Perhaps God engraved the Ten Commandments with his finger on stone tablets because he knew they would become the touchstone of morality in the western world. (Come to think of it, is that where the word touchstone comes from?) Even Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the biblical ten, connected to them when he produced his own ten.
Sean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, is an exposition of what he calls poetic naturalism. He has this to say about the Ten Commandments (page 420).
A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them fish for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something that we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve cauth them.
It makes sense, then, to put aside the concept of “commandments” and instead propose Ten Considerations…
Here are his Ten Considerations with excerpts from his few paragraphs about each.
Zoltan Istvan was my favorite presidential candidate in 2016. He toured the country in a bus modeled to look like a coffin, with the message that death is a curable disease.
And it’s not just people on the fringe who are involved in the anti-aging cause. There is a sister company of Google called Calico whose goal is “tackling aging.”
Ray Kurzweil, inventor, senior engineer at Google and holder of 21 honorary doctorates, has written a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. At age 69, he expects technology to improve enough in his lifetime that he will live forever. (In the meantime, he takes extremely good care of himself!)
But hold on a second. While we’re waiting for Istvan, Calico, and Kurzweil succeed, let’s take a moment to ponder the possible dystopian consequences.
In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.
A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!
What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.
Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.
Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.
Even if you don’t believe in God in the traditional sense, you might be open to supernatural phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP), ghosts, or the ability of a spirit world to influence what happens in the familiar world of our senses. I like to think I’m open to such things; how can we possibly claim to know that our everyday experience is all there is?
Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture, has me opening up to the idea that maybe I should not be so open.
His argument is simple:
Many of us try to live by this simple verse in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1):
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
Sound advice, right? Yes, but last night I learned that sometimes we need to do better than that. We need to make a judgment and speak up.
Here’s the most astonishing, scary thing I came across all week. Have a look. I promise that you’ll consider it time very well spent and a real eye-opener.
Armed only with a man’s cell phone number, a hacker skilled in what’s called “social engineering” is able to totally take over his account. She effortlessly convinces a representative of the phone company that she’s the man’s wife, gets herself added to the account, and then changes the password. Bingo!
The difference between life and non-life is so slight, isn’t it? Even now, as our friend reclines in this casket, he is barely distinguishable from a week ago when he was merely sleeping. He looks so similar to the irrepressible, playful man we all love that I half-expect him to wink at me during this speech when he thinks nobody is looking.