How William Lane Craig thrashed Sam Harris like a naughty puppy

Since I was fortunate enough to have some time free yesterday, I was able to watch, live, the Craig-Harris debate on whether God is the foundation of moral goodness. I live blogged this on Twitter, along with with several other apologists—including @MaxeoA and @bossmanham—and a couple of skeptics—including our own village atheist @OpenParachute. (Click here for the full archive; the hashtag is #GodDebateII.)

A quick overview of Craig’s arguments

Since this was a more specialized debate topic than versus Krauss—which was simply “is there evidence for God’s existence?”—Craig had prepared an entirely new defense, based on the moral ontological argument that makes up the third point of his tried-and-true pentad.

Summary if you don’t want to read my verbiage:

  1. Under theism, God accounts for moral values because he is a perfect being and goodness is part of his nature
  2. Under theism, God’s commands account for moral duties
  3. Under atheism, morality is just an evolved convention, in which case it is not actually morality
  4. If morality is evolved convention, it doesn’t refer to anything objective
  5. We can imagine moral conventions evolving differently; therefore they aren’t objective
  6. Harris is trying to redefine goodness as wellbeing, just by his own fiat
  7. Harris’s describing how to be moral doesn’t explain what grounds morality
  8. Harris faces an insuperable problem in the naturalistic fallacy: you cannot derive what ought to be from mere facts about the universe
  9. Harris’s naturalistic view doesn’t allow for free will, which completely undermines his moral theories anyway

Here are Craig’s two basic contentions, with some extra explanation and discussion if you’re interested:

  1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;
  2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.

In support of (1), Craig brought in Perfect Being Theology. (I’m paraphrasing from Wintery Knight’s and Randy Everist’s excellent reviews; if you find Randy’s white-on-black text too hard to read, try this Readability link.) If God is the perfect being, then it follows he is also morally perfect, and so his nature is the locus or grounds of that which is good. This accounts for moral values, and by extension for moral duties, which are derived in the form of commands from God, grounded in these values. This is known as Divine Command Theory—an important theory in Christian ethics because it is unassailable by the classic objection to theistic ethics, the Euthyphro Dilemma, which Krauss tried to sic on Craig in their debate a few days ago, and which Harris also ineptly aimed at Craig in this debate, demonstrating that New Atheists simply aren’t familiar with the basic positions of their opponents, and the ramifications this has for their own arguments. This is particularly inexcusable in the case of Harris, who has a degree in philosophy from Stanford (you know, the institution in charge of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Not exactly a second-rate school).

In defense of contention (2), Craig brought a several powerful arguments to bear:

  • He questioned the worth of humans, both collectively and individually, from a non-theistic perspective, pointing out that if all we are is evolved animals, then morality is just a behavioral byproduct of evolution, and thus in no sense obligatory. But “obligatoryness” or “oughtness” is exactly what morality is, so without it you have no actual account of morality at all.
  • Moreover, if morality is just a set of evolved social customs, it doesn’t refer to anything that has objective existence, as we typically suppose moral values and duties must. Quoting atheist philosopher Michael Ruse, and the infamous Richard Dawkins (another New Atheist along with Harris), he said, “morality is just an aid to survival, and any deeper meaning is illusory” and “there is no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”
  • Drawing on possible worlds semantics, Craig also pointed out that if we were to rewind evolution and do it again, we can imagine moral customs evolving differently given Harris’s view—which bodes very badly for their supposed objectivity.
  • Craig also aptly pointed out that saying Harris simply tries to redefine “goodness” to mean “well-being”—but that won’t fly because why should we accept that definition? Harris ultimately is not talking about morality at all, but merely about human flourishing.
  • In the same vein, that we ought to do something in order to achieve human well-being, doesn’t answer how well-being grounds morality—which was the topic of the debate! It’s like saying “If you want to be good at growing corn, do such-and-such.” It gives us an ostensible description of how to go about being moral, but that is irrelevant to the question of what moral values and duties are.
  • He also mentioned the “is-ought” fallacy, which Harris seems to have real trouble with: that you can’t derive a prescription from a description; just because something is some way doesn’t imply that it ought to be (even if we know it ought to be via some other method!)
  • And to round off his defense, he brought in the free will argument for moral agency, pointing out that under Harris’s view of the world we cannot do other than what physical laws have determined, and thus have no moral responsibility in any case, making the whole question meaningless for him to begin with.

I list the arguments like this to show that Craig brought a great many cogent objections to bear against Harris’s view—this is important for reasons you’ll see in a moment. Ultimately, Craig argued, those who act immorally under Harris’ view are doing nothing more than acting unfashionably: “The moral equivalent of Lady Gaga.”

What Harris said

Harris is a great speaker. A much better speaker, I think, than Craig, who while practiced does not have the natural cadence and charisma of Harris. In fact, the most annoying thing about Harris is how he can say the most outrageously illogical or irrelevant things, and make them sound utterly reasonable and topical with his soft-spoken earnestness. And thus it was with his opening statement.

Summary for skimmers:

  1. Objective morality is important
  2. You don’t need religion to have objective morality
  3. Science can actually tell us what we ought to value because we never really separate facts and values
  4. Moral values depend on nature because they depend on nature-dependent minds, and so can be understood with science
  5. Morality is intrinsically about wellbeing because we can imagine a possible world in which everyone suffers horribly, and we see that we have an obligation to relieve that suffering
  6. Morality can’t be dictated by divine commands because God is evil
  7. We can say scientifically that the Taliban is bad

Harris started with some quite gracious comments regarding the importance of objective morality: about how religious people fear that without the conviction that moral truths exist, that words like right and wrong, good and evil actually mean something, humanity will lose his way. He shares this fear and has come to believe that this concern over the erosion of secular morality is not empty.

He then went on to claim that belief in God is not only unnecessary for universal morality, but is a source of blindness about universal morality. He criticized the view that science can never tell us what we ought to value, and so cannot, in principle, be applied to the most important questions in life (moral questions).

By this stage he had used up half of his time without actually defending his moot at all.

To defend his contention that morality is intrinsically about conscious well-being—still not the topic—he went on to ask the audience to imagine two worlds: Firstly, a world comprised entirely of rocks. In such a world there is no good and evil, and value judgments don’t apply—changes in the universe matter only if “some conscious system” is there to care about them: thus consciousness is intrinsic to morality. Secondly, he entertained a world where everyone suffers as much as they can for as long as they can. Do we, he asked, have an obligation to help relieve that suffering if we can? If we do—as seems obvious—then conscious well-being is at the heart of what is morally good. From this he tried to develop the following argument for his position:

  1. Moral values and obligations depend upon minds
  2. Minds depend upon the laws of nature
  3. Therefore, moral values depend upon nature and can be understood through science

This argument is hopelessly confused, as Craig would go on to indirectly point out. Harris went on to talk about conceivable moral “landscapes” where there are peaks of wellbeing and valleys of suffering: peaks are morally good; valleys are morally bad.

At this stage he changed tacks and started talking about the Taliban, and how the society they were trying to build is not good; that it is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about their moral ideas. He also talked about how we can’t ground morality in God because God is (supposedly) immoral.

The rest of his opening statement tried to show that he should be allowed to use the naturalistic fallacy: ie, that he should be allowed to derive an “ought” from an “is”; a value from a mere fact. He used some very odd examples to show that, in practice, we don’t artificially separate questions of fact from questions of value. One involved a rather ridiculous example involving a “biblical chemist” whose reading of Genesis 1, where God creates water before light, precludes him from believing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen because there were no stars to fuse hydrogen into heavier elements like oxygen when water already existed. Ignoring the uncharitably malicious strawman itself, the point was to show “scientific values” like the importance, the goodness, of understanding the universe. This was supposed to defuse the naturalistic fallacy. But he gave no actual argument: he only showed that we consider our beliefs about values and our beliefs about facts together. Not that one can be derived from the other.

Again, I say all this to give a reasonably comprehensive sense of Harris’s opening statement, and how well it interacts with Craig’s position, and the topic of the debate. Suffice to say that Harris gave only one real argument—and that one a very poor, very dubious one—for the actual topic. If you compare his statement to the various arguments Craig raises in his own opening statement, it is quite clear that Harris doesn’t even touch on the vast majority of the issues at hand—and as Craig will suggest in a moment, it seems he actually doesn’t understand the topic of the debate. Most of what he talks about—even if we were to find it compelling—is simply irrelevant.

Craig crushes Harris

Summary:

  1. Harris is confusing how we know moral values and duties with what grounds moral values and duties
  2. Harris’s critique of God’s character is irrelevant and off topic
  3. The question isn’t whether human flourishing is good, but what makes human flourishing good
  4. Human flourishing cannot be identical with moral goodness because we can imagine a possible world, under Harris’s own assumptions, where evil people primarily flourish (this is a devastating argument that blows Harris’s entire ethical framework out of the water and leaves him with nothing in the debate)
  5. Moral obligations come from an appropriate authority, and under atheism there is no objective authority; thus no foundation for objective morality

Craig started by drawing the audience’s attention to how Harris was confusing moral ontology with moral semantics: confusing the basis or the foundation for moral values with the meaning of moral terms. Craig’s argument, and the topic of the debate, was about what grounds moral values and duties—not what words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” mean. Christians readily concede that we can know what good and evil are even if we don’t believe they are grounded ontologically in God.

He then rightly dismissed Harris’s criticism of YHWH’s character as irrelevant. For one thing, there are plenty of divine command theorists who are not Jews or Christians. For another, there’s good reason to think that YHWH (the God of the Bible) is not a moral monster—in that regard he recommended Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?. “We have not heard any objection to a theistic grounding for ethics,” Craig said. “If God does exist, it’s clear, I think—obvious even—that we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.”

He then started to drag Harris over broken glass by showing that the issue of human flourishing, or conscious wellbeing, is not the question of the debate. We agree that, all things being equal, the flourishing of conscious creatures is good. The question is: if atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures good? Craig observed that Harris is using words like “good” and “better” in non-moral ways: for example, that there is a good way to get yourself killed doesn’t imply that it’s a moral thing to do. Harris’s contrast of the “good” life and the “bad” life is not an ethical contrast: it is a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. Since Harris had given no reason to identify pleasure and misery with good and evil, there was no reason for thinking that the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good.

Here Craig brought down the hammer and completely crushed Harris for the rest of the debate, by not only showing that Harris wasn’t engaging with the topic (he was equivocating between moral epistemology and ontology) but that his entire ethical system was necessarily false, by his own admission. Harris was saying that the property of “being good” is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing…but on the penultimate page of his book, he tellingly admitted that if rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape: it would just be a continuum of wellbeing, whose peaks were occupied by good and bad people alike. But as Craig pointed out, this implies that there’s a possible world where the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people (say psychopaths). If moral goodness is identical to human wellbeing it is logically contradictory for there to be a possible world in which the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people. Thus, moral goodness cannot be identical with human wellbeing or flourishing.

Harris was down for the count, and never even tried to address this argument in his followups.

Craig followed up this crushing argument with a further one, noting that moral obligations only arise when there is an appropriate authority to issue binding commands—and under atheism, no objective authority exists, and so objective moral values cannot exist.

Harris goes fishing

At this point Harris completely abdicated his obligation to defend the atheistic foundation of morality, and launched into a diatribe about how he didn’t like Christian doctrine, or Christians, or (again) the Taliban. Here’s a non-exhaustive summary of his “arguments”, with particular gems highlighted:

  1. There is no evidence that hell exists
  2. think of the parents of the children of people who die in tsunamis
  3. if God allows people to suffer then he doesn’t exist
  4. some people pray to the Monkey God—why don’t they go to heaven?
  5. God can’t exist because some people are born in the wrong culture and never hear about Jesus through no fault of their own
  6. the Bible says people go to hell to be tortured for eternity—perhaps you’ll remember in Lord of the Rings when the elves die they go to Valinor, but can be reborn in Middle Earth
  7. God is cruel and unjust because he lets innocent people suffer
  8. evil people who repent just before being executed go to heaven
  9. God would embarrass the most vicious psychopath
  10. people who believe in God are morally reprehensible narcissists
  11. God imposes misery on helpless children, so faith is obscene
  12. to think in this way is to fail to reason honestly or care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings
  13. if God is good and loving and wanted us to behave morally, why give us a book that supports slavery and admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft?
  14. Craig’s divine command theory tries to avoid these questions by saying that God doesn’t have to be good
  15. think about the Muslims who are blowing themselves up convinced that they are agents of God’s will—what could Craig say to them aside from his own faith-based claims?
  16. this is a psychotic, completely delusional and psychopathic moral attitude
  17. …true horror of religion…
  18. if you think saying Latin words over your pancakes will turn it into the body of Elvis Presley you’re insane, but if you think the same about a cracker and Jesus you’re a Catholic
  19. salvation depends on believing in God on the basis of bad evidence
  20. Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice
  21. the people who wrote the Bible were ignorant and barbaric
  22. if there’s a less moral framework than the one Doctor Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it.

That’s quite a number of red herrings—count them! And some, at face value, have force. But notice, not a single one of them is germane to the topic. Harris utterly ignored Craig’s arguments, and utterly failed to defend his own position. It’s as if, seeing that he was having his ass handed to him, he just dipped into the Village Atheist’s Bucket of Stock Objections to Christianity, and flung as many of them at Craig as he could, in the hope that some would stick.

Craig: tsk tsk tsk

“A less moral framework is atheism,” started Craig with an exasperated laugh, and then went on to point out that Harris had said nothing to defend an atheistic foundation for morality, nor to refute Craig’s own arguments. To demonstrate how poorly Harris understood Christianity, and how irrelevant his “arguments” were, Craig quipped, in regards to Harris’s claim that the goal on theism is to avoid hell, “Belief in God isn’t some kind of fire insurance.” He then went on to list a number of other ways in which the red herrings that Harris had laid across the path were irrelevant—which was fair enough since there wasn’t much else to say.

Harris responds with another diatribe

Getting further and further off topic, as if he knew he had nothing to contribute and just wanted to get his talking points off for the benefit of the village atheists in the audience, Harris went over various topics, saying, in Wintery Knight’s summary:

When I make a scientific case for morality, I don’t really mean that it is scientific; You just have to assume that misery is morally evil, and happiness is morally good, even if that can’t be proved scientifically; I’m a scientist; Science is great; Dr Craig is stupid; Dr Craig is not a scientist; Science is better than religion; You can ground an objective standard of morality and objective moral duties and moral responsibility on arbitrary brain states of accidentally evolved biologically determined monkeys; Dr Craig’s question for me about my unproven assumptions is a stupid question; I prayed to the Monkey God in a cave and he told me about objective morality; I have spent a lot of time studying meditation with wise yogis and lamas; I consider some people to be spiritual Jesus; I can imagine that Jesus was very spiritual and charismatic; We don’t have to use logic and reason to debate about morality, we can meditate on the Monkey God; I don’t like the Taliban.

And so on

It doesn’t seem worth summarizing the final rebuttals separately; Craig noted that Harris had conceded his point about psychopaths occupying “peaks” on the moral continuum, and had thus thrown in the towel as far as his contention that goodness is identical to wellbeing—and for the debate as a whole. Harris continued to make off-topic remarks and generally display his inability to charitably represent and seriously grapple with the issues at hand, all in his earnest, sing-song way, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.

The Q&A period was weak, compared to the Krauss debate. There was no opportunity for rebuttals, which made the whole process quite pointless, turning it effectively into a soapbox for Harris, who got most of the questions. Craig, on the upside, did display his sharpness by having no part in a specious question from an audience member claiming direct revelation from God.

In the end, my sense was that Craig was quietly exasperated at Harris for failing to deliver; and Harris was exasperated at Craig for being a Christian.

64 replies
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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I read your summary but came away with the opposite conclusion. Harris won this debate handily.

    As you say, Craig made two fundamental arguments. His first argument takes as axiomatic that a) God exists and b) God is good. It was then appropriate for Harris to question these assumptions and deliver arguments to dismantle them. I don't understand why you (and Craig) accuse him of being off-topic. Craig made it the topic.

    Harris addressed Craig's second argument several times. The most interesting and convincing to me was his analogy to other domains where we also don't have "objective" sources to ground them but nonetheless take them to be scientific and profoundly useful. e.g. medicine.

  2. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    nketter you write, "As you say, Craig made two fundamental arguments. His first argument takes as axiomatic that a) God exists and b) God is good. It was then appropriate for Harris to question these assumptions and deliver arguments to dismantle them. I don't understand why you (and Craig) accuse him of being off-topic. Craig made it the topic."

    This is simply mistaken, Craig was quite clear his contention to defend two conditional claims these were.

    1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;

    2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.

    Moreover, Craig noted that by God he was using the standard definition of God as an "all knowing all good perfectly good immaterial person".

    So Craig was not assuming God exists, nor was he assuming that God was good. His claim was "if" a God exists that fits the standard definition then one has a defensible and plausible account of moral obligation. Attacking the existence of God does not address this conditional at all.

    You don't refute a conditional: If P then Q by arguing P is false.
    If I say to you, if you walk on the road you will die. The response "that's not true because I am sitting on the couch and not on the road" does not really address the issue. To refute one Harris needs to show that even if God exists the divine command theory is indefensible or implausible.

    Its also worth noting that even if Craig did make the existence of God his assumption. Most of Harris arguments did not even address the existence of God. What they addressed were certain Christian doctrines of hell, particularism, and also the notion of biblical inerrancy. None of these doctrines were the issue of the debate.

    As to the second contention, Craig actually delivered a pretty powerful critique of Harris position he noted that if A is identical to B then there is no possible world where A is not B, but Harris in his own book grants that there are possible worlds "where evil people primarily flourish" This requires Harris to deny the laws of identity. Harris never addressed this argument once, to suggest a position is defensible when its been shown to entail a contradiction because the author has offered arguments against Christianity is, quite bluntly, illogical.

    Harris also ignored the "ought implies can" problem and the "is ought problem". Both of which are quite serious objections.

    What was clear from the debate was that some skeptics think that if a speaker raises a series of angry attacks on Christian doctrines, which are not even the topic of the debate then you can ignore the demonstrated contradictions in your own position. To call these people defenders of reason is a joke.

  3. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    nketter you write, “As you say, Craig made two fundamental arguments. His first argument takes as axiomatic that a) God exists and b) God is good. It was then appropriate for Harris to question these assumptions and deliver arguments to dismantle them. I don’t understand why you (and Craig) accuse him of being off-topic. Craig made it the topic.”

    This is simply mistaken, Craig was quite clear his contention to defend two conditional claims these were.

    1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;

    2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.

    Moreover, Craig noted that by God he was using the standard definition of God as an “all knowing all good perfectly good immaterial person”.

    So Craig was not assuming God exists, nor was he assuming that God was good. His claim was “if” a God exists that fits the standard definition then one has a defensible and plausible account of moral obligation. Attacking the existence of God does not address this conditional at all.

    You don’t refute a conditional: If P then Q by arguing P is false.
    If I say to you, if you walk on the road you will die. The response “that’s not true because I am sitting on the couch and not on the road” does not really address the issue. To refute one Harris needs to show that even if God exists the divine command theory is indefensible or implausible.

    Its also worth noting that even if Craig did make the existence of God his assumption. Most of Harris arguments did not even address the existence of God. What they addressed were certain Christian doctrines of hell, particularism, and also the notion of biblical inerrancy. None of these doctrines were the issue of the debate.

    As to the second contention, Craig actually delivered a pretty powerful critique of Harris position he noted that if A is identical to B then there is no possible world where A is not B, but Harris in his own book grants that there are possible worlds “where evil people primarily flourish” This requires Harris to deny the laws of identity. Harris never addressed this argument once, to suggest a position is defensible when its been shown to entail a contradiction because the author has offered arguments against Christianity is, quite bluntly, illogical.

    Harris also ignored the “ought implies can” problem and the “is ought problem”. Both of which are quite serious objections.

    What was clear from the debate was that some skeptics think that if a speaker raises a series of angry attacks on Christian doctrines, which are not even the topic of the debate then you can ignore the demonstrated contradictions in your own position. To call these people defenders of reason is a joke.

  4. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    “The most interesting and convincing to me was his analogy to other domains where we also don’t have “objective” sources to ground them but nonetheless take them to be scientific and profoundly useful. e.g. medicine.”
    Actually this is a mistake as well, what Harris did was show that we don’t need epistemological foundations for certain moral claims. Craig actually agrees with that, and has made the same point in his writings. However, as he pointed out over and over, and as the literature on divine command theory has repeated over and over, a divine command theory is a theory of an ontological foundation, not an epistemic foundation. This is elementary philosophical distinction which Craig explained in the opening speech and any reading of the literature makes clear. It was ignored repeatedly by Harris who continued to criticise the idea that belief in the bible was an epistemological foundation for morality, despite the fact it had been made clear this was not what a divine command theory affirms. Its also quite telling that a guy who has written a book on why you don’t need religion for morality does not even now the basic distinctions and issues which are central to the major theories in the literature.

    Its also interesting that Harris was quite selective here when challenged about his moral claims he replied ( quite correctly) that one does not need evidence for every claim one believes some we can justifiably believe without evidence. Then he only a few sentences latter rejected God as irrational because there is no evidence for it. This might have been funny if it was not so tragic.

    Only at one point did he address the claim that religious beliefs might be immediately grounded without evidence and he rejected this on the basis that people disagree over the nature of God.

    What was the debate about? a disagreement over the nature of morality. So Harris is quite content to rely on his own intuitions about morality despite the fact people disagree over what morality is and to argue these are justified without evidence. He then claims Christians are irrational for doing the very same thing.

  5. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    "The most interesting and convincing to me was his analogy to other domains where we also don't have "objective" sources to ground them but nonetheless take them to be scientific and profoundly useful. e.g. medicine."
    Actually this is a mistake as well, what Harris did was show that we don't need epistemological foundations for certain moral claims. Craig actually agrees with that, and has made the same point in his writings. However, as he pointed out over and over, and as the literature on divine command theory has repeated over and over, a divine command theory is a theory of an ontological foundation, not an epistemic foundation. This is elementary philosophical distinction which Craig explained in the opening speech and any reading of the literature makes clear. It was ignored repeatedly by Harris who continued to criticise the idea that belief in the bible was an epistemological foundation for morality, despite the fact it had been made clear this was not what a divine command theory affirms. Its also quite telling that a guy who has written a book on why you don't need religion for morality does not even now the basic distinctions and issues which are central to the major theories in the literature.

    Its also interesting that Harris was quite selective here when challenged about his moral claims he replied ( quite correctly) that one does not need evidence for every claim one believes some we can justifiably believe without evidence. Then he only a few sentences latter rejected God as irrational because there is no evidence for it. This might have been funny if it was not so tragic.

    Only at one point did he address the claim that religious beliefs might be immediately grounded without evidence and he rejected this on the basis that people disagree over the nature of God.

    What was the debate about? a disagreement over the nature of morality. So Harris is quite content to rely on his own intuitions about morality despite the fact people disagree over what morality is and to argue these are justified without evidence. He then claims Christians are irrational for doing the very same thing.

  6. Ralph Alair
    Ralph Alair says:

    It all went down to whose framing of the debate was most successful. If the topic was limited to moral ontology, then clearly Sam Harris lost because he only lightly touched on it. It seems that he conceded this as early as his first speech. However, the actual topic of the debate was mostly in flux – I don’t believe that the debate was limited merely to moral ontology despite Craig’s insistence. If it had been so, the debate would have been so much more uninteresting. A debate on moral ontology could only appeal to those who have a philosophical background and even for them, it remains to be a highly technical topic. Also, given that both Sam Harris and Craig agree that objective morality exists, questions of grounding become moot and epistemological access become much more significant. That is, unless, Craig was prepared to argue that objective moral values could not exist in the absence of God – something he did not do. By enlarging the scope of the argument and ignoring questions of grounding, Sam Harris was able to sway the audience and even force his opponent to get out of his tightly defended comfort zone. So far from being irrelevant, Sam Harris’ attack on Christian morality was not only germaine but rhetorically effective. In the end, Sam Harris was able to frame the debate to answer this question: Which moral theory could possibly provide an “objective” standard for humans? And by “objective”, he only means that which can be examined free of bias by the scientific method. (if you’re complaining that Sam Harris is not using a definition of “objective” that’s acceptable to moral philosophers, be happy to know that neither is Craig) And on the basis of this yardstick, he was able to build a strong case for his side and deliver powerful criticisms of theistic morality.

  7. Bsquibs
    Bsquibs says:

    I've largely given up on the formal debate format. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but it occurs to me that [b]some[/b] people focus too much on discussing who was the apparent winner of the contest (and "contest" seems to be an apt description) and not enough on the overall content.

    An informal discussion that radio shows like Unbelievable? promote seems to be much more rewarding both for the listener and the guests.

    But I've heard so much about the recent Craig/ Krauss Craig/ Harris debates that perhaps I'll give them a listen.

  8. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Ralph, you say:

    Also, given that both Sam Harris and Craig agree that objective morality exists, questions of grounding become moot

    What? Craig showed decisively that Harris has no grouding for objective morality. How is the issue moot if one side has no grounding for the thing he believes in, and therefore is implicitly relying on the truth of the other side in order to make his own case?

    That is, unless, Craig was prepared to argue that objective moral values could not exist in the absence of God – something he did not do.

    What debate were you watching? He did this and more. Look at the arguments I list for his opening statement: 3–5 and 7–9 are all concerned in some way with showing that objective moral values could not exist in the absence of God!

    So far from being irrelevant, Sam Harris’ attack on Christian morality was not only germaine but rhetorically effective.

    It wasn't germane at all, as I argued in this article. You can't attack Christian morality without offering a viable substitute from which to launch your attack. Harris failed utterly to do this. No doubt he scored some rhetorical points with the "cheerleaders", as Craig calls them, but debates are supposed to be about arguments. Harris didn't present any of worth.

    And by “objective”, he only means that which can be examined free of bias by the scientific method. (if you’re complaining that Sam Harris is not using a definition of “objective” that’s acceptable to moral philosophers, be happy to know that neither is Craig)

    Of course, "objective" does not mean "examinable free of bias via the scientific method" in any kind of philosophy. One assumes Harris knows this—and we have only your word for how we should interpret him. Harris certainly seemed to want to affirm some kind of objective morality, in the proper sense of that term. As for Craig's use of the term, again, we have only your word for it. Since Craig is a philosopher, I'm more inclined to believe that he's using the term correctly, unless you can point out his error.

    And on the basis of this yardstick, he was able to build a strong case for his side and deliver powerful criticisms of theistic morality.

    I'm going to assume that you're one of the "cheerleaders" Craig talks about—no considered, objective (hah) analysis of this debate could possibly yield that conclusion. Craig demolished his case, and his criticisms of theistic morality looked like they were taken straight from Dawkins, which is high-school level at best, and has been answered many times over.

  9. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Bsquibs, I tend to agree with you that debates often end up being about "winners" rather than arguments, but as Craig points out in his recent Facebook post, the people that do this are "cheerleaders" for their cause, and aren't in a good position to judge the debates. They're just there to cheer their side, arguments be damned. But there are plenty of "analysts", too, who are in such a position, and for them the debates are very instructive.

    I'd actually highly recommend watching both debates, just to get a sense of where New Atheists are currently at with their arguments—and how weak they are.

  10. Bsquibs
    Bsquibs says:

    I may do that.

    On another note, may I make a suggestion of my own? You (or anyone else for that matter) should check out the work of Vinoth Ramachandra. He is a deeply intelligent Christian activist involved in challenging injustice. His blog is excellent – http://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/.

    There are also a number of debates of his on Veritas.org.

  11. JF
    JF says:

    Brilliant write up… After reading some of the comments on youtube it was refreshing to read some intelligence. Something that sticks out for me is that in the actual debate only Craig has an objective moral grounding and moral obligation to be honest & truthful, whereas Harris on the other hand with his 'landscape' can be manipulating, misleading, a liar, deceitful, distracting etc. if he feels 'well being' from it or it gives him an opportunity to be the strongest/fittest survivor. The perfect 'moral landscape' for a narcissist I may add.

  12. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    JF, I think that's a very accurate observation: it's hard to see how wellbeing fits in with our intuitions about how to act in many cases.

    There are also a lot of other problems. Whose wellbeing we should seek to maximize, for example? Harris seems to think that we should maximize the wellbeing of all people as much as possible. But what if this leads to everyone being generally unhappy? What if you could maximize the wellbeing of a larger group at the expense of a smaller group? Why should this not be permissible? Under Harris's utilitarianism, wouldn't this be the more desirable outcome?

    Or, how can we justify making wellbeing identical with goodness? Our moral intuitions tell us that it is sensible to say, "It is good to be good". It's tautologous, but we understand that it is true precisely because it is tautologous. But when Harris asks us believe that "It maximizes wellbeing to be good" and "It is good to maximize wellbeing" are logically equivalent statements, our BS detectors quickly start ringing.

  13. TYL
    TYL says:

    Just on this point, what makes God, or His character, perfect or good? Is there some objective reason why Mercy, for example, is good?

    Thanks.

  14. Lee
    Lee says:

    Please explain how god could not say rape, murder, slavery, and the torture of children are moral acts.

  15. Daniele di Naples
    Daniele di Naples says:

    Would anyone like to update the section on the criticisms of Sma Harris book with Craig's comments. I added a few and linked to the Q and A but I think the section on criticism deserves some beefing up with all of Craig's criticisms. I also afraid Harris' fanboys will edit down the article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moral_Landscape#

  16. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hey Lee, well as Craig said, moral values are derived from God's character. God's character is not arbitrary or changeable; it is perfect and immutable. It's not like God wakes up one day feeling nice, and then the next day he gets out the wrong side of bed and decides to be evil. God is always perfect—and his moral perfection precludes him just declaring that rape and murder are good today.

    When you think about who and what God is, you'll see that the idea that he could simply make evil things good by fiat doesn't actually make sense. People like to take the Euthyphro Dilemma and say, Well, either God knows that murder is immoral, in which case morality transcends him; or he just decides that murder is immoral, in which case he could always decide otherwise. But in fact, he couldn't decide otherwise, so the objection makes no sense.

    Hope this helps; let me know if I haven't been clear (:

  17. Stephen Kipp
    Stephen Kipp says:

    Wow, your assessment of the debate is so off that I don’t even know where to start.

    I love how Craig’s nut-huggers (like you) throw a tizzy when your messiah’s rhetorical rubbish is juxtaposed against intelligent, salient, thought-provoking, common-sense insights.

    I guess it really sucks when Craig’s “brilliance” is exposed for the the worthless gibberish that is actually is.

    And I especially love how you all go on and on about how Harris “went off topic” as though it is a capital offense, yet you completely ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, namely, that your boy, Craig, exhibits an absurd degree of intellectual dishonesty.

    But I guess substance, integrity and rational thought aren’t your bag of tea, eh?

    Yea…belief in a big sky daddy trumps all.

    You go, girl!

    What say you?

    Later, bitch.

  18. Chris Mankey
    Chris Mankey says:

    “Harris’s critique of God’s character is irrelevant and off topic”

    Yep, it’s “off topic” to point out that you “ground your morality ” on the alleged will of a profoundly immoral being .

  19. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    People who can’t distinguish between Gods nature and/or character, and Biblical revelation shouldn’t pontificate on the relevancy of Harris’ “rebuttal”. They obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Stuart McEwing

  20. John Wolforth
    John Wolforth says:

    The only way you can, as you say, “blow Harris’ argument out of the water”, is to redefine it as you did in summary point #4 under “Craig crushes Harris”. If you redefine flourishing as some evil people primarily flourishing, no doubt at the expense of others, then humans as a whole are not flourishing. Harris is talking about facts we know apply to everybody, like we prefer to breath clean air and eat decent food. If you take that away from someone else, so that you flourish, you are breaking Harris’ moral code.

  21. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    On the contrary, John, Craig explicitly uses Harris’s own premises to formulate his argument—he even quotes Harris to make this doubly clear. His argument is an internal critique. So I suspect you’re misunderstanding Harris if you think Craig is redefining his position.

  22. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    Bnonn, unfortunately some of Harris’s cheer leaders don’t understand that identity claims hold in all possible worlds. Hence if you claim that goodness is identical with human well being, then all that needs to be shown is that its possible that the two come apart and then its not identical. To claim “harris is talking about facts” ignores this point. The fact is its impossible for two identical things to be different, that’s what it means to say they are identical.

  23. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    Bnonn, unfortunately some of Harris’s cheer leaders don’t understand that identity claims hold in all possible worlds. Hence if you claim that goodness is identical with human well being, then all that needs to be shown is that its possible that the two come apart and then its not identical. To claim “harris is talking about facts” ignores this point. The fact is its impossible for two identical things to be different, that’s what it means to say they are identical.

  24. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    In no sense was this a ‘thrashing.’ I thought it was a draw at best. They both talked past each other most of the night and nothing was really accomplished. I thought Craig really lost points when Harris pushed him as to why God has to be good. 

  25. Lee
    Lee says:

    “This is known as Divine Command Theory—an important theory in Christian ethics because it is unassailable by the classic objection to theistic ethics, the Euthyphro Dilemma”

    This is where I stopped reading. Perfect Being Theology is imagined to be in this unassailable position following Anselm, not Divine Command Theory. DCT, using PBT, attempts to escape the horns by saying that God is the standard of value, his nature is the essence of good, he is the greatest conceivable being, etc. . Unfortunately, all of these either presuppose a standard of ‘good’ (horn 1) in attributing meaning to these phrases, or do nothing of the sort, and derive their meaning a posteriori (horn 2), suffering from the charge of arbitrariness, emptiness, or worse. The Divine Command Theorist, far from holding an unassailable position with Perfect Being Theology, find himself squarely back in the same place he so painstakingly attempted to navigate away from.

    You are either unaware of this, and we should all wonder why you’re writing reviews of debates on moral philosophy in that case, or you are aware of it and lying to your audience. YOU linked the SEP, have you read the relevant post?

    “Bnonn, unfortunately some of Harris’s cheer leaders don’t understand that identity claims hold in all possible worlds. Hence if you claim that goodness is identical with human well being, then all that needs to be shown is that its possible that the two come apart and then its not identical. To claim “harris is talking about facts” ignores this point. The fact is its impossible for two identical things to be different, that’s what it means to say they are identical.”

    The goodness of an act is not intrinsic to the act itself, but predicated upon the effect the act produces. This is why Harris asserts(rightly, imo), that if you scratch the surface of even a deontologist, you find a consequentialist lurking beneath. That said, Craig’s “knockdown argument” is nothing of the sort. He points out a concession made by Harris, that a rapist could occupy a peak in his moral landscape(though not a very high one, as you will see), but he does not show that this means goodness and well-being are not identical. The relevant passage from his notes is as follows:

    “We already know that psychopaths have brain damage that prevents them from having certain deeply satisfying experiences (like empathy) that seem good for people both personally and collectively (in that they tend to increase well-being on both counts). Psychopaths, therefore, don’t know what they are missing (but we do). The position of a psychopath also cannot be generalized; it is not, therefore, an alternative view of how human beings should live (this is one point Kant got right: even a psychopath couldn’t want to live in a world filled with psychopaths). We should also realize that the psychopath we are envisioning is a straw man: watch interviews with real psychopaths, and you will find that they do not tend to claim to be in possession of an alternative morality or to be living deeply fulfilling lives. These people are generally ruled by compulsions that they don’t understand and cannot resist. It is absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of well-being (excitement, ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological and social deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it. We can say that a psychopath like Ted Bundy takes satisfaction in the wrong things, because living a life purposed towards raping and killing women does not allow for deeper and more generalized forms of human flourishing.”

    It continues, but that is the gist. It should be clear that Craig did not honestly represent Sam’s writing, and was simply trying to score points in a debate and/or derail the discussion, when trumpeting this as a “knockdown argument” using “Harris’ own premises”. A response would entail an extensive clarification, taking time better spent elsewhere, while ignoring it would allow Craig to come back and claim that his superfluous parlor trick was un-refuted. As Sam pointed out on his blog:

    Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing. He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set. If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr. Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5. It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

    As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarizes what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic. The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly. Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth. Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God. This was, after all, the argument that the organizer’s at Notre Dame had invited me to make.”

    The irony in all of this is that Craig himself has come out and said that debates are not about getting at the truth. Debates are about winning. If you knew this simple fact, you wouldn’t take his every utterance as a counterpoint to Harris’ actual position, you would be talking about the strategic benefit of such sly abuse of the opponent’s published work and spoken word. Harris showed up to make a case, and argue against Craig’s, whilst Craig showed up to put another trophy on his mantle.

  26. Andrew Gray
    Andrew Gray says:

    @Lee,

    That’s an interesting response, thank you for sharing it. May I say you seem thoughtful in your response here. I’m a little disappointed though, that you are joining the view of others in the “church of Internet atheists”.

    It is well known in academia that Harris has a significant shortcoming in the position he has advocated for the past few years. Many were waiting with bated breath for the release of Harris’s latest book, in which he was going to address the issue of how to get from an is to an ought. Clearly, Harris thinks he has done this, but he seems oblivious to the fact that he is making the logical fallacy of begging the question. You seem intelligent, so I urge you to avoid the same mistake. It is widely regarded in academic circles that Harris has still completely missed the boat in this regard. I suspect his lack of philosophical training (despite the fact that he does actually have some philosophical training) to be the main culprit here. And I think the same could be said for the rest of the “church of Internet atheists”.

    I’m also disappointed on your opinion of Dr Craig’s debate tactics. You seem convinced that Harris did not have to respond to Dr Craig’s objections. Well, in a debate, that is actually exactly what you are supposed to do. Raising objections that are on topic and are rational is not some “high school debating trick”, as some seem to think. It’s actually what you’re supposed to do and it’s what makes debates so useful and intellectually stimulating. And to make the debate worth having, the other side ought to respond to the objections, and make objections of the own if they please. The point of a debate is not to go on tangents or make angry tirades against religion, as you and Dr Harris seem to think so. I was so disappointed by the debate I almost cried. I was eager for an intellectually stimulating debate, but all I got was some unanswered objections raised by Dr Craig, and an angry tirade from Harris. I was hoping Harris would give a defence of his position, but all I got was “I don’t like religion, therefore morality is natural”. And here I am speaking with you trying to point out the blindingly obvious that this is not a rational argument, and that Harris was really just – well I actually feel bad saying it, but it is actually the truth – Harris was really just *stupid* in taking this approach. It’s disappointing to be sure, but also quite reassuring to me, because it reinforced the position I already have made, that morality is NOT natural. Harris did nothing to dissuade me of that.

    However, Harris did achieve one thing, and I think this is also what I believe was his purpose in the debate (not to win the debate, or provide a cogent defence of his position). He did make me feel pretty discouraged with the moral history of organized religion. Islam in particular features in Harris’s criticism, and I agree with him that Islam has a terrible moral history. In the debate, Harris also points out many moral outrages in the Old Testament of the Bible. While none of this was really on topic, it was none the less a very emotively powerful and persuasive approach. That is because many of the acts of God in the Old Testament seem to be morally reprehensible to our moral intuitions. However, what it does not do, is provide an argument that morality is natural, which was the topic of the debate, and the position Harris had taken. Worse still, this approach still assumes a morality that is transcendent, even above the God of the Old Testament. So while it’s quite emotive, it’s intellectually weak – pitifully weak in fact. So while the points raised by Harris did leave me feeling bad about religion, it also left me intellectually bereft of an actual intellectually tenable argument in defence of his position.

    May I suggest that you put your own prejudices aside, look at the debate for what it was, see that the argument that morality is natural is still totally inadequate, see that morality only makes sense if God exists, and then decide for yourself whether morality actually exist or not (because the debate over whether if morality exists, is it natural or supernatural has clearly been ended, it cannot be natural). If morality does exist (and it isn’t just an illusion), then God exists and is somehow the root of morality. If morality does not exist, then God does not exist and you can do whatever you please.

    The fact that Harris says things like “The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format” really discourages me. If Harris really thinks that said “tricks” are a weakness of debates, then I hold little hope for actual intellectual engagement from Harris in the future. I actually just think Harris doesn’t know what a debate is – that it is an interaction between two sides of a topic. Instead, he seems to think it’s an opportunity to pontificate his own perspective, without giving a defence of it in the face of objections. It’s pathetic.

  27. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Perfect Being Theology is imagined to be in this unassailable position following Anselm, not Divine Command Theory. DCT, using PBT, attempts to escape the horns by saying that God is the standard of value, his nature is the essence of good, he is the greatest conceivable being, etc. . Unfortunately, all of these either presuppose a standard of ‘good’ (horn 1) in attributing meaning to these phrases, or do nothing of the sort, and derive their meaning a posteriori (horn 2), suffering from the charge of arbitrariness, emptiness, or worse.

    This makes no sense. Ex hypothesi, if good is what God is, then clearly we do not presuppose a(nother) standard of good in attributing meaning to the term—any more than we would presuppose another God in saying that God is God. And while we may derive the epistemic meaning of goodness a posteriori, we don’t derive its ontological nature in such a way, because by definition its ontological nature is what God is. So the charge of arbitrariness or emptiness is equally misguided.

    In fact, people who make this objection in the first place seem to want to eat their cake and have it too. What is their answer to the grounding of moral values? Are they admitting to an infinite regress of moral standards? That is not an explanation. The charge that we can’t stop at God because that makes good arbitrary seems to presuppose an implicit belief that a God explanation is not a “real” explanation at all. But why? Why is it that, if good is what God is, then goodness is arbitrary or empty? That would seem to only be the case if, in fact, good is not what God is. So the objection seems to beg the question against the theist.

  28. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    DCT [Divine Command Theory], using PBT [Perfect Being Theology], attempts to escape the horns [of the Euthyphro Dilemma] by saying that God is the standard of value, his nature is the essence of good, he is the greatest conceivable being, etc. Unfortunately, all of these either presuppose a standard of ‘good’ (horn 1) in attributing meaning to these phrases, or do nothing of the sort, and derive their meaning a posteriori (horn 2), suffering from the charge of arbitrariness, emptiness, or worse. [italics mine]

    You’ve missed the point of the DCT. It is not a theory on moral sematics, but moral ontology: not about the meaning of the word “good” but about the nature of the goodness itself. Understood correctly the response DCT makes is good.

  29. Lee
    Lee says:

    “This makes no sense. Ex hypothesi, if good is what God is, then clearly we do not presuppose a(nother) standard of good in attributing meaning to the term—any more than we would presuppose another God in saying that God is God.”

    That is to say that good points to something when you say ‘good is what God is’. If I say ‘red is what apples are’, the word ‘red’ points to a specific light spectrum independent of the apple. If, on the other hand, ‘good’ used as you used it doesn’t point to anything, then that particular choice of letters in that combination is arbitrary, and it could be anything (plickler, for example). When you say someone is compassionate, you are speaking about a commonly held meaning inherent to the word ‘compassionate’. If someone is simply the embodiment of compassion, than any action they perform would then be what is meant by compassion when attributed to someone else. Any action could be compassionate, because there is no guiding standard by which said person’s behavior must adhere.

    I contest the claim that arbitrariness is “misguided”, and I don’t know what you’re talking about when bringing epistemology into the equation. This isn’t about how we discover what his nature is, it’s about what his nature is.

    “Why is it that, if good is what God is, then goodness is arbitrary or empty?”

    Because, as I pointed out earlier, barring a referent for the term ‘good’, when used as an attribute it leaves the content open-ended.

  30. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    @Lee:

    That is to say that good points to something when you say ‘good is what God is’.

    Yah, it points to what God is!

    I say ‘red is what apples are’, the word ‘red’ points to a specific light spectrum independent of the apple.

    The fact that you think this is a real analogy betrays that you don’t understand the issue at all. Red is not what apples are. Red is a color that apples are. Apples is what apples are.

    When you say someone is compassionate, you are speaking about a commonly held meaning inherent to the word ‘compassionate’.

    Which in no sense precludes that compassion could have its origin in an exemplar like God.

    If someone is simply the embodiment of compassion, than any action they perform would then be what is meant by compassion when attributed to someone else.

    Do you mean to suggest that theists claim that God is the embodiment of compassion, or goodness? Because again, that just shows you don’t understand the issue.

    Because, as I pointed out earlier, barring a referent for the term ‘good’, when used as an attribute it leaves the content open-ended.

    You’re reasoning in circles. The referent of the term ‘good’ is God. It’s hard to even understand your objection; you seem confused.

  31. Lee
    Lee says:

    Thank you for the kind words! To be clear, I’m not certain I agree with either of the two debaters in their assumptions of the existence of moral facts. I find it educational to espouse an unfamiliar position on occasion in order to better understand it from the inside.

    A few minor points:

    1. Hume’s is/ought distinction is only avoidable through moral skepticism; i.e. the denial of ought’s altogether. Christian ethics doesn’t bridge this gap any more convincingly than naturalistic ethics does.

    2. “I was hoping Harris would give a defence of his position, but all I got was “I don’t like religion, therefore morality is natural”” ~ This. He provided an argument, viz;
    1. Morality is dependent on consciousness (no minds, no morality)
    2. Consciousness is nature dependent. (nothing non-natural about our cognitive processes)
    -> Therefore, Morality is nature dependent.

    He even said, before presenting this, “So here is my argument for moral truth in the context of science…” I know for a fact that my prejudices cause me to miss/gloss over some aspects of the evidence of my sense organs, which is why I watch these debates more than once, and take notes. Perhaps a re-visit would help you see what you missed.

    3. The debate over whether moral facts exist has not ended; whether moral facts can exist independent of God has not ended; whether God actually provides a ground for moral facts has not ended. To pretend otherwise is just a fantasy, as egregious as pretending that DCT isn’t directly addressed by the Euthypro Dilemma.

    4. A public debate is a show, entertainment for the audience that paid to attend; not a reliable method of determining who is correct. I believe it could serve that purpose, but I have yet to see/hear it happen. This applies in any form of public debate, be it political/social/etc. Don’t conflate this meaning of the term ‘debate’ with the one more akin to the halls of academia or the pages of Nature.

    I think Harris won. It’s not the first time Craig has reframed a debate on his own terms, but it seems to me to be the first time his opponent stuck to the topic more reliably. Does it matter what god Craig is arguing for? Yes, clearly, given your comments about Islam. Is it altogether surprising that Harris would attack his opponent’s position where it matters? Only Christians seem to think so. Craig isn’t arguing for some phantasmagorical deism; whatever he purports to be advocating, when he says “God is the locust of good” and “God is perfect”, he’s speaking about a specific God: God the Father, and Jesus is his son (where do you think he gets his information?). The holy trinity, the Biblical Bilbo, main character in that hellish fantasy novel. Harris was succinctly arguing against the claim that that God actually is good, in any sense that isn’t simply assessed a posterori. He already provided an argument in favor of his position before addressing Craig’s implicit position.

    The remainder of your post is a serious of spurious attacks on Harris’ credibility, or the credibility of so-called “internet atheists”. Whatever that term is to mean, I would remind you that the internet is merely a communication medium. You’re on the internet, and a christian, does that make you an “internet christian”? and in so naming you, does it become demeaning, or damning, of your arguments or point of view? No, and the same applies to your treatment of Sam Harris.

    Lee.

  32. Lee
    Lee says:

    “Yah, it points to what God is!”

    And that is? Good. and what is good? God. I’m the one using circular reasoning?

    “The fact that you think this is a real analogy betrays that you don’t understand the issue at all. Red is not what apples are. Red is a color that apples are. Apples is what apples are.”

    That is simply citing the law of identity, apples are what they are and aren’t what they aren’t. Good and God can’t be identical, just as ‘red’ and ‘apple’ can’t be. ‘Red’ in this context is an attribute; ‘good’ in this context is an attribute. To say otherwise is to say we could use the word ‘evil’ to the same effect in either scenario. It is what it is, fine, but what is that? On the other hand, if ‘good’ points to a real standard of good (and ‘red’ points to a real point on the light spectrum), then ‘good’ (and ‘red’) has meaning independent of the subject. You can identify the color ‘red’ without apples, you can, by this argument, identify good without God.

    “Which in no sense precludes that compassion could have its origin in an exemplar like God.”

    Exemplifying what, pray tell? Compassion? He could be the most compassionate being in existence, the “exemplar” of compassion, but he is still only displaying an ideal model of an independent standard.

    “Do you mean to suggest that theists claim that God is the embodiment of compassion, or goodness? Because again, that just shows you don’t understand the issue.”

    I mean to suggest that if X is the embodiment of compassion, in the absence of a standard of compassionate behavior, any action that X performs is then subsumed into the term compassionate. Murder, self-sacrifice, rape, generosity, etc., it makes no difference, because what would you appeal to in order to say X has performed an action that is not compassionate? It would seem to me that any action taken by X is by definition compassionate.

    “You’re reasoning in circles. The referent of the term ‘good’ is God. It’s hard to even understand your objection; you seem confused.”

    Then any action or edict God performs or issues is ‘good’, because he performed/issued it. Arbitrariness hovers on the horizon.

    Lee.

  33. Lee
    Lee says:

    Hi Stuart!

    By meaning, I mean it refers to something. The difference between a word’s definition and it’s referent spell the confusion you and others seem to be having with my posts. The word ‘red’ is defined as a color, but it refers to a particular wavelength on the visible light spectrum. In the same way, the word ‘good’ is defined as positive, beneficial, etc., but it refers to a standard (be it God’s commands/nature, or something apart from God). It is the referent that I am speaking of.

  34. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    1. Hume’s is/ought distinction is only avoidable through moral skepticism; i.e. the denial of ought’s altogether. Christian ethics doesn’t bridge this gap any more convincingly than naturalistic ethics does.

    God’s commands are normative by definition. How does this run aground on the is/ought distinction?

    2. “I was hoping Harris would give a defence of his position, but all I got was “I don’t like religion, therefore morality is natural”” ~ This. He provided an argument, viz;
    1. Morality is dependent on consciousness (no minds, no morality)
    2. Consciousness is nature dependent. (nothing non-natural about our cognitive processes)
    -> Therefore, Morality is nature dependent.

    The obvious problem is that not only did Harris fail to make a positive case for [2], but Craig decisively refuted it.

    3. The debate over whether moral facts exist has not ended; whether moral facts can exist independent of God has not ended; whether God actually provides a ground for moral facts has not ended. To pretend otherwise is just a fantasy, as egregious as pretending that DCT isn’t directly addressed by the Euthypro Dilemma.

    Two problems: Firstly, if you’re going speak as if you’re an authority, you should know what you’re talking about. Secondly, the mere existence of debate is hardly consequential. Why should we care that the debate continues if it is obvious that one side has already won?

    I think Harris won. It’s not the first time Craig has reframed a debate on his own terms, but it seems to me to be the first time his opponent stuck to the topic more reliably.

    This makes no sense. Almost everything Harris said was off topic, and almost everything Craig said was on topic.

    main character in that hellish fantasy novel.

    Ah, and now your true colors are on display. Your problem with God is not an intellectual one. It is an emotional one.

  35. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    And that is? Good. and what is good? God. I’m the one using circular reasoning?

    Two problems:

    1. Good is not God. God is good. It is not all he is, but it is certainly one of his qualities.

    2. You’re attacking the notion that goodness could have a ground of its existence. That it could be a properly basic property. You act as if this is problematic because it is circular. But that’s just a performance to distract us from your lack of argument. If you have a problem with a quality having a ground for its existence, you need to explain why. And as I’ve already pointed out, an infinite regress is not an explanation. Neither is a reductionistic account of morality in which it turns out that moral values don’t exist at all.

    Good and God can’t be identical, just as ‘red’ and ‘apple’ can’t be.

    Odd that you characterized my position as being God good then.

    ‘Red’ in this context is an attribute; ‘good’ in this context is an attribute.

    But it is not an attribute in the same sense. Goodness is something which has its being in God. It is exemplified by God. It is ontologically grounded in God. The same cannot be said for the redness of apples. Again, you seem to just be denying that ontological grounding qualifies as a real explanation for morality. But a denial is not an argument.

    Exemplifying what, pray tell? Compassion? He could be the most compassionate being in existence, the “exemplar” of compassion, but he is still only displaying an ideal model of an independent standard.

    Why can he not display an ideal model of his own standard? If the standard is not independent, but in fact is God-dependent, then we should still expect God to be an ideal model of that standard.

    I mean to suggest that if X is the embodiment of compassion, in the absence of a standard of compassionate behavior, any action that X performs is then subsumed into the term compassionate. Murder, self-sacrifice, rape, generosity, etc., it makes no difference, because what would you appeal to in order to say X has performed an action that is not compassionate? It would seem to me that any action taken by X is by definition compassionate.

    But this just makes a strawman out of theism. Look at what you’re doing:

    1. Assume God is the ground of goodness
    2. Assume God can do anything, even if it contravenes his nature as the ground of goodness
    3. ???
    4. Profit! Good is arbitrary.

    But as it turns out, God can not do anything that contravenes his nature as the ground of goodness. He does not engage in malicious or capricious actions, for example, precisely because he is good. And we know that maliciousness and capriciousness are not good because they are in opposition to God’s revealed characteristics.

    You can’t redefine God as a being who can be malicious and capricious and then complain that he doesn’t offer an adequate account of the grounding of goodness due to the arbitrariness problem. Basically what you’re saying is that you don’t like that God is the ground of goodness, because you want to judge God against some other standard. But again, that is not an argument. It is a preference.

    Then any action or edict God performs or issues is ‘good’, because he performed/issued it. Arbitrariness hovers on the horizon.

    Only if God himself is arbitrary, which you will note that Christianity denies.

  36. Lee
    Lee says:

    “God’s commands are normative by definition. How does this run aground on the is/ought distinction?”

    Well-being is normative by definition. How does this run aground on the is/ought distinction? Moreover, it is less than clear that the God of the bible actually is good, which Harris made abundantly clear (not that it required additional clarify after Thomas Paine, et al), whereas to deny that well-being is something we ought to pursue is a bewildering loss of purchase on normativity.

    “The obvious problem is that not only did Harris fail to make a positive case for [2], but Craig decisively refuted it.”

    At what point did he refute this “decisively”, or really at all? All of the evidence points to a direct link between conscious events and neural events, I’m not certain Harris even needed to make a positive case (though I don’t think it’s true that he didn’t actually do this).

    “Two problems: Firstly, if you’re going speak as if you’re an authority, you should know what you’re talking about. Secondly, the mere existence of debate is hardly consequential. Why should we care that the debate continues if it is obvious that one side has already won?”

    Nothing of substance here. Your side won because it’s “obvious”, I don’t agree because I don’t “know what [I’m] talking about”, continued debate is “hardly consequential”. I suppose if you say so…

    “This makes no sense. Almost everything Harris said was off topic, and almost everything Craig said was on topic.”

    If you believe that whoever goes first determines the scope and topic, sure. Again, the comments I posted above from Sam Harris seem salient here.

    “Ah, and now your true colors are on display. Your problem with God is not an intellectual one. It is an emotional one.”

    In the context of the moral domain: yes, my problem with God is an emotional one. When I stop feeling emotional stimuli when considering morality, I’ll start to worry about my capacity for empathy, and probably sanity. This is how moral philosophers DO moral philosophy, and why “internet atheists” and …other atheists? find Christian ethics so alarming: to divorce the moral domain from the reality of human and animal suffering is (it seems to me) a straight path to what Kant considered a corrupted morality. Moral action not for moral reasons, but in deference to authority; an authority, as Harris argues, whose edicts go against our moral intuitions (and yes, our emotions).

    If, indeed, good can only be derived from this being’s nature, I’m not so sure I want to be good.

  37. Lee
    Lee says:

    So God’s nature is the independent standard of good, by which God’s actions are measured?

    Is God’s nature good because it is God’s? or is it God’s nature because it is good?

    “You’re attacking the notion that goodness could have a ground of its existence. That it could be a properly basic property.”

    I am skeptical of this claim, but for the purposes of our discussion, I am affirming that goodness has a “ground” (if that means what I think it means). I simply think that ground is well-being. As far as it being “properly basic”, I haven’t denied this, I just think that well-being=good is far more sensible than God(or his nature)=good, and the self-evidence of well-being as good vastly outweighs God as good. Given all that Sam Harris et al have said about the god of Christianity, to claim good is a properly basic property of God is begging the question.

    “Only if God himself is arbitrary, which you will note that Christianity denies.”

    “And we know that maliciousness and capriciousness are not good because they are in opposition to God’s revealed characteristics.”

    Irony: Decrying the delusional atheist for attacking christian theology in a supposedly sterile debate about moral philosophy, and then appealing to that same theology to defend problems with the philosophy. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

    “But it is not an attribute in the same sense.”

    Yes, the analogy isn’t perfect, but your abuse doesn’t derail the salience. What you are doing is arguing from both sides of the dilemma. If I press the first horn, you slip under the second, and vice versa:

    ‘Red’ in this context is an attribute; ‘good’ in this context is an attribute.”

    ~ me, arguing that your attribute ‘good’ appeals to an independent standard, or refers to something in describing God.

    “But it is not an attribute in the same sense. Goodness is something which has its being in God. It is exemplified by God. It is ontologically grounded in God. The same cannot be said for the redness of apples. ”

    ~ You, saying, essentially, that the good is what it is because it is God. Of course it can’t be said for the redness of apples, you have changed the claim.

    Our discussion is continuing down this vein(drain?), seemingly ad infinitum, so I’ll just leave this here and part with my sincere thanks for the patience and consideration of you, Stuart, and Mr (Dr?) Gray. These topics are very fascinating to me, and it would be very disappointing, to the point of depressing, if you are right and further debate is “hardly consequential”. I feel this would be like telling all of the 5th graders that the last president has been elected, and you’ll all just have to settle on another career choice; or science has discovered all of the secrets of reality, so if you were planning on becoming a scientist to contribute to the field, think again. That’s not to say you can’t be right, it’s just my emotional take on the claim.

    Lee.

  38. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Well-being is normative by definition.

    1. No it isn’t.

    2. Even if it were, well-being is not what we mean when we talk about moral goodness.

    3. Utilitarianism is useless for grounding ethics for any number of reasons. Take the Utility Monster, for example.

    4. Even if utilitarianism worked, you’d still need a theistic framework to account for moral values in the first place, since naturalism doesn’t have what it takes to cash that check.

    Moreover, it is less than clear that the God of the bible actually is good, which Harris made abundantly clear

    Sure, if you’re judging him by some other standard. But not only is that question-begging, but it also requires a justification of that standard.

    If you want to show that God is not good, the only option available to you is an internal critique of Christianity. You can’t presuppose some other standard of morality (which is to say: presuppose that God does not exist) and then make your argument from there. No one is going to be convinced by an argument that assumes its own conclusion. But on an internal account, God’s actions are far from the monstrous atrocities that Harris ineptly makes them out to be.

    At what point did he refute this “decisively”, or really at all? All of the evidence points to a direct link between conscious events and neural events, I’m not certain Harris even needed to make a positive case (though I don’t think it’s true that he didn’t actually do this).

    Did you even watch the same debate I did? He makes an extended argument in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh8FU2UlHp4 that naturalism is incapable of underwriting moral values. Moreover, the mere fact that there is a correlation between conscious events and neural events does nothing to prove that conscious events are fully explicable in physical terms. (Perhaps you’d like to connect the premise and the conclusion to prove me wrong.) Indeed, it is a widely recognized problem in the philosophy of mind that a purely naturalistic account of the mind runs into real difficulties with mental states like intentionality. And there are excellent arguments made by philosophers in this arena that show convincingly how the existence of things as simple as truth and inference must entail substance dualism of some kind. Look up the argument from reason if you’re not familiar with this.

    If you believe that whoever goes first determines the scope and topic, sure.

    Surprisingly, the scope of the topic is encapsulated in the moot: “does good come from God?” That is foremost an ontological question. Yet Harris didn’t engage the ontological grounding of morality even once that I recall.

    “internet atheists” and …other atheists? find Christian ethics so alarming: to divorce the moral domain from the reality of human and animal suffering is (it seems to me) a straight path to what Kant considered a corrupted morality.

    This is just an argument from emotion. If you don’t have an objective ground for morality in the first place, what does it even mean to talk about “corrupted morality”? Or, if morality is not objective at all, why does it even matter? You’re trying to eat your cake and have it too. You either need to underwrite your moral claims with a cogent system of your own, or you need to show that, on Christianity, God is not good. Merely presupposing that goodness = wellbeing isn’t going to cut it. That’s barely even high-school level moral philosophy. Anyone with half a brain can see that while desiring the wellbeing of others is generally a moral good, moral goodness is not the same as desiring the wellbeing of others.

    It’s also strange that you talk about finding Christian ethics “alarming” because of a divorce between the moral domain and the reality of human and animal suffering. One of the doctrines at the core of Christianity is that suffering is a result of sin, so there is an intrinsic link between the moral domain and suffering (at least human suffering; it’s unclear why animal suffering is an issue at all without anthropomorphizing animals). And another of Christianity’s core doctrines is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Not that Christianity is chiefly concerned with alleviating suffering. That would be foolish given what we know of its origin. But it certainly is chiefly concerned with having right moral priorities—one of the benefits of which is an alleviation of suffering.

    If anything, it is Christians who ought to be alarmed at the moral permissiveness of atheism. You give up morality in the name of tolerance and progress, and produce suffering as a result. Abortion and homosexuality are two obvious examples. There are heaps of studies in the deleterious effects of both. The same goes for promiscuity. Strange that the “old fashioned” belief in sex being confined to marriage results in happier couples, stronger relationships, better-adjusted children, and a more stable society.

    Moral action not for moral reasons, but in deference to authority

    You seem to have confused Christianity with Islam.

    an authority, as Harris argues, whose edicts go against our moral intuitions

    Unless you can show that our moral intuitions have any referent in the real world, and that they are consistently accurate, that’s a completely meaningless statement.

  39. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    I just think that well-being=good is far more sensible than God(or his nature)=good

    I don’t think there’s anything we can say to each other in that case. Craig showed very clearly that well-being != good. Plus it doesn’t answer the question of ontological grounding. That is what’s at issue here. You seem to be making the incessant mistake of conflating moral ontology and epistemology.

    Given all that Sam Harris et al have said about the god of Christianity, to claim good is a properly basic property of God is begging the question.

    Unfortunately you can’t use question-begging arguments from people who cannot account for objective morality as a basis for this kind of claim. Try again.

    Irony: Decrying the delusional atheist for attacking christian theology in a supposedly sterile debate about moral philosophy, and then appealing to that same theology to defend problems with the philosophy. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

    What’s ironic is that the “problem” you’re pointing to is actually just the nature of having an ontological ground for moral values. I explicitly included my comment about how we know that maliciousness and capriciousness are not good to demonstrate that circularity is a necessary part of any sort of “foundationalist” view, whether it be about moral values or ontology in general or epistemology in general. I was hoping it would help you understand the basics of the position. Unfortunately you just seem to have tripped over it again.

    You, saying, essentially, that the good is what it is because it is God.

    You still haven’t explained why this is a problem. You don’t seem to like the idea that goodness is a necessary, properly basic quality. You seem to think that when we say “God is good”, we must have some other referent for the term “good” in mind. But you continue to avoid defending this claim. If in fact goodness is grounded in God, then to say that God is good is to say that God has his own moral nature. Any other conception we have of good is contingent on God’s existence. Let me remind you again that we’re not dealing with a question of epistemology (how do we know what is good) but a question of ontology (what is the nature of goodness in terms of its actual existence).

  40. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Wrt the argument from reason, I just happened to run across this quote a few minutes ago, which is pertinent:

    If thought is merely the motion of physical components in the brain (or anywhere else in the organism for that matter), how can I remember a previous experience? Once a motion becomes a past motion, it never recurs as the same motion. How could one know or even be aware of generic similarities between two motions? To classify two entities within the same genus, I must observe some similarity between them. But materialism claims that the thought “This motion and that motion are similar” would also itself be merely a motion. And before the motion of predicating that similarity occurs, the motion of the original experience and the motion of the alleged memory experience would be in the past, and no longer exist. And no motion could connect two motions that no longer exist. Consequently, for it to be even possible for me to think generically similar thoughts, which is necessary to remember anything, I must assume that materialism is false.

    Redacted from Stuart Hackett, The Resurrection of Theism, pages 222-223, any edition.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] New Atheist pitbull PZ Myers recently described William Lane Craig as a “dogmatic fool”, in reference to Craig’s debate with Sam Harris on the foundations of morality. […]

  2. […] and cheerleading in the scientific community lately about morality, and particularly about Sam Harris’s view as opposed to William Lane Craig’s. At SciBlogs, Ken Perrott ruminates on the foundations of human morality and draws some strikingly […]

  3. […] Did you see the debate, Lee? If so, is it true, as one Christian website claimed, that Craig “thrashed Sam Harris like a naughty puppy?” – […]

  4. […] of course, you can find Bnonn’s thoughts on the clash here. blog comments powered by Disqus […]

  5. […] This comprehensive summary is from Thinking Matters New Zealand. It is entertaining to read, but accurate and comprehensive. […]

  6. […] Given how yesterday’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris went, imagine my surprise when I read John Loftus’s comments on the debate, over at his comically-named Debunking Christianity blog: […]

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