Craig v Harris debate post mortem, audio, video and transcript

First, here is the audio, part 1 of 9 video and the transcript (thanks to MandM) of The God Debate II between Craig and Harris answering the question “Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural?”  Second, here is my open letter to Craig regarding this debate (when it was still ‘upcoming’).

I had a few thoughts.  Tell me yours.

Craig’s argument:
1.  If God exists, we have a sound foundation for moral values.
2.  If he doesn’t, we don’t.
(more below)

Harris argument:
Not quite as clear, see below.

Points in Craig’s favor:

  • Notes the agreement between Craig and Harris in objective moral values.
  • Notes he is not arguing God’s existence–his argument would be true even if God doesn’t exist.
  • Notes that, if he exists, God is a morally perfect being in which objective morality could be grounded.
  • Notes that “love your neighbor as yourself” and other commands are grounded in God’s loving nature.
  • Notes that nature is morally neutral.
  • Speaks in favor of evolution.
  • Grants science can tell us much about human flourishing (could have thrown in ‘valuing’).
  • Points out science can only tell us how things are (how we ‘do’ value), not how they ought to be (how we ‘ought’ to value)–could have pointed out that even if science (or Harris’ “scientific thinking” … better known as philosophy) could arrive at a real ought–to what would it correspond?
  • Harps on Harris’ denial of free will and moral responsibility (ought implies can)(I also made that observation in a Philosophers’ Carnival I hosted focused on Harris’ Moral Landscape), though it would have been an excellent tie-in with Harris’ attacks on hell (necessary if loving God is to be a choice).
  • Gives good review of debate.
  • Distinguishes moral ontology/semantics.
  • Avoids (anticipates) the distraction of Harris’ attacks on theism by pointing out it is irrelevant to the debate and referring to Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?”
  • Distinguishes between universality and objectivity.
  • Grants well-being is good, but redirects back to the point:  if no God, how is it objectively good?
  • Quotes Harris on psychopathy and well-being, so that Harris’ moral landscape is nonmoral.  (I also made that observation in a Philosophers’ Carnival I hosted focused on Harris’ Moral Landscape.)
  • No moral obligation in absence of God (“Says who?”)–better would be “no moral motivation, because no unconditionally loving God”.
  • Calls Harris out on some key fallacies, misrepresentations, et cetera.
  • Refers people to Reasonable Faith, professors, etc., regarding problem of evil and unevangelized.
  • Points out the problem of evil implies God exists (though doesn’t say evil is the privation of good)–except he comes off sounding circular, since the debate is about whether or not God is the foundation of objective morality (does cover a bit by asking what the foundation is for atheist morality).
  • Agrees w/ Harris Taliban is wrong and not hearing from God.
  • Points out Harris just redefines good to be well-being, but does not define (justify) the sort of goodness that God is (granted, the debate is about ontology, not epistemology/justification)–Harris calls him on this.  I would have spent more time explaining self=Other and its correspondence to God.
  • When Harris says “We can speak objectively about a certain class of subjective facts that go by the name of morality,” Craig appropriately asks “Is the wrongness of an action a subjective fact?”

Points against Craig:

  • Emphasizes fear-based obligation (fear of authority), though he corrects that a bit by saying we are not motivated by avoiding hell, but instead by God being the supreme good to be desired for its own sake, where the fulfillment of human existence is to be found.”
  • Doesn’t ask to what Harris’ objective ought corresponds, since no one is perfectly happy.  The worst possible misery means nothing if the greatest possible well being doesn’t actually correspond….because evil is the privation of (real) good.  Craig should have harped on this.
  • His quote of Dawkins is out-dated–he now agrees with Harris (I may be incorrect, see Jime’s comment below).
  • Uses the word “stupid” (in a debate ‘about’ morality, to attack Harris’ use of the word ‘psycopath’ relative to some religious people, though Harris ‘did’ weasel out of naming names).
  • Voice gets inappropriately loud, provoking laughter (after “The less moral framework….”).
  • Didn’t appropriately respond to Harris’ arguments on facts and values.
  • Reduces well-being to pleasure.
  • Focuses on “no obligation if no law-giver” w/o reiterating the law-giving corresponds to his nature.
  • In Harris’ showing that Craig’s assertion that God is good is equivalent to Harris’ claim that well-being is good, he grants that Craig is correct in his objection (and so Harris is as wrong as Craig).
  • Never counters Harris’ pitting of faith against science.
  • (4/8/11: Harris refers to ‘sectarianism’ (which would include Christianity) and says there is a ‘deeper principle’ that escapes sectarianism–Craig does not counter this, but could have in pointing out the Golden Rule’s presence in all major religions/cultures, not just in the OT/NT. Anticipating Harris’ counter that if it is present in other cultures, we don’t need God to know it, Craig can reiterate that we can know it without knowing its foundation, but it cannot exist to be known, without corresponding to God.)

Points in Harris’ favor:

  • Funny.
  • Attacks God’s character as being immoral/impotent rather than loving (the problem of evil, hell, unevangelized).  This is in his favor because, though Craig is not arguing for God’s existence or goodness, it is relevant to the overall question of whether or not objective morality is grounded in God.  However, many of these attacks are straw men.
  • Says atheists can be very spiritual and fulfilled w/o making unjustified claims.
  • No morality w/o consciousness.
  • Well-being is not merely about pleasure/pain.
  • Science can tell us about human well-being (true, as far as “is”…cannot leap to “ought”).
  • “We can speak objectively about a certain class of subjective facts that go by the name of morality,” (however Craig asks “Is the wrongness of an action a subjective fact?” so also a point against).
  • Analogy of “health” (especially mental health).  But consider these quotes:  “The concept of “well-being,” just like the concept of ‘health,’ is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how fulfilled is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions—ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems—that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know,” (p. 34). “…science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values, even while our conception of ‘well-being’ evolves,” (p. 37).
  • Shows Craig’s assertion that God is good is equivalent to Harris’ claim that well-being is good…however, this is also a point against Harris.
  • Like the various sciences value logic and evidence, the science of morality values avoiding the worst possible misery.
  • Pits science against faith (“right by accident”) and Craig never counters this.
  • Appeals to moral indignation of audience in attacking religious atrocities (fallacy, or skill of persuasion?…could be asked of many of the points in his favor).
  • Captures imagination of audience with the “What if Islam is true” imagining, then flipping it to Christianity.
  • (4/8/11:  Harris refers to ‘sectarianism’ (which would include Christianity) and says there is a ‘deeper principle’ that escapes sectarianism–Craig does not counter this, but could have in pointing out the Golden Rule’s presence in all major religions/cultures, not just in the OT/NT.  Anticipating Harris’ counter that if it is present in other cultures, we don’t need God to know it, Craig can reiterate that we can know it without knowing its foundation, but it cannot exist to be known, without corresponding to God.)

Points against Harris:

  • Does not respond to Craig’s objections.  Red herrings (like saying the evidence for God’s existence is ‘bad evidence’) and straw men (that “Christian morality” is not the sort that anyone can discover) abound.
  • Preaches to the choir regarding objective morality (and the possibility of being wrong about it), rather than graciously granting it as a point of agreement (in a debate ‘about’ morality).
  • Fails to note Craig’s argument that God’s commands must be in accordance with his loving character, rather than being arbitrary.
  • Takes Craig’s comment about Harris focusing on the well-being of sentient creatures out of context–Craig obviously did not mean that was a ‘bad’ thing.  The “one wonders” comment was low.
  • Says not to trust Craig’s quotes of him in The Moral Landscape, but didn’t say which ones were inaccurate.  The only inaccurate (because out-dated) one I saw was the Dawkins quote (I may be incorrect, though–see Jime’s comment below).  Here is Craig’s response posted on Reasonable Faith’s FB page.
  • The worst possible misery means nothing if the greatest possible well being doesn’t actually correspond….because evil is the privation of (real) good.
  • Talking about logic and evidence does not take care of the is-ought/fact-value distinction (which is just as important as logic and evidence).
  • So what if Dr. Craig is not offering an alternative view of morality?  The debate is about the grounding of ‘any’ view of morality.
  • Tries to say Christianity affirms Harris’ view of morality being about well-being (making it look more basic), but fails to ground it.
  • Criticizes being saved by grace because he thinks people should be held accountable (while arguing against hell…and free will/moral responsibility, in his book).
  • “God is mysterious” is a straw man.  Craig never uses it as an argument.
  • Comments using the word “psychopathic” (lunatics, et cetera) verge on ad hominem (in a debate ‘about’ morality).
  • Talking about the horrific practices of religious ‘people’ says nothing about God.
  • In Harris’ showing that Craig’s assertion that God is good is equivalent to Harris’ claim that well-being is good, he grants that Craig is correct in his objection (and so Harris is as wrong as Craig).
  • Disses the ancients’ contribution to the discussion because they lacked technology.

***

That being said, Harris definitely used this debate to his view’s advantage. His priority is to replace God–natural morality is merely his means, so he didn’t focus on its foundation as much as he focused on attacking theism.  Unfortunately there was too little time for Craig to answer all those attacks, and his assertion that “even if God didn’t exist, my assertions would be true” didn’t cover for that.  I’m sure Harris views the debate as a success (at least the successful spread of his memes), though he provided ‘no’ ground for his morality (to what ‘well’ being does it always correspond?–too bad Craig never asked that question).

Open letter to William Lane Craig regarding April 7 debate with Sam Harris

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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4 Responses to Craig v Harris debate post mortem, audio, video and transcript

  1. Jime says:

    Hi Maryann,

    Your comments on the debate are excellent.

    Just a couple of points. First, I don't think that Craig's quote of Dawkins was dated. As far I know, Dawkins still believes that the observable univese is objectively without purpose, design, good and evil, and that we're machines for reproduction.

    Dawkins agree with Harris only in regards to Dawkins' previous opinion that science cannot tell us anything about ethics. Currently, Dawkins agree with Harris that science can tells us many things about morality. But this is a purely epistemological question, not an ontological one.

    But in regards to moral ontology, and as far I know, Dawkins hasn't recanted his previous position that moral values are (ontologically) subjetive.

    By the way, Harris' position supposedly supporting moral objectivism is misleading. He doesn't defend moral objectivism at all, he only defends an epistemological objetivism regarding the explanation of moral beliefs and behaviour.

    In his book, he writes: “Many people are also confused about what it means to speak with scientific “objectivity” about the human condition. As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective.”3 The
    first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of
    the relevant facts, and so on. This is to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying subjective (i.e., first-person) facts “objectively.”

    …many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our
    experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is
    simply untrue. I hope it is clear that when I speak about “objective” moral truths, or about the “objective” causes of human well-being, I am not denying the necessarily subjective (i.e., experiential) component of the facts under discussion. I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings—like the
    Platonic Form of the Good 4—or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong.

    So, note that Harris doesn't believe in ontologically objective moral values, but in subjectivelly existent moral beliefs and experiences which can be explained objectively (i.e. in scientific terms).

    This is moral subjectivism.

    In other words, Harris is defending an objective scientific explanation of (ontologically subjective) moral belief and behaviour.

  2. Jime, you make a great point and I'll make a note of it in my post.

  3. justgold says:

    This is the first time I've been on your blog and it's nice to know that,even you didn't come right out and say it,that Harris wiped the floor with Craig.I really think that Harris as a spokesman for REASON is doing a lot of good for people who are starting to look at the world without their religious blinkers on,and long my it continue.who know's in ten years you yourself might finally grow out of it.As you say in America,have a nice day. = )

  4. Maryann says:

    justgold, I didn't come right out and say it, because it is not true. You don't win a debate with clever red herrings, and such red herrings do not appeal to reason at all.

    Blinkers? I think “blinders” was the word you were going for. Yes, I applaud people like Sam Harris making these issues interesting to the general public–it has opened doors to actual inquiry into the reasons we believe. That 'meme' –that all faith is blind, and that blind faith is a virtue– has needed destroying for a long, long time. Yes, finally we can grow out of that. And have a nice day, yourself :-D

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