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.


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.


More fundie fun

snakeThere is an article on stupid Conservapædia (that I won't grace with a link) that rants about the theory of Relativity because apparently it contradicts the Bible. Well, what doesn't? Even the Bible contradicts the Bible...
Anyways, here is how that fantastic piece of entertainment begins:

"The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions."

Well, wrong. This just shows how much these clowns understand about science: nothing at all.
The theories of Relativity are *using* mathematical tools, but they are not about the tools, they are about the physics of high energy phenomena and strong gravitational fields. So they got the most basic definitions wrong. But of course they did it on purpose you see, because mathematical theorems suffer no exceptions (which is precisely why math is not science) whereas physics is perfectly fine with limiting its own theories to a specific experimental range.
It's worth repeating: if science knew everything, it would be over and nobody would do it. Only engineering would remain. Contrast that with religion, which was done once and for all thousands of years ago and that people are still doing today.
This being said, I think the authors of the silly piece in question should stop using their GPS right now, cause you know, of being an insult to God and all.


Despite all that, France is not a collectivist dictatorship. Go figure.


  • The state owns a majority of railways, energy production and distribution, aircraft and telecommunication industries of the country.
  • There is a minimum wage, and it's pretty high: 1300 euros a month.
  • Health care is mandatory, universal and state-managed.
  • Cities have an obligation to provide cheap homes to poor people.
  • Several of the top TV and radio stations are state-owned.
  • Movies and art in general are largely sponsored by the state.
  • Public schools are often better than private ones.
  • Free college education for all.
  • Top 3 scientific colleges pay their students for being promising future contributors to society.
  • Owning a gun is not a sacred right guaranteed by the constitution.
  • The constitution is only 52 years old, and it can be changed by referendum.
  • People can't get fired from a permanent position for no good reason and without a severance package or time to rebound.
  • If you get fired, you get substantial unemployment insurance.
  • Religion and the state are strictly separated, to the point that cults and religions pay taxes like everybody else, and politicians rarely talk about their religious convictions, or lack thereof. No mention of God is made on banknotes.
  • 64% of the population defines itself as atheists or agnostics according to
  • Children in school don't pledge allegiance to the flag.


Be inquisitive

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!Recently Ambrose pointed me to one of his posts in response to a snarky comment I made about the Inquisition on Twitter. His summary goes like this: "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."

The argument is that the Inquisition wasn't doing the torturing and killing themselves, but rather that their role was to determine who was "innocent" and who was "guilty" and then hand them over to the competent authorities who would then proceed with the torturing and killing (which they were fully aware of). Of course, the crime these people were "guilty" of was to believe differently or to not believe at all.

I'd like to point out that 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. But that's besides the point: even if Ambrose was right, which he's not by very far, the whole enterprise would still be condemnable.

Let me draw a little parallel to this. During WW2, the Maréchal Pétain accepted to lead the governement of then occupied France. The apology for it was that it would be better to have a respected French soldier in place rather than to let the Nazi have full power. Of course, the Nazi did effectively have full power and Pétain's role was just to pretend to govern and make it acceptable. He and others really were convinced that they were a civilizing and taming influence in otherwise extremely brutal times. The reality was quite different. Under his rule, Jews were deported as in the rest of occupied Europe, and the French police even collaborated with that atrocious enterprise. But of course, most of the time they weren't doing the torturing and killing themselves, they were just verifying the people arrested were Jews, and then handing them over to the Nazi, with a pretty good idea of what would happen to them.

Mmmh. Reminds me of something...

The honorable path during the war was not to be accomodating but to resist the Nazi ennemy, to do everything in your power to save your fellow human beings from the monsters who would kill them only because they were Jews, homosexuals or Gipsies.

In the same way, the honorable and truly civilizing path for the Church during the Dark Ages -and they had all the power to do it- would have been to give a message of tolerance.

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. I can't help but draw another parallel here with the recent pedophilia affairs. The attitude that consists in systematically defending the Church and covering up for hideous crimes, thus perpetuating them, is just not the attitude of responsible adults.

I hold the opinion that this is in large part caused by the fact that this organization believes itself to be holy and infallible.

The second component that explains this attitude in my opinion is the very explicit segregation of Humanity that comes with all of the three great monotheistic religions. Their holy books all place apostasy as one of the greatest of all sins. They all divide Humanity in two categories: those who believe in the One True God, and those who don't. Those who don't are considered sub-human and are promised eternal fire.

Contrast that with the philosophy that underlines the Enlightenment: humanism. If you are a humanist, you consider all humans as equally deserving respect. All of Humanity has the same rights, no matter what they believe in, be it a man in the sky, the Holy Trinity, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeus or even nothing at all. The pigmentation of their skin doesn't matter, nor do their sex, their sexual orientation or their political opinions.

If you are a humanist, you must recognize the atrocities that the Terror was during the French Revolution. You have to recognize the absolute evil that was Nazism: the exclusion from Humanity and extermination of millions because of their origin or beliefs. You have to recognize the abomination of Communism and its disastrous consequences and millions of victims. Just as well as you must recognize the misled atrocity of Inquisition, of the persecution of the Jews throughout the ages. All were a negation of our universal Humanity.

I cannot think of a single reason why one would unconditionally support the worst that religion has done and still does today. There are plenty of religious people who embrace humanism as something fully compatible with their faith, and who are not embarrassed to recognize evil when they see it.

Instead of apologizing for the indefensible, you should be the first to forcefully reject the parts of your own religion that are archaic, barbaric and evil. That should only reinforce the core of it, which I understand is supposed to be love. Or maybe it could open your mind to moral principles that are more universal than any religion can ever be, because they are the essence of what makes us human rather than just tradition from millenia ago.


*theism: how many gods are there?

quetzalcoatlMost of the debate tends to be around theism versus atheism. But there is so much more! Let's review the full set of hypotheses:

- x = 0: atheists think there is no god.
- 0 ≤ x ≤ Infinity: agnostics think there may be between zero and an infinity of gods. Interestingly, the set of natural numbers plus infinity is called "supernatural numbers".
- x = 1: monotheists think there is one God.
- x ∈ ℕ*, x > 1: polytheists think there is more than one god.
- x ∈ ℚ: in some polytheist religions, gods can procreate with humans, which gives demigods. If demigods then procreate with humans, does that make quartergods? This is of course assuming the divinity of humans is zero. ℚ is called the set of rational numbers, which doesn't make this position especially more rational than the others...

So where do I stand? I think x ∈ ℂ: there is a number of imaginary gods. I guess that makes me a complexotheist.


News from the gym: oh the hypocrisy!

Davy safety lampUh oh, I've been watching Fox at the gym again...

The big thing they were talking about was Harry Knox, a White House advisor, having said the Catholic Church was "hurting people in the name of Jesus" by forbidding the use of condoms. Fox pundits of course were outraged, their arguments being that scientific consensus was agreeing with the Pope that condoms weren't preventing the spread of AIDS and that the Catholic Church was saving a lot more lives through its charities than Knox's organization, HRC.

Let's look at these claims.

The claim that science agrees with the Pope probably comes from here: But Green says "I believe condoms should be made available to everyone. It should be, and as you say, the ABC strategy: Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom." If his findings are correct, they only show that condom distribution pushes people to more risky behavior, but condom usage is perfectly efficient. As often, there is no silver bullet and a multi-pronged approach is often preferable. But this kind of subtlety totally escapes Fox and the Catholic Church, which promotes abstinence as the only acceptable contraception. What they forget is that abstinence has been demonstrated time and again to be terribly inefficient and counter-productive: that case as well, the distribution of the contraceptive method is harmful, although the usage obviously works. Except that using the pill or a condom is much easier to achieve than abstinence.

And of course, there is the motivation. The reason why the Church prohibits contraception methods is not disinterested, nor is it to apply good science or to limit the spread of diseases. They couldn't care less about that. The subtext is that extramarital sex and of course homosexuality are considered by them as sin, and they don't really mind sinners dying from their sins. When they don't explicitly wish for it to happen.

Then there is the claim that the Church saves more lives through its charities than Knox's organization. That is probably true and clearly something that should be praised, but how the hell is it relevant? If you are a brain surgeon AND a serial killer, does the surgery excuse the killing if you save more lives than you take? This is just irrelevant.

On other news, I heard some tea party idiot on NPR saying that "people who can't spell 'vote' elected Barack Hussein Obama" (emphasis on Hussein of course). This is wrong on so many levels. So wasn't what triggered the original Boston tea party "no taxation without representation"? That implies that immigrants should have a right to vote where they pay their taxes.

Oh, and I also heard Bill O'Reilly ask why Obama's birth certificate had never been produced. Seriously. Wow. Incredible that a channel that claims to be a news channel couldn't do the very basic fact checking that I just did in less than ten seconds:

People, when you are proven wrong, it's OK to say "I was wrong". It will actually make you more credible the next time you're right (whenever that may be).


News from the gym

I don't watch the news and to be honest I don't understand why anyone with half a brain would. That is, I don't watch except when they put a screen in my face with the captions on like it's the case at the gym. I didn't think I would ever regret being able to read. A TV screen is a terrible thing: it's very hard not to look at it. And I had forgotten the Zune.
So I watched the news.
Here's what I learned...

  1. Some random woman got condemned for murder. Not sure how this is newsworthy but that's all they talked about on CNN while I was there.
  2. Some famous golf player did something apparently not very nice. Not sure who or what, I think I my brain might have gone to sleep at that point.
  3. We might have to reconsider all the scientific results for the last five centuries, because apparently a bunch of scientists are vicious assholes.
  4. There is a segment on Fox News called "the dumbest thing of the week" that surprisingly isn't a best of what they said during the week. That's when I noticed the blood coming out of my eyes.
  5. Surprisingly, the dumbest thing I heard this week wasn't on Fox, it was on NPR in the car on my way back home. They were interviewing a guy who had raped 11 of the children that he was coaching, and he was saying that it was all right now because God had forgiven him. So apparently what's important is not that the people you hurt forgive you, what's important is that some hypothetical deity does.

Must think of taking the Zune next time...