Getting back into the swing of things (GvNG)

It’s been awhile since I exercised my skeptical/atheistical muscles at any real length, so I thought I might start with an easy post. Pick some low-hanging fruit, swing for the slow pitch, put on some training wheels, fly with a net, that sort of thing. In importing everything over from Blogger, I was reminded that I spent a couple of posts some time ago sparring with a fella named Randy Kirk, running a site called The God vs. No God Debate [sic]. I decided to briefly revisit the site, only to find that it hasn’t been updated for almost two years. Perfect, I think, to test the old blogging muscles.

I am nothing if not on the bleeding edge.

Randy begins his last post thusly:

If I take a picture of Jesus sitting in my home tonight with an amazing glow around his head, showing me his scars, and telling me amazing stories and parables that would clearly identify him as having incredible brilliance and teaching skills, a naturalist would argue that this was great teaching, great acting, and doctored video to create the appearance of something supernatural.

Off to a great start. First, let’s dispense with the notion that Jesus was a guy of “incredible brilliance and teaching skills.” Sorry, no. The goal of a teacher is to impart knowledge and to help others understand. Jesus spoke in parables specifically and admittedly (Matthew 13:10-16) so that only certain people, those special few, would actually understand what he meant. That’s the antithesis of teaching.

Not to mention that what Jesus taught was often self-serving or wrong. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, is full of terrible, terrible advice, of the same kind that Joe Hill lampooned in “The Preacher and the Slave.” “Your life sucks? Well, don’t worry, the next life won’t suck for you–it’ll suck for the people who have good lives now. Yeah, that’ll show ’em.”

I don’t know, I think a brilliant teacher with divine magic powers and wisdom beyond his years might be able to help make life suck less. But he was more interested in having perfume drenched over his head and performing magic tricks.

Getting back to Kirk’s claim, here, he’s got one point: a picture of a guy with a glow around his head and some scars (I’m not sure how “a picture” could show a guy teaching and telling parables, outside of Harry Potter or something. We’ll assume he means video) doesn’t prove the existence of Jesus. A good skeptic wouldn’t dismiss the video outright, but would note that a doctored video of an actor is a more likely explanation than a genuine video of God-made-flesh performing miracles in your living room.

A good skeptic would further ask Randy what reason he had to believe that the scarred, glowing teacher in his home was Jesus. The paragraph posits it as a given, setting up the “naturalist”‘s skepticism as unreasonable from the start. Yet I have to imagine that if I showed Randy a video of Thor in my home, speaking in ancient Norse with lightning crackling all about him, he’d probably have the exact same reaction.The skeptical position of initial doubt and seeking better corroborating evidence than “here’s some video” is the reasonable one.

And it represents a problem that’s existed for believers and people who trust in personal revelation as a method for apprehending reality, since the time of David Hume. If Randy came to me with this video, the hypothesis that “the video genuinely shows a genuine miracle” has to be weighed against the alternatives–that Randy was deceived, or is himself being deceptive.

I mean, I’ve seen video of David Blaine do stuff on the street that sure looks like magic to the people he performs for. How do I know that Randy wasn’t taken in by a particularly clever street magician, playing on how his religious beliefs make him more receptive to apparent miracles? I know that street magicians exist, I know that their tricks often fool people, and I know that religious people often have a lower threshold for accepting claims that fit with their preexisting beliefs, than others. All that makes the “deception” hypothesis more likely than the miracle one.

And it’s hard to imagine a situation where “someone is being deceived” isn’t the more reasonable hypothesis. Randy, I’m sure, would agree, if the miracles here were apparently being performed by anyone but Jesus.

If after careful analysis of the video, there was no doctoring, then it would be argued that there just wasn’t enough science to discover how it was doctored, and that the illusions in the film had natural explanations.

Or not. One can have genuine video which remains misleading. Take, for instance, this Richard Wiseman video. There’s no “doctoring” necessary to achieve apparently miraculous tricks, just exploiting the natural weaknesses of things like video cameras. The problem is not with the video, but with the interpretation of the video. And assuming that a single video tape–doctored or otherwise–actually shows what it purports to show, is problematic at best. It’s part of why editors are so powerful; a careful (or careless) bit of editing can completely change how you interpret something like an interview–let alone a miracle.

If I persuaded Jesus to come back on another evening, and invited 1000 folks to be there as well, and had five cameras with well know atheists manning all five cameras, and Jesus healed someone blind since birth by touching mud to his eyes, there would be claims of mass hysteria, the videos would be suspected of being altered before or after the fact, or replaced.

I wonder, does Randy accept that Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff have miraculous healing abilities? Popoff routinely “healed” people of various ailments in front of crowds of thousands, without the help of camera tricks (but with the help of radio tricks). Yes, “healing a blind person” is the kind of ‘miracle’ that would require additional verification before we could accept it at face value.

I tell you what would be more impressive: healing an amputee. Doing it repeatedly, under controlled conditions. The standard of evidence for most science is not “did we get it with a camcorder” but “the results can be repeated reliably under controlled conditions.”

The fact of having 1000 folks agreeing on what happened would be further dismissed as a conspiracy by all in attendance.

I bet if you polled 1000 people coming out of a Penn and Teller show, they’d agree that they saw the duo cut a snake in half and leave it unharmed. No conspiracy necessary, just humans with human limitations. I wonder, is Randy Catholic? If not, how does he explain the Fatima Miracle of the sun?

And these would just be the contemporaneous skeptics. 100 years from now the skepticism would merely grow. 2000 years from now it would just be compared with other videos of the time.

For good reason: a video is not good evidence of anything. Except, perhaps, the existence of video recording technology. The other good reason is that revelation is necessarily first-hand. It’s possible that the 1000 people in attendance could see things that would convince any reasonable person, but to anyone else it’s just hearsay. Watching Jesus cure someone of blindness might in fact be amazing and convincing, entailing more evidence than the video would convey (provided, of course, that the onlookers could trust both their senses and their interpretations of their senses, which are by no means a given–see, again, magicians). But to anyone else, it’s just a story, indistinguishable from any of a billion other such stories with conflicting and contradictory interpretations. Yes, in fact, it is just another video from the time, no more proof of miracles than “The Passion of the Christ” is.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what kind or how much evidence is produced, the Bible cannot be proved to a naturalist to be supernatural,

I think that’s a pretty big leap; video is not the be-all end-all of evidence (nor is eyewitness testimony). But as a basis, sure: a natural explanation is always more acceptable than a supernatural one. As Tim Minchin put it, “every mystery, throughout history, has turned out to be ‘not magic’. Even just based on induction and experience, we have no reason to ever suspect the “supernatural.” “Supernatural” is a category about which we can say absolutely nothing. What are the qualities of a “supernatural” thing?

What we can see is whether or not the miracle-producer can reliably produce effects which are what they appear to be. It wouldn’t necessarily imply supernatural anything, whatever that is, but it would demonstrate abilities that go beyond what we currently understand. If they were demonstrated, they would become part of our understanding of nature–even if it’s just the nature of this one extraordinary individual.

Jesus cannot have been other than man, and there is no afterlife, heaven, etc.

Randy says this, but I’m not sure how any of it’s connected. Let’s say that a guy calling himself Jesus shows up and starts performing miracles that are verified to be reliable healings and multiplications of loaves and fishes and so forth. It tells us a lot of things, but it says nothing about:

  1. Whether Jesus is or has been something other than a man
  2. If there is an afterlife, heaven, etc.
  3. The reliability of any of the Biblical account
  4. The existence of Bigfoot, mermaids, etc.
  5. The price of tea in China

If a guy calling himself Jesus shows up and starts performing things that could reasonably be termed miracles, let me tell you what believers of other religious traditions are going to suggest: he’s a demonic deceiver, he’s an alien, he’s a djinn, he’s from a technologically-advanced future, etc. Some of those are more reasonable than others, but they’re all possible hypotheses to explain the observations, and we’d have to rule out every natural hypothesis before positing the existence of supernatural agents. Because again, what is “supernatural”?

And all those other claims are separate claims which would need separate verification. Some guy calling himself Jesus rearranging subatomic particles in water to transform it into wine under controlled lab conditions tells us nothing about the existence of an afterlife. The claims are not connected in any meaningful way. Similarly, if a Klingon Warbird lands in Times Square tomorrow, it doesn’t tell us that Sto-Vo-Kor is a real place or that Capt. Kirk is destined to be born in Iowa in a century.

This also begs the question of what is natural. If there is a God, then he would be the most natural thing of all.

Agreed. And being natural, he would be open to examination and verification.

If there is an afterlife, then it would merely be an extension of the natural. The spiritual realm is certainly no more fantastic than quarks or black holes, just part of nature.

This sentence is missing the key caveat, “if it exists.” If it exists, the spiritual realm is certainly no more fantastic than quarks or black holes, just part of nature. But we have no good reason to suppose it does exist, and so it remains in the same category as fairies and gnomes and unicorns and 11-dimensional superstrings: not more fantastic than reality, just less real (until evidence shows otherwise).

So I think we commonly end up with debates that can’t be decided, much less won because the definitions of such things as truth, evidence, and natural differ between the debaters.

Agreed, which is why it’s important to define terms specifically and early on.

I come to all of these conclusions after spending 7 hours on Sunday reading about the shroud of Turin. It cannot be explained by Science, and the historical evidence is that it really is the burial shroud of Christ.

Um…no. We can leave aside the mountain of evidence that shows the Shroud to be a 14th-century forgery. All you need to debunk the Shroud of Turin is a lick of common sense. Take a look at the Shroud’s face:

Notice how it looks like a normal face. That’s the most striking thing about it, totally normal kind of European, tall, gaunt, bearded, long-haired face. Take a look now at this image:

That’s an image of a head texture from this site, designed to be wrapped around the wireframe polygonal head of a video game character. It’s exaggerated, but it illustrates the point: when you take the features of a person’s three-dimensional face and flatten them out, they become distorted, stretched at the sides, because a human face isn’t flat. The Shroud of Turin supposedly has this image burned into it from being wrapped around Jesus’s body, but if that’s the case, why isn’t it all stretched out? The only way to make this make sense is to imagine that Jesus was literally as thin as a pole, or that this was really the Hammock of Turin, tied flat just above Jesus to absorb his soul-picture as it passed through.

You don’t actually need science to debunk or explain the Shroud of Turin, just a little experience with Silly Putty or map projections.

That combination is pretty powerful. However, the naturalists merely state, calmly, that they will eventually figure out how the image got there by some natural means, not by the transmutation of Christ.

Who are these naturalists? The ones who reproduced it in March of the year that Randy wrote that post, using 14th-century technology? The truth is that science had already explained the Shroud, as had history, as one of the many forged artifacts that existed in the Middle Ages. Randy just conveniently ignored, denied, or discounted that evidence to make his point.

Which is the real problem: not that people can’t agree on how to define evidence, but that one side already has a conclusion and will wave away any evidence that contradicts it, while credulously accepting even crappy evidence to support their presupposition.

Randy has one last bit, worth examining briefly:

So 1000 years from now, we could be no closer. In the meantime, one “natural” explanation would be that this was the natural result of a man/God transitioning from human to spirit.

Sure, that’s one hypothesis. Here’s the thing: to accept that hypothesis, we’d need:

  • Evidence that there are such things as spirits
  • Evidence that humans can “transition” to spirits
  • Evidence that the transitioning from human to spirit causes effects observable in particular kinds of cloth
  • An explanation as to why we don’t see such shrouds more often (do most people not transition to spirits? Are only certain kinds of cloth affected?)
  • An explanation as to why the available (historical and radiocarbon dating) evidence shows this to be no older than the 14th century
  • An explanation as to why the image is not distorted, as we would expect it to be if representing a 3D human body in a 2D medium, due to having been wrapped around that body
  • An explanation as to why apparently identical artifacts can be recreated using 14th century technology

When Randy (or someone else) leaps that hurdle, we can consider that a valid and well-supported hypothesis. Until then, the evidence points to “medieval fraud,” and shows, as the whole post does, that people are prone to turning off their normal skepticism when it comes to things that confirm their preconceived notions.

It’s good to be back.

GvNG: “Tipping Point” query

This is something of a sidebar to the previous post, which ended so naturally that I could not bring myself to continue it. In the his tipping point post, Kirk says this about his own balanced faith:

The tipping point to agnosticism was 5 points in evolutionary theory. The tipping point back to God was to learn that those 5 points were either fraudulent or found to be not true.

I’m curious to know what 5 points these are, and if his claim that they were “found to be not true” would be re-evaluated in light of the Index to Creationist Claims. I suspect, however, that this story is quite a lot like the similar “I was an atheist/nonChristian” stories told by evangelists like Kirk Cameron and Lee Strobel, where it means “I didn’t really care about religion until I converted,” “I went through a period where I kind of doubted my faith, but now I don’t,” or “I made up/exaggerated this story to demonstrate how bad nontheists are/that I know where they’re coming from/that they’re just in denial/etc.,” and not “atheist/agnostic” in the way those words are used by anyone who actually is an atheist or agnostic, where it represents a conscious decision based on self-evaluation and introspection. Seeing that the “deconversion” here was based on points in a scientific theory leads me to believe that Mr. Kirk’s faith is rather weak, or that his agnosticism was more doubt than deconversion.

Incidentally, to the question of “tipping back,” I think I showed fairly well in the post (and again in the comments) that I think the “scales” analogy is flawed, because it posits equal, or nearly equal, evidence for both points of view. However, like any agnostic, and like most atheists, what I would need to believe in God are the following:

  1. A definition of “God.” As Bronze Dog is always saying, it’s meaningless to ask “do you believe in Flarschnikit” until you define what a “Flarschnikit” is. Pantheists define God as the universe, most Christians define God as a three-part being with the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, but beyond that there’s nothing but debate. The classical Greeks defined gods as elemental beings with physical bodies and ill-defined magical powers. Until we have some definition for “god,” there’s no sense in debating its existence. A falsifiable definition would be great, but anything specific will do.
  2. Proof of God’s existence. The best proof would be something repeatable, reliable, and amazing. Passing Randi’s Challenge would be a good start. But if God came down from the Heavens, proclaimed himself, and did half a dozen impossible things under controlled conditions, I’d be pretty inclined to believe. I don’t do the “faith” thing, not anymore. It’s all positive evidence from here on out.

That’s the important stuff. Of course, I don’t know that that would entail “belief” so much as “acceptance.” I don’t “believe” in gravity, or grass, or air, I accept that they exist. Similarly, if I were shown God conclusively, I’d accept his existence. Now, that doesn’t mean I would necessarily worship him. After all, he’s got quite a lot of explaining to do. There are two God questions in my mind: “does God exist?” and “if he does, does he deserve our praise?”

I have to say, though, I’m not holding my breath until those terms get satisfied, because it seems increasingly unlikely. But if I die and end up in a burning pit for all eternity, my reaction will have to be “fair enough.” And that would be a great answer in the negative to my second question.

GvNG: “Tipping Point”

Continuing my responses to Randy Kirk and The God vs No God Debate, I’m going to tackle “the tipping point,” which he described in a comment he made over on The Bronze Blog and a post earlier this month. Here’s what he said at BD’s:

I merely asked what the tipping point would be for the atheists and agnostics who were involved. The tipping point in question? To faith in God.

Now, I’ve discussed my deconversion before, and it could be described as a “tipping point” experience (used here in the more colloquial sense where little things add up until eventually they are too much to support). There was the cursory nature of my religious indoctrination (which included stories about “what may have happened” to Jesus in his youth in Sunday school, with almost as much frequency as stories from the Bible) and the fact that every time I tried to read my Children’s Bible, I couldn’t get past Noah’s Ark without being bored out of my skull (which was kind of a shame, because the picture that accompanied the Nebuchadnezzar story looked pretty cool). There was the fact that I had a pretty well-developed sense for the difference between fact and fiction as a kid, and the story of Joseph Smith seemed to be a particularly ridiculous fictional one (magical breastplates?). There’s my life-long love of science, which included the genetically-corroborated theory that the Native Americans emigrated from Asia over the Alaskan land bridge, and thus were not Middle Eastern Jews who sailed across the Atlantic. That was a big factor; it was the first time I remember telling my mom some esoteric fact, having her say “no, that’s wrong, [insert church teaching here],” and coming away thinking “no, the church is wrong, I believe history and science.” A similar experience happened when we briefly studied the LDS movement (which my mom’s church broke off of) in 8th Grade History class, and I realized that my history book told a significantly different story from what I vaguely remembered of the church’s official history. That seemed pretty fishy. And I guess the ‘last straw’ so to speak was when I rethought my position on homosexuality and started actually reading some of the more absurd parts of the Bible. After that, it was a quick descent into agnosticism/weak atheism/whatever I want to call myself.

Let’s face it, if my parents didn’t want me doubting the faith, they shouldn’t have named me “Thomas.”

But tipping back is another matter entirely. See, Kirk’s question implies that there is this great scale, where “Evidence for God” is on one side and “Evidence against God” is on the other, and you’re constantly adding to both piles, creating a tension and perhaps an oscillation between belief and nonbelief. From my perspective, it’s not like that at all. Once I “tipped,” I saw that the scales were never balanced. There was no credible evidence for the existence of any deity, let alone Jehovah. The only things weighing down the other side of the scale were tradition and indoctrination, and perhaps a misguided desire to believe that the world is other than what it seems.

I found a poem some years ago (around the time I found the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and started reading up) which pretty well summarizes my take on the “scale” analogy. It’s a parody of a familiar little glurge, but lacks the hollow, saccharine conclusion.

Footprints in the Sand

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that as the path of his life grew longer, one set of footprints grew fainter until only the other remained. He also noticed that the faint set of footprints vanished when the very highest and happiest times of his life began.

This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it: “LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that the most successful times in my life begin when there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why you would leave me and not share my joy.”

But the LORD was silent and unseen.

The man walked back and looked for the LORD. He noticed that, as he approached, the two sets of footprints appeared to merge and become one. He realized that the faint set of footprints had not vanished; it was not there. It was merely an illusion, an echo of the other footprints, visible only to a weak and gullible perception.

And the man knew there was only one set of footprints: His own.

© 1997-2000 Dov Wisebrod

Now, I’ll freely admit that there’s a problem with my scales analogy; namely the tricky idea that there is “evidence against God.” I recognize that it’s impossible to prove a negative (“only God can prove a negative, and there is no god“), especially when the object of disproof not only defies the natural world, but also lacks any clear and specific definition. However, if we assume that the various readings of the Bible reflect an accurate definition of the Christian God, then we can look to elements of the natural world as evidence against. The apologist will ultimately argue around such objections, but such arguments require successively greater departures from the textual “evidence.”

Anyway, the way I’d prefer to look at deconversion (my own, anyway) is with a different sort of scales analogy. I was raised in an environment which wrapped me up in various trappings of religion and tradition and superstition. As I have grown and matured and become my own person, I have shed those trappings as a snake sheds its skin, little by little, until I am no longer burdened with them. And looking back, I see that burden for what it really was: fragile, restrictive, and utterly empty.

Philosophical open thread

Randy Kirk dropped by Bronze Dog‘s place recently, inviting the microcosm of the skeptical blogging community that hangs out there to participate in a “balanced” debate between believers and nonbelievers on his site, The God vs No God Debate (the editor in me wants to attach a “[sic]” to that for a number of pedantic reasons, but I’ll resist the temptation for now). Now, anyone who knows me also knows how much I love such discussions. In fact, it’s kind of a character flaw; I’ll debate trolls and woosters long after everyone else has bowed out. In some cases (like a recent message board discussion on the supposed 9/11 conspiracy) it’s because the beliefs in question are fallacious, ridiculous, specious, and potentially dangerous, and should be corrected. In other cases (as with most trolls, including my dear friend and frequent punching bag Weapon) it’s because I have fun doing it.

To use an analogy that Akusai and Bronze Dog should appreciate, it’s like when I was playing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance over break, and I’d take the Thing or Luke Cage into a crowd of A.I.M.* soldiers or other thugs. They pose no real threat to my health, and I’m way above their strength class (“able to press 85 tons”) so I can take them out very easily, but it gives me a chance to try out new moves, hone my reactions and fighting skills, and ultimately to level up and become better, so I can take out the real dangerous targets with more ease (I realize this is true for just about every RPG, but somehow taking out Doombots never gets old and tedious in the way that taking out bugs and Bombs does). In the same way, I sharpen my rhetorical skills on the easy targets so I can expand my repertoire of attacks, defenses, and knowledge, so I can find the deficiencies in my own knowledge, and so that when I’m talking with someone who actually has some wit and valid arguments, I’m better able to deal with them.

There are, of course, things that can deaden my debate-love. And when I visited The God vs No God Debate, I saw several. I’m not going to assume without evidence that there’s no possibility of a fair and open debate on such a site, but when the owner also runs blogs dedicated favorably to fundamentalist doomsayer Tim LaHaye and bigoted asshole James Dobson, it starts looking rather unlikely. I felt further trepidation when I saw posts entitled “Proof of GOD,” which offered a false dilemma (an interesting and fairly original one, but a false dilemma nonetheless) as its titular evidence, and “Is Skepticism Good Science?” a question which, to me, seems blatantly obvious. The latter post goes on to suggest that scientists on the whole are more concerned with finding flaws in religion than in their “own dogma,” and that “common sense” and “self-evident truth” are scientifically valid sources of knowledge. I wish it were true, but once you’ve accepted that matter is made up of tiny invisible particles, that time is relative, and that an electron can move from one level to another without having ever existed in-between, “common sense” and “self-evident truth” seem a little like oxymorons.

That being said, I’ve decided to address (if not necessarily answer) the question that Bronze Dog’s readers were invited to, and I welcome others to add to the discussion in the comments. I recognize that I seem no more fair or balanced than Mr. Kirk, so I’m not going to pretend to be. But I figure that opening up the discussion on a nontheistic skeptical blog, as well as on Mr. Kirk’s more evangelical-leaning site, ought to balance things out a bit.

Let’s jump right into it. First, the question as posed on The Bronze Blog (because it does differ significantly from that on Kirk’s website; this version is less clearly loaded with ideology):

If you were absolutely certain that by sacrificing your 2 year-olds life that 10 other two years old who would otherwise die would live, would you do it? 100? 1000? 1,000,000.

This is really asking three questions:

  1. Is a sin of omission comparable in moral wrongness to a sin of commission?
  2. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
  3. Do the ends justify the means?

While I’d like to say that there are easy answers to all those questions, the construction of the question makes such moral certainty impossible. See, it’s the “two-year-old” that causes the moral quandary; if the question were about “infants,” it would be a little different. Infants are entirely dependent on their parents, and lack the mental capacity for just about everything. They must have nearly all of their choices made for them, and life-or-death choices are still just choices. Toddlers, on the other hand, are capable of making some choices of their own. They have a measure of autonomy, and can be reasonably considered sentient individuals.

So it becomes a question of “who has the right to sacrifice an individual’s life.” And the simple answer there is “that individual, provided they retain the ability to make choices.” The problem, then, is that a two-year-old lacks the intellectual capacity to understand death and altruism in any meaningful way. You could leave the choice up to them, but they wouldn’t understand what the choice meant. You could make the choice for them, but then you’re depriving them of choice, which is pretty far into morally unacceptable territory.

I suppose this would be a good point to establish the basic moral rules. Society requires two, without which it cannot function. These are not based on religion (although every religious tradition has picked up on them), but on the necessities of society. Oh, and we define society here as “any group of two or more human beings living in close proximity and interacting with one another.”

  1. It is morally wrong to kill another person: For people to interact with each other, each must be reasonably certain that the other will not try to kill them.
  2. It is morally wrong to lie: For people to interact, they must be able to communicate. Lying undermines communication; if you cannot reasonably assume that a person is telling you the truth, then you cannot communicate with them effectively.

Of course, there are arguments to be made as to the universality of these rules and the exceptions to them, but they are true and necessary in all but special cases. The first rule could be generalized out to “it is wrong to deprive another person of their personal freedoms,” but that would require further exceptions. Keep it in mind, however, and keep in mind the basic personal freedoms: choice, thought, and action (all should be allowed freely up to the point where they begin impinging on the same freedoms of others).

Okay, so, let’s tackle the big questions.
1: Is the sin of omission morally comparable to the sin of commission?
By “sin” here, I mean “doing something morally unacceptable,” not “doing something contrary to God’s law.” It simplifies the sentence structure, even if it requires a slightly different interpretation of the word’s meaning. Anyway, put more philosophically: if it is morally wrong to do X, is it equally wrong to allow X to happen if it is directly within your power to stop X? Contrary to “Batman Begins,” I’d say that it may not be equally wrong, but it is still wrong. If you know the Heimlich and someone next to you is choking, it would be wrong not to try and help. You may not be throttling them with your bare hands, but the end result is the same. The key word here is “directly;” X has to be something I can prevent alone and immediately. I can’t be blamed for not performing the Heimlich on a hundred choking people all at once, or for not doing it to a person 600 miles away.

2: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
I don’t think this can be answered in general; it has to be a case-by-case basis. What are the needs involved? What does this require? This comes back to the matter of personal freedoms; the personal freedom of one individual do not and cannot trump the freedom of another (with exceptions). I think the only way this can be decided with absolute certainty is if we leave the decision up to the few (with exceptions).

3: Do the ends justify the means?
I’m going to have to go with “no” on this one. I guess that was easier than I thought.

So, if presented with Kirk’s dilemma, is there a ‘right’ choice? I think it ends up being the lesser of two evils: do you commit a moral wrong and kill an individual, or do you commit a moral wrong and allow several individuals to die? Which is the lesser evil? Do you kill your two-year-old?

I see three different answers to this, and only one of them is morally satisfying. There’s the pragmatic, numerical, Wrath of Khan answer: Yes, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And this would be fine if the two-year-old were making the choice, and if the child understood that choice. Unfortunately, neither of these are true, and you are forced to commit a moral wrong. There’s the pacifistic answer: No, it is wrong to kill, but the problem there is that in avoiding a moral wrong, you commit several lesser-but-similar wrongs. Do those add up to equal or surpass the wrongness of killing an individual? And there’s the superhero answer: There’s always another way. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually allowed in philosophical debates.

So, to answer this version of the question, I’d say it’s a matter of determining which is the lesser evil, and picking it. When we get to the really high numbers, I think the only logical choice would be to sacrifice the one for the good of the million.

Now, as to the post version of the question. This iteration is more clearly loaded with the trappings of Christian dogma, and so I’ll be getting a bit Biblical in response. Thankfully, it’s also easier to answer.

Now for a bit harder set of comparisons. What if someone walked in my house and threaten my children, and said that his whole family was dedicated to trying to kill my family? I think I would be justified in taking him out, and maybe his whole family.

I think not. The problem with the doctrine of pre-emption is that it is a very, very slippery slope. Let’s say your neighbor just has an odd sense of humor; you’ve gone and killed his whole family over a joke. If it is morally okay to kill just because of a perceived threat, then every paranoid kook has license to kill whoever looks at him or her cockeyed. If we accepted this, then we would find Macbeth heroic when he had Macduff’s whole family slaughtered. No, what you are justified to do in this situation is appeal to the authorities and to the protective system which exists to deal with these issues.

This is where one of the exceptions to the personal freedom infringement comes in. As a society, we have all agreed on certain precepts (laws) which limit our freedoms in certain ways in order to keep order. We have also agreed as a society that in some cases, the freedoms of individuals can be infringed upon as punishment and as a way of keeping them from infringing upon the freedoms of others. In other words, we accept that it is wrong for an individual to take another individual’s freedoms away (vigilantism), but we also agree that society as a whole can take an individual’s freedom away (law enforcement, imprisonment). There are things that we will accept as morally right when done by the aggregate society, which would be wrong if done by individuals within the society.

Furthermore, Biblical law would consider this anathema; the concept of “an eye for an eye” means that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime. If someone takes a life, their life is forfeit. However, proclaiming something and doing it are not the same, legally or morally. There’s nothing stopping you from replying “and my family will kill yours,” but there is something stopping you from attacking first; it would be just as wrong.

What if I had to allow one of my children to die so that the rest could live? I know for a fact that all will die or one will die? Get harder.

Sophie’s choice? PZ got recently accused of supporting infanticide for discussing just this possibility. If there is certain doom for one or certain doom for all, especially in a family situation, I doubt that the “one” would object to the sacrifice. If the choice must be made for the “one” for some reason, then it’s difficult emotionally, but not logically.

What if my child was 18 and he was merely going to be put in a position where he might die in order to provide a better life for the community?

Assuming that this 18-year-old is capable of making his/her own decisions, then it’s certainly not up to the parent. When a child has autonomy and the ability to understand the nature of the sacrifice, then it’s no longer up to the parent to make the choice. You cannot sacrifice something that does not belong to you, such as someone else’s life.

What if I felt that I needed to make a rule in my house that I would beat a child within an inch of his life if he raped another of my children? We will assume there is no other authority to intervene.

I’m not even sure what this means.

There’s some discussion above the questions about how God must make similar decisions regarding sacrifice and rule-making. The problem with this analogy is God himself. If we’re to believe in an omnipotent deity, one who has demonstrated the ability to raise the dead, then these questions are moot. There should be no situation in which God is forced to kill one person for the good of others. I understand that the implication is Jesus: God sacrificed his Son so that everyone else would have eternal life (the interpretation of which is different from church to church). The myriad problems with this are that Jesus was alive again after 3 days (give or take), so the sacrifice of life was temporary; Jesus ascended into Heaven to live with God (so God’s sacrifice actually brings Jesus closer to him); and the one that’s really hard to argue with: God’s sacrifice was made to change rules that he made himself. And, since he’s omnipotent, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that he could not have changed the rules in another way. This is not comparable to killing a child to save a community; even if the parent buys into the Christian afterlife, there is no guarantee that they will be reunited with the child (whether through resurrection or meeting in the afterlife), and the parent is unlikely to be the cause of the ailment which would kill the community. The analogy is flawed, and the only thing it may tell us about God is that he works in unnecessarily complicated ways, and doesn’t really understand the nature of sacrifice.

That’s all I have for now; I’ll probably end up tackling more of this site in the near future. Akusai has Christian Answers, I wouldn’t mind “God vs No God.”

*Advanced Idea Mechanics