The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

Here’s a thought experiment.


Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.


As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.


Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.


11 thoughts on “The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

  1. Here is the problem for the theist: how do you know that saving the woman is not contravening the god’s plan?

    If you’re going to think this through on theological bases, are you messing with god’s plan? Is god testing you at the risk of killing this woman? Is this the satan tempting you to lose your own life? Have you sinned if you prevent a soul from going to heaven when the god desires it? Why does your god’s plan include this woman’s suffering?

    You’ve also demonstrated here why theists should not be trusted with children or animals – the only thing that gives them motivation not to harm either is their faith and how can we predict when their faith will fail? It’s better not to risk it.

    On the other hand, the secularist that values life, any life, simply because life is amazing to experience is a much better steward of children and animals. This is so because their value of life is not dependent on belief in the unprovable but on their understanding of the world and how it works and how they personally value life.

    The god of Abraham does not value life. The stories of this god are full of genocide and mass murder on grand scales.

    In your summary you claim that the secularist has no reason to value life. What a poor understanding you have. There are no binding moral imperatives. Just because you imagine they exist does not make them real. Further, such binding moral imperatives as you hypothesize have not stopped clerics from abusing other people nor have they stopped believers from abusing other life forms. There is no demonstrable evidence to support the idea that theistic belief gives a person better moral standing or character than non-belief. To suggest that this is so requires evidence. Good luck finding any…

  2. One of those hopelessly meaningless thought experiments that illustrates only what you want to take from it. You’ve already made up your mind and opinion, and since that suits your religious perspective you can’t help but feel morally superior for it.

    What moral credit can you take from simply obeying the moral commandments of a dictatorial moral law giver? That’s not thinking for yourself and taking moral responsibility for your actions personally.

    But let’s get real. How does the young man know the woman is old and poor? If it’s the raging torrent you suggest you’d do well to realise it was a person, and you’d have no idea about their age or status. How does the man objectively weigh up his chances of being effective? If he jumps in does he stand any chance of getting close to the subject? I realise that in your head this is a heroic action movie scene where the brave pious rescuer just happens to be able to fight the torrents that can tear down trees and river banks, and arrives at the hapless victim just as he goes down for the third time. In reality, once he jumps in and gets to water level he will never catch sight of the victim again; except in that he is now the victim.

    Let’s make it more real. Rescue services tell us not to jump in to seriously dangerous waters because that risks two rescues being required, and that’s a problem because rescue services avoid unnecessarily putting themselves in danger; and that is not only a problem for the rescuers, but is also a rational realisation that the loss of an experienced rescuer reduces the effectiveness of the service. Rescue services are not in the business of taking stupid risks. Guess what. They are rational in their assessment of risk.

    No, this story is no good at all. It’s just a rhetorical ploy. Fantasy Holliwood fiction, with our religious hero played by the unbelievable Bruce Willis as the action man who is resistant to bullets and raging rapids alike.

    Let’s get even more real. In any live situation like that you’ve no idea individuals will respond. Individuals are what cause foolish action or considered rational appraisal of the situation. There’s no accounting for how rational we will be when we find ourselves in this sort of position. There are brave yet foolish atheists and timid rational theists. But your story presupposes that it is the theist that is brave in his foolish action, and implicitly implies the rational atheist lacks moral fibre in being rational; because that’s how you want to sell this fiction.

    Another thing to consider is that what he sees as God inspired heroic action, as doing what his God would wish, is exactly the type of irrationality that can lead believers to kill for their God too.

    If this is how you sell fantasy heroism to yourself I can see why you fall for the Jesus story. At least Bruce Willis is resurrected from only an apparent fateful end, and not even he rises from actual death – even Holliwood know when not to stretch audience gullibility too far.

  3. Why is is then, that we are told never to jump in the water if you can’t swim or rescue anyone; resulting in two deaths instead of one?

  4. Most of the atheists with whom I have come into contact seem to simultaneously hold the following two propositions to be true:
    1. In Carl Sagan’s words, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”
    2. Atheists feel that humans “don’t need God to be good,” and that they are moral beings.

    However these two propositions are not logically consistent because if the Cosmos is all there is all there is, then:
    1. Humans are just animals with bigger forebrains, but don’t have any soul or spirit.
    2. Humans can not have free will in any meaningful sense, since everything happens as a result of natural causes. Well-known atheists, including Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and Michael Shermer have repeatedly made that claim. Harris even wrote a book titled Free Will, which says it doesn’t exist.
    3. This life is all there is—there is no afterlife.

    But if the above three statements are true, then the following are too:
    1. Since animals are not moral beings, humans as just animals can’t be either.
    2. If there is no free will, humans can’t in any meaningful sense make moral choices to do right or wrong, so they can’t be morally responsible for what they do.
    3. If this life is all there is, it doesn’t make any ultimate difference whether a person did good or evil in this life anyway.

    In other words, foundational beliefs of the atheistic worldview are self-contradictory.

  5. Ralph,

    1. In Carl Sagan’s words, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”
    2. Atheists feel that humans “don’t need God to be good,” and that they are moral beings.

    (1) is a hypothesis that so far is supported by all evidence we have. Speculative cosmology and physics is proposing other models, such a multiverse, as just one example, but they are not empirically verified. This is the problem with any of the many possible god hypotheses (one good god, one bad god, many gods in the same domain, hierarchies of gods in the supernatural, hyper-natural, etc.), and none of the god hypotheses being verified, they have no link to the very natural effects they are supposed to have: miracles, listening to prayer, interfering and even causing life on earth, etc.

    (2) is demonstrably so in the sense that you don’t have to believe in god to be morally good – once we define what it is to be morally good (see later). Of course, atheists being good and believing in no god is not evidence of there being no god. It could be that there is a god and that atheists are good, but are mistaken about god having anything to do with their morality.

    The reason is that moral behaviour is independent of there actually being a god or not, and independent in believing in a god or not.

    So, being independent variables they are quite consistent.

    “1. Since animals are not moral beings, humans as just animals can’t be either.”

    Correct, in the sense that you mean moral – god given.

    But as members of a species that have evolutionarily determined biological feelings about how to interact with fellow humans we have the ancient precursors of interactive behaviour wired in. Our cultural history has then acted on that behaviour and decided, within each culture, what is moral and what is not.

    Because culturally derived morality is complex there can be a lot of variety – and it is observable that there is such variety, across cultures, within cultures, across time.

    It is now deemed by many to be immoral to impose gender specific preferential treatment: e.g. wage differences between men and women doing the same job. It is not deemed to be immoral (at least by the non-religious and some of the religious) to discriminate against women in work generally (i.e. excluding women from the priesthood and as bishops in those churches that permit women priests). It is no deemed immoral to withhold medical treatment on religious grounds (transfusions for some religions, condoms in AIDS infested regions for others). The change over time of the moral opinion of homosexuality has changed (e.g. Alan Turing prosecuted and persecuted).

    “2. If there is no free will, humans can’t in any meaningful sense make moral choices to do right or wrong, so they can’t be morally responsible for what they do.”

    You don’t understand the illusory nature of free will, or the implication of that on responsibility. You don’t understand the mechanistic nature of ‘choice’ – a decision making system of a biological mechanism.

    Religious responsibility has a demonising retributional component to it. Secular atheist incompatibilist free will does not preclude responsibility in a more benign sense. A killer has a brain that. Along with its wider environment, has resulted in that brain killing (by its direction of the body it occupies). Such a killer brain might kill again. It is a practical matter of taking that killer off the streets as it is taking a car with faulty brakes off the streets.

    Also, deterrent may be a causally effective device for brains, in that other brains with a mild potential to kill will not risk killing so easily if they know that there is a chance of being caught.

    Note incidentally that no matter what the potential killer thinks about free will or the consequences of being found out, if they don’t think they will be found out, or it the passions overcome rational appraisal, then deterrent has no effect. All this is unlike a car: it is unlikely as far as I can tell that taking one car with faulty brakes off the road will not have a deterrent effect on other cars with faulty brakes. Human brains are more complex in their interaction with their environment; and the police and the courts and sentences form part of the environment that has causal inhibitory effects on some brains.

    This all leads to a far more humanistic approach to responsibility, without free will.

    Each brain is the most immediate localised causal system for the behaviour of the body it inhabits. As a result, if you want to prevent an errant brain-body system performing acts that we label as immoral (by virtue of the naturalistic cultural definition of what is moral, not the godly stuff), then you ‘hold that brain-body system’ responsible, and act on it accordingly. Of course, the police, the courts, politicians that introduce laws, the public that support them, are all non-free-willed entities that are caused to have the political opinions that determine laws and sentencing.

    An interesting point here is the deterrent effect of capital punishment. It causes confusion. It might well be the case that capital punishment has some deterrent effect, and as such could be pragmatically justified by the atheist. However, humanist atheists acknowledge several additional points: it is inhumane in itself (we’ve seen unsuccessful brutal capital punishment), and as such does not form part of a humanist moral system. Furthermore it doesn’t allow for the correction of mistakes – innocents have been known to have been killed. And it does not allow for rehabilitation. So, capital punishment remains a debatable issue.

    This is all quite simple really. It’s only your supernatural presuppositions, that as yet you haven’t been caused to abandon in the face of reason and evidence, that makes you see any of this as a problem at all.

    “3. If this life is all there is, it doesn’t make any ultimate difference whether a person did good or evil in this life anyway.”

    Correct. It doesn’t.

    We know this quite easily. Do you realise the outcome today caused by the specific immoral behaviour of Bigus Tossus, that Roman reprobate of the first century BC Rome? No, neither do I.

    I think Hitler was immoral, by our standards. But without him and his hand in the killing of 6 million Jews I would probably not be here arguing with you. My parents met after the war, and if the war had not have happened their post war meeting would not either – or if it had a quite different set of circumstances would have resulted in different gametes meeting. We are where we are, in matter what happened in the past.

    Of course many other events of an immoral and moral nature impact us every day. Who knows what effects will result from immoral events in Syria. Well, look at the results of events in Iraq – how many US soldiers never came home to produce children that will now never have an effect on the world? Look at the great physicists that lost their lives in the trenches of WWI. The long term effects of all behaviour, moral or immoral, are sure enough material effects on this human world. But do they matter once the feelings of a few generations have passed? We cannot tell the net effect of events now many years ahead. We don’t know what will matter.

    It may be that some very immoral events have benign outcomes. This is a real moral dilemma for the theist. Not so for the secular atheist humanist. Sure we will try to avoid immoral events, ours or those of others, because of the immediate impact they have on suffering now.

    But ultimately? You’re right, it does not matter one jot to the outcome of the demise of our solar system, or our galaxy’s collision with another, what moral or immoral acts humans perform on each other.

    “In other words, foundational beliefs of the atheistic worldview are self-contradictory.”

    No they are not. You simply don’t understand them. Try to apply your unfounded religious presuppositions to them and you’ll continue to fail. Until such time that your un-free-willed brain is caused to flip into a reason and evidence mode and you give up your hopeless religious beliefs. I can’t say if that will occur or not. In the meantime I am un-wilfully caused to attempt to causally change your brain to that mode of thinking.

  6. Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Ron.

    I am always amazed when I see claims that evolution in any way even partially accounts for morality. Here are some behaviors that make all kinds of sense from an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” perspective:

    -war, especially against weaker opponents who can be defeated with negligible losses
    -eugenics (forced sterilization or worse))
    -taking a female away from a weaker male
    -murder, including the offspring of a female by another male (primates do this)
    -sleeping with neighbors’ spouses
    -bullying people (into suicide, or at least limiting their access to fitter mates)
    -cannibalism (especially in low-protein natural environments)

    All of the above directly contribute to the reproduction of some “selfish genes” at the expense of others. If you would allow yourself to think about it, you might come up with some others. If so, please let me know.

    In contrast, altruism might offer some survival benefits, but that is a speculative hypothesis based on hypothesized indirect effects. In other words, lacking the empirical support you mention above. It’s counter-intuitive to think that the stronger “dying for their country” would increase the “fitness” of the group.

  7. Ralph,

    You’re quite right. All those other human behaviours have origins in evolution of the human species. But I suspect you are still putting a religious spin on that fact. I think you are misrepresenting or misunderstanding ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘selfish genes’.

    The examples you give may be caused in a basic evolutionary sense.

    Humans are survival animals, as is all successful life, from bacteria to plants and animals generally. And of course those entities that are not so easily classified as life or non-life: viruses.

    Survival of individuals relies on their ability to find food and avoid predators. That is generally a hierarchical system: an animal may be prey to some and predator of others. Even vegetarians are preying on plant life. There is no escaping this fact of biology, and it simply MUST have an effect on the behaviour of all life.

    A species is a long term effect of the survival to reproduction of individuals. In all animals other than humans, as far as we know, the individuals alive at any one time have no concern for their species in the long term, and no interest in its past. They live for themselves entirely, mostly.

    The most natural instinct that is not concerned with the self is the protection of the young. This is not some god given concern but a natural element of natural selection. Those that don’t protect their young will die out as a species. Or some other mechanism must ensure the survival of the species: many sea animals for example do not protect their young, or not for very long. For some the young are carried off by currents and it is impossible for the adult to protect them. These species survive by the production of massive numbers of young, most of which do not survive – but it only takes a few to survive and reproduce in massive numbers again for the species to survive successfully.

    Mammalian protection of the young is just one strategy among many that cause the species to survive. There is no indication that mammals protect their young because they ‘want to be good’, or because they believe some god wants them to protect their young. It is a simple matter of natural selection at work: any sub-species that lacked the instinct to protect vulnerable small number of young would become extinct. So, for those animals that use this strategy of protection of the young that is expressed in the animal by strong driving feelings of protection: parental love.

    Animal brains have evolved in a number of ways whereby the survival of the species is extended to behaviour that produces better survival in groups. This forms an interest, a biologically driven bond, between kin, but also between those raised in a group, or those that join a group. The variety of group behaviours range from the specialised activities of insect colonies, to pack mammals of various kinds with slightly different pack behaviours, to even more socially organised animals like the primates.

    In human brains there is the longer term capacity to plan and predict and to recall historical events.

    War: related to territory; in-group protection, and out-group animosity. The survival of the fittest here is a socially driven feature and is not directly related to biological fitness of individuals: a well organised and trained army of relatively weak individuals can overcome a stronger more brutal but poorly organised group. The ‘fitness’ here is in the effectiveness of social organisation, the use of the brain in social systems, and not so much the physical strength and fitness of individuals.

    The odd thing about war is that the socialisation of group interaction can change very quickly – far too quickly for biological evolution to be involved. So, various nations of Europe were bitter enemies less than 100 years ago, but now we are all friends. Well, as nations. Of course the biological influences of out-group fear and demonisation continue within individuals. No less so than in many religious groups that feel threatened by other religious groups and atheists.

    Genocide: Some animal species will wipe out other colonies that are genuine biological threats. In humans this social (anti-social) behaviour comes right out of instinctive biological feelings of fear and hatred. But it is a socially exaggerated behaviour. There is nothing specifically biological that requires us to wipe out whole sections of humanity.

    Many human behaviours are influenced by culture and social influences, and imaginative brains extend what might be biological precursors into outrageously ridiculous social norms. So, for example, in a two gender species that uses sex for reproduction, yet is subject to biological diversity, it is quite reasonable to expect some minorities in the population to have more diverse sexual interests than the norm. Clearly homosexuality is not the norm. But as humans we can rise above that biological diversity and agree that all humans, no matter what their orientation, can be included as equals in all respects. But no, not from the religious, who exaggerate diversity into an excuse for divisive judgementalism.

    We rise above the biological variety that results in our biological differences and recognise that we are all still human – that’s what humanism is about. We agree to the mutual granting of rights that we call human rights, to make sure that we are not discriminating against and persecuting minorities that don’t conform to the naive and mistaken intuitions that colour our thinking and feeling. We are rational humans that struggle to oppose those aspects of our character that can so easily lead to war, genocide, rape and other behaviours that we find harmful. We avoid make false and unevidenced claims that particular minority behaviours are harmful simply because we have a distaste for them.

    Do I need to go on. Yes, of course these behaviours have roots in our evolved biology.

    A note on ‘selfish genes’, for thos ethat don’t get it: the term does not mean selfish in the human agency sense, where we as organisms look after ourselves at the expense of others. The term ‘selfish’ in this sense is entirely mechanistic: Dawkins has made it very clear that his use of that term is a specific technical evolutionary definition.

    “All of the above directly contribute to the reproduction of some “selfish genes” at the expense of others.”

    Yes they do, in a circular fashion. The genes are expressed in such a way as to include this type of behaviour in our biological makeup. If the behaviour helps, or, JUST AS SIGNIFICANTLY, does not hinder, the survival of the species, then those groups exhibiting these behaviours will survive in greater numbers than those that don’t, and so those genes will go on into the next generation. There are many evolved traits that are of no use but which are passed along in the species because they are not of any particular cost, evolutionarily speaking.

    “If you would allow yourself to think about it, you might come up with some others. If so, please let me know.”

    Yes: love, co-operation, empathy, sympathy.

    The problem you have, where your bias is dictating your thinking on this, is that you see all the brutish stuff as being the responsibility of evolution, our animalistic nature, but all the nice stuff as coming from God’s will for mankind. But you have no evidence to support: a) your presupposition that there is a God; b) your presupposition that any presupposed God is interested in us; c) that your presupposed God is responsible for anything at all.

    If you are going to speculate that God is the source of love then with equal conviction, for all the evidence there is, I could say he is the source of all evil too. Except I’d need to be persuaded there is some such entity first.

    There is clear biological evidence that love and hate, empathy and fear, and all sorts of instincts that contribute to human behaviour are evolved. The problem for the theist is that all this is lost in their preference for mythical stories, the content of which has no more supporting evidence than stories of the gods of Mount Olympus.

    Massive variations in our social behaviour can emerge that are all within the range of possible behaviours of our species biologically.

    So, you get the complexity that is now Syria, where you have groups who see themselves as loving peaceful Muslims fighting for freedom hacking each other to death in overwhelming and vicious hatred, because their brains have shifted from the socially benign state to a socially damaging state. We know from social experiments that humans can be driven to extremes of behaviour.

    Virtually the whole of the German nation saw themselves as persecuted victims after WWI, despite their leaders’ hands in manipulation Europe into WWI, and the result was a near wholesale switch to extreme nationalism, the blaming of every hardship on the Jews, and the brutal genocide of Jews, Poles, Russians, socialists and pretty much anyone who they saw as a threat. And yet now Germany is one of the more peaceful nations on earth.

    This is not an evolved change that has occurred in the German people. It’s a social change. Evolution explains the underlying biology that makes humans act, that makes them follow the lead of others, that makes them so gullible; and it is the effect of culture and social influence on top of that biology that determines social behaviour.

    Our biological nature and our un-designed and imperfectly evolved brains also explains why it is that rational critical thinking hard work, and why science is required, a system of employed to overcome our fallibilities by inventing compensating methods to improve the reliability of our knowledge acquisition. It explains why even in the 20th century people have fallen for what is seen to be an obvious con: Scientology. And the followers of other religions can’t see that their religions come out of a similar historical context: someone made up these religions, and yours is no exception.

    It has not been beyond religious believers to burn at the stake people of the same basic religion, Christianity, just because they had a different perspective on their religion. And Roman Catholic priest have found it in their loving hearts to prey on young children. Yes, humans are an animal species, with the capacity for great love and for inflicting great pain. These are natural phenomena both. That you might feel God has something to do with any of this is your misfortune, because until you get used to the reality you’ll be forever disappointed with your own species, and no doubt often disappointed with your own human fallibilities.

    Morality in secular humanist terms is seeing this natural conflicting capacity in humans, to do what we don’t like (bad) and what we like (good), recognising how much better it is for most people if we co-operate and love each other, if we take advantage of some particular natural instincts in preference for the ones that cause pain and suffering, if we break down divisive barriers, political or religious.

    Could I as a secular humanist be turned into the brutish raging monster that we have seen in various places around the world? Yes. I’m biologically human. But as long as I am caused to continue to act out my life in this democratic secular humanist manner, then that is the side that will win through.

    But that’s all it’s about: which aspects of our nature are encouraged to come to the fore. That’s the only way ‘good’ behaviour succeeds and ‘evil’ behaviour loses – because there is no inherent objective morality out there other than that which we invent, based on our preferences for behaviour towards each other. Our good behaviour is not guaranteed in our genes. And it’s not influenced by an imagined God.

    Well, that last point needs clarification. The imagined God isn’t having an influence. But what is having an influence is the behaviour of the believers in gods. That they believe their religious stories influences their lives. Isn’t this what the religious keep telling us, that through their belief they can be good? But the problem there is that the outcome can’t be guaranteed, and when religious belief goes wrong it goes crazy beyond compare.

    You should know all this, about how belief and behavioural context can influence how we act. The religious method of Praxis is that whereby acting religious and praying regularly can bring even the strongest religious doubter to a firm belief. See this:

    “In contrast, altruism might offer some survival benefits, but that is a speculative hypothesis based on hypothesized indirect effects.”

    We behave within the biological bounds of our species, as influenced by our social systems and cultures and by our personal make-up as individuals. Note how the Roman Catholic Church can dictate some behaviours, and yet some Catholics wish it were more dogmatic and some wish it was less so – despite their scriptural beliefs their personal feelings can often win out. We are a combination of biology, culture and society and personal traits.

    “It’s counter-intuitive to think that the stronger “dying for their country” would increase the “fitness” of the group.”

    Yes, but it’s not intuitively obvious from our usual perspective that we sit on a large globe that revolves in front of a much larger star – the intuitive sense is that a smallish disc travels across our stationary surface each day. So intuition isn’t always a guide to what is true. It may well be the case that ‘dying for your country’ is again another exaggerated emergent behaviour fostered in a social context; but it has a biological base. How can it not have? Someone who does that has strong emotional drives that cause them to do that, so strong they overcome their other drives for personal survival. That act of self-sacrifice is common in many species, so it’s no surprise to find it emerge as a complex behaviour in some humans in some circumstances.

    If our purely personal biological instincts could not overcome, or alternatively be overcome by, cultural and social influences you wouldn’t see such diversity: as some feeing from battles in fear while others fight and die. You wouldn’t see young men being fooled into diving into raging rivers for a hopeless cause, or blowing themselves up in the name of Allah, or congregating in religious prayer to a being for which there is no evidence. The human brain is a highly adaptive system. Unfortunately it can be adapted to believe some crazy stuff – including the idea that there’s some supernatural entity that cares about us.

    Oh yes, and “speculative hypothesis”?

    You’ve got to be kidding me. A religious believer speculates on the completely inaccessible origins of the universe and decides, speculatively, that there is some god. And then heaps one massive speculation on another to come to some specific religious belief? And you’re prepared to decide who is good and who is bad based on this belief system? And you’re more sceptical about quite respectable hypotheses from masses of evidence from biology, evolution and neuroscience that suggests very strongly that our natural behaviours, good and bad, are born out of our animal past and the complex behaviour of our brains? Wow. There are some really strong biases at work there.

  8. You’ve written a lot of words, Ron, but I see no indication that you recognize that humans are anything more than animals or that we have free will. Nevertheless you really do know personally that you are more than an animal and that you do have free will. You are just not willing to admit it because of your ideological commitments.

    One of the interesting things about logic is that with a little ingenuity, a person can argue either side of any position—for example, teams being randomly assigned to opposing sides in debate competitions. Convincing arguments can be developed for things that are demonstrably wrong, through the use of logical fallacies, selection of evidence, etc. And there are many situations where things just can not be conclusively proven one way or another.

    You are correct in saying that we can’t verify the existence of God. But of course we cannot verify the nonexistence of God either. However something could be true even if it isn’t verifiable, for example consider the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. But as we learn more and more about the universe we live in, evidence is accumulating that makes it more likely than not that there is a God. The evidence is largely inferential, just as is the evidence for subatomic entities—we see the effects of things that are unseen. For example:

    1. Why is there something rather than nothing? Notwithstanding counterclaims to the contrary based on the misunderstanding that a vacuum within this universe is nothing, there is no empirical evidence of anything ever spontaneously coming into existence without a cause.

    2. Why is it that the unfolding of the “Big Bang,” the physics of matter, and the spatial location and configuration of our planet and solar system are so incredibly fine-tuned for life in the absence of any necessity of being so? By rejecting the multiverse concept, you eliminated the strongest argument against fine tuning, and also the strongest one for a naturalistic origin of life. You might want to reconsider. However if you do you would have to reject your apparent belief that empiricism is the only source of knowledge.

    3. We can’t (yet) create life in the laboratory, despite all the accumulated knowledge of biology and incredibly sophisticated tools now available. How then could life have originated by random processes without the benefit of such knowledge and tools under the conditions of the early earth? Note that life generates local decreases in entropy by importing energy. Is there any empirical evidence that naturally occurring matter can self-organize into systems that capture energy and use it to reduce entropy? To answer that question you can’t point to the existence of life, because we don’t have a clue as to how it started.

    4. Human beings do share many common aspects of morality, and they universally believe that some things are right and some are wrong, despite the fact that behavior considered to be “immoral” can often be advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. Your talk about social behavior is speculative, not empirical. On the other hand genocide unquestionably removes competitive genes. Droit de seigneur (although it never occurred on an institutionalized basis) would increase the propagation of the genes of those who had greater competitive capabilities, as would other abhorrent behaviors I mentioned.

    5. The Bible is an amazing book. It has worked for people of all kinds of different backgrounds, over two millennia—young/old, educated/uneducated, intelligent/not, different cultures and languages, advanced/primitive societies, different periods in history, taken literally or figuratively, etc. etc. (A person really needs to understand and appreciate literature and poetry to “get” that argument, which limits the proportion of people who can appreciate it.)

    6. The resurrection of Jesus, as evidenced by the early growth of Christianity.

    7. In addition I have subjective evidence. My life was changed by Jesus Christ. You mentioned that you owe your existence to Adolph Hitler. If I hadn’t become a follower of Jesus, I would have died in a gutter on Skid Row by now.

    And I’m not just an animal. And I do have free will, as a consequence of being created in the image of God.

    Your turn.

  9. While I am a theist, I found myself defending the atheistic secular humanists (ASH) on this in a debate recently. I think it is hard-wired into human nature to sacrifice one’s self for another person, but can find absolutely no philosophical justification (or excuse) for such acts from the various secular humanists websites I have searched. My problem with this boils down to, If there is nothing you would die for, do your beliefs have any meaning? In fair debate, it would be nice to recognize the merits of the other side. Are there any such? (This is not a snark, I am genuinely wanting to know.)

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