Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, challenged

This is my response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, an essay competition with a 1,000-word limit.

Hey Sam; thanks for the opportunity to interact with your views. If I understand The Moral Landscape correctly, your central thesis is that moral truth exists and can be scientifically understood. This seems to cash out in two critical claims:

I. Moral goodness, broadly speaking, just is whatever supports or increases the well-being of conscious minds;
II. Science, in principle if not always in practice, can discover facts around, make predictions about, and ultimately guide the process of promoting this collective well-being.

I know you’ve already faced a lot of criticism about (I) in particular, so I hope I won’t be beating a dead horse. I’m going to assume (I) for the sake of argument and agree with you: a person who denies that morality is about promoting well-being simply isn’t making sense. I hope to persuade you that your own moral beliefs actually reveal the opposite: it is the person who thinks that morality is about promoting well-being who isn’t making sense.

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Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel

There’s been some backslapping 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 entertaining conclusions, again indicating that these sorts of questions are well above the paygrade of the average scientist.

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Further Commentary on the Craig vs Harris Debate

There has been some good analysis of the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris and I thought it might be useful to collect some of that commentary here into one post. Read more

John Loftus is tripping on shrooms, and other tales of New Atheist la-la-lands

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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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.)

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Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? Watch Craig v Harris Live

Just a reminder that today’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris at the University of Notre Dame will be streamed live at 7pm local time (11am for those of us in New Zealand).

You will be able to watch the feed here.

UPDATE: Brian Auten at Apologetics315 has posted the audio from the debate.

UPDATE: The video of debate is up on YouTube. Read more

William Lane Craig to debate Harris and Krauss Live

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig will be participating in two big debates at the end of March and the beginning of April, and both will be streamed live over the web. For the first debate (March 30), Craig will be defending the evidence for God against Lawrence Krauss, a distinguished professor of physics and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. For the second (April 7), Craig will be debating the foundation of morality in a much anticipated contest with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and popular New Atheist.

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Moral Truth Matters

“Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values . . .

There are impediments . . . the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.”

Sam Harris at the Edge Conference: “The New Science of Morality”

If you’re living in Auckland, don’t forget our event next week with Glenn Peoples addressing Sam Harris’ claims about science and morality.

Auckland Event: The New Atheism, Science, and Morality

Thinking Matters is pleased to announce that we’ll be hosting Dr Glenn Peoples at Auckland University next month. Glenn will be speaking on morality and the New Atheist’s endeavour to anchor morality outside of God.

If you’ve read Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins, one thing you’ll notice is that they take pains to point out that they are not relativists. They believe quite strongly that there are objective moral truths. Indeed, many of their most colourful arguments against religion and Christianity depend on this. But if they disagree with the tradition of other atheists, such as Nietzsche (who argued that morality “stands or falls with faith in God”1), how do they account for moral realism, in a naturalistic universe? Despite Richard Dawkins admission that science has no methods for deciding what is ethical, Sam Harris has recently contended that we should think of moral facts as being scientific facts. With neuroscience opening up the world of the human brain to us, Harris suggests we can now understand moral facts in terms of facts that describe the human brain and its experience of happiness and suffering.

In his talk, Glenn will examine the arguments for this view, explore their success, and show why the New Atheists are unable to preserve genuine moral truths in a world without God.

If you’re interested in the topic of morality and New Atheism, this will be a great event for you. It will also be a great opportunity for those who might have read Glenn’s blog and listened to his podcast to finally meet him!

Here are the full details:

New Atheism, Science, and Morality: Is there a naturalistic basis of moral truth?

TIME: Monday, September 6 · 7:00pm – 9:00pm

LOCATION: The University of Auckland, Library Basement Room 15, 5 Alfred St, Auckland

COST: Free

Can the natural world tell us what is right and wrong, without need for God? Can moral facts be grounded scientifically? Thinking Matters, in association with the Evangelical Union, is proud to host Christian philosopher Dr Glenn Peoples at the University of Auckland this September. Dr Peoples will be examining the arguments of popular atheist and best-selling author, Sam Harris, and argue that the attempt to ground morality outside of God ultimately fails.

Dr Glenn Peoples is a graduate in theology (BD) from the Bible College of NZ and has a Masters degree (MTHeol) and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Otago. For over ten years he has been writing and speaking, both in New Zealand and abroad, on intellectual issues that Christians face, including the place of faith in the public square, justice and human rights, and the reasons for Christian belief. He lives in Dunedin with his wife Ruth and their four children.

The Facebook page for the event is here.

1. Nietzsche, F. (1968) Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ. New York. Penguin Books.

Counting the fallout of New Atheism: Is there an atheist schism?

As early as Epicurus, there have been attempts to debunk the supernatural, but it was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Hume, Feuerbach, Russell, Sartre and others, that more intellectually sophisticated arguments for atheism entered the marketplace of ideas. Since the early twenty-first century, however, a new pattern of atheism has emerged. Departing from their skeptical forebears, the New Atheists espouse a dogma that differs in both tone and content. They denounce not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is said to be not only wrong, but evil. The shift in accent and stunning ignorance of the heritage of the debate that they are joining has not only concerned theists, but many atheists as well. Over at The Guardian, an interesting discussion is unfolding among skeptics in the wake of this. Two philosophers, Michael Ruse and Ophelia Benson, address the fallout from the New Atheist movement and consider whether there is a split occurring within the ranks of those who profess atheism.

Michael Ruse, the atheist philosopher of biology at Florida State University, defends the revolt against Richard Dawkins and the New Atheist movement in his article “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute”.  He writes:

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. . .

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.

Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief. . .

Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It’s all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don’t worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.

Forgive me if I don’t sign on.

Ophelia Benson, atheist and deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, responds to Ruse in her article “Atheism itself isn’t a movement”. She argues that the disagreement isn’t within atheism but among atheists who hold additional political views (namely, whether religion is dangerous):

Many atheists want to be able to be atheists without being dragooned into some boring noisy unsubtle bad-tempered “movement”. Many other atheists want to be able to be overt explicit unbashful atheists without constantly being told to be more euphemistic or evasive or respectful or just plain silent by other atheists, who surely ought to know better…

The problem, of course, is that what each group wants is incompatible with what the other group wants. In a perfect world, plain atheists could just ignore movement atheists, and movement atheists could mutter away without disturbing their quieter friends. But in the real world, many plain atheists feel that movement atheists bring the whole notion of atheism into disrepute. We make it more difficult for plain atheists to be just that, because the world at large now thinks of atheists in general as movement atheists.

I see the difficulty, and like the walrus, I deeply sympathise, but I also think that plain atheists should to some extent put up with it. We don’t actually want to dragoon them into “the movement” but we would like to be able to talk freely without even other atheists telling us to pipe down.

To put it another way, we’re not telling them to be noisier, but we don’t much like it when they tell us to be quieter. Yes, granted, we’ve made it somewhat harder to be a plain atheist (though they could always just closet themselves completely, by pretending to be theists) – we seem to be jumping up and down on the parapet yelling “over here, we’re over here!” while everyone else is trying to avoid enemy fire. But that’s life. The pope is always making life difficult for liberal Catholics, too; so it goes.

Where one locates oneself on this map depends partly on whether one thinks religion is mostly benign, or mostly harmful, or a difficult-to-unravel mix of the two. It’s not a neat mapping though – I’m a committed “movement” atheist in the sense that I really do think taboos on open discussion of religion should go away, but I also think religion is a difficult-to-unravel mix of the benign and the harmful. But then I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that all “new” or movement atheists match that description too.

While the concession in Benson’s final paragraph is well-taken, it’s difficult to agree with her general characterization of the debate. I don’t think Ruse or serious advocates of theism are trying to discourage the open discussion of religion or insulate it off from public scrutiny. Christianity, particularly, has nothing to fear here. It has flourished with the robust examination of its ideas for centuries, by great minds such as Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, etc. What Ruse and others are objecting to is the mix of belligerence and intellectual complacency that has marked the New Atheist stance.  With pretensions that outstrip their ability to pontificate on the topics they raise, the volume of their shouting has been inversely proportionate to the credibility of their arguments. Religion shouldn’t get an easy ride – faith is no excuse for intellectual shoddiness – but the cliche-mongering and arrogant tone that Dawkins and the New Atheists all too frequently marshal makes it difficult to believe that their goal is truly to engage the theistic side at all.