make it more easy for the person concerned to realise, understand and guide their own desires and emotions towards outcomes that are good for them.

9a. I contribute to society by my actions, thoughts and beliefs.
I may be ultimately alone, but I am part of the fabric of society. I am responsible for how I influence those around me. Not only do I have a responsibility to myself and to others to develop a moral framework and system of values, but I should also act on those values consistently and seek harmony with those around me. Respect for others is an important virtue in any social animal.

9b. My temperament, my mood, my behaviour and my example affect others.
Part of the responsibility I have to those around me involves how I set my emotional thermostat. I have to earn friends – they will not just occur. If I am habitually glum, cynical and pessimistic I will have few friends unless I possess some overwhelming positive characteristic to compensate for my dismal outlook. It would be far better to be genuinely honest and cheerful, and to remain optimistic. My mood is my affair, and mine alone, only when I am by myself.

9c. If I am morally upright, cheerful and generous, I may make my part of society more agreeable.
My attitude will not necessarily make anyone else more agreeable, but if people do feel more agreeable, I feel better too, and we all win. I certainly won’t do much to improve the quality of the world around me if I’m untrustworthy, grumpy and mean.

10a. I have a responsibility to behave towards others as I would wish that they behave towards me.
The Golden Rule is about fairness, concern for others, and morality. It ensures that my action is in harmony with what I would like for myself, but it isn't an infallible guide. I am not you, I am not in your circumstances, and I should not assume that you share my beliefs or aims. What I would like, under your circumstances, is not necessarily what you would like.


Things I believe

To apply the Golden Rule I need imagination, compassion, knowledge and sympathetic understanding of your needs. Imagination helps me to see the effect of my behaviour on you. Compassion, knowledge and understanding help me to see whether you would really want me to behave in that way. The Golden Rule is relatively easy to apply to family and friends, and becomes less easy as the relationship becomes less intimate. It is difficult to apply to people whose religions or cultures I do not understand or whose beliefs I disagree with, and still more difficult to apply to all human beings.

10b. Furthermore, just as I am enjoined to leave the toilet in the state in which I would have liked to find it, so I should leave my part of the planet in good order.
This is the Golden Rule applied to my environment. I do not understand why smokers feel it’s OK to throw their cigarette ends into the street, or dog-owners allow their pet to shit on the pavement. I feel I have a responsibility to those who come after me, and would like to leave no more disruptive trace of my passage than a bird leaves in the air.