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.
I can’t help feeling like that’s setting the bar unreasonably high. If Craig is only a dogmatic fool, Harris must be a bigoted half-wit by comparison, and Myers himself an unreasoning idiot. Even I don’t think Myers is an idiot.
“The arguments were stark,” says Myers. I couldn’t agree more. Craig gave good reasons for believing that (1) if God exists then we have a sound foundation for objective morality; and (2) if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective morality. He also squished Harris’s utilitarianism under his jolly boots of philosophical doom, showing decisively that Harris’s view of moral goodness contradicts itself and so must be false. Harris, by comparison, tried to get us to buy into his view by redefining morality, and when that didn’t work resorted to petulantly off-topic high-school-level objections to Christianity.
Myers continues: “According to Craig, if we don’t ground our moral beliefs in a god, then we do not have a sound foundation for our morality. So Sam Harris stands up, gives clear examples of bad moral decisions based on a belief in god and good moral decisions made without reference to any deity, and basically wins the debate in that instant.”
Ah, New Atheist La-La Land—what a wonderful, psychedelic place it must be. Fully-evolved unicorns frolic and play with the naturalistically-explained elves. But back in the real world, Myers again demonstrates how philosophical questions are well above the pay-grade of some scientists, and require a bit of a sharper mind.
For one thing, how could Myers have failed to notice that even if Harris had refuted Craig, this alone would not have showed that atheism offers a foundation for morality? Given how Craig completely overthrew Harris’s entire ethical framework—for which Harris had no response—shouldn’t Myers have concluded that, at best, neither atheism nor theism was shown to offer a sound foundation for morality? Of course he should have. But that wouldn’t sound as good, would it? Cheerleaders can’t admit defeat.
For another thing, how could Myers have failed to note Craig’s rebuttal, in which he pointed out that Harris was arguing against a strawman? Since the question of the debate was not over the truth of Christianity, but only over whether the foundations of morality are supernatural, Harris’s eighth grade objections to various Christian doctrines and Bible passages were simply embarrassingly irrelevant. Isn’t it interesting how even when the debate isn’t over Christianity at all, that’s what it always comes back to? New Atheists aren’t happy if they can’t get in some hating on Christianity specifically, no matter how off-topic. It’s a phenomenon that always reminds me of Luke 6:22-23.
I also wonder, how does Myers know the moral decisions Harris listed, based on belief in God, are bad? And how did he know that the moral decisions made without reference to a deity were good? After all, as Craig demonstrated in the debate itself, any kind of non-theistic critique of moral decisions is just a matter of opinion. A matter of taste. It’s not like the instances Harris cited were objectively good or bad, so the very act of citing them is pointless.
It also seems kind of obvious, though apparently not in New Atheism La-La Land, that if God is a morally perfect being, then what he has commanded, even if it goes against our moral intuitions, must be good. If God is the standard, and you’re disagreeing with God, then the obvious and inescapable conclusion is that you’re wrong. Not that God doesn’t exist.
Ken Perrott puts his oar in
Myers, unfortunately, is setting a bad example. New Zealand’s village atheist, Ken Perrott, emboldened by this latest barrage, used it as a launchpad for criticizing the is-ought problem. “I think this is a very perceptive comment,” he says. “It helps explain my disappointment with some of Sam’s non-religious critics who fell back on the mantra that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is.'”
The fact that you can’t get an ought from an is, of course, is not a mantra. It is a logical principle. It is simply a recognition of the fact that it is impossible to derive an ethical fact from a natural fact: you can’t take a scientific fact like “Hitler killed millions of Jews” and, from that fact alone, conclude “Therefore Hitler was evil.” Obviously Hitler was evil, but we know this because we already know that killing millions of Jews is wrong. The reasoning process we go through looks like this:
- Hitler killed millions of Jews (scientific fact)
- Killing millions of people is evil (non-scientific, ethical fact)
- Therefore, Hitler was evil (non-scientific, ethical fact)
There’s really nothing else to say. The related Naturalistic Fallacy, which Harris also tries to weasel around, is widely regarded as a formal logical fallacy: a pattern of reasoning that is always wrong. If Perrott thinks that he can get an ought from an is, let him show how. Three hundred years of the best thinkers in the world disagree with him, and not because they just had differing opinions, but because it’s simply a fact.
But New Atheists don’t seem very good with facts. Ironic, innit?