What did the European Court of Human Rights rule in the Irish abortion case?

Human RightsEverything and its opposite has been said about this new ruling of the ECHR. In this post, I’m trying to expose with a cold head what exactly was said by the court and what the scope of the ruling is. But yes, I’ll allow myself to express an opinion in the conclusion...

First, it should be understood what the ECHR is. It is a court whose authority overrules that of any of the member states. Its rulings take precedence over even the states' constitutions.

It is not, though, a last-resort appeals court in all cases as its jurisdiction remains strictly within the boundaries of the topics covered in the European Convention on Human Rights. That convention is in turn based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights but it is not equivalent to it. For example, the UDHR establishes no limitation to the right to life whereas the ECHR still has some provisions for states to retain the death penalty. In other words it's somehow watered down to diminish the barrier to entry. One thing to point out is that the ECHR is bounding for states whereas the UDHR was more a statement of intentions the following of which by states is enforced by no court of law.

The new ruling by the ECHR is responding to a claim based on Articles of the Convention 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), 8 (right to privacy) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination). Now this seems strange at first: what could privacy possibly have to do with abortion? Well, in order to understand that you need to know about abortion law in Ireland as well as about the three particular cases of the applicants.

Since 1983, the Irish Constitution protects the life of the unborn within the limits of equal protection of the life of the mother. This means that it is in principle legal to get an abortion if the pregnancy threatens your life (and that includes suicide). In 1992, the Constitution was amended again to allow for women to freely travel abroad in order to get an abortion without risking to be prosecuted in Ireland (where the penalty is life imprisonment).

Of the three applicants, two aborted for health and well-being reasons and the other because her life was threatened by the pregnancy.

Article 2 thus really only could have applied to the third applicant, but all three were free to travel to get that abortion so nobody's life was directly threatened by the Irish Constitution.

Article 3 was ruled out by the Court as the psychological and physical burden of traveling to get an abortion was not inhuman or degrading.

Article 8 is more interesting and is where the confusion comes from. The court confirmed that it would be a stretch to interpret it as giving a right to abortion. BUT it did also state that prohibition of abortion was "within the scope of the applicant's right to respect for their physical and psychological integrity, hence within their private lives, and thus under Article 8".

If that sounds a little schizophrenic to you, you're not alone. If I may rephrase, they are saying that Article 8 does provide some guarantees to citizens that the State can't interfere with a their right to do what they want with their bodies. But as we've alluded to before about the death penalty the Convention is more accommodating to states than the UDHR. In the case of Article 8, this comes under the following form:

"There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

Did you notice that thing about "morals"? That's the loophole. This is the part that is arbitrary and allows a state to completely destroy the spirit of the Article. Case in point, the Court indicated in its press release:

"That interference had been in accordance with the law and had pursued the legitimate aim of protecting public morals as understood in Ireland."

As understood in Ireland.

In summary, the Court is not saying the Irish Constitution is in accordance with the Article in essence but rather that it is departing from it in a way that is compatible with its restrictions.

That was for the first two applicants, which is a clear victory for the anti-abortionists.

Now the third case -where the life of the applicant was threatened- was ruled separately and is something else entirely. In this case, the court ruled that Ireland had not effectively made the due diligence to provide that woman with the means to exert her rights to an abortion as guaranteed by the Constitution. Ireland is condemned to pay her 15,000 Euros.

That is for the third applicant, which is a clear victory for pro-abortionists.

This is not the first time the Court rules about abortion. There have been quite a few cases before. It should be pointed out that these three recent cases were a little convoluted as they were going through the article about privacy, but not directly touching to the bottom of the issue, which is to determine whether the fetus has rights and what  these rights are. Previous rulings on this were far more explicit:

"In 1980, the Court ruled out the foetal right to sue the mother carrying the foetus. In Paton v. United Kingdom, it was decided that the life of foetus is "intimately connected with, and cannot be regarded in isolation from, the life of the pregnant woman".{Paton v United Kingdom (1981) 3 EHHR 408 at para 22}"

It is not surprising that both extremes of the ideological spectrum on this issue would pretend that these rulings favor their views: the Court actually provided two distinct rulings that although not contradictory do go in opposite directions.

Let's face it: Europe is massively pro-abortion with only a handful of smaller states out of the 27 still having hard anti-abortion laws.

If the Irish society follows the path of other European nations, in a generation or two the consensus about abortion and morality may be quite different. When that happens, the "public morals" argument used by the court in the first part of the ruling will not apply anymore and the Constitution will need to be amended again.


Of taste and right

Portrait of James MadisonWhen a Dutch cartoonist drew the prophet Muhammad, the world split between those who thought that was a serious crime that deserved death, and those who thought freedom of speech was more important than anybody’s susceptibility.

The cartoons in question might have been of poor taste, maybe. But taste is by definition subjective and shouldn’t be made into law.

Only in a theocracy is speech against Scripture repressed (by definition). Even if you pursued the bizarre claim that all speech against all sacred texts should be repressed, you wouldn’t go very far with it. Why? Because those texts are contradictory and exclusive. The Qur'an is explicitly saying that both Jews and Christians are wrong (for example Al-Baqarah 2:120). So just by being a Christian or a Jew, you are contradicting the Qur’an and expressing opinions that go against a sacred text. Before you think you can talk yourself out of this one by saying that as long as religious practice remains private that’s not a problem, also remember that all those texts also have extensive sections ordering their followers to proselyte (sometimes through the use of force).

In consequence, unless you want to live in a theocracy, you have to realize that prohibiting the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion is a necessity. This is not repression against religions. To the contrary, this is protecting religions against each other and guaranteeing that all religions can coexist.

Now if you’re a follower of the dominant religion in any country, you might be tempted nonetheless, thinking you’ll be fine. Well, first that’s not a very charitable position for those who aren’t, and it goes a long way to show your ideas of tolerance and social life. Second, any given religion is in reality split into a multitude of currents (especially here in the States). What makes you think it’s your particular current that will be in power? Given how the people who seize power in the name of a religion are rarely the moderates, aren’t you just a little afraid?

It should be obvious then that the reasonable position is that we should live in democracies rather than theocracies (I’m not mentioning other grotesque forms of power here) and that those democracies should guarantee freedom of speech, including against religion.

Given that, you may or may not find caricatures of a prophet distasteful, but that does not entitle you to anything. It is your problem and nobody else’s.

Now move this out of the religious sphere into the political sphere. Let’s talk about Wikileaks. That is another case where we should refrain from desiring laws that would prevent such leaks into the public sphere lest we want to live in a dictatorship where the government is judge and party. There is no fundamental difference between Wikileaks and a press outlet. In many ways, Wikileaks is one of the modern evolutions of the press, for good or bad. Freedom of the press is another fundamental promise and guarantee of democracy.

We may find Wikileaks revelations distasteful or irresponsible, but that does not entitle us to anything. It’s our problem and nobody else’s. What I do find in very poor taste are the threats of legal action for espionage or terrorism. In even poorer taste are calls for assassination.

Careful what you wish for...


Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design

A model of the universeMany silly things have been written and said about this book, mostly by people who haven’t read it. Too bad, it’s a very short and easy read...

The central claim of the book, the one on which the marketing campaign has been centered, is that God is not necessary in order to explain the universe. That’s nothing new: when Napoleon asked Laplace about two hundred years ago why he wasn’t mentioning the Creator in his work, he famously answered:

“I had no need of that hypothesis”

In 1670, Spinoza also hypothesized that the world could be understood without God having to play any role in it.

Hawking’s claims are not very different. Never in the book does he say that there is no god. This hasn’t stopped most clueless commenters to assume that he did but he simply did not. Concluding that God exists or not is left as an exercise to the reader. The shrinking relevance of the concept is of course nothing new, it has been going on for centuries but the erosion has never seemed to be an obstacle to the true believer.

To be fair, there are jabs at religion in the book (which is not the same as jabs at God), such as this one:

“In 1277 Bishop Templier of Paris, on the instructions of Pope John XXI, published a list of 219 errors or heresies that were to be condemned. Among the heresies was the idea that nature follows laws, because this conflicts with God’s omnipotence. Interestingly, Pope John was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him.”

What Hawking does claim is that the relatively recent discovery that the total energy of the universe is zero, coupled with the existence of a law such as gravitation, are enough to explain the creation of our universe. There is actually not much here that isn’t already familiar to people who have been following the progress of physics.

Many commenters have pointed out that he doesn’t explain why there is a law of gravitation. Well, they either haven’t read the book or haven’t been paying attention. He does give an explanation, which is that a quantum cosmological model such as the one from superstring theory he’s using, has to include all possible physical laws. Still, I would agree with those commenters that he’s not going deeply enough to explain the origin of physical laws. That doesn’t mean that there are no naturalistic explanations, just that the book does not provide a fully satisfactory one. In that way the central claim of the book is a little overblown as it really only pushes God into a smaller gap.

Hawking in general does not enter into too many details and that would be my main grief against the book. There is a lot of hand-waving going on, which too bad as the science behind what he’s saying is worth explaining. Because he doesn’t explain, many readers may think he’s just making things up.

There is an insistence in the book on adopting what the authors call model-dependent realism, which is a philosophical parti-pris that because all we know of reality is through our sensations, we cannot have tests of reality that are completely independent of the models we build to account for observation. This is actually not very controversial but it has already been misinterpreted by the likes of Deepack Chopra as validation of their own crazy ideas that the mind was somehow creating reality. Hawking could have been more precise: he could have predicted that pitfall and avoided it by clearly stating what he was not saying.

I’ve been focusing in this review on the negatives (oh, did I mention the lame attempts at humor that could have been entirely avoided?). Still, I recommend the book as the positives vastly outweigh my nitpicking. It is a good and pleasant read. It does present solid arguments (although they could be supported by more actual scientific contents) and does push back the role of God in creation. It is also a good introductory text for those who want to understand the current state of cosmology. A modern and honest person should read it, if only in order to be able to speak of it intelligently.


Faster than the wind

SailboatThere is a vigorous debate going on about whether it’s possible to build a vehicle that uses only wind power to accelerate to a speed that is higher than the speed of the wind and in the same direction as the wind itself (a phenomenon referred to as Downwind Faster Than the Wind or DWFTTW). You can see a summary of the debate here and a video of an actual cart going at 2.8 times the speed of the wind here.

It’s quite amazing and counter-intuitive that it works, but it seems to, beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s so amazing that lots of people still refuse the evidence, and the whole thing has been declared impossible by more than one physicist based on energy considerations.

Well, those energy considerations are misguided as I hope to show in an extremely simple way. Actually, the whole thing has very little to do with energy (the wind is providing plenty of that) and everything to do with simple mechanics. Actually, once you’ve wrapped your head around it, it’s quite breathtaking that such a simple idea wasn’t discovered before.

In order to understand a problem, it’s useful to simplify it and reduce the number of variables to a minimum. In this case, the lossy nature of the forces between the cart and the wind is a complicating factor.

As a simplification, I will make the whole system perfect. I will replace the wind and the ground with solid racks and the propeller and wheels with gears that are bound together and that are constrained to move only horizontally:Faster Than The Wind Made Simple

It’s a good way to visualize the forces and constraints of the system if it were perfect and to understand how it has to work.

Let’s first constrain the top rack (the wind) to be stationary and the ground to start moving to the left. The bottom gear, which is constrained to only move horizontally, seems to have only one choice: it can only start rotating clockwise.

Now if the bottom gear rotates clockwise, then the top gear will have to follow and start rotating counter-clockwise. And the only way it can do that is by moving to the right. Now what enables the wind and ground to move relatively to each other is that the bottom gear is made from two gears so that the speed of the teeth of the outer gear is higher than the speed of the teeth of the top gear.

The inevitable conclusion is that the whole gear system will have to move to the right with a speed that is determined by the speed by which the ground is moving and by the ratio in the sizes of the gears.

By a simple change in referential, the exact same system but where the ground is fixed and the wind is moving to the right, it should be clear that the whole system has no choice but to move to the right faster than the wind.

In summary, there is only one solution for this constrained system, and it implies the gear system to move faster and in the same direction as the top board.

QED. Now the only difference between this and the real wind-based system is that the latter is much lossier and far from perfect. Still, it has no choice but to pick up speed and get faster than the wind.


What that guy believes

Fig. 68Michael Egnor has now answered his own questions so we can now review his answers and discover in amazement how they make a lot more sense than what non-theists and scientists could come up with. Or not. His new post can be found here. My own answers to those same questions can be read here.

The first thing I noticed in Egnor’s new piece is that while atheists are often accused of arrogance, Egnor also assumes that they are ignorant:

“these explanations have largely been forgotten by atheists and by scientists with a dogmatic materialistic view of nature”

They have not been ignored of course, they have just proven to be useless or obsolete and it’s the likes of Egnor who have been largely oblivious of the progress of science over the last centuries. Which is why they clutch at multi-century-old notions that the rest of the world has dismissed for good reasons.

“Dogmatic”? How pretentious! The essence of science is to be the opposite of dogmatic thinking. It is a set of methods that we have devised in order to discover truth about the natural world despite our preconceptions thereof. Scientific thinking cannot be dogmatic, otherwise it’s not scientific. It’s a common technique to accuse your adversary of your own faults so this is hardly surprising from the apologists of Dogma.

Also make note of the pretensions of Egnor:

“these beliefs are entirely compatible with modern science; in fact, classical philosophy and classical theism is the source for modern science”

We’ll see about that...

1. Why is there anything?

“God created the universe as a free act of creation. God is Spirit and is not created; The Thomist paradigm of essence (what a thing is) and existence (that a thing is) can be applied by analogy to God: God's essence is existence. His existence is necessary.”

That is an entirely circular definition of God. It is essentially different from my own argument which was based on the intrinsic existence of real mathematical objects that have a rigorous definition. The argument from instability of nothing also is a well-established discovery of 20th century physics.

Hand-waving and play on words on the other hand are not considered a proper form of reasoning. The only thing whose essence is existence is existence itself. Not God. You might as well say “the essence of the universe is existence. Its existence is necessary.” The reasoning isn’t any more valid but there is at least one thing that is verifiable in there. Not so of Egnor’s argument.

2. What caused the Universe?

“1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause 2) The universe began to exist 3) The universe has a cause. A super-natural cause in necessary for the creation of nature ex-nihilo. 'Nature created itself' is nonsense- it's a contradiction. From nothing comes nothing.”

Again, Egnor demonstrates his ignorance of modern science. Causality is a notion that presupposes time, which may not have existed as we know it at the “beginning” of the universe. The argument that everything has a cause only applies to the contents of a universe where causality exists, but not necessarily to the universe in its entirety nor to any kind of universe. It’s hard for us to imagine anything else, because our whole existence would be impossible in a universe that wouldn’t have causality, but it isn’t otherwise a necessity and in particular it probably breaks down near the “beginning” of the universe. It’s also assuming there needs to be something outside of the universe. A real Universe is entirely self-contained: by definition it’s the total sum of everything that exists. We can conceive in cosmology of universes that have no boundary and no beginning, just a smooth form. Think of a sphere (which we know how to construct without plunging it into a 3D space by the way). Where is the beginning of the sphere? There is no such thing. Any definition of one is arbitrary.

Also, from nothing comes something all the time, everywhere. Another discovery of 20th century science was that void is unstable. Combine that with a force like gravity, which has negative energy, and you have the absolute necessity for a material universe to emerge.

Finally, please show me the cause for the existence of the mathematical group Z2.

Egnor is almost right on one thing though:

“This Pure Act is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless”

Replace “Pure Act” with the universe and there you have it: a modern view of the universe. Except for one essential difference: modern cosmology is based on and verified by observation, whereas Egnor’s Pure Act is just hand-waving.

3. Why is there regularity in nature?

“Teleology is the goal-directedness of nature.”

There is no such thing as the goal-directedness of nature, except in the twisted minds of ID-proponents.

4. Of the four causes in nature proposed by Aristotle, which are real?

“the four causes were truncated to two or three by enlightenment philosophers, who didn't like the theistic implications of classical philosophy […] Moderns generally don't understand any of this, and accept merely material and truncated efficient causes as adequate to describe nature. They are mistaken.”

It’s not that they didn’t like them. That does not matter in the least. What matters is that they discovered that the harder they looked, the less final causes seemed necessary (science does not bother with unnecessary hypotheses, as famously illustrated by Laplace). Worse: they were counter-productive in that they were getting in the way of finding objective truth. This is all very well understood and not the product of ignorance. Quite the contrary.

5. Why do we have subjective experiences?

“humans have spirits, which are created in God's image. We are subjects and not just objects because of the powers of our rational souls and the fact that we are spiritual creatures. […] Nothing in materialism predicts or explains the emergence of 'I' from 'it'”

Again, failure to recognize the achievements of science and even philosophy. For instance, read Nietzsche and his idea of consciousness as a grammatical fiction or Hofstadter’s I am a strange loop. Neuroscientists have been able to study the brain with ever-increasing precision and have obtained some extremely curious and important results, such as consciousness of an act happening after the act is performed, reversing our assumption on which causes which. The way consciousness, sensations, feelings, states of mind, memories or even religious experiences can be induced or suppressed by physical and chemical stimulation of the brain also point to a materialistic explanation of our subjective experiences. There is plenty of science dealing with the emergence of ‘I’ from ‘it’, and it suggests that our consciousness is more after the fact story-telling than causation and free-will agency.

There is one question I’ve always wanted to ask dualists: where does the soul go when you sleep and when you don’t dream?

6. Why is the human mind intentional? How can mental states be about something?

“Intentionality is no problem from the classical hylemorphic understanding of nature and of man. It is inexplicable by materialism. Materialism, which acknowledges only material and efficient causes, founders on intentionality”

Here, Egnor is lying. He has read Dr. Novella’s answers to his posts on that subject but ignores it.

7. Does Moral Law exist in itself?

“Moral Law is "written in the heart" of men, and each of us feels an obligation to comply with it. […] Moral Law is the manifestation of Divine Law, and compliance with the Moral Law represents a telos (final cause or purpose) of man's life.”

More hand-waving. Here is another thing that is written in the heart of men, quite literally: genetic information, the results of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Seriously, read Sam Harris.

“if Moral Law doesn't exist independently to men, then it is the moral law of the strongest of men that will rule”

Ah, that old canard that if morality does not come from God, everything is permitted. And that other canard that evolution is about the law of the strongest.

Never mind that the evolution of altruism is well understood since George Price. Never mind that modern evolutionary theories deal with populations much more than with individuals.

8. Why is there evil?

“Evil is the privation of good. It exists because we are a fallen race in a fallen world.”

This, I must say, may be the most disgusting and dare I say evil part of the Christian dogma: that we somehow all have to pay for the Sin of our long-dead ancestors is plainly immoral. Compound that with the nature of the Sin in question and you get a doctrine that I could never, ever swallow (pun intended). There are plenty of very obvious and perfectly good explanations for the existence of evil, and God is not one of them. Quite the contrary, if God were to disappear in a puff of logic (to quote Douglas Adams) it could be from the existence of evil, and Egnor is well aware of it:

“there are still aspects of natural evil (children with cancer, etc) that I find very hard to understand”

Indeed. but he also says:

“The traditional theodicy that natural evil provides opportunity for courage and faith makes sense to me”

What a horrible, twisted way to induce virtuous behavior. Aren’t there ways to inspire courage other than the horrible suffering and death of children? Especially when you are an omniscient and omnipotent being? Does Egnor even realize the enormity of what he’s saying?

“atheism and materialism offer no solutions at all. If mankind evolved by natural selection, we wouldn't even perceive the death of unrelated others as evil. It would be a real win- more offspring for me!”

And once again, we see the use of a straw-man version of evolution that only exists in the minds of ID proponents. See above, this is very well understood.


A few things should be clear from all this.

Far from resulting from ignorance, at least some atheistic views are constructed on the accumulation of centuries of philosophy, science and even theology. They also take into account results from modern science and are open to revision as new evidence is discovered.

Egnor, by comparison, ignores -probably maliciously- centuries of progress. And he doesn’t take comments on his blog, which says a lot about his open-mindedness.

Make your own conclusions...


An answer to what does this atheist believe

TimeMichael Egnor doesn’t know me but as his question seems to be addressed to the community collectively I’ll take the liberty to give my answer here. If you haven’t already, go and read his post first:

What do new atheists actually believe?

Well, I don’t know if I’m new but I’m certainly an atheist.

First a quick answer on Michael’s three assumptions about atheist “cliff notes”:

  • “There are no gods”: yeah, that’s kind of the point of atheism, ain’t it?
  • “Theists are IDiots”: not all of them although some are.
  • “Catholic priests molest children”: some do, that’s fact, right? The Church’s failure to report those to the authorities is also important to point out.

Michael seems to insinuate that is all we ever talk about. Well, what we have here is first what defines us, then the very important issue of science education and finally one of the biggest scandals to touch the Church in recent times. It’s understandable that would take a lot of space on atheist blogs. But the idea that we would never talk about anything else is a stretch.

So on to the questions…

1) Why is there anything?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. Consider very simple mathematical structures such as the natural numbers or mathematical groups. Those structures exist independently of the universe and of the existence of mathematicians, let alone any divinity. There you have an example of something that exists naturally and spontaneously. Now if you consider more complex structures (even simple concepts such as group theory can summon monsters of complexity) you can imagine that above a certain level of complexity emerging properties could be part of them. An example of emerging properties is space and time emerging from an underlying discrete lattice.

Note that this idea would be rather difficult to test (although one should not underestimate human genius) but it has the advantage of not requiring a supernatural explanation. In answering this question and others, it’s a good first step to determine that there *are* naturalistic explanations even if they are not necessarily supported by evidence (yet). Naturalistic explanations do have this privilege of being immediately more credible than a supernatural one by virtue of being naturalistic, yes.

It is also a recent discovery of science that the total sum of the energy in the universe is zero. It’s been argued that given a set of laws (and laws, as seen above, don’t necessitate creation), a universe such as ours could spontaneously emerge thanks to that property (Hawking’s new book does a fair job at explaining it, but I also recommend some of Lawrence Kraus’ talks). That is a different argument but it is also valid, albeit at a different level.

2) What caused the universe?

It seems to me that the idea of causality implies time exists. When talking about cosmology you can’t treat time this way: time is a property of the universe, not something that exists outside of it. It follows that in order to have causality of any sort, you need the universe to already exist, and you need to be in a part of that universe where time exists.

That in itself a problem but compound it with modern cosmology indicating that the universe probably has no boundary and that time ceases to make sense when you continue in that direction that we call the past. There goes causality.

Even if you accept the notion of a universal time that exists without the universe or if you somehow extend the idea of causation to not rely on the existence of time, there is still no need for a first mover. The universe could continue indefinitely in the direction of the past (assuming that can be defined), or it can have no boundary, but in both cases, why would it need a cause?

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

I don’t know, but 1) gives a possible answer: it’s the sets of laws that exist outside of our universe and outside of time, and the universe emerges out of what the laws permit.

4) Of the four causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

Well, I’m not sure but we’ve learned a thing or two since Aristotle, wouldn’t you say? Ultimately I would say that final causes don’t exist (see above, about time and causality being properties of the universe that don’t apply to it as a whole).

5) Why do we have subjective experiences and not merely objective experiences?

Probably because our consciousness emerges from our brain, which only receives subjective stimuli.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

I’m not sure I understand all the implications of the question but maybe because it emerges from sensorial information? What could it be referring to if not something beside itself?

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature?

Sam Harris just published a book you might want to read in order to get a much better answer to that question than what I could provide in a blog post. I do believe that there is such a thing as well-being that emerges out of the nature of our bodies and minds. From that you can define the Golden Rule (which all human societies have done independently) and the rest is refinements from that. Some of those refinements are justified by how natural selection modeled us, yes.

8) Why is there evil?

You first need to define evil. Let’s say we define it as deliberate causation of harm. Then there are a variety of possible causes for it: greed, past traumas, psychosis, religious indoctrination, etc. I’m not sure how that question is very puzzling unless you believe in an omnipotent and universally good god.


How the hell do we know?

Fig.8I was once asked “Why do you believe the Earth to be revolving around the Sun, and not the other way around?”

Here’s the answer I gave:

I don’t. Let me explain.

Imagine for a second that the Earth and Sun are the only massive objects in the Universe. If you are an observer on the surface of the Earth, you might feel that this description is less useful than the one centered around exactly where you are: you look at the sky and see the Sun going roughly in circles around you. That is, until you look a little more closely and you notice that the circles move with the seasons. That’s fine, you can take that into account by introducing perturbations of sorts into the trajectory of the Sun and find a reasonably simple equation that seems to account for it. You still have no explanation about what's going on, but at least you are getting closer to a predictive model. You can start wooing the rest of your tribe by predicting the next eclipse for example. Oh wait, we haven't even put the Moon into the universe yet. Hold on, we will in a second.

Let's not bring planets and satellites into the picture yet, but let's add the rest of the universe. Now we have stars in the sky that appear like a sphere with some bright dots on it and that rotates around us. To the naked eye, this is a very stable object that moves in a very simple way. It looks perfect and eternal, except for the occasional supernova. And it looks very much like we are at the center of it. That is, until you look with a big telescope like Bessel did in 1838 and make measurements of star positions at different times of the year precise enough to notice that only some of them move with the seasons, and some others, such as Sirius, wobble over a few decades (another one of Bessel's discoveries). But let's assume you don't have access to a big telescope and that you don't know that.

So let's bring the Moon in now. That is an object that has many striking features but it is yet another object that is just going in circles around us. Because it occasionally passes in front of the Sun, we know that the Moon is closer to us than the Sun. The phases of the Moon show us that it is a sphere that gets lit by the Sun differently as it revolves around the Earth. Good.

But there is another interesting observation that you can make at this point: tides are synchronized with the trajectories of the Moon and Sun: the tides are the strongest when the Moon and Sun are aligned with the Earth, and the weakest when the Moon, Earth and Sun form a right triangle with the Earth at the right angle. That gives us a first hint at an influence at a distance of the heavenly bodies onto Earth-bound objects.

Now's the time to bring the rest of the solar system in. To the naked eye, we have new dots of light that don't behave like the other dots of light: they are moving relative to the background of dots, but all roughly stay on the same circle that the Sun is moving along. But whereas the Sun is moving steadily along that circle, the new dots don't. Two of them wobble back and forth around the position of the Sun, while the others go all the way around but not at a steady pace, even reversing direction sometimes.

Notice that so far we've only used observations that anybody can reproduce with a pair of eyes and optionally some modest travelling around the world and a small telescope.

So how do we interpret that data?

We can try to fit it with a set of functions, which is more or less what epicycles were used for. It does work to a degree, and when the precision of the model is not good enough, we can add more and more epicycles and get closer to the data. That does have a predictive virtue, but all it proves is that the movement of celestial bodies is smooth and regular: you can actually fit any smooth function with a composition of elementary ones. That’s basic mathematics. For example, any sound can be approximated with a series of harmonics, and the more harmonics you add, the closer you get to the original sound. The difference here is that we're talking about the music of the spheres instead of actual sounds.

Nothing in all this of course explains where the epicycles come from.

Now let's shift perspective and imagine that the Sun doesn't move (much) and that everything else but the background of stars -including the Earth- rotates around it. If you get the distances right, the very complicated movements of the planets become ellipses around the Sun, ellipses being about the simplest shapes after a straight line and a circle. You can now get a much closer fit to the actual movement of planets, with a much simpler model. That's what Kepler did in 1605. But you don't have to take his word or any scientist's word for it: it's easy to build a computer simulation of that model that computes the position of each planet in the heliocentric referential and then translates the positions back into geocentric coordinates. You can then compare the results with what you see in the sky.

At this point, we have successfully decomposed what seemed like very complex trajectories into a composition of simple elliptical trajectories: that of the Earth and that of each other planet. Divide and conquer.

We still don't have an explanation of the ellipses though. It took the genius of Newton to come up with that. He single-handedly invented infinitesimal calculus (at the same time as Leibniz) and applied it to expose the laws of motion and then discovered the law of universal gravitation. With those tools, he was able to further reduce Kepler's results and laws to one single law: all bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is inversely proportional to their distance and  proportional to each of their masses.

Not only does this explain all of the data we've talked about so far (including tides), it also unifies the fall of earthly objects with the movement of planets. Furthermore, it accounts for the movements of the Moon and the satellites of Saturn and Jupiter, two "mini-solar-systems" in orbit around the Sun. By the way, imagine if intelligent life were to evolve on a satellite of a giant planet: their inhabitants would have an even harder problem to solve than ours as they would have to untangle the composition of three orbital movements instead of two.

An interesting remark to make at this point is that Newton put the final nail in the coffin for the geocentric view of the world, but he also was the first to point out that his own theory made the heliocentric view inexact as well: the static point in his model is the center of mass of the whole Solar System, not the center of the Sun. And now we know even that is false as the Solar System moves relative to the center of the Milky Way, which itself moves relative to the local group. More than that, we know that there is nothing special with regards to the physical laws of gravitation about the center of the Sun or the center of the Earth: the physical laws are the same in both points, and we know how to describe the system from both referentials (although one description is simpler than the other, they are two views on the same reality). That is not to say that choosing the geocentric referential is not useful, interesting or efficient to solve a whole class of problems, but if your goal is to understand the movement of planets and stars, it’s not the most efficient and has actually been in the way of figuring it out for many centuries.

The law of universal gravitation enables us to make calculations on the evolution of a system with any number of masses and to go beyond the approximation provided by Kepler's laws. It's been so efficient that with just that tool and the observation data of planet trajectories, which had some anomalous divergences from what Newton's theory predicted, Le Verrier was able to predict the existence and position of a new planet, Neptune, before anyone had seen it. And sure enough, when astronomers pointed their telescopes in the direction given by Le Verrier, there it was.

So to summarize what happened here, scientists were seeing a deviation from the theory, and that could mean three things.

First, that the observations were wrong. That can happen, and the normal procedure is to repeat the observations by as many independent observers as possible. The observations were right.

Second, that the theory was wrong. We'll see something like that happened a little later.

Third, that the anomaly resulted from the perturbations within the theory of an as yet unseen object.

Le Verrier tried the third hypothesis and deduced from it the existence of Neptune. All that had to be done was to check against observation, and the planet was discovered (and Newton's theory confirmed once more).

Encouraged by this success, Le Verrier tried to apply the same method to another anomaly: the orbit of Mercury. He also predicted the existence of a planet between Mercury and the Sun that could account for the perturbations, but this time no such planet was observed. This time, we were in the second case, and it wasn't until Einstein came up with General Relativity that it was confirmed and that Newton's theory was replaced.

This is a great illustration of how science works: observation is the ultimate judge of the validity of a theory. Not common sense, not faith, not hearsay, not authority, not personal preferences. Reality doesn't care what we believe.

So to get back to the original question, no, I do not believe that the Earth revolves around the center of the Sun. I know that the law of universal gravitation -or General Relativity if you need the extra precision- is the most efficient way of explaining the movements that we observe in the Solar System. I know it because I can and have verified it and because innumerable people have done so as well, independently and consistently. I have actually verified myself quite a lot more than that about gravitation when I was a PhD student in a General Relativity lab.

You can also verify it yourself with little effort: grab one of the available open source astronomy programs or solar system simulators out there and look at their algorithms. Then take one of the predictions it’s making about the position of a planet in the sky for tonight and check it for yourself.

This brings me to an important point. While observing the skies is within the reach of almost anyone (I'm saying "almost" because I live in Seattle), verifying all scientific results yourself is impractical when not plain impossible. So how do we know something without having to rely on some form of authority? That is of course a very relevant question that all scientists must have asked themselves at a point of their career (hopefully at the very beginning). The answer to that is that the principle that a scientific assertion can be verified independently is absolutely essential. You cannot qualify a result as scientific unless it is verifiable and falsifiable. And it’s not going to be trusted until it has actually been independently verified. Yes, I’m saying that you have to evaluate and verify scientist’s claims. You absolutely have to. That’s the point. There’s no science if nobody does.

Of course, that doesn’t exclude the possibility of error and fraud, but it provides a set of tools that while imperfect is very efficient and powerful. The scientific community is so large that all results, especially the spectacular and important ones are going to receive lots of scrutiny. They’re going to be challenged in every way people can think of as the reward to overthrowing a previous result grows with the exposure that result has received. That is why Einstein’s glory is greater today than Newton’s.

Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where scientists benefit professionally from defending the status quo, but those can’t stop good new science from appearing and from eventually prevailing.

This is why I trust scientific results more than our primate’s intuition that would have me believe that the Earth doesn’t move, that there’s a point in playing the lottery or that an electron can’t be at two places simultaneously.


Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms

Allégorie (la Mort) After the absolutely amazing Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis delivers a relatively short read with Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to Less Than Zero. Let’s say it up front: if you’ve read all of his previous novels already, you have already read this one. It is almost entirely without surprise: perversion, murders, a nightmarish blend of the inner and outer worlds of the narrator and a desperate absence of feelings and empathy are all there.

And it’s a great read as usual. The style hits home. The way the narrator seems to float above his own story owes a lot to how extreme violence is depicted matter-of-factly and how ordinary events like a text message are overloaded with hidden threats and anguish.

The characters are those from Less Than Zero, Ellis’ first novel. They have gotten older with the author but their lives have not changed much. Clay is still an outsider who comes back to LA, only to find emptiness, and the other ones are reproducing much of the patterns they were already exhibiting 25 years ago. They still don’t exist but wish they did.

Verdict: read


I certainly didn't expect it...

Coffee break is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition, I mean. Then again who does?

I’ve been having this discussion with Ambrose for a few months now and I’m grateful to him for being open to discussion and for spending the time to answer me. It started with him boldly declaring that:

The Inquisition was a good thing for its time.  You don't even have to be Catholic to think so, if you'll just look into the facts and how it was a civilizing and taming influence in otherwise extremely brutal times.

I then answered in essence:

No, really, you shouldn't defend Inquisition and pretend it was a benevolent organization. Please, be an adult and recognize when something you or an organization you belong to screwed up. It will elevate you, whereas the defensive position brings you down to the level of the guilty.

And a couple of months ago Ambrose answered my answer.

In this post, I’m going to comment and answer that last post (which I haven’t done earlier because I’ve been lazy). I think it’s an important and interesting discussion because it captures essential differences in perspective between Humanists and Catholics (and other deists).

Apparently, Bertrand didn't read even the rather short article I referenced, by historian Thomas F. Madden, much less consult the book I referred to.

Mmh. Yes I did read the linked article (I do find it a wee bit insulting that Ambrose would think I didn’t), it’s just that I didn’t swallow it whole. I admit I did not read the book as the article provides enough material and references for discussion. I’ll give you a sample of the post, but be warned, it’s from the National Review...

[…] the Inquisition was not so bad after all. Torture was rare and only about 1 percent of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition were actually executed. […] The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions.[…] it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. […The Inquisition] was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence[…] As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold […] the Church was trying to save souls. […] Compared to other medieval secular courts, the Inquisition was positively enlightened […] before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe.

In other words, the Inquisition was a civilizing force and what you have learned about it in school is just “Protestant propaganda” and silly ideas from “French philosophes”. Right.

I did address that in my previous post, but Ambrose seems to have skipped that passage so let me quote myself:

[…] this isn't even historically accurate but rather a negationist opinion: the aptly named Innocent IV authorized torture as a means to extract the truth in 1252 and it was widely used thereafter. It was even later extended to witnesses. Priests were allowed to absolve each other of their atrocious acts. And most of all, it was not the Church defending the innocent against civil authorities, it was pope after pope enjoining the civil authorities to execute the sentences under pain of excommunication. It's of course all duly recorded by the Church itself.

The only redeeming part in all this seems to be about saving souls as that appears to show good intentions. On the contrary I find that to be the most incriminating as it clearly shows how faith can convince people to commit the most atrocious crimes for a hypothetical greater good.

Although it’s important to get one’s facts straight, Ambrose misses the point entirely: it does not matter that the Church was torturing heretics in a kinder way than secular courts of the time or for kinder motives. What does matter is that the Church was torturing.

The whole enterprise is indefensible from a humanistic perspective because:

  • Torture is indefensible, for any motive.
  • Heresy is an entirely imaginary crime, one that has no victim.
  • There were clearly moral and honorable alternatives.

The Church was judging people for an imaginary crime, using the least humane methods. At the risk of repeating myself, what is defensible about that?

That was the essence of my post and I haven’t changed my mind. Now there are other points in Ambrose’s answer that I want to address.

I appreciate that Bertrand, unlike the militant atheists in the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd, seems to recognize there is goodness in religion, even if it only extends in as much as religious people share his humanistic values.

Well, at the risk of disappointing Ambrose, not exactly. Actually, like Hitchens and Dawkins I don’t think any of the goodness I see is especially dependent on religion. As to the second part of the comment, it is rather tautological as reversing it shows: I appreciate that Ambrose recognizes there can be goodness in Atheism, even if it only extends in as much as atheists share his moral values. We recognize goodness in others inasmuch as it coincides with our idea of good. Duh.

Ambrose’s next point is the following:

Even if you disagree with the premise that religious belief is a matter for public judgment (and the corresponding execution of sentences based on that judgment), it remains that this is not a question of denying human dignity but rather of what is a matter for public judgment.

Well, yes I do strongly disagree with that premise (and I hope Ambrose does too to be frank). But he is beating a strawman here: it’s not the trial that is a denial of humanity, it’s the torture.

Then Ambrose’s post get weird and imprecise:

[our contemporaries] use arbitrary and unverifiable criteria based on conjecture--not established judicial procedure by a qualified judge--to determine if a life has human dignity.

I’m really not sure what he’s referring to here, and I don’t want to conjecture. It would be useful to have more specifics, such as those in the next paragraph:

I don't know where Bertrand stands on life issues, but Catholics certainly are at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity, from conception to natural death.

And by “life issue” I’m supposing Ambrose means “abortion issues.” He wrote a whole post on it a while ago that looks charitable on the surface but is really making all kinds of unfounded assumptions. I have a position that probably won’t surprise much but I’ll devote a whole post to it because that’s not the kind of issue you resolve by grossly oversimplifying it.

The claim about Catholics being “at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity” is just bizarre to me. How exactly are they doing that? By glorifying suffering? By spreading disinformation and lies about proven ways to fight Aids (of which millions still die every year, many of which could be saved by proper prevention techniques)? By denying homosexuals dignity?

Speaking of dignity:

For humanists to pretend that belief in the dignity of the human person is an invention of the so-called Enlightenment is just preposterous.

And who exactly pretended that? It would indeed be a preposterous claim that I certainly never made. We are again beating a strawman here (nice use of “so-called” by the way). As I said in comments to the previous post:

The Golden Rule was well understood in the dark ages and about as far back in history as we have records. It's even in the freaking Book(s). It seems to come from empathy, which is a quality that all apes seem to share. It's part of what makes us human.

We then have a long argument denying that the Church as an institution believes itself sacred and above human laws through “not too fine” and “pretty straightforward” theological points:

No individual possesses [perfection] unqualifiedly before "getting to heaven."

Oh, so it’s an empty promise then: the Church will be perfect once everybody’s in Heaven. Of course, we will never get to verify that. As for what happens during this life:

[…] the very qualified and rare way that definitive, active infallibility is exercised in the Church and, as noted, only there have been only two known infallible definitions by a pope. So there is no burden on the faithful Catholic to defend every proclamation of a bishop or even the pope as if it were infallible.

That is a fine theory, but in practice and in my experience, many priests do believe themselves to be morally superior. It comes with the profession. Ambrose says it himself:

[…] priests should be better--they're supposed to be examples to us all!

Yes, there’s hope:

it is entirely unnecessary to defend, for instance, the decision of a pope to authorize torture as a tool in the inquisitions. […] I am of the conviction that we should recognize and address the serious failings of priests (and bishops and popes), both past and present.

Ah, at last. Ambrose could have just said that without all the tergiversation. Alas it doesn’t last:

[…] perhaps in that time and culture it was understandable. Would it have been better had torture not been authorized? Almost certainly, but it would be anachronistic of me to suggest that he should have known better.

Well, no. It never was understandable or forgivable. Especially coming from the moral and intellectual elite of its time. The Golden Rule, as I said above, has been known and understood as far back as we have historical traces. There is no way that a sane human being, under any time period, would consider creating such hell on Earth as torture without the support of a mind twister such as fanaticism or hate.

Dare I say it? This is nothing but the cheap kind of relativism conservatives keep accusing us godless liberals of. It may surprise them but we do have absolutes even if we usually tend to avoid thinking in black and white and to attempt to base them on rational thinking. Opposition to torture is one of them.

To conclude, I’d like to transpose one last quote of Ambrose’s into a different but comparable situation:

[…] if the Church had refused to participate as it did, it seems to me that far worse would have happened.

How the hell do you know? That is an old and tired excuse that is often used to rationalize morally indefensible decisions: juxtapose it with a hypothetical alternative and by all means don’t even consider that there might be anything outside of the false dichotomy.

Would more have been killed if the US hadn’t ended the war with Japan by unleashing nuclear power onto non-military targets? It doesn’t matter: it was wrong, don’t do it. Be more creative about alternatives. Don’t forget that there is always a moral and honorable choice and that you never have to compromise with evil. Unless you’re evil yourself.

I’d like to reiterate that despite all this I’m grateful to Ambrose for a civil and thoughtful discussion. I always appreciate conviction and debate even when I disagree.

Ite in pace.


Reductio ad absurdum

abeilles Reductionism is the idea that all known phenomena are the simple sum of simpler, more fundamental ones.

It has worked really well in science, and it could even be argued that reduction is a good part of what science is.

Chemistry is well explained by the interactions of atoms, atoms are well understood as a quantum assemblage of protons, neutrons and electrons, and protons and neutrons are quarks bound by their strong interaction mediated by gluons.

Another example of very successful reduction is thermodynamics. Thermodynamics provide a set of consistent and successful laws that rule the behavior of macroscopic quantities such as temperature, pressure or volume. You do not need to understand the microscopic dynamics of atoms and molecules in a gas to use it and understand how a fridge or a thermal engine work. Still it’s true that using only statistics and some simple dynamics, you can derive all the laws of thermodynamics. Reductionism win!

Now take higher-level phenomena such as sociology or psychology. It would seem absurd to claim that these can be reduced to the quantum interaction of subatomic particles. More importantly, it would be sterile and counter-productive to attempt it. Not to mention impossible in practice.

A second way in which reductionism can fail besides practical irrelevance is in the assumption that you can effectively separate reality in distinct layers that don’t interact with one another. In particular with non-linear or chaotic phenomena, small uncertainties in the state of lower layers can translate into very large differences in the higher layers (the so-called and much misunderstood butterfly effect). This also means that in turn, higher layers can affect the lower ones in inextricable ways.

Take evolution for example. Biology is reducible in principle to chemistry (and biochemistry is a triumphant discipline that has probably done more for the betterment of humankind than most), but the interactions of living bodies run so deep and are so tied to environmental factors (even though those are also reducible in principle), and they do in turn affect their own environment in such important ways that it is impossible to give a complete picture of evolution based only on chemistry.

But in principle, each layer does strictly depend on the underlying, more fundamental layer. To this day, there are no phenomena that expose demonstrable contradictions with lower layers. Such a contradiction could come for example in the form of a macroscopic phenomenon not conserving energy. Here you would have a quantity that is valid at both levels but that would behave differently at the higher level than it does at the lower one. This never happened so far.

In other words, the failures of reductionism are not failures of the principle, they are failures of practical applicability and relevance.

Reductionism is not sufficient anymore in the scientific arsenal. It does however remain extremely useful and we do still rely in many cases on its theoretical validity.