Objective, Transcendent, or Absolute?

God shows something to MosesThe number one cliché I hear about atheism is that lacking an objective / transcendent / absolute morality, everything is permitted, and surely we must be eating babies for breakfast. Religious people seem to be very insistent on this point, and all but attempt to push us to be immoral, telling us that we are being inconsistent if we aren’t, and that ours is a self-defeating position.

There are quite a few parts to deconstruct in those assertions. First, can the religious point(s) of view really claim objectivity, transcendence or absoluteness? Second, are the only games in town really religion and extreme relativism?

Claims to objectivity are the most bizarre to me. Objectivity is supposed to be the quality of something that is based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions. A system based on a single old book of myths then hardly seems objective. Furthermore, philosophers are insistent that one can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, values from facts, so how can any system of ethics be fully objective? There is of course Rand’s perverse Objectivism, but that is more rationalization for selfishness than moral system, and it’s only objective by name. That is not to say that facts can’t inform moral decisions: they have to. But they can’t on their own be their foundation.

The claim of transcendence is that morality is somehow from out of the material world. This is of course entirely unconvincing to atheists who tend to find the supernatural to be an ill-defined, if not outright impossible notion. Kant objected to the notion of transcendence that something that exceeds the limits of experience is only hypothetically knowable. Real knowledge requires a tie to objective reality, and that seems to exclude the supernatural.

Transcendence is a rather hand-wavy way out from the problem of understanding morality: proposing an unknowable origin doesn’t explain anything.

Most of all, it’s a claim that falls to the Euthyphro dilemma: by declaring morality transcendent, you take the “it’s moral because it’s God’s command” option, which makes morality arbitrary. Which god are we supposed to believe, given that they give contradictory commands, and that their followers all claim, with similar arguments, that they hold the One True Faith? As a consequence, anything goes.

Believers usually reject the dilemma by declaring that goodness is God’s essence, that He is one with goodness. Of course, that’s more hand-waving, circular reasoning, and nothing more than a deepity. Their own argument actually forces them to answer the problems of evil and hell. If there is an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being, why are there earthquakes and tornadoes that indiscriminately kill and cause suffering for innocent people?

Then there is the absolutism vs. relativism debate. The main problem with this one, I think, is one of false dichotomy. It is hard to argue that there aren't moral issues that are relative, and others that are absolute.

For example, you would have to be out of your mind to argue against the fact that all things being equal, we ought not to harm other sentient beings. That’s an absolute, and there is no need of a God for that to be true. It does require the existence of sentient beings to make sense, but that’s another matter.

Reversely, most people nowadays would consider it morally harmless for an adult person to get a tattoo. However, Judaism has a commandment against it, and they are forbidden in Sunni Islam (but ok in Shia Islam). They are virtuous in Hinduism, as well as in certain forms of Christianity.

That not everything is absolute doesn’t imply that everything is relative. Reversely, that not everything is relative doesn’t mean that everything is absolute.

It should be clear at this point that there are other choices of moral philosophy besides Divine Command and an absolute relativism leading to nihilism. There are actually many other options. If you are interested in a great exposition and discussion of modern ethics, Massimo Pigliucci has a series of articles on the topic, of which this is the conclusion: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-ethics-part-vii-full-picture.html

Even without understanding all this about the underpinnings of so-called objective, transcendent or absolute morality, we can empirically evaluate the initial claim, which boils down, really to “religious people are more moral than atheists”. Does it work? Well, not very well.

If morality came from God, since the US doesn’t imprison people for their religious affiliation, you would expect their prisons to be filled with atheists and almost empty of believers. You should even be able to tell which one is The One True Religion: it should be the one with the lowest crime rates. Quite the reverse is true. Atheists are dramatically under-represented in prisons, with 0.2% of the population (Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons, compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997), against 4% in the general US population. This is often discounted as more of a correlation between level of education (with which Atheism is correlated) and delinquency, but one should see a massively opposite difference nonetheless if morality really came from God. If education was the only factor in this, you would expect to see the ratio between populations with higher education diplomas out and in prisons to be higher than the same ratio for atheists. The opposite is true.

This is just one example, the more general point being that the argument, if true, should be empirically verifiable, and it is actually verified that it’s false.

Whenever statistical data is published on a morally loaded behavior and its correlation with religious affiliation, religious people act at best the same as the nones, and at worst measurably worse. If religion is efficient at one thing, it may be in inducing guilt, but statistically not a change of behavior.

One last thing... When discussing those topics with religious people, I’ve often had the impression that they were committing a category mistake, confusing goodness with some kind of conserved quantity, like a substance. As if God created a finite quantity of moral stuff and injected that into people’s souls. This is also true of love, compassion, faith and many other things.

In the end, it does look like those arguments really are designed to de-humanize atheists, to justify a sense of moral superiority and to rationalize the adherence to a flawed system. After all, if one can really be good without God, what is God good for?

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The outlaw and the sheriff

Click the image to open in full size.The little town in a remote corner of Arizona had been living in fear since Jim Coldhands and his band of outlaws had decided to stop here on their way to nowhere. They had taken the biggest house in town at gunpoint and were robbing the bank every week, leaving the townsfolk only the bare minimum to survive. They had the guns, and according to them, it was generous on their part to let anyone live. The sheriff was just as frightened as anybody else.

So what did the people do to make their lives a little easier? Why, they elected Jim as their new sheriff.

Don’t be those guys. Go out and vote against the bully.

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Not a house of cards

Mechanical TurkReligious positions are often compared to a house of cards, meaning that they are elaborate but extremely fragile edifices that can be brought down by the merest gust of wind. They are, however, nothing but. A house of cards has more foundation than substance, whereas religion only has unfounded matter. Blow all you want, it won’t come down so easily. No, there are more apt metaphors to produce on the subject.

I was discussing that with my friend Fabien the other day over an unreasonable amount of Mac & Jack’s, when he made the excellent point that smart people tend to defend their faith as one defends the king in a game of chess.

Chess is all about pieces protecting each other. The queen protects a knight, protects a pawn, protects a bishop. In a religious argument, views are strategically advanced and defend each other in a very similar manner. What makes the strength of the argumentation is how well the different positions defend each other, how they form a strong and consistent whole that is very well thought out to work together. The relationship between the pieces is more important than their identities or what they represent. Circularity is far from being a weakness. Only the ultimate goal counts: defending the king, and defeating the opponent. The end justifies the means.

When two chess players of equal strength face each other, they will win half the time if they don’t end in a stalemate. It doesn’t matter who has the best-looking pieces or the ones that look the most real. It’s all black and white, and they’re interchangeable. The whites may have a small advantage as the first mover, but you only get that half the time.

Are we interested, however, in chess, or are we interested in truth? Winning an argument is utterly pointless in itself.

If it’s not the game we want to win, why play by those rules? Why not discard the rules altogether and expose the pieces for what they really are? This is not a stone tower in your hand, it’s a carved piece of wood. Towers don’t move anyways.

Only by always coming back to reality, by refusing to enter the game, can we hope to tear down religion’s stronghold on minds.

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My heroes are all dead: 1. DNA

And by DNA I don’t mean deoxyribonucleic acid, I mean Douglas Noel Adams, whom you probably know as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

There are only two people that I didn’t know, whose death made me cry: Pierre Desproges and Douglas Adams. Both wrote prodigious comedy with surprising depth, but Adams was also an outspoken Atheist, and used science as a foundation of his storytelling. Preferably weird science, like quantum mechanics.

The Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency series for example can be read as relying on the interconnectedness of the universe’s wave function, quantum uncertainty, and spooky action at a distance.

The Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series can drive anyone insane by showing them their insignificance. It does so based on the principle that boundary conditions, any boundary conditions, such as the surface of a piece of fruit cake, could contain all the information you need about the rest of the universe. Enough to show it all in its glorious infinity, with you in it, “a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."”

One of my favorite passages shows the futility of all arguments based on “pure logic” for or against the existence of God:

`I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Or on fine-tuning arguments, when a puddle thinks:

This is […] an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

And finally, this nugget on the role of science:

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.

I miss you, Mr. Adams.

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Elections are not democratic

AgoraIt’s becoming increasingly clear that our so-called democracies really are plutocracies and always have been. But, I hear you ask, aren’t elections the guarantee that we the people are getting represented properly? Of course not.

To get elected, you need to be a candidate. To be a candidate, you had to belong to a very specific category of individuals who actually desire power. It’s very easy to see how this can result in elected assemblies that are constituted exclusively of rich people: they are the ones who desire power and can afford to spend the money to get there. And like it or not, the rich are not necessarily the most caring of people. After all, how many of your own caring, decent low or middle-class friends want to become politicians? My bet, which coincides with my personal experience, is precisely zero.

How is that representative? Doesn’t this show clearly that elections result in precisely the opposite of democracy? More importantly, what would work better than that? Isn’t democracy the least bad of all systems?

Democracy means power by the people. Part of the problem is that we the people let that term get hijacked by a system that is anything but. When a system results in the exact opposite of representation, assemblies that are statistical aberrations with no correlation whatsoever with the general population, that cannot possibly be called a democracy. When the people in power are systematically the rich -elected or not- that is the definition of a plutocracy.

I understand that some are perfectly fine with a plutocracy, but can we at least call things by their names and stop pretending to live in a democracy?

So what would be a real democracy then, you may ask? Well, that’s easy, the Greek had it all figured out (except for the part about women and slaves of course, but come on it was 2,500 years ago).

The only truly democratic system is one where the assembly is not elected but randomly selected. Only chance can select a sample of the population that is truly representative.

Think about it.

More on this later. This text was inspired by a TEDx talk by Etienne Chouard, unfortunately in French, but nonetheless one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in years.

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Arguments from authority?

Round-Earth is just a theoryDespite appearances, there is a fundamental difference between arguments from authority (or from majority) and scientific knowledge. That fundamental difference is that attacks, independent verification and repeatability are not only expected but necessary to the whole process.

To dumb it down in the extreme, I know that Thailand exists although I've never been there. Not just because people say so, but because I could go there and verify. I don't need to go there, just being able to is enough.

A fallout of it is that democratization of that knowledge, its diffusion to people who may feel they don't have access to it, is possible. There are good authors out there who can explain scientific theories in ways that you will not only understand but that will give you the keys that you need to trust that it's actual solid knowledge and not just speculations. If you need more than that, there is nothing that is ever inaccessible. Even the experiments at the LHC are accessible if you know where to look. That is by design.

Pseudo-sciences, in contrast, tend to only raise objections to established scientific theories, and do not provide the means to verify their claims. Although they are usually easy to refute, objections to those refutations often do exist. That doesn't give all those objections the same value, nor does it make their truth a matter of opinion. Those things are verifiable and verified. The very fact that you too could (not have but could) verify the validity of knowledge and evidence is what makes it more trustworthy than any argument from authority.

For example, flat-earthers do exist, their objections to a round-Earth are well known, and are easily refuted, but those guys do have refutations for those refutations that could look convincing in a vacuum.

I can show you how to set-up simple experiments to show that the Earth is round, and it should convince anyone in their right minds, but it won't convince flat-earthers, who are not in their right minds, and who will have objections for each of those experiments and objections. Or they will ignore the arguments and keep repeating the same BS. Creationists are doing the exact same thing.

There is an easy way to recognize pseudo-science for what it is though: so-called creation science has not resulted in a single real world application. You don't have to and shouldn't consider creationism or flat-earthism in a vacuum to judge whether they are likely or not to be true. All you have to do is see whether it *works*. Creationism and flat-earthism have produced nothing and just don't work. On the other hand, you need General Relativity for GPS to work, you need Quantum Mechanics for computers to work, and you need Evolution for biology, medicine and genetic engineering to work.

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The things believers love to believe about unbelievers

Satyrus marinusYou see, if we don’t believe, it must be because we’re angry at God (we’re not: it doesn’t exist; we’re only angry at the people who are trying to impose arbitrary rules on us, on behalf of that imaginary entity). And the thing is, we’re not allowed to be angry. Because, of course, God is infinitely infinite, and we are worthless finite beings. So who are we to doubt His infallible plan that we cannot know?

So let’s summarize. An infinite magic man in the sky that only manifests itself in the heads of people who want you to take their word for it has a perfect plan that we cannot know but that is so perfect that its imperfections can only really be us being too dumb to understand how glorious it all is. And you are not allowed to doubt that. Just doubting this argument is proof that it’s true somehow. And that you’re arrogant. How convenient. How could this possibly go wrong?

Well, that’s not how this works. Here’s how it works in reality: believers make crazy claims about God, and we point and laugh. We don’t laugh at God, note, but at the claims and at those who hold them. That we’re allowed to do, right? No infinite, unknowable and untouchable being in the equation this time.

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Contraception and Religious Liberty

Reproductive organsYet another response to Ambrose, whose blog doesn’t like that my comments tend to have more than 4,000 characters... He says:

"the underlying argument is that religious freedom is not absolute in the US. There have been Supreme Court cases, such as not allowing polygamy, where it has been limited."

Yes, all freedoms have limitations, which is not a big deal. In the case of religious freedom though, religious people in my experience tend to believe that it means that if their holy book mandates something, it should trump the laws of the state, or that no new law can go against what they believe. This would of course be impossible except in a single-religion theocracy (which eliminates entirely everyone's religious freedom of course). I've written extensively on the subject already so I won't add too much on this here.

"any limitation on our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion should ideally find its justification in the Constitution itself (such as the right to life) or clearly in natural law."

The Supreme Court disagrees with this, as in the specific case of polygamy that Ambrose mentions, it said:

"laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices."

In other words, religious freedom is not a license to act as your book tells you. We should all be glad about that, otherwise people would get punished for apostasy or other imaginary crimes (let's not forget that religions themselves impose the strictest limitations on religious freedom, ironically).

But there are a lot more assertions in Ambrose’s post that I find objectionable. For instance:

"nobody is making me work for [Mormon employers]"

Well, Ambrose has a great privilege, which is to choose where he works. Unfortunately the majority of people in this country have no such choice and accept the jobs they can get. Does he really think that the 16% of Americans who have no health insurance deliberately chose to work a job with no coverage? That they could just have chosen to work where they would get great dental as part of the deal? Come on.

It should be mentioned that it’s not the employer that would have to pay for contraception (which I personally regret), so its religious freedom is hardly touched, even with Ambrose’s liberal definition of it:

"if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge."
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/10/fact-sheet-women-s-preventive-services-and-religious-institutions)

Ambrose also makes a reference to Planned Parenthood that I find interesting, knowing the campaign of hate that has been unleashed against this institution by the religious right:

Even if we were to agree that contraception should be considered "health care," it is widely freely available through other means via organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Beyond the scare quotes, is he saying that he would advocate for better Planned Parenthood funding?

"All you have to do to avoid it is, duh, not have sex. So if someone is in a position where they it (sic) would negatively impact her health to become pregnant, she doesn't need expensive drugs or procedures to help her with that. Just don't have sex while you're fertile."

Now when comparing the efficacy of contraception methods, one must take into account user failures. Condoms for example (that Ambrose seems to be advocating for, which comes as a surprise to me) are fairly efficient if used properly, but the problem is that they often aren't. The method that he advocate for (sympto-thermal) is way worse. When properly applied, it is efficient (so is complete abstinence), but it still has a catastrophic overall failure rate, comparable to coitus interruptus. Recommending this when we have much better options is just irresponsible. Also, what can Ambrose possibly imply by:

"It's homeopathic! It's organic! It's all natural! It's great!"

Homeopathy is a demonstrated scam, and arsenic is natural too, so I don't see a good argument there.

"let's not forget that STDs are a serious problem, right?"

Yes, they are, but there doesn't seem to be a link between contraception and risk-taking (I'm not a MD but the research that I did in the literature indicates the contrary is true).

If Ambrose is sincere about limiting the spread of STDs, it seems his best weapon would be comprehensive sex education. Would that go against religious freedom?

"Preventing pregnancy is not analogous to preventing disease."

No it’s not, but pregnancy does have a huge impact on women's health. Limiting unintended pregnancy was in fact one of the major factors of progress during the 20th century. It reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, limited the spread of STDs and gave many women better opportunities to contribute to society. In turn, we know that empowering women is the single most efficient factor of human progress. Oh, and also, contraception is a great way to limit the number of abortion, whether those are legal or not.

Of course all that is not even touching on the right of women to enjoy sex without becoming pregnant (a right that men have been enjoying since... forever).

"If people feel strongly that all women should have access to contraception, I suggest that they coordinate and fund clinics and the like who can provide it. Or heck, they can just create a fund to cover it for the women who work for Catholic agencies. We don't need the government to mandate violation of the First Amendment to achieve their ends."

So now we have to pay for the shortcomings of Catholics? It so happens that the 99% of Americans who use or have used contraception do feel that women should have access to contraception (and they are right), and they did coordinate and fund organizations that can provide it. They did it by electing governments that advanced our society and provided Planned Parenthood, among other things.

We all pay for things we disagree with, through taxes and other means. Well, tough. For what it's worth, I'd like to get my Iraq war money back, but that's not going to happen, is it?

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Don’t mind us, just continuing our vendetta

Careful thereThis is an answer to Ambrose’s answer to my answer to his post on atheists. Comment fields are just too small, so we exchange blog posts. Feel free to ignore me as I talk to Ambrose…

Hi, "poor Bertrand" here. First, don't worry too much about me, I'll do just fine. Second, no, I am not trying to prove myself smarter, or anything silly like that. Having always been surrounded by people who were clearly smarter than me, I maintain no illusions of the sort. The truth of it is that I actually have (as I've said before) a lot of respect for you, and I think you can do much better than that. I maintain that your post was in a way lazy, relying as it was on one single example, one where the author could quite easily be suspected of not talking seriously, being a writer of mostly comedic books. I do apologize for the general tone of the post though, as it could have been much more centered on ideas rather than personal trolling. I guess your post had the misfortune of being the proverbial straw on the camel's back that day.

So what more could you have done? Well, maybe quote from more than one book (oh the temptation to troll on that one, but I'll be strong, I'll resist), more than one atheist or ask atheists that you know what they thought? I would have no problem with your explaining your readership what atheists think if you were exposing the actual spectrum of opinions or narrowing your target to something more precise than that very wide term.

Unfortunately this new post piles new misrepresentations on top of the previous ones. Involuntary ones I'm assuming: there is a clear call to honest discussion, so again I'll bite.

At no point did I claim to say what all atheists believe, except for the absence of god, which is the definition of the word. What I exposed was my own position, as I thought was made clear by my usage of the words "I", or "me".

The claim that you and the book I linked to make is not just that monism requires faith, but that it requires *more* faith than... faith religion (you said: "it takes a tremendous amount of faith"). I pointed out in my post that the assumptions behind science (not atheism) are quite benign and cannot be meaningfully compared with those of any religion. I have not given up hope on convincing you one day that the flying spaghetti monster comparisons are more relevant than you think. The idea is not (just) to ridicule organized religion, but to explain what most religious claims look like *when seen from the outside*. My talking directly about your beliefs is unlikely to convince you because you have trained yourself to rationalize them. The FSM comparison is intended to shift your viewpoint and show you how your beliefs can look like. The hope is that it may encourage you to take a true outsider's test for faith, of challenging your own assumptions.

I recuse the accusation of scientism. I don't consider science to be a universal and exclusive answer (nor do I "worship" it, that is preposterous). I do not claim to "have a direct line to truth based solely on science". What I do maintain is that science has enabled us to attain some truths with an unparallelled level of reliability. That when a claim is contradicted by science but affirmed by religion, science wins every time. I also maintain that as science progressed, the gaps where the supernatural can hide has been shrinking considerably, and one is warranted to ask whether it exists at all. It certainly warrants one to ask for a precise definition of the supernatural. What does it *do*? If it doesn't do anything, it might as well not exist. If it does something, we can observe that something and put it to the test. Note that I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that I find it extremely improbable. Is that materialism? Maybe it is. What it is not is a reduction to only admitting the existence of things that have "atoms".

You claim that "in school we are indoctrinated to treat [science][...] as an authority". Well, I don't know what kind of school you attended, but the ones I went to, and the ones where my kids go, have always made it very clear that science was verifiable, not a matter of authority at all but one of experiment. I cannot think of a single example of something being presented in the science classes that I attended without a direct experiment supporting it. The word "indoctrination" is particularly inappropriate as science teachers tend to do a good job at asking their pupils to think by themselves and formulate their own hypotheses, and then confront them to the results of an experiment. And before you ask, yes, even quantum mechanics I've been led to experiment directly, and so can you. I even went into the tunnels of the CERN and visited the colossal machines that observe and measure particle collisions.

Is there "an ability of science to account for reality"? Yes, there is, and we know that because it works, because we have countless verifications that it does, not because we have faith in it. No reification to see here. You say that "unless you personally participate in scientific experiments of EVERYTHING that you want to form an opinion about, then you are de facto forced to take things on authority, including those things purportedly discovered through scientific methods". I have heard that a lot, and it is true to an extent, but that extent is very small, which makes the argument a little dishonest. The *principle* of reproducibility is sufficient to reduce the importance of authority. If someone tells you that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun, he's asking you to believe him on authority, and that is just silly. If the same person tells you there is a teapot in the kitchen, and if there are people in the kitchen who are attesting there is a teapot, and who are reporting how they came to that conclusion (by seeing it, by touching it), if all those people give a consistent description of the teapot and if those persons are inviting you to verify yourself that the teapot is there, you don't need to actually go there to have a much higher degree of certainty that there is a teapot in the kitchen than that there is one in orbit around the sun. So is this still accepting the teapot on authority? Essentially yes, but to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant. That's what I meant when I said that not all authorities are equivalent.

When you say "you can't subject justice and love to scientific experimentation", I would disagree: why not? Both those concepts obviously exist and have an effect on the world. Why couldn't we study that effect? I'm not saying that it would necessarily give us a complete understanding, note. But some understanding, certainly. For example, if those sentiments can be induced realiably, isn't that an interesting insight?

Let me try to explain again now that thing about justice and love as emerging concepts. What I'm recusing is the idea that either requires a source. The idea of a source implies that there is something like a fluid, that is conserved and needs to be injected from somewhere else in order to exist. But when I fall in love, do we really need to believe that Cupid or some other entity had to transperce me with an arrow that had been plunged in the mysterious fluid? It's a poetic image, but not much more than that. There is no need for a reservoir of love, and giving love somewhere does not deplete it from somewhere else. That it's not conserved does not imply either that there is an infinite reserve of it somewhere. It only means that it is not conserved, like many other things, such as entropy or temperature. This leads to an important point: thermodynamics give one of the simplest examples of emerging phenomena. Thermodynamics have been developed without an understanding of the underlying microscopic phenomena. Later, we discovered that it could be *reduced* to the microscopic motion of molecules, but the concepts of temperature, exchange of heat or entropy form a perfectly fine model at the scale where they are valid. One cannot find an atom of heat, but one can understand how heat emerges as a concept from the collective movement of atoms. More than that, the concept of heat has no meaning at microscopic scales, but only makes sense at macroscopic ones, where statistics can be computed. The feeling of love can appear in a sufficiently complex animal's brain, and without resorting to evolutionary psychology, it is pretty obvious to see how it can be beneficial to the species (see Price's equation -and yes I'm aware of Price's religious ideas-). The same goes for justice, which is largely a corollary of the ideas of fairness and reciprocity. All those concepts require no source, only a substrate. This substrate is the brain. There is no need to invent a mysterious external source.

On dualism, not to appear arrogant, but http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism_(philosophy_of_mind). Please note, Ambrose, that I did not categorically reject the possibility of a soul (it may surprise you, but neither do I categorically deny the possibility of a creator god), I just said that it was increasingly improbable as neuroscience progresses. Again, what does it do that a brain can't? I think that at best the answer is that we don't know. Otherwise, the next question has got to be: how do you know?
Finally, I'm all for the benefit of the doubt. Doubt is all I ask in fact.

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Learning from a Catholic what Atheists think

Bertrand Russel thinks you are mistakenIf you’re out of the closet as an atheist, there is a number of canards that you will hear a lot. One of them is that Atheism requires more faith than religion. Whole (bad) books have been written on that “idea”. Ambrose has a new post on this entirely unoriginal topic, and he gets everything predictably wrong.

The problem with making blanket statements about atheists is that we are negatively defined. It’s a little like trying to understand how non-philatelists think. With a religion, it’s easy: there are holy books and dogmas. No such thing with atheism or aphilately, as the only common point between us is an absence. However, that doesn’t prevent our theist friends from telling us how we all think.

[Terry Pratchett] says something like "take apart the universe to its smallest particles and show me one grain of Justice" or something like that (sic). It's actually fairly poetic in its own way (I'm not doing the passage justice, no pun intended).
Sadly, I think it does accurately portray what an atheistic, materialistic worldview honestly is left with at the end of the day. No indeed, there is no atomic element of Ju (Justice), nor of Lv (Love), nor any other virtue. In a materialistic philosophy, these things really are lies, and an adherent is forced to have faith in those lies in order to create a reality that is bearable as a human.

No, that does accurately portray no such thing. Ambrose is conflating atheism with materialism, materialism with reductionism, and reductionism with determinism. He also betrays a very common quality of religious thought: a form of materialism that goes much farther than that of most people with any scientific literacy. Why do people think that in order to exist, something has to be reducible to some sort of conserved substance? What a lack of imagination that is. To take a random example, entropy is a very well-defined and real quantity, but there isn’t such a thing as an atom of entropy. A thought is a real thing as well, although there is no such thing as an atom of thought. Even if the substrate of all reality is space and elementary particles, there are innumerable emergent phenomena that are just as real. There is no problem or contradiction here.

It’s theists that make the false assumption here that love, morality or justice are substances that need to be breathed into the world by some magical entity, instead of just emerging from the brains of social animals. One thing that I can tell you is that you will never hear me say that morality or justice are illusions. I do think they are very real, even if they are only meaningful within human or human-like  experience. This makes the following assertion fall flat on its metaphorical face:

one difference is that some atheists may try to deny that they have such faith, if put to the test, saying rather that, for example, Justice is only a handy term to represent a reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest.  But then ask them what they think about having prayer in schools or not redefining marriage to include homosexual unions, and just listen to them go off on how "unjust" those things are.

Oh, but what’s wrong with a “reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest”? And how do issues of separation of Church and State, or civil rights contradict such a view of justice?

if I'm going to believe in things like Justice, Love, Freedom, Happiness, and other ideals and virtues, I prefer to have a rational basis for believing in them

Fine, and what would that be?

I think it takes a tremendous amount of faith to believe that my human experience is only the result of material interactions in my body. On the contrary, every fiber of my being tells me that there is more to my existence than the material--my own,observed and reasoned experience (I tend to be fairly self-reflective). So why would I take it on faith from scientists (an Authority) or atheistic philosophers (another Authority) that this is so, contrary to my own observations of life?
For me, that would take a lot more faith than to believe in what seems obvious to me based on my own experience and reason, namely that there is a Prime Mover

What Ambrose is basically saying here is that he trusts his personal experience, common sense and gut feelings more than science, ergo Jesus.

He makes a considerable number of mistakes here.

First, personal experience, common sense and gut feeling are extremely poor indicators of truth. Anyone who has studied quantum mechanics, or who has even seen an optical illusion should know how easy it is to fool the human brain, and how reality doesn’t give a damn about your common sense. You need tools such as science to mitigate your own biases.

Second, even if there is a leap of faith at the basis of all human thought, that does not make the tiny assumption that there is an objective reality equivalent to the huge assumption that there is an invisible flying spaghetti monster whose noodly appendages move all things. It’s a common claim of theists to assert that because nothing is ever absolutely certain (an assumption that is necessary to scientific thought), then all beliefs, no matter how outlandish, are equally legitimate to hold. It’s ironic that they hold their dogmas to be absolutely certain.

Third, the claim that scientific knowledge is a form of argument from authority is infuriatingly ignorant. Scientific knowledge is based on reproducible experiments. No claim is ever accepted before it has been replicated by independent teams. Who makes the claim is almost entirely irrelevant (although not all authorities are equivalent). Another very important difference between religious thought and scientific thought is that science works.

Finally, dualism is getting increasingly indefensible in the light of the progress of neuroscience. Once you know how changes in the brain mechanically cause changes in behavior, sometimes to the point where the identity of the person is radically altered or replaced, it becomes extremely difficult to believe that there is a soul in addition to the brain.

Atheism is a faith? What a joke.

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