New Atheist Scientists: “Lane Craig is a fool, you can get an ought from an is, up is down, arguments be damned”

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:

  1. Hitler killed millions of Jews (scientific fact)
  2. Killing millions of people is evil (non-scientific, ethical fact)
  3. 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?

9 replies
  1. Ian
    Ian says:

    I have to say that was a great post: fuel of vim and vigour, enthusiasm and even the odd point I’d be tempted to agree with, in particular this one:

    You cannot get an ought from an is

    I agree entirely. Where we differ here is that you go on to say “but you can get an ought from [insert whatever appeals here]”. I would say “you can’t get an ought from anything“*

    The sooner “new” atheists (and everyone else for that matter) drops the myth of some thing called morality existing the better. There is no mystical morality out there judging us, no mystical morality out there guiding our judgements, no mystical morality out there forming some kind of mystical framework behind our judgements.

    There is precisely as much evidence for this mystical morality existing as there is for god existing. Sure you can argue all sorts of logical semantics that all return to the tautology “if morality exists then it exists” but there is no practical reason to suppose anything like that exists.**

    Where Harris fails in my opinion is that he concedes precisely the wrong point. He is not arguing for objective morality, he is arguing against it, but he is doing so in a debate where the objectivity of morality is taken as read, so he is guaranteed to lose. It is like an atheist and a theist having a debate where the existence of god is taking as read and then trying to argue the atheist position – it just can’t work. I don’t know why Harris is so determined to sit on the objectivity side of the debate when he has such clarity on the other points he makes.

    Anyhew many thanks for the tone of your post – it was just perfect to get me back here to post again.


    * at least you can’t get the kind of “ought: that the initial statement is talking about. Sure if you don’t want tooth decay, you “ought” to clean your teeth, but we all know that ain’t what we’re talking about.

    ** you may be tempted here to say “but that would be a pretty crappy world”. Have a look around you… all me a nihilist if you feel so inclined but realise that isn’t a counter-argument.

  2. Tom Gilson
    Tom Gilson says:

    PZ’s statement,

    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.”

    …is also classic for missing the point. Craig was not arguing in favor of grounding our moral decisions on our belief in God. An argument of that sort could certainly be made, but it would have to be made with reference to a specific conception of God (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever), which both debaters agreed was the topic of discussion.

    Obviously that wasn’t the point of this debate, and it wasn’t Craig’s topic, either. His argument wasn’t about any specific idea of God, except for God as ultimate moral lawgiver. It wasn’t about whether anyone believes in God, and it wasn’t about any specific moral conclusions drawn by theists or atheists. It was about whether moral beliefs can possibly be objectively true if no God exists. Just that.

    Sam Harris believes there are objectively true moral beliefs. Craig agreed, and from that point of agreement argued that Harris ought then to accept that God exists; for from the premise, objectively true moral beliefs exist, along with additional argumentation that Craig employed, the conclusion necessarily follows that God exists. Both Harris and Myers took Craig’s argument and turned it backwards: If you start with belief or disbelief in God, look at all the moral conclusions you can end up with; therefore belief in God is irrelevant to moral decision-making. Whether that’s true or not could be yet another interesting point for debate, but it wasn’t the point of this debate.

    Whatever points Harris scored against Craig, he scored by changing the subject, and he only scored those points for those who didn’t notice that was what he was doing.

  3. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    Hello Ian, Welcome back.

    You say there is no “practical reason to suppose anything like that exists.” It seems to me that avoiding nihilism is a very good practical reason to suppose that (what you call “mystical morality”) moral values do exist and that duties do supervene on people. For the implication of nihilism is you can just do what you want, and that would, as your imagined interlocutor says, create a pretty crappy world. Sure, thats not a counter-argument for the existence of objectively true moral facts, but it is very good practical reason.

    Also, why do you not count your own moral experience as evidence that there are objective moral values and duties? Do you think that it could ever be right to flay a person to death because the colour of their skin is black? If not, then there are objective moral values and duties. And its this that most people do agree with, including, to his credit, Sam Harris.

  4. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    I’m also curious about how you regard your own moral intuitions, Ian. I’m afraid I can take nihilism about as seriously as I can take solipsism—that is to say, not very seriously at all. I agree with atheist ethicist Kai Nielsen:

    It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife-beating and child abuse] to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil … I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.

  5. Mattflannagan
    Mattflannagan says:

    Ian you write I regard my moral intuitions as I would any other thought up there. Is there a particular reason I should pay any more attention to them than that? This is arbitrary, you demand your moral intuitions not be trusted until they can be shown to be reliable by some reason.

    Why not do the same with other intuitions, consider your belief that you have existed for more than seven seconds. David Hume showed the denial of this is compatible with ones experience. Its possible you popped into existence six seconds ago with the apparent memories of having lived longer. Of course despite this being consistent with your experience you don’t accept this because its intuitively absurd.

    Consider your demand for evidence, one can only provide evidence for a hypothesis by appealing to something as a premise. But that means before you can provide evidence you need to believe some things intuitively without evidence.

    All we see here is the standard skeptic selectivity game. When someone puts forward a religious or moral claim, demand proof, and then accept other premises which bolster this position without proof, on no basis at all.

  6. Ian
    Ian says:

    I say I treat my moral intuitions as I treat all my thoughts and you admonish me for being arbitrary? perhaps I don’t understand your point…

    I demand all my intuitions be shown to be reliable by some external verification where possible/practical. One thing I will not do is state something is absolutely one way or another just because I intuitively think something is that way. Doing that would be arbitrary.

    The scenario you offer is essentially “either this is x, or it is something that looks identical to x but isn’t x”. Given that both options are for all intents and purposes identical it is actually irrelevant which one you argue for since it is impossible to differentiate them. There is a pragmatic rule of thumb that one should assume that it is “x” rather than “something that looks identical to x but isn’t” which explains why I would intuitively assume I am not 6 seconds old.

  7. Ian
    Ian says:

    Apologies for the delayed response Stuart:

    I don’t follow your statement – perhaps you could clarify for me what the “But then” directed at?

  8. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:


    You said

    There is a pragmatic rule of thumb that one should assume that it is “x” rather than “something that looks identical to x but isn’t”

    Right. But then that means you should be assuming that morality is objective.

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