10 commandments/virtues for secular folk

10 commandments/virtues for secular folk

Really like Alain de Botton’s 10 commandments for atheists/secular humanists below! These are not so much dictates but virtues that are worth cultivating in order to live a good life. I have articulated a similar list on numerous occasions, of qualities that I look for in friends and partners. If you live a good life in which you respect yourself, practice awareness and strive for growth then you’ll be a richer person. If you combine this with patience, respect and empathy as well then you’ll have a higher capacity for contributing to the lives of others. The two together is a good recipe for a happy, content, well lived life in which you have meaningful connections with others.

The below text is from a social media post by the Sydney Writers Festival.

“Alain de Botton, the philosopher and writer, has published a new version of the 10 commandments – for atheists. He calls it his “list for life” – have a read through it (below) and let us know what you think…

1.Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
2.Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
3.Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
4.Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
5.Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
6.Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
7.Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
8.Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
9.Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
10.Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.

(Here’s a link to the full story)

Photo of Alain de Botton (on a visit to Melbourne) by Craig Abraham/The Age”



Doulas are persons who help out with labouring and birth, by physically being there, advocating for their clients to hospital staff, providing physical and emotional comfort, helping to make decisions, supporting partners and helping out with other practical matters.

Hiring doulas for a birth is becoming more wide spread and I gather this is because women prefer to give birth in an empowered way with lots of support. Hospitals have done away with the traditional trappings of birth: support persons, homey environment, mother’s control, movement, alternatives in birthing environment, rituals and autonomy. A doula is able to help bring some of these back into a context that’s otherwise devoid of these aspects.

I noticed that second time mothers are very keen on doulas whereas first time mothers aren’t as they are told that the hospital can take care of all their needs, society conveys the message that it’s normal to just go to the hospital with little deviation from the norm of simply taking what they provide, and the mothers themselves have not yet experienced a non-ideal birth that could have gone better with more help.

I decided that I don’t need to wait for another round before I take advantage of the accrued wisdom and actually hire a doula for a first birth.

Found some research evidence that testifies to the usefulness and importance of the doula in England & Horowitz (1998) Birthing from within. This pithy little table shows the different intervention rates for birth unattended by a doula, births with a passive or an active doule. The differences are astounding and speak for themselves. If nothing else, this research should be convincing as to the importance of having extra support while labouring and giving birth.

Another research carried out in South Africa showed that the relationship between the mother and her partner is also seriously affected by the doula, after birth. 85% of those who used a doula were happy in their relationships whereas only 49% of those who didn’t use one were. The doulad group was more confident about their baby, happier about their birth experience and there was a stronger mother-baby bond too.

Self portraits on various drugs

Self portraits on various drugs

An artist, Bryan Lewis Saunders, has come up with the idea of creating self-portraits on a variety of different drugs.

Some of them are legal and some illegal. Treating them all as the same starting point is in itself interesting. Some of the drugs are very much psychoactive while others are either only mildly so or not at all (nicotine? cough syrup?). Some are anti-psychotics, anxiolitic drugs, drugs for ADHD, bipolar and many other afflictions. Some would be taken once in a while, others regularly… wonder what one anti-psychotic pill does to you?

Some I found surprising: is this what one would do on cocaine? meth? morphine? psilocybin? I wonder too if he was getting morphine in hospital when he decided to start the series… whatever got him going though this is a fascinating series of artistic experiments.

Self-portraits done to a different drug every day (45 Photos)

Marketing and behavioural analytics

Marketing and behavioural analytics

You probably already know that companies collect information about you both by collating information about your shopping habits and by augmenting that with information other companies have collected about you. All of this is put together and the resulting analytics is used to shape/personalise advertising for you.

But did you know that Target can tell if you are pregnant even when you haven’t told anyone? Spooky stuff. They can detect that your pattern of shopping is gradually or abruptly changing and channel a huge amount of advertising to you before all the other shops can get you after your child is born. You might only be planning your next ultrasound but Target is already pushing products you’ll need down the line. This is called ‘guest marketing analytics’ and is helping employ a huge number of mathematicians who surely dreamed of making more of their talents once upon a time.

This New York Times article, How companies learn your secrets, goes a fair bit further still and delves into cognitive and behaviour sciences. Again, you’d think psychologists are out there healing people or preventing psychopaths from committing more crimes. Wrong. Psychologists are out there tweaking rats’ brains in order to sell you an extra toilet brush.

Habits are complex yet simple phenomena. They take ages to cement and take in loads of information in a three-step process: first there’s a cue and trigger that automatically activate pathways in your brain, then there’s the physical, mental or emotional routine, and finally a reward that will help your brain decide if a habit is worth bumping up in its importance and usefulness. Over time the cue-routine-reward loop becomes more automatic via neuro-chemical processes to form a bond strong enough to unleash a craving. Rewarding cues can be short and subtle enough as to avoid our attention altogether, but potent enough to help cement powerful habits that companies exploit to sell us more stuff (that we probably don’t need).

The articles goes on to explain how habit loops are cleverly exploited by marketers: air fresheners that seem to have no purpose except to mark a reward point in a habit loop, companies that track habits and sell you swimsuits in spring, sunscreen in summer and dieting products in winter, tracking major life events when habits have a tendency to become malleable so companies can swoop down on your changing habits. The biggest of this is when you are expecting a child. And the best time to catch you before anyone else does is when the pregnancy is still young. Apparently Target assigns shoppers a ‘pregnancy score’. ‘Cue-routine reward calculators’ looks at patterns of products purchased and identify appropriate habit-eliciting incentives. Sadly companies even figured out that pregnant women hate the idea of companies working out their reproductive status, so they now send out lots of coupons including ones for non-pregnancy related items in order to fool the women into thinking they aren’t targeted. Clever and probably unethical.

Fortunately all this psychological research can also help us identify cues for overeating or other undesirable behaviour that we might want to change and so can be used for positive personal ends. However the fact remains that most of this research is done by and for companies that really just want to sell you more nappies and fragrance-free lotion. At this point I get sad… our best psychological, statistical and mathematical minds managed to produce work that serves corporate interests and help make us into consumerist animals who reach for products out of sheer manipulated habit. But that’s our world unfortunately.

The evolutionary origins of morality

The evolutionary origins of morality

Primatologist Franks de Waal shares his knowledge of how moral behaviours have first started in primates.

The original TED talk

The pillars of morality, for de Waal, are reciprocity, which is based on the principle and need for fairness, and empathy, based on our capacity and need for compassion. Primate studies have shown that empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity, the building blocks of caring about each other’s well-being, can be found in the animal kingdom.

Experiments have shown that chimps will cooperate in tasks where it’s their peers who are bound to benefit and they do so as there’s an underlying principle of reciprocity. Next time the cooperating party requires help himself he can draw on others. Even elephants exhibit cooperative behaviour!

Empathy is perhaps even more interesting. It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The oldest roots of empathy are in synchronization, such as yawning contagion. Chimps exhibit consolation and also social sharing when they don’t directly stand to benefit. Capuchins have also been shown to exhibit fairness by rejecting ‘unequal pay’ in experiments. Dogs and birds have also done so.

Anthropologists, economists, sociologists and many others may be tempted to draw far-reaching conclusions (feel free to mention some of those in your comments below if you like!) but the most definite point here is that we aren’t the first species to have a sense of morality and show empaty and caring. It may be a more complex question going into ‘evolved morality’ or social morality, why some humans have lost this ability or have subordained it to other, ‘higher’, more selfish aims?