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.

Archived comments

  • Ludovic said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    You say that some simple mathematical constructs can exist independently of the existence of the universe, but I'm not so convinced... why is time merely a property of our universe, but mathematics are not? Maybe "before" the universe existed (for whatever meaning of the word "before" can apply to that situation), nothing existed, not even the very concept of a number. Or maybe the fundamentals of mathematics can be different from one universe to the next. Or maybe mathematics seem so fundamental to us because they represent the underlying construct of our brains, but *not* necessarily of the universe. Also, a lot of your answers begin with "I don't know" or "I'm not sure". It looks to me you're more of an agnostic than an atheist...
  • bleroy said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    @Ludo: time is a dimension of the space-time that forms the universe. Both time and space are properties of the universe. We can conceive of many alternative universes, some of which have a different number of dimensions with different signatures, some having only purely timelike dimensions, some having only spacelike, some where the signature of some dimensions change in different regions. In contrast, mathematical constructs do not depend on the universe where they are discovered, and a mathematician in a different universe starting from the same axioms would find exactly the same structures. Don't think you found a loophole by saying the axioms would be different in a different universe. Mathematicians in a different universe would maybe get interested in what comes out of different axioms (maybe if their space is curved heavily for example they would find non-Euclidean geometries before Euclidean geometries) but that doesn't matter: they could consider the same axioms that we do and if they do they will find the same resulting structures. That is why we talk of proof in mathematics but not in any of the natural sciences. So no mathematics would not be different in other universes, although "people" in them could be looking at different aspects of it. Doubting that is doubting our very ability to reason at all, and disputing that is a completely sterile viewpoint, similar to solipsism. There is a very big difference between not being sure why the universe exists and being sure there is no god. I don't know for sure why there is a universe because I don't have enough evidence to support one particular view or another. I don't think there is a god because there is zero evidence for it, the same way there is zero evidence there is a teapot orbiting the Sun between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Also, knowing the limits of any scientific results doesn't make me an agnostic with regards to these results. It makes me a realist. Contrast that with those who claim to have absolute, indisputable and definitive knowledge because some book says so.
  • Ludovic said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    You're just saying that given the same handful of fundamental axioms (a couple of logical rules, a couple of basic math stuff), anybody, in any universe, would come up with the same mathematics as we did. I can understand that. But you're not addressing the issue of why those fundamental axioms would be valid/true in the first place. Why would basic logic, or causality, or whatever fundamental we take for granted, be valid in a different reality? I don't see how you can mathematically prove that those axioms are absolutely true when the very mathematics you use presuppose those axioms to be absolutely true. Are you then going to hand-wave them into absolute existence ("there can't be anything without those basic axioms"), effectively turning them into the "atheist god"? Or are you going to admit that we just have no way to prove or disprove the absolute validity of those axioms, and it's just that we can't think of anything else and we have to assume *some* stuff? Sure, I probably sound like a very cynical agnostic (which is probably what I am -- on top of being a pain-in-the-ass devil's advocate), but there's a long way from "subjective-solipsism" to "universal-solipsism" ("I can only consider my own mind" vs. "I can only consider my own space-time continuum"). The second is far from sterile, as we still have lots to figure out about what's going on in our own universe. Btw: is Orchard gonna support email notifications (I thought that was why it's asking for my email)?
  • bleroy said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    An axiom is not "true": that's a meaningless assertion. All you can say is whether the structure resulting from a set of axioms is self-contradictory or not. I do not take causality for granted at all: I think I've explained how we know that to be a local and non-universal -let alone extra-universal- notion. I though that at least was clear from the post. As for basic logic, yes, I would argue that doubting the absolute validity of it is a sterile viewpoint. You might as well say that we can know nothing and we might as well give up (that is the part that is sterile). We will never discover a part of the universe or even an abstract structure that does not comply to the basic rules of logic. That's simply contradictory. And don't tell me my logic is circular as you'd need basic logic to assert that. Ha! Logic defines what it even means to be contradictory. And it's dead simple. You need it to even understand what an axiom is. That's not hand-waving: nothing self-contradictory can exist. You're the one hand-waving everything as relative. Given this, I'm not arguing axioms into "existence" ("atheist god" give me a break, you can do better than that: the only common point between the meaning of the word god and even the straw-man you're building here is spontaneous existence). The axioms are not valid or invalid or true or false or provable or sentient entities. They are just constructs that could be made by any sentient being and what I'm arguing is that the structures arising from them are independent of that sentient being or even of any universe where that being might be. I'm arguing, and I admit it's not immediately obvious, that the differences between those qualities and "existence" are non-existent. I'm also further arguing that if one of those structures contained a sub-structure that behaved exactly like the bunch of particles that constitute Ludovic, that structure would be indistinguishable from you. Well, I'm even arguing that's exactly what you are. As for Orchard,this site is still running 0.5. 0.8 supports e-mail notifications.
  • Ludovic said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    I completely agree with all you say, but I have yet to understand the leap in reasoning that lets you declare that the axioms from which mathematics and logic emerged are a meta-super-thought-construct that "exists" in all universes and between universes and before them and after them, whatever the meaning of "universe" or "between" or "before" or "after". After all, what do you know about the "outside/before" of our universe? Is there any scientific evidence for that claim? Maybe I've been reading too much Lovecraft, but I don't see a reason (pun intended) why other "realities" can't be bound by a completely different set of "un-logic" that can't be grasped at all by our mind, our mathematics, and our internet posts.
  • bleroy said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Ah, now we're talking. No, no evidence (that was in the post by the way) and there is even a chance that there never will be any. That is why if anyone comes up with a better explanation, I'll adopt it in half a second and leave this one to rot. An important point though is that between an unsupported but naturalistic explanation and an unsupported supernatural idea, I'll pick the naturalistic one every time, because it is, well, naturalistic and thus it deserves to be called "explanation" whereas the supernatural one is a non-explanation. As for an un-logic universe, explain to me how anything can exist while contradicting itself. As far as I can see, that idea is not just unsupported, it's false (and yes, I'm using logic in asserting that, see above). Not that the possibility of such universes would make a bit of difference to the implicit existence of those constructions that rely on "ordinary logic", note.
  • Ludovic said on Saturday, October 30, 2010

    So we reach the root of the problem: why would you even state anything not supported by any evidence in the first place if you hold the scientific method so dear? What you did sounded, to me, very much like Russell's Teapot (which you ironically mentioned): you state something without any backing evidence ("mathematics are absolute and exist independently of our universe"), and "if anyone comes up with a better explanation" then you'll change your opinion. It's not up to me to disprove that mathematics are absolute -- it's up to you to prove they are. And there's no need to bring back a comparison with religious dogma -- as I said I pretty much agree with all you said, except that bit about absolute math in the first paragraph of the first answer, which is precisely -- and pretty much only -- what I called out in my comment.
  • Ludovic said on Sunday, October 31, 2010

    Oh, and it looks like some of the comments' formatting gets lost -- namely, empty lines to form paragraphs get collapsed, and all comments are one giant paragraph.
  • bleroy said on Sunday, October 31, 2010

    No. If anyone comes up with a better explanation about why the universe exists. Not about mathematics being absolute. Mathematics are not a science. If you think anything in mathematics requires evidence, I'm sorry but you don't understand mathematics. They deal with proof, not evidence. Their results are not subject to revision or even doubt. The extraordinary claim here is that mathematical results could be any different. That claim is yours. I don't understand what you're trying to say about Russel's teapot.
  • bleroy said on Sunday, October 31, 2010

    (I'll fix the comment formatting: this blog is a work in progress in case you haven't noticed)
  • Ludovic said on Monday, November 1, 2010

    Yes I know it's a work in progress, I just wanted to point it out in case nobody did. Sorry if that upset you. And once again, you're missing my point. I'm not arguing that the *results* of mathematics are not absolute. I'm arguing that their *source* might not be. It's near-impossible to imagine the non-existence of time and causality, just as it's near-impossible to imagine the non-existence of numbers and transitivity and equality. I'm just saying that in the complete absence of data regarding other "realities", I don't see why I should imagine the former, but not the latter.
  • bleroy said on Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    @Ludo: not missing your point at all. From the start. It is *not* near-impossible to imagine the non-existence of time and causality. Physicists do that all the time. The existence of numbers or other mathematical concepts stands on a completely different ground as I've tried to explain repeatedly. You simply cannot compare physics and mathematics this way. Causality and time are physics and thus are the subject of evidence-based investigation. They are not absolute but local. You cannot count on them by principle. Mathematics are the subject of proof, based on logic and axioms. Those axioms are not "true" or "false", they are formal statements that can be expressed independently of the universe where the mathematician lives because their expression does not rely on a specific physical substrate but roughly could be expressed on anything as complex as a Turing machine (oversimplifying here, but not grossly so; I hope that's all right). It is not a question of having limited imagination, it's a question of impossibility. You can imagine something impossible by the way, but it doesn't make it possible. Logic on the other hand is necessary to even define "possible". Another point I tried vainly to convey is that I am not claiming I have THE right answer to the question of why the universe exists. Rather, I am claiming that there are plausible naturalistic explanations (although they are not yet backed by evidence) and that is enough to eliminate the supernatural ones.
  • Ludovic said on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    Physicists can *mathematically model* a universe without time and causality, but I'm not sure they can imagine how it would work. Maybe they can, I don't know... it doesn't quite matter. And yes, physics and mathematics stand on completely different grounds... I agree with that. You can even bring in the philosophical/metaphysical in there, too. But for some reason, I can't consider axioms outside of my own universe because I just have no idea what's outside, be it on physical, mathematical, philosophical or metaphysical grounds. But obviously, you seem to have some absolute cosmic knowledge that I'm lacking. You're much more educated at that stuff than me so I guess I'll just believe whatever you say (does that still make me an atheist?).
  • bleroy said on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    No I don't. Give me an example of an axiom that depends on this universe. That's what *I* have a hard time imagining.
  • bleroy said on Monday, November 8, 2010

    As a conclusion to this discussion, here's a little cartoon: