Thursday, 15 May 2008

A talk across the species border

My friend the oriole is back. I have missed him yesterday, and he did not respond my call. But today, on my morning jog, I heard him again, and I immediately responded. My oriolese (oriolic? oriolian?) has a terrible human accent, of course. I only manage a glissando but not his characteristic slip of tongue. Today, I had the impression that he mocked me, imitating my manner of oriolizing at the end of his call.

I may have misheard it or overrated my importance to him. Anyway, this cross-species talk is very fascinating. It leaves me with a number of questions.

The most important one is the question of empathy, that is, the ability to put oneself into the mind of someone else. Even between humans, this leaves a number of questions that are not easy to answer. But between species, the real hard to answer questions emerge.

We humans have the tendency to put ourselves at the top of the pyramid and look down to the so-called "lower" species. For instance, I know that my friend the oriole is not human, but does he know that I am not an oriole? I think I know and he doesn't. Yet my feeling of superiority gets a ticking off when I imagine him looking at me and seeing that I cannot fly. My oriolese is so bad that I never won't get a female. I cannot build a nest. I cannot catch flying insects. And let alone finding my way back from Madagascar every spring. Orioles have no mental pyramids, but if they had, they would find good reasons to put their species on the top and look down at us humans.

Obviously, the oriole does hear and respond to my whistled call. He is a perceiving subject, he knows his female personally, and therefore he must have something like a mind, even a conscious one. Some birds like ravens have proven to be intelligent, some even use tools to reach goals. It's very interesting to imagine non-human minds and trying to figure out the difference between them and us.

Another big question is cross-species qualia, in this case the perceived quality of the sound produced by the oriole and by me. Both sounds are quite similar to me, and obviously to the oriole, too. But the ear and the brain of the oriole is so different from mine that the sound quality that reaches the mind of the oriole, most likely, is very different from the sound quality that reaches my mind.

Last week, on a beautiful Sunday morning in the riverside forest, my wife was with me, and the oriole was there, too. But I cannot tell whether the sound quality reaching her mind is the same that is reaching my mind. I suppose it is, but qualia cannot be shared, they are stuck in every individual forever. It is hard to grasp, but the concept of qualia forbids any reasoning about similarity. Therefore, it cannot be said that the sound qualia of me and my wife are more similar than those of me and the oriole.

There is much food for thought in an oriole call. I've not got very far today, so I may come back to some of the questions in upcoming posts.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Is dignity a useful concept?

royal insignia

When asked this question two months ago, I would have answered it with a clear yes: Of course, in humanist ethics, the concept of human dignity seems to be central. Dignity, according to Webster, is the "quality of being worthy of esteem or honor". It may be a matter of dispute whether all people, regardless of what they think and do, should be given such a quality. But such a dispute may be about how much, about a minimum of dignity that should be given to every human being.

But two weeks ago, a Swiss ethics commission has declared that not only human beings and animals but also plants have a dignity. This sounds quite out of place to me, and not only to me. It is so much out of place that I have asked myself whether the concept of dignity is useful in ethics at all.

Before going further into this reasoning, I want to make clear that I support without any doubt or reservation the ultimate goal of this concept: Respect of other human beings, and the application of the Golden Rule. I only doubt whether the concept of dignity is useful or necessary for this goal.

Dignity is assigned by a third party

My main problem with dignity is that it does not grow by itself but must be assigned by somebody. Royal dignity is a typical example. It always has been assigned by a superior authority. In earlier days, kings have claimed to have received it directly from God. Most European kings have been crowned by the Pope. Even today, many ethics experts derive their dignity concept from a theist or creationist point of view.

A dignity concept based on religious authority cannot be useful in secular humanism. Can dignity be assigned in a non-religious way and, if yes, by whom? Ethics commissions, of course, but in these, religious people always have their seats. We live in a democratic society, thus I do not find they must be excluded.

One big problem with any assigned property, such as dignity, is that it can be revoked. What can be given can always been taken away. It has been said that the prisoners of Abu Ghraib have been deprived of their human dignity. Every torturer argues in accordance with the human dignity concept, claiming that his victims have lost their dignity (by misbehaving) and therefore are no longer human beings.

In church history, we can find many such examples: "Heretics" and "witches" have been burnt alive because the church had withdrawn "dignity" from them. Even more, they twisted the concept in a way to state that the "dignity of the immortal soul" has been saved by burning the sinful bodies alive.

Rights is all we need

Of course it may flatter my ego when musing about my own dignity, a property that in earlier days has been reserved to kings. But I think that human rights do a better job, anyway. All the people now starving because of the new global hunger crisis do not need dignity at all. They need something to eat. They have a right to eat. At least they should have. That's all.

I prefer the concept of rights because their origin is in the free will of the individual persons. The persons decide themselves what to do, and the rights regulate this will, allowing some acts and restricting others. Individual freedom is the default, and the freedom of other people is the only useful limit.

I think that individual freedom, rights, and the Golden Rule are sufficient for an optimal humanism, and that the concept of dignity does not add any value. On the contrary, it may even be double-edged and subject of misuse. And the plant dignity example shows that it may even be pushed to a state of nonsense.

Photo credit:

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Buddhist goal for free

I do not know why this idea jumped to my mind today, but it gives me the feeling of an unexpected gift. Hey, I get it for free, and others have to pay for it. Buddhists, for example, try hard to reach a state that stops the endless cycle of life, death, re-birth, again death, and so on and on and on. They try hard, using meditation techniques, to reach the state that ends this all, forever. And here is it, the gift: You will reach it, I will reach it, all human beings will reach it when they die.There will be no return to an endless circle of life. It will be over, forever. Quite a lot of the most important Buddhist goals will be reached, without further ado. Just for free.

When looking at all the labour that Buddhists are ready to invest, it must be a very rewarding goal. And yes, I agree, the idea of a never-ending afterlife sounds like horror.

What is nirvana?

The declared highest goal of Buddhists has been described in many ways. This definition is one that comes very close to my own way of thinking:
"Like a flame that has been blown out by a strong wind goes to rest and cannot be defined, just so the sage who is freed from name and body goes to rest and cannot be defined."
Sounds pretty much like what will happen after my death, and if this is the highest goal of Buddhists, I'll get it for free.

Photo credit:

Friday, 2 May 2008

As time flies by faster and faster

high speed
Maybe you are not yet aware of it, but if you'll approach my age, that is, in the second half of your life, you inevitably will come to the impression that time hurries up faster than before.

It must be more than ten years ago when I had this feeling for the first time. Since then, I always have asked myself how come, and I have developed a theory: Our mind uses all the events in lifetime as a benchmark for measuring time. For a young child, the things that happen during one day are a considerable proportion of all the events during lifetime. For an old person, the events of one day are only a tiny fraction of all lifetime events. In other words, a day is about 1/3000 lifetime of an eight year old child but only 1/30,000 lifetime of an eighty year old senior. Assuming that our mind uses lifetime as a time benchmark, one day must appear shorter and shorter with age.

Memory is the key

A recent experiment of David M. Eagleman and co-workers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, has added an important point that my theory has missed. I was right assuming that mind uses events to assess the length of time. But memory also plays an important role. A child will store more events per time in his memory, and an old person will store only a smaller fraction of the same events because memory gets weaker in old age. Less stored events give the impression that time runs faster than in younger age.

My son had a bike accident some years ago. He told me that he had the impression of time running very slowly after his bike had crashed into a car. This is in accordance with the event benchmark theory given the fact that in high danger, all senses are highly alerted and a great number of details are stored in memory.

Eagleman has undertaken similar experiments with volunteers in a situation where they were falling into an invisible net, not really in danger but perceiving a highly dangerous situation. He concluded that people in danger do not live in a “slow-motion" situation in real time but, after the event, they have the impression of time running slower because they have stored more details in that time. Thus, real time does not slow down in a frightening event, but the time in retrospect does.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Skeptic looks under rocks

looking under rocks
As a boy, I have dreamt of becoming a naturalist, discovering new animals in the jungle. When strolling around creeks and other places in free nature, I used to flip pebbles and rocks in order to discover beetles, worms and other interesting things. Andrea's buzzing new Skeptics' Circle, Looking-under-Rocks edition, reminds me of these old days that I still love to remember. And times have not changed in so far as still very interesting things can be discovered, flipping rocks.

What I have found is another science-based mix of rants, partly about philosophical and partly about medical nonsense. All excellent stuff as usual, and all those who tend to be tolerant about creationism and ID should bear in mind that anti-science (aka quackery) can be bad for health.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Religious free riders

child with measles
The outbreak center of the most recent measles epidemic in Europe has been identified: Muttenz, Switzerland, a couple of miles away from the headquarters of Anthroposophy. This is not quite a religion of its own because most Antrhoposophists consider themselves as Christians. But in my view it is sort of a compound religion with a mix of Christianity and eastern religions such as Buddhism.

Center of the measles outbreak that has expanded to Austria, Germany, and Norway meanwhile is the Rudolf Steiner School of Muttenz. Outside of Switzerland, such institutes are called Waldorf schools.

Anthroposophists reject the idea that children should be vaccinated. They have managed to gain much influence: Switzerland has become the antivax center of Europe, nowhere else is the immunization rate so low. The health officials of European Union are concerned and have become diplomatically active.

Rejecting science but profiting from it

This example is typical for the free riding behaviour that can be observed in many religious or spiritual people. They profit from the benefits of science in our modern world but are not willing to pay the price, that is, respecting science. Not enough with indifference, no, they reject science. They are against it.

The fact that their unvaccinated children mostly stay free of measles is due to all those parents and children who have been vaccinated. They profit from a behaviour that they reject. Not only are they free riders, but free riders of a very deliberate sort.

This is enough reason for an anti-religious rant

After some tolerant, kind-hearted posts about respect for religious beliefs, common traits with theists, and looking for sense in religion, it may be high time for this rant: Religious beliefs can undermine the coherence of our society, they can be bad for health and may even kill children.

My rant is not about all religious people but only about those who are anti-science: Anthroposophists, spiritualists, creationists, idealists, mind-matter dualists, reincarnationists, (un)intelligent designers, evangelicals, and the like.

What these people do is taking advantage of a world that could not have been developed without the progress of science, that is, by applied freethought and by eliminating the influence of religions on everyday life. Not only are they technological free riders. They are also moral free riders because the modern human rights are achievements of secular political processes that have restricted the influence of religions. That's it for today, I'm going to take up the issue of moral and religion later.

Photo credit: Wellcome Images

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

An inquiring mind on humanism

spanish inquisitor
I love it when someone takes up a word that has been grossly misused and gives it a new meaning. Just like the Spanish Inquisitor, deriving his name from his own urge to find out more about what religions tell us and about the eternal question when it comes to religion and faith: fact or fiction? This is inquisition at its best, what cannot be said of its historical precursor some centuries ago in Catholic Spain.

The Spanish Inquisitor presents Humanist Symposium #18, the Age of Aquarius version. I was about to shake my skeptic head and sigh, but regained my pleasure after having read his witty comment. And I agree, astrology can be fun if you don't take this crap seriously.

As usual, this symposium is a great collection of ideas based on secular, non-religious humanism. There is some spiritual stuff, too, and I was quite surprised to follow this piece of afterlife talk among a group of women. It is such thoughts and connotations that make me say decidedly that I am not spiritual but mindful.

The symposium presents, as usual, lots of great stuff. My favourite is this piece on peace among primates, partly because it features my old professor Hans Kummer of Zurich University who supervised, three decades ago, my diploma thesis on the social behaviour of Hamadryas baboons, and partly because it is about primate behaviour which is fundamental stuff when it comes to understanding humanism, humanity, and ethics. I never would have dreamt of coming across my old professor at a blog symposium. The world is a global village, really.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Life, death, and the butterfly effect

The man who has coined the term butterfly effect, Edward Lorenz, has died last week, aged 90. I owe him some positive thoughts regarding my life and what will remain after my death.

As you may know (else read my FAQ), I am convinced that, after my death, all of me, physically and mindwise, will cease to further exist. At the time when I stopped believing in afterlife, I admit that such thoughts have left me depressed, or at least uncomfortable. I used to push them quickly away, and that's why it is difficult for me to analyze them in hindsight. But I think that one of the negative aspects has been the idea of "no traces left" or a future state of the world "as if I never had existed". After the birth of our children, a son and a daughter, such negative thoughts faded away.

An importance booster

The "survival" of the own biological traits in the children is only one aspect, and it does not work in all those without children. Children, of course, are big events in a life. But even less important events make big differences in the outcome, thanks to the butterfly effect.

Lorenz has detected the high sensitivity of the global weather system to small changes of an initial state. Human societies are even more complex than the weather system, therefore small changes may have even more changing power.

Just an example: The world-changing effect of the World Wide Web is due to the small but important decision of Tim Berners-Lee not to patent his idea but to make it freely available.

Think your version of Back to the Future

I think I've seen two parts of the Back to the Future trilogy, and I enjoyed it. I am especially fond of those scenes when photographs or newspaper articles begin to fade away because something has changed back in the past.

I have tried to figure out the parallel world beginning with my hypothetical abortion as a fetus. I never would have been born, and this would have changed the time schedules, plans, behaviours and emotions of hundreds of people up to now, and this in turn would have changed the time schedules, plans, behaviours and emotions of thousands of people connected to these hundreds, and so on and on and on. In all those decades since my birth, hundreds of people would not have been born, but hundreds of others instead of these.


This planet is definitely a different place because I, the author of this blog, and you, the reader of it, have been born and changed it. Yes, we change the world. We do not need to invent the Web, or become President of the United States, or start wars or make billions of dollars. Due to the butterfly effect, every single decision of ours will make a difference, and some of these differences will have really big effects that change the world.

Photo credit:

Monday, 21 April 2008

Commission ascribes dignity to spinach

A federal ethics commission issues a paper, declaring that spinach has a dignity, and therefore certain behaviours against spinach should be regarded as morally not acceptable. A spinach-hating child, for instance, is not allowed to tear out spinach plants in mother's garden wantonly. The reason, according to the commission, is not the damage of this vandalizing act to the gardening mother, but the dignity of the spinach plants. In contrast, tearing out spinach plants for eating them does not hurt their dignity. The commission does not comment on the influence of cooking versus eating as salad on the dignity of spinach plants.

Does this sound like a joke? Maybe, but it really happened last week in Switzerland. Our Federal Ethics Commission is a panel of reputed philosophers, theologians, biologists and physicians. And it came, unanimously, to the conclusion that plants have a dignity that is to be respected. The spinach example is mine, not theirs, but I derived it from their own examples because I find spinach more fun than, say, beautiful flowers by the wayside. Dignity must not depend on beauty, in my view.

It seems that the philosophers and theologians have been the leading spokespersons in these discussions and that the natural science fraction has not managed to keep things down to earth.

Our leading weekend TV satire show has tried to apply the plant dignity guidelines in everyday situations. It was a real fun. For instance, the show introduced a papa tomato and a mama tomato, together with a couple of cherry tomatoes, as a family. After some heart-warming, humanizing talk, one of the anchormen outed himself as a cruel child eater. And his fellow, after peeling an onion, broke out in tears, stating that he knows now why we all weep when violating the dignity of these veggie beings.

Photo credit:

Friday, 18 April 2008

One god less does work

wedding couple
"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Of all atheistic statements, this is one of my favourites. It has been widely quoted, in many versions from many authors, Dawkins included (his version can be found here). Stephen F. Roberts claims to be the original author, back in 1995. He brings some of my own thoughts to the point, and I have posted my own version of the theme in How to talk with theists.

Some recent theist reviews of my blogging have led me to visit their sites and those sending me traffic, and in one of them I have come across an alleged "refutation" of the "one god less" statement, using the analogy of marriage. Vigilante, over at TheologyWeb Campus, quotes a woman from a radio show, saying that "a Christian being an atheist to other gods is like saying a husband is a bachelor to other women".

Lack of humor is the problem here

Theists are sooo serious, especially when it comes to their religion. They cling to words and their earnest usage and seem to have no sense of witty wordplay. It certainly is not usual to say "I am married and a bachelor to all other women", but all the same, this statement remains true. Not all unusual statements are necessarily false. The statement "you as a Christian are atheist to all other gods" is of the same kind, unusual but undeniably true. Humor, intended to be an eye-opener, obviously does not work with many theists.

History of Christian atheism

In the early days of Christianity, Christians have been accused of atheism by the state authorities of the Roman Empire. Justin, one of the accused and later executed, has tried to plead not guilty, addressing the Emperor himself, stating: "Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God."

Thus, the "one god less" argument, also known as the plurality criticism, is not an invention of modern atheists but has its origin in the inner circle of early Christianity.

Photo credit:

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The skeptics of the other side

In the worldview tug-of-war, the position of skeptics always has been clear to me, until recently. I consider myself a skeptic, and I have found myself together with the group of natural scientists, materialists or physicalists, evolutionists, and atheists - as opposed to believers, idealists, creationists, and theists. Until recently, I said.

Until I have dealt with the question of idealism vs. physicalism which is the theme of the 67th Philosophers' Carnival, hosted by Kenny Pearce, a self-declared idealist.

You can read much cloud-headed stuff there, which is my main criticism of this debate. Of course, thoughts are free, and as a self-declared freethinker I am the last one to impose borders to thoughts. I only doubt whether it is wise to start the whole philosophy of the world with the statement "I think, therefore ideas do exist, but everything else may be subject to doubt, even matter." This position, called radical skepticism, is one of the main lines defending idealism. Briefly put: Idealists believe that ideas are the basic essence of all things, and that matter is just sort of an illusion.

And here we have them, the skeptics of the other side: They doubt almost everything, even the existence of matter. Is this a sound position? I guess that skepticism itself should not be excluded from a skeptic view. A real skeptic should always ask himself: Is my skepticism justified?

In the last consequence, a radical, borderless skepticism must lead to a position known as solipsism, that is, I only can be sure that I exist, and all other things and living beings may just be an illusion. This is weird. Of course, we may do philosophy, applying logic in a radical way without accepting borders, and looking where this may bring us. Nothing against that. But when we arrive at a consequence that contradicts every experience of our life and is completely opposed to common sense, we have to decide which of these two possibilities may be more plausible: Either the world in which we live is a complete illusion, or there is something wrong with the reasoning. I take the latter position, definitely.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Surprise: Jesus himself has backed my view

My remarks about the Ten Commandments, stating that atheism is compatible with them, have provoked a detailed reply by the Christian theology student Cory Tucholski at the Josiah Concept Blog, in two parts covering 1-4 and 6-10. I am going to review these replies in more detail later.

It's very interesting that even Cory, as a hard-boiled theist, agrees with me in four out of ten points. Hard-boiled means that he believes the Ten Commandments to be set up by God himself, and that violations of these Commandments are not mere offenses against humans but offenses against God: "They were designed to be absolute rules." (emphasis mine)

His reasoning is mostly consistent, as far as I can tell; the main point is that I cannot share his premises and he cannot share mine. Many arguments that he brings forward base upon theologic background and quotes of the Bible other than the Ten Commandments. I, for my part, have looked at the text of the commandments as it has been carved in stone, and nothing else. This is one major source of disagreement between us.

Jesus: "It is just the Golden Rule" (Matthew 7:12)

In my remarks about the Ten Commandments, I have come to the conclusion that their real content can be summarized as "Treat others as you would like to be treated by them", also known as the Golden Rule. Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 7:12, has put it like this: "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you, this is the law and the prophets." By the way, "law and prophets" means not only the Ten Commandments but all the holy scriptures of the Jews at that time.

Surprise, surprise. Was Jesus a freethinker? In the eyes of the Pharisees, he certainly was. Now compare his "law and prophets" statement with Cory's claim of the Ten Commandments as God's absolute rules that have to be followed word by word. He seems to contradict his own master in this respect.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

An atheo-skeptic look at blogs

The 84th Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle is up at Archaeoporn, presenting a wide scope of skeptical contributions in the fields of science, medicine, theism and atheism, woo, and the media. I am always fascinated by the similarity of thought flaws in quackery medicine and in religions.

The Carnival of the Godless #89 is hosted by Kelly at the Rational Response Squad, and I like very much what she says about me, and other contributors of this carnival, being a bad representative of atheism. Yes, well spoken, Kelly: We are no adepts of a religion, and we differ in many particular viewpoints. That's one of the reasons making this carnival so interesting. Many good posts here, but my favourite piece is Adrian's 101 Atheist Quotes, and if you ask me to quote one and only one of them, I take this one: “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature. Frank Lloyd Wright"

Monday, 14 April 2008

No basic need for a creation

spiral galaxy
It seems that dumb documentary films are booming these days. There has been the ineffable Fitna in the Netherlands. And there is the ineffable Expelled in the United States. The latter is about the Intelligent Design (ID) debate that I have been following from distance for a while. It leaves me puzzled, somehow, and I ask myself where all those guys have left their brains.

What they describe as intelligent design, the creation of life without making use of an evolution, is misnamed in my view. It should be called dumb design. A really intelligent designer never would bother with detailed construction plans of sea urchins, worms, birds and primates. He would design quarks that have the potential to aggregate to atoms which have the potential to aggregate to molecules and then to compound structures that replicate and cluster to form more and more complex beings, simple living organisms, then higher ones, even primates and humans. An intelligent designer would make use of automatic evolution rather than bothering himself with dull detail construction work. Are the ID promoters really so disrespectful of their Greatest Being (which they refuse to call God in order to circumvent the secularity rule)? I am disappointed. Shame on them!

This said, I am ready to deal with the question whether a really intelligent concept of creation might be worth being discussed. Shouldn't we forget about the ridicule ideas of flat-earthers, six-day-creationists and ID adepts? Shouldn't we go back to the very basic questions?

The basic formula of creation

The cosmologists, those guys dealing with the very beginning of the Universe, have a bunch of theories and models that are disputed all the time. Some think that the Universe is pulsating in cycles of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Some think that our Universe will end in a Big Rip. Some postulate dark matter and dark energy, others reject this notion. Some even don't exclude the possibility of multiverses.

Be it as it may, all these concepts can be summarized as "there is something rather than nothing". Every creationist, going back to the very basics, must come to this question: Why is something? Possible (but questionable) answer: From an initial state of nothingness, an agent (creator) acted, and as a result there has been something.

But nothingness cannot be

"Sorry, there is nothing left." Such a statement makes sense in everyday life, in situations where the focus is on certain things that are lacking. A poor guy may say that he has nothing, meaning that there is no money left, because he badly needs some money. These things are not the issue here.

But it may be useful to keep them in mind when looking at the concept of nothingness. No thing is the absence of some thing. This definition needs a thing that can be absent. Nothingness cannot be a stand-alone concept. It needs things.

When we try to figure out what absolute nothingness would mean, we inevitably come to statements such as "there is not even one single photon or electron or other elementary particle around in the whole Universe" or "there is no such thing as a Universe". It is not possible to make such a statement without using terms of things such as photons or electrons or the Universe.

In other words: The concept of nothingness is a paradox. It is just as impossible as a person being in New York and in Paris at the same time. Simply put: There is something, as we all can see, therefore nothingness is impossible. You may try to imagine nothingness, if you are not frightened by mental vertigo. But I guess you won't succeed.

No escape left

I am fully aware that our mind is not capable of grasping everything. There are things beyond human imagination, such as multi-dimensional spaces. This is not the point. Imagination is not needed here. Even things that cannot be imagined are still things. Therefore, even for a hypothetical supermind, nothingness must remain inconceivable. And without nothingness, there is no room left for a basic creation that made something out of nothing.

Photo credit: HubbleSite

Friday, 11 April 2008

The peek-a-boo of physicalism

carnival of venice
I am not yet fully satisfied with my yesterday's post about unmasked idealism, for two reasons. Firstly, I want to show a beautiful half-mask, coming back to the philosophical implications of the Venice Carnival. And secondly, I think I have missed an important point against idealism: its violation of common sense. Thus, I am going to show that physicalism is common sense and that idealism violates it.

Why is this important? In a strict sense, neither idealism nor physicalism may be falsified, let alone proven because both make a priori assumptions that must be taken for granted. The right or wrong discussion, the true or false dispute is most likely a pointless one. Rather should we argue about what is sound or unsound. If two theories exist and neither of them can be proven true or false, we should prefer the theory that fits common sense.

Babies, peek-a-boo and innate physicalism

I only can recall a few things from my earliest childhood. One is the view of my tiny shoes and the woollen socks bulging over their rim, and I remember their tight fit and how hard they were to put on. And another thing is the peek-a-boo game.

I don't know exactly what makes this game so exciting for babies and toddlers. It may be the experience of a reality that continues to be real even when hidden, and the sudden release of tension when the visible reality merges with the previously hidden one.

Just recently, an experiment at the Baby Cognition Lab at the University of British Columbia has shown that a realistic common sense guides the behaviour of eight month old babies: They have a basic understanding of random sampling in a game where the experimenter pulls red and white pingpong balls out of a box. The baby, when looking into the box, is more surprised when it finds that the mix of the balls in the box does not match the mix of the sample. This reaction seems to be an innate understanding of physical things, even when hidden from perception.

The common sense of physicalism

Objects do exist. They exist whether they are perceived or not. Objects are physical things. You can have an idea about an object. But this idea is not the object. And is seems counter-intuitive that the object itself should be an idea.

Babies seem to have an innate insight of this common sense. In peek-a-boo games, they learn that the assumption of a physical world makes sense. The whole world is full of physical things, and we humans deal with them, always assuming that they are real. And we have never proven wrong with this view. We may be tricked by illusionists, but all these tricks are applied physics on the object side and applied psychology and distraction on the observer side. Even as adults we are fascinated by peek-a-boo games like the Carnival of Venice.

Of course, it cannot be excluded that all physical matter and all energy is just sort of a crystallized idea. Energy and matter may be defined this way. Such a definition is not necessarily false. But it does not make sense.

Photo credit:

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Idealism unmasked

carnival mask
In the upcoming Philosophers' Carnival, a dispute about Idealism has been announced. Idealism is the belief that all existing things are just ideas, not physical matter. I am ready to take the invitation, and I'll put my focus on a cornerstone of Idealism as claimed by Berkeley: "To be is to be perceived" (esse est percipi).

Berkeley has set up a logical construction, leading from his premise "esse est percipi" to the conclusion that all existing reality is basically an idea. I accept all his logical constructions without even looking at them, because I am going to attack his premise. If his premise is false, the conclusion must be false is unsound (hat tip to The Barefoot Bum), regardless of the fact that all logic may be correct.

Hidden faces still exist

The Carnival of Venice is a celebration of beauty. What I love in particular are the half masks, showing beautiful lips and chins, surrounding the eyes of the women by sexy glitter. But for my reasoning, we need full masks such as this one. Every child knows that, while not visible, there are real faces of real people behind these masks. They cannot be perceived, yet they are there. Refutation of "esse est percipi" seems to be child's play. Are we done, then?

Just some more of this kind. We fall asleep and do no longer perceive the world, but the world continues to exist. An asteroid may strike our planet and extinct all life, and the planet would continue to exist. I better stop here because there are examples to infinity.

Not without a God

Of course, Berkeley was not dumb. He must have considered all these arguments himself, and of course he was ready to counter them. In fact, the main purpose of his whole philosophy has been a theological one: an apology of Theism and a rejection of Deism. Theism, that is the idea of a personal all-knowing and all-acting God. Deism is the idea of a God who created the Universe but does not guide it.

Berkeley says that the Universe exists because God perceives it. Well, this is one of those claims that are not falsifiable. The probability of God's existence is a function of the properties that are attributed to this God. With zero properties, I am ready to accept that God's existence is a hundred percent sure. Berkeley's God has a number of properties such as a mind, having created the Universe, and perceiving it. For me, this reduces the likeliness of such a God to a very low percentage. And the claim that only the perception of this God has brought the Universe to existence is very counter-intuitive, hence very unlikely, too. The combination of very unlikely with very unlikely is very unlikely squared.

Another look behind the mask

I am sure that Berkeley would not have accepted this as a refutation. I do not claim to have done it yet, by the way. I only point to the fact that he is using a double standard. "Esse est percipi" does not work at the Carnival of Venice. It does not work for humans. Then why should it work for God? Why should a notion that obviously is incorrect in our known world become true in a world that we do not know and making use of an entity (God) whose existence cannot be proven?

Of course, the people at Venice can be unmasked, and then their faces can be perceived. But I insist on exactness here, the devil is in the details: The claim is "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived) and not "esse est facultas percipi" (to be is the possibility of being perceived).

Would it be just the possibility, then Idealism would have been refuted: Something that can be perceived, but is not perceived at the very moment, not even by God, is most likely something physical.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

When atheists begin to pray, things must be really bad

sant roma de sau
This is the church ruin of Sant Romà de Sau near Barcelona. Normally, it is flooded by the water reservoir of Lake Sau to the level of the steeple's roof. This year, the drought has been so bad that not only the ruin but a wide range of its surroundings are dry. Catalan minister of environmental affairs, Francesc Baltasar, has begun to pray to the saint Virgin of Montserrat for rain. Sounds not so surprising in Catholic Spain. But: Baltasar is a self-declared atheist.

This reminds me of other irrational reactions of despair I have come across. I have heard an adult person around me call for mama in a situation of pain and illness, and notabene mama has passed away years ago. I remember myself yelling to objects that did not behave as I wanted them to behave. And some Italian lovers are said to call for "mamma" when coming. Oh, oh, oh, we humans are not always very rational beings.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Just another skeptical hop

frog hop
Children are born skeptics because they answer every reply with another question, mostly beginning with "but". As far as I can remember, I have been such a kid. I must have been three, four or five years old when I asked my dad where the world comes from. I recall his reply: "God has created it." I do not exactly recall my wording but I am quite sure it was something like: "But where does God come from?" To which he replied: "God has been existing for ever since."

All children are born atheists

I am sure such a dialogue has been taking place millions of times between children and parents. Not only is it basic philosophy, with no need for sophisticated books to grasp it. It is also a proof for the fact that we all are born atheists, with a basic urge to scientific query. No child on its own ever will come to the idea that there is a God. It is told so by the parents. And I strongly support that a child's naive view of the world should be taken as the default position.

What I have learnt as a child, then, was the fact that the greatest conceivable entity, God, has not been created. God must be greater than the Universe because he has created it. And, as my father told me more than once, I am quite sure, that God has not been created nor has he created himself but is uncreated and ever-existing. My childish brain has been unable to grasp such a concept, and my adult brain is still unable to do so, still bound to a world existing in time and space. Anything beyond time and space is inconceivable.

I did not question the concept of creation then, as a boy, three, four or five years of age. It seemed to make sense for the Universe because the Universe is so great and complicated. How could it have come to existence on its own? And for every boy, the default position is what their parents tell him. So why should I question it?

Going back to my childhood question

When I go back to this scene now, as an adult skeptic, I cannot help wondering about the double standard for the need of creation. My father, as a creationist (not of the six days kind), always has used the complexity of the Universe to convince me that it must have been created. Now I take his own argument and go just one skeptical hop further: How can an entity even more complex than the Universe have come to existence without a creation? I carefully would listen, then, how he tries to convince me of the assumption that God has not been created. Suppose he did a good job and I am convinced, then I simply would skeptically hop back once and ask him why the Universe, much less complex than God, must have needed a creation for coming into existence.

I only see one possible escape out of this dilemma: God must be much simpler than the Universe, his superiority being just a matter of power, not complexity. To this I would answer that this notion is very familiar to me: As an evolutionist, I am very used to the notion of complex things arising from simple things. Only that I would not call this a creation.

My conclusion: Take a claim of theists or creationists, use their own rules to make another skeptical hop in the same direction, and you may, surprisingly, come to conclusions that are fully compatible with a skeptical science-based worldview.

Photo credit:

Monday, 7 April 2008

Where is the beef?

beef pie
Religions have existed for thousands of years, and they can be found in all human cultures. Obviously, they supply human needs. Today, we have science. Science can supply certain functions formerly provided by religion, namely in explaining the world. And it does this part considerably better than religion: Creationism has not gained any considerable audience outside of the United States. In Switzerland, for instance, the attempt of pushing creationism into schoolbooks and curricula has been a pathetic failure.

But this does not mean that science can supply all the needs formerly fulfilled by religion. For instance, science tries to avoid emotions and a subjective worldview. But emotions are a basic human need.

This does not mean that religion is necessary for a good life. The point is that all functions of religions must be substituted when we turn away from a religion. If we only substitute the knowledge part of religion by science and forget all the rest, we may suffer from a mental shortage.

The emotional part of religions often has been called spirituality. I do not particularly like this notion, because it is often used in a dualistic sense. That is, assuming a spiritual world besides the material world.

But, certainly, there must be an emotional or mental beef hidden in the religious beef pie. The one depicted here has been described as horrid by the photographer. This may be the case with many religions, leaving us with the old question: Where is the beef?

Instead of spirituality, I like the term mindfulness. We all have a mind, no question. And for mindfulness, mind matter dualism is completely irrelevant. Meditation does work and has a calming and mind-expanding influence even for science-based skeptics like me. This is what matters.

Here is my personal conversion table for my former religious feelings that have been suffering from religious atrophy and have been reactivated by deconversion and freethought:
Religious Non-religious
Worship of God
Being protected by God
Awe of the Universe
"Oceanic" feeling

Photo credit:

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Atheism is compatible with the Ten Commandments

I guess that most atheists may not be aware of the fact that they observe the Ten Commandments better than many observant Jews and Christians. I mean the original Ten Commandments, the Decalogue of the Bible. You don't believe me? Here is the proof.

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
The observant Jew will certainly fulfill this commandment. The observant Muslim, too. The observant Christian, too. But most certainly of all, any atheist will fulfill it perfectly. He is the only one who can be certain. All others must ask themselves whether they really might worship the wrong god, and who the big Me really is.

2. Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol.
Observant Jews (and Muslims) will fulfill this commandment in the real world, but not in their mental imagination. Observant Roman Catholics violate it grossly, making crucifixes and Mother of God statues, even praying to them. Observant Orthodox Christians violate it grossly, making icons and kissing them in prayer. Only atheists will fulfill the Second Commandment perfectly, in the real world as well as in their imagination.

3. Thou shalt not make wrongful use of the name of thy God.
Observant Jews have taken the Third Commandment very seriously. They considered every use of the name of God as wrongful and therefore avoided even to pronounce it. This position comes very close to atheism. Any atheist may be ready to share this view, stating that there are really great things behind our visible world, things that we never will be able to fully understand, and that we should not use the name of a god to denominate them. Devout, fundamentalistic Christians and fanatic Muslims use God's name frequently, and this use is considered wrongful by more liberal and open-minded Christians and Muslims. Only atheists can be a hundred percent sure that they never will violate the Third Commandment.

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Well, this one seems to be the exception to the rule stated above. But besides the orthodox Jews, most religious people do not give it a high priority.

The following commandments, basically, are all variations of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated by them. The Golden Rule is fully compatible with a secular (atheistic) humanism. Whether a person will fulfill it or violate it has nothing to do with theism or atheism, just to make this clear.

5. Honour thy father and mother.
Because, once you are a parent, you like to be respected by your own children.

6. Thou shalt not kill (murder).
There have been many violations against the Sixth Commandment in the name of God.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
The wording is not quite how a secular humanist with a modern sexual ethic would put it. There are modern forms of ménage à trois, and they may work in some cases. But if you do not like your sex partner to have partners besides you, you should keep the same rule for yourself.

8. Thou shalt not steal.
Because you do not want to be a victim of theft.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Because you do not want him to do it to you.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house nor his wife.
Because it is easier to prevent a conflict than solve it later.

In conclusion, I have shown that it may be easier for an atheist than for observant Jews and Christians to keep the first three commandments. The big part of the rest has nothing to do with God, therefore atheists and believers are equally fit to keep it or violate it. The only instance where atheist will lag behind is the Fourth Commandment, but this may not be the most important one.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Learn from this Iranian flat-earther

Watch this video and learn a lot. Not about astronomy but about the human mind. About the fact that misusing the brain for learning a book by heart instead of thinking obviously can lead to statements such as this one.

Another important point: For a real believer, facts do not count. Just imagine you have used weeks and months for learning a book by heart, you probably cannot stand the possibility that it may not be the truth. All your effort would be lost, and this cannot be. Never.

It is hard to believe, but there have been times when the Islamic world was leading in science and medicine, chemistry and math. This is many centuries ago, when thinking still was allowed there.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Spirituality needs no God or religion

John Remy
John Remy at Mind on Fire is one of those atheists who don't deny their religious history. John puts it this way, calling himself an "Atheist-Quaker and secular humanist, cultural Shinto-Buddhist-Christian, and former Mormon." Wow, thats sort of a lot more religious background than I can claim for myself. It seems that his position is quite similar to mine when it comes to coexistence between believers and non-believers. He is assisted by co-blogger xJane.

John is host of the Humanist Symposium #17, the carnival that probably fits best the fundamentals of Free Thinking Joy. This edition presents a bunch of nine great posts on amazingness, honey and vinegar (the ingredients of Peking duck marinade), hidden freethinking power, teaching the controversy, lunching with believers, justice, and emotional truth. Every single post is a must read.

I added Mind on Fire to my blogroll today.

Friday, 28 March 2008

What a wonderful day!

It has been a wonderful jog this morning, with sun rays bursting through the trees in a crystal clear cold air. I enjoyed it, and when a straight piece of forest road was ahead, I sped up my pace a bit, and - ouch! A nasty chest pain, radiating to my left shoulder. Just this kind of symptom known as warning sign for a heart attack. My last medical checkup is nearly ten years back. My heart has been okay then, but who knows what may have happened meanwhile?

I slowed down to a walk immediately. All of a sudden, the wonderful morning sun appeared kind of differently to me. Not that I really feared of suffering from a heart attack. But the possibility came to my mind, and I remembered all these guys I heard of having died suddenly, even after a visit to the doctor where nothing has been found.

I mused about what if this were my last morning jog ever. I tried to intensify the carpe diem feeling. But I came to the conclusion that there are limits, partly because of my own limited capacity of intensity, and partly because I did not really guess that I had a heart attack.

I also came to sort of a quiet feeling in view of the inevitable and final fate, as it would be in the worst case. Struggle? Despair? Regret? All would lead to nothing, wouldn't change anything. The only reasonable way would be enjoying the last moments in the sun.

After walking home and taking a shower and breakfast, I called my doctor (what I had planned anyway) and got an appointment later this morning. He made an auscultation, a blood troponine check, an ECG, and a thorax X-ray. Result: All! Is! Ooo-Kay! What a really, really wonderful day!

Photo credit:

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the joy of freethought?
The positive primordial feeling of using our own brain on the so-called last questions before it has been replaced by imposed religious beliefs, and after it has been regained by deconversion. A view that emphasizes the good sides of living with a free mind as opposed to attacking bad sides of religion.

Dare it? Is it dangerous?
No. At least not more dangerous than religion. But for most adherers, religion implies a big value which will cause fear of loss if threatened. Only a shift of view will show that the real values of religion will not be lost, and that the gain of freethought will exceed a possible loss by far.

Do it? Do you want to proselytize?
Not quite. Rather encourage. I have the impression that many out there are not really comfortable with their religion. Instead of living it in a compromised, undecided way, they could be happier with undogmatic freethought and a full commitment to a secular humanism. But for all those who are happy with their religion, it might be better to stay with it.

Do you hate Christianity?
No. I have just grown out of it, and I still appreciate its content that is relevant to humanism, and I admire the great cultural achievements such as the music of Bach. I am also comfortable with my first name and with the reasons of my dad to choose it for me. The spiritual world in which I have grown up is and will forever be part of my life, and I do not deny this part of my personal history.

Are you an atheist?
This question may be less important than you may think, but yes. At least at the moment. Freethought is a thinking mode, not a belief, and for a freethinker every belief is subject to a possible change. But it is not very likely that I'll come again to believe in a personal God who has planned my life and who does guide it.

Do you believe in a soul?
Yes, but not in one that is separate from my brain and that has existed before my brain and will exist after my brain has disappeared. The soul is a function or phenomenon of the brain, and this is not meant as a depreciation but, on the contrary, as admiration and awe of natural wonder.

So you do not believe in afterlife?
No. I did not exist before I have been conceived, and I'll return to this same state after my death. But, due to my life, the world has changed its state - see also my remarks on butterfly effect. I think that the finite duration of life, as opposed to a supposed endless duration, adds more value to it. When there is no life after death, life before death becomes more important and precious.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Why I respect beliefs that are not mine

Disrespect of others' beliefs seems to be common in the blogosphere. Even more, there has been some reasoning recently (see links at the bottom) to justify such a stance. I do not agree, and I have missed two points in the discussion so far. Firstly, respect only makes sense if both sides disagree in their views. Secondly, I can only expect to be respected if I am ready to respect others.

As a passionate chess player I have learnt that mutual respect in a situation of extreme disagreement is a vital part of this game. And I don't see why this concept should not be used in philosophic dispute as well.

One important point is the fact that a player who disrespects his opponent may still win but probably will not play his best chess. Most strong players always assume the strongest replies to their moves, even against weaker opponents and even if they doubt whether the opponent would find the strongest reply. Applying this principle to online disputes, I think that it is cheap to attack the weakest points of the opponent, and that it is much more rewarding to look for the strongest points and attack these.

Respect and disagreement

If someone shares my view, there is no need at all for respect. Why? Because there is no conflict. Even in the case of self-respect, a conflict is required. There are two situations where self-respect is of vital importance: Being attacked by others or being "attacked" by an inner conflict, for instance by doubts about the own value. Thus, the function of respect is handling of conflicts, and in the absence of a conflict there is no need for it.

Self-respect and self-esteem are often used as synonyms. But I think my point is exactly about the difference between them. I think that conflict makes the difference. There is a basic feeling of well-being that can be described as self-esteem. If it is still held up in a conflict situation, the same feeling may be called self-respect. But I think that conflict adds a different flavour.

My own beliefs are a matter of self-esteem as long as they are not challenged. In a dispute, they become a matter of self-respect.

Respect is no form of agreement

As a consequence, I also reject the idea that a belief deserves more respect if it is close to mine, or if it is more likely to be "true", or if it is shared by a lot of people, or if books have been written about it, or the like. What I reject in particular is the idea that respect is a somewhat weaker form of agreement.

I respect people who believe in God. I respect them as persons, which never has been disputed in the posts that I have come across. But I also respect their belief as such. I do not share it. But I respect that it is up to every person to set up a system of belief to live with, and that for some people this may be a belief in God or gods.

In turn, I also expect theists to respect my atheism, in particular, that I have my good reasons not to believe in God or gods, and that for me, such a view is best for coping with the ultimate questions of life, moral, and death.

Mutual respect is a matter of the Golden Rule: Respect others as you would like to be respected by others.

The limits of respect

One major reason not to respect a belief is one that disrespects my own belief. Tit for tat. You respect my belief, I'll respect yours. You disrespect my belief, I'll disrespect yours. That is, not the whole content but only the part involved with disrespect. But this may be difficult because it would imply a dialogue or dispute, and disrespect is a dispute killer in most cases.

The problem with mutual disrespect is that both sides, usually, only see the disrespect on the other side. A disrespectful response seems to be justified, then. But it may not be easy to figure out who has started the disrespect war.

Another problem is the anonymity of the web which does not favour a polite, fair dispute but facilitates disrespect and ad hominem attacks.

Besides violation of the Golden Rule, there is only one reason for me to deny respect: violation of human rights and threatening humanism in a wide sense. But I guess that all these are just special cases of violating the Golden Rule.

Other views

There is much more to be said about the matter, and others have done so in a better way than I possibly could, so I just try to review what I have found.

Simon Blackburn's paper Religion and Respect (PDF) has been published in 2005 already, but has gained new attention recently. It comes to the conclusion that respect is a case of true or false, rational or irrational, close to my own or far from my own belief.

Lindsey, at regardant les nuages, interestingly, has been convinced by Blackburn, counter-intuitively, to respect beliefs that she does not share. Lindsey is a theist and does respect atheists as far as they are ready to respect her theism. She says: "It is because of our fallibility that we should respect opposing beliefs held by others."

Chris, at Mixing Memory, says that it is important how someone comes to a belief. The reasons, and also the consequences of such beliefs are important when it comes to respect. I agree. I'll never respect a belief that implies bad, inhuman behaviour.

The Uncredible Hallq, at the group blog God is for Suckers, (no wonder) argues against respect, stating that truth is what counts, but missing the point that for different people, different truths exist, and that there is no (God-like) instance that may tell us which one is really true.

Harry, at Crooked Timber, just points out this uncertainty about truth, stating that "there is a gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right, and that gap is what makes respect possible".

Richard, at Philosophy et cetera, agrees to respect a belief only in so far as it is reasonable. While most religions are based on irrational assumptions, he also admits that he would respect a reasonably mistaken deist more than an atheist who is so without a good reason.

Brandon, at Siris, in addition to reasonability, also sees the beauty of content respect-worthy. This is not exactly what I would say, I rather would take respect as the default position and look for cases of disrespect. Brandon gives links to a number of other posts.

Photo credit:

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Feeling more mortal these days

This has not been a normal week, because three persons have died, with two of them I have been on hugging terms, and with one on handshake terms.

It is sad, and it is final, and with every one of these three men, a whole world has disappeared. They have disappeared to non-existence, but their traces remain, and they have changed the world forever.

Two died from an aggressive disease, one only three years and the other twenty-one years older than me. One died from old age, three years older than my statistical life expectancy. I knew it already, but this last week leaves no doubt about the fact that the black area in the graphic of my life is black because it is completely unknown. It might well be as small as one pixel.

One of the obituary notices began with "Carpe diem" (seize the day), and I tried to figure out how I would live this very day if I knew that it would be my last one. Frankly, I am not yet ready. I don't think that we can live every day of life as if it were our last. Just because such an intensity would be very exhausting. I also doubt that the imagination of a last day can produce the same feeling as really knowing that it is the last day.

Anyway, on my usual morning jog, it came to my mind that, some years ago, I had used a pulse meter to monitor my fitness level, and that I do not use such a device any more, and that its use on a hypothetical last day of my life would be very, very absurd. Instead, while jogging, I try to reach a state of flow which cannot be achieved when out of breath.

By the way, my breath seems to have got a bit shorter recently, and I have some unpleasant feeling in the upper left part of my trunk. I am not sure how come. Could it be sort of mortal empathy, powered by the awareness that death may come very quickly? One of the deceased, on our last encounter, had looked at least as healthy as I do. It may as well be my rusty muscles, so I have started with some very basic arm and shoulder gymnastics yesterday. Today, I feel better, fortunately. But I think I should go for a medical checkup after the Easter holidays.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Collector of freethinker videos

Robert McNally
Robert McNally, over at Ironwolf, is a software programmer, boundary explorer, juggler, and a prolific collector of freethinker videos. I found some very good embedded stuff on his blog. Plus his reasoning for atheism is quite similar to mine, as far as I can tell from the posts I've seen so far. That's why I added him to my blogroll today.

Besides collecting videos, he also debunks false prophets and writes about philosophy and many other issues.

Here's an example I like so much that I decided to repost it here. It is about the fact that evolution is not atheism, the first of a series about the Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism.

This fits exactly my view about false mental ties where I stated that:
  • Being religious is not being good.
  • Being religious is not living a meaningful life.
  • Religion is not always helpful in coping.
  • Mind outside of matter is not necessary for free will.
  • Existence of God is not existence of afterlife.

Robert is host of the Carnival of the Godless #87, categorized and summarized, about books, Christians, debate, faith, history, morality, personal journeys, politics, science, and the supernatural.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

A double-edged word of comfort

peace dove
Yesterday, at a funeral service, a word of comfort has provoked some thoughts. "He entered the house of peace", said the priest. There is much truth in this picture, but also much potential of horrible misconceptions. It is very double-edged, this word of comfort.

It may have soothed the grief of the widow and her children and grandchildren, because nobody can deny that peace has many positive connotations. Peace is the absence of struggle, but struggle is a part of life, and life is the most precious gift we have. Peace, it seems, is a word with a very broad spectrum of meanings, and not all of them are positive.

When death is the end of struggle against a painful disease, such a word about peace has its merits of comfort. It's fine this way, and I have nothing to say against it. But the "house of peace" makes me feel uncomfortable. It is pushing the idea too far. House of peace sounds too positive in my ears.

Of course, the issue of afterlife has been omnipresent in the funeral service. But I did not spend much thought about this irreal idea but put my focus on the real things. In the comforting word, two very real things meet: death and peace. More precisely, selling death as peace.

As said before, death may also have positive aspects when it ends a period of suffering without any hope of cure. And this one has been such a case.

But what I dislike in the "house of peace" is the idea of a positive value other than the end of suffering and pain. It sounds like a "better world than ours". For a reality-bound mind like me, the idea that death equals peace, and death is not life, and peace is positive, all this leads me to the conclusion that this word of comfort, in trying to make death more acceptable, takes away some value from life. And this is exactly the opposite of how I see these things.

Much worse! The clergy meets terrorism in this aspect, without bad will, of course. But good will of some people may have the same bad consequences as bad will of other people. Terrorists, too, are ready to equal death and peace. Needless to say that they mean the death of their enemies. Remember that "peacemaker" is a Wild West slang word for a gun? And every protester-killing terror regime will contend that they have "made peace". Using death and peace as synonyms can be very tricky and dangerous.

Photo credit:

Monday, 17 March 2008

Graphic view of a day in my life

day in my life

I am about to leave for a funeral in Geneva. So it may be appropriate to post a small memento mori in a graphical format. The whole area is my statistical life expectancy. The upper greenish area shows the time I have lived. The lower black area is the time that remains until my expected death. The one little bright green spot of 2x2 pixels depicts this very day of my life.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Genesis of Skeptics' Circle

Genesis is a great piece of narrative when it comes to describing something that has been created. For the Universe, it is very unlikely to fit, but Skeptics' Circle, this is for sure, has been created. And Bing McGhandi, the hypnotoad, tells us what happened in the very beginning. And his version of the Genesis definitely has more drive than its biblical model, because he lets jackrabbits do their multiplying work and proceeds right to the 82nd edition, which he presents in a very elegant and creative way. In search for hints whether this is his usual writing style, I came across that he teaches writing at a university. Aha.

Whenever I find unusual blog names, I try to figure out how come and what may be their meaning. This one is quite a bit of a puzzle. Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes. Hmmm. As we have no pancake chain here in Switzerland, I must resort to Google and of course it tells me a bit of the story: Come hungry, leave happy. So it's me, the reader, who is supposed to be happy with this blog. And who is not happy when his post has been included!

Jihad also makes sense, meaning war meets religion, or religion meets war. And Bing is a lionhearted fighter against ignorance, woo, superstition and other dangerous mental states. And, unlike the real jihadis, he won't sacrifice himself. We are too few. Every one of us is needed. Take care, and go ahead, Bing!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

One-sided blindness of Muslim leaders

A conference of the world's 57 islamic countries has put Switzerland on a black list of the most islamophobic countries, together with Denmark (Mohammed cartoons), the Netherlands (Koran-critic film), and Austria (anti-islamic statements of a far-right party). The reason against Switzerland is a popular initiative for a minaret ban, pushed by our right-wing Swiss People's Party.

I am the last one to support an islamic view of anything on this planet. This said, I also state that I support this particular view of the islamic conference: I think that islamophobia is a threat to the world's security. The reason is simple. Islamophobia strengthens Islam, above all the rigid, terror-oriented forms of this religion. And islamophobia blocks the inter-cultural dialogue which may help to promote a more moderate form of this religion.

Therefore, I am strictly against a minaret ban in Switzerland. We are a secular democracy. We have freedom of religion. We have Christian church steeples, thus Muslims should have the equal right to build minarets as long as they respect the building regulations.

There is another point. Minarets beside church steeples emphasize the relativity of faith. They strengthen the view that religions are parts of different cultures and not absolute values. Plurality helps deconversion and freethought. Thus, I don't think that the construction of some minarets in Switzerland will lead to a higher influence of religions as a whole.

And what about steeples in Saudi Arabia?

But I cannot help wondering about the one-sided blindness of Muslim leaders. They claim the right to build minarets anywhere in the world but deny the according right to other religions in their own countries. Church steeples in Saudi Arabia, unlike minarets in Switzerland, are beyond every dispute. They are unthinkable. My comment: Better stop whining about islamophobia and respect the golden rule of religious plurality!

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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Why does litter hurt your eyes?

Litter in a beautiful landscape hurts my eyes. I had some email debate about this example with Michael Mary, author of a German book about being manipulated by values. My point is that litter hurts my eyes because the beauty of untouched nature is a value for me. He says that this is pure self interest because I dislike litter. To which I replied that values and self interest are fully compatible. In fact, they are closely linked because values always are values for somebody. There is no such thing as an absolute value. For the litterer, the beauty of nature has no value at all.

When I stow my used drink can in my backpack, I think I am guided by a value, the value of untouched nature. But Michael Mary does not like this idea. He replies that I would not hesitate building a house in a nature reserve area if I had the opportunity. According to him values do not guide us, they do not bind us, but may be changed as soon as we have the impression that we fare better with a different value. They are used as tricks to conceal self interests and to make others accept these interests.

Conflict of values is the issue

I disagree with Michael Mary in so far as I am convinced that values in fact do guide the behaviour of people. Without this being the case, the trick of selling values simply would not work. With conflicting interests on both sides, every side, of course, will appeal to values that they (1) know that will help their own side and (2) will be respected by the other side. That explains everything. Values do guide us. But values are often incompatible, conflicting. Therefore, values are used to manipulate others. This does work, but only because values are more than simple camouflages of own interests. This does work because values are important elements of human motivation.

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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Values in sheep's clothing

values in sheeps' clothing
Last week I listened to an interview with German author Michael Mary, talking about his new book "Values in Sheep's Clothing - Uncover the tricks by which we all are manipulated". I pricked up my ears because, as a secular humanist, I always have thought that values like human dignity, solidarity, honesty, tolerance and the like should be important guidelines of my own life. I also expect others to respect the same values.

If anything useful may be retained from religions of all kinds, it must be just these basic values of humanity, I thought. And now comes this guy and tells us that this is all bullshit? After having listened for a while, I learnt that he, Mary, still finds values useful and indispensable for social life.

Values, according to Mary, do not guide human behaviour. They are used in negotiating diverging goals, when one side tries to convince the other that a certain decision helps both sides, trying to conceal that the other side suffers from a disadvantage. Thus, values are not made for decisions but for talking about decisions. They are indispensable for social solidarity in a society of individuals with diverging goals and interests.

This has given me some food for thought these days. Not only can I follow easily this line of thought. It also supports my post of yesterday where I said that the difference between theists and atheists is only minimal when it comes to the real backgrounds of behaviour. I said that values such as imaginated God's will are not the real reasons for trying to be good, but only "illusionary" reasons, and that most of them will not change after religious faith has been abandoned.

I agree with Mary that we should keep a watchful ear on the value preachers everywhere, trying to sell values in order to push forward their own interests and trying to keep us quiet and submissive. He is right, we must be suspicious. Fighting for democracy in Iraq? No, for oil.

Yet I have the impression that things may be not so simple. Values may be used as sheep's clothings, for sure. But are they really irrelevant as guidelines for our behaviour? Just an example, littering. I do not throw litter away because I hold up a clean environment as a value. I think that it is this value that guides my behaviour. Or queuing: I do not push in because I follow the golden rule of mutual respect. Isn't this a value, too?

I think this may be settled by looking at the levels of values. Those I have mentioned are more down to earth than the highly abstract values Mary deals with in his book: Freedom, fairness, democracy, solidarity, tolerance, and the like. Thus, my job as a humanist is having a watchful eye on all those conflicting values and trying to separate wheat from chaff.

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Monday, 10 March 2008

The difference is not that great

Most theists and most atheists have more in common than most people may think. At least more than may be assumed when following all the god-vs-no-god disputes in the books and in the blogosphere. I think that the relevance of these discussions is much overrated.

We have been invited to lunch with a theist family yesterday. Kind of very strict and obedient theism, as far as we know. We had just normal small talk. Of course they mentioned that they have been in church in the morning, and we mentioned that on Sundays we use to get up late. And of course grace has been said at table. That's it. No talk about God. No hint that God may have influenced any of the decisions and what they told us they did or did not in their everyday life.

I have the strong impression that God is less important for them as they may think. When confronted to a situation that demands an ethical decision, they most likely will believe that God tells them what to do. They feel it inside, and they believe it is God's voice. In the same situation, I most likely will do the same because I feel inside that it is good to do so. The difference, thus, is not in the doing but in the post hoc reasoning why they or I did so.

As an ethologist, a couple of years ago, I have dealt a lot with the question of motivation. We all, theists and atheists alike, are humans, and we all have very similar brains. We eat when we are hungry. We seek company when we feel lonely. We engage in sex if we are turned on and have a consenting partner who is turned on, too. We love each other and we hate each other when we have reasons of doing so. These are the things that guide us.

In everyday life, there are thousands of things that have known or unknown reasons. But there is not a single thing that without any doubt has been caused by an act of God. Some may think so, but they won't say it openly because every theist knows that his view is not generally accepted. That's why theism or atheism does not make a big difference in everyday life.

Where the difference begins

The difference is not in the reasoning but in acting. The Pope banning condoms and helping Aids to spread. People hating gays because of certain anti homosexuality content of the Bible. Trying to push creationism in and evolution out of schools. Stuff like that is what counts.

And there are many, many theists on our side in these things: They oppose the Pope, they stand up for humanity and for the promotion of science. It's the act that counts, not the reasoning behind it.

Further reading

In the Humanist Symposium, hosted by the Glittering Muse, the question of atheism or anti-theism is debated, and Greta Christina dismisses the fundamentalistic view that atheists have reason to feel morally better than theists. Well said.

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