On the evening of the 7th of April 2011 (the 8th of April here in New Zealand), Christian philosopher William Lane Craig debated Atheist author and speaker Sam Harris on the question Is Good from God? Brian Auten has made the mp3 audio of this debate available over at Apologetics 315.
What follows is my sketch of how the debate unfolded, along with my own analysis of the arguments used and how they contribute to an answer to the question in dispute. I emphasise that last aspect of my analysis, because It seemed to me that there was a tendency at points for comments and claims to be made which carried a certain degree of rhetorical flourish, but which, no matter how interesting they might be, drag the discussion off topic. This was the overriding impression that I got from much of what Dr Harris had to say in his rebuttal sections.
I won’t pretend that I don’t have a horse in this race. I have long believed that Harris is mistaken in his view that moral facts are simply scientific facts. His arguments in this debate, where they do address the subject of the debate, have been used before and carry all the same flaws that I have identified in the past. Conversely, I have long believed that William Lane Craig is largely correct in holding the position that he articulates in this debate (I say “largely” because I do have some foibles with one aspect of his position). Nonetheless, I self consciously try to advocate the positions that I do for good reasons, and I like to think that I advocate my position because of those reasons, rather than vice versa, and I have tried to evaluate the arguments used in this debate on the basis of the quality of the reasons that are given to accept them. The review is not intended to be in-depth. It is my assessment of how the debate went after listening to it twice (and replaying a few parts to make sure I understood what was being said). The review follows.
Michael Rea of Notre Dame University’s philosophy department and Centre for the Philosophy of Religion Introduced the speakers and the topic: Is the basis of morality natural or supernatural?
Opening presentation: William Lane Craig
Dr Craig opened by stating that he and Dr Harris are in agreement that there really are objective moral values and duty. He defined “objective” duties as being binding “independent of human opinion.” In fact, he praises precisely this aspect of Harris’s book – that he boldly speaks out on behalf of objective morality, railing against those atheists who defend nihilism and relativism. But the question at issue here, Craig says, when it comes to things that are objectively right and wrong, concerns “what is the best foundation for objective moral values and duties.” What makes things good or evil? Dr Craig announces that he will defend two claims. Firstly, if God exists then we have a sound foundation of objective moral values and duties. Secondly, if God does not exist, then there is no such foundation. Craig stresses that these are contingent claims that do not argue or presuppose that God exists. Perhaps, Craig muses, Harris is correct and there is no God (something Craig, naturally, does not believe). What this would mean is that there are no objective moral duties, and for the purposes of this debate the claim of God’s existence is not being denied or affirmed.
To Craig’s first contention. How would God ground moral values? Moral values have to do with what is good and evil, says Craig. I will confess right away that I don’t like using the language of “goodness” to refer to what morality is all about, since it is subject to a range of possible uses, which can make things needlessly unclear at times (indeed I think this is exactly one of the ways in which Sam Harris goes wrong). For my own part I would prefer that everyone speak of actions being “right” rather than good if they are morally required, but then of course there are some actions that are good for people and also morally required as well. How does God provide a foundation for moral goodness? Craig here appeals to St Anselm, who said that “God is by definition the greatest conceivable being, and therefore the highest good.” Indeed, adds Craig, God isn’t merely perfectly good but he is actually the “paradigm” and “locus” of moral value, since God’s loving and good nature provide the standard against which all actions are measured. It is important to note that Dr Craig does here speak of the way our actions are measured, assuring us that he really is talking about what is right and wrong for us to do. I would observe at this point that this is not a divine command theory of ethics, since God’s loving and good nature would exist whether God issued commands or not, and in divine command (or divine will) ethics, it is God’s commands or will that generate moral obligations, rather than God’s nature. To be sure, God’s nature gives God a reason to command certain things since they reflect what God loves, but here is where my worry about language becomes more important, and perhaps becomes a worry about more than just terminology. Yes God is good in the sense that God is loving, just and so on. But as Craig has noted on a number of occasions, God has no moral obligations and therefore cannot live up to any external standard. This has the implication that God is not morally good. God is good in the sense that he is loving, just, forgiving and so on, and we identify these things as good in the way that, say, hot soup on a cold day is good for us, or an apple is a good one rather than a rotten one. God’s good nature motivates God to command the things that he does, and this in turn gives rise to moral duty – rightness. The problem potentially created now, if Craig has meant “morally good” throughout his address is that he has said (drawing on Anselm) that God is moral by definition (since this is an entailment, he says, of being the greatest conceivable being), and therefore God is the standard against which we measure all acts. But this, contrary to Bill’s later protestation in the debate, is to define God as moral, and to make a semantic argument rather than an ontological one. I do not claim that this is what Dr Craig wanted to do, but in arguing the way he does in his opening address, that is what he in fact does. This creates confusion for Dr Harris later in the debate, and may well provide the opportunity for Harris’s fans to find a chink in the armour of Dr Craig’s argument. As I will suggest later, it is a problem that can easily be remedied and Craig’s overall possition would become, in my view, even stronger for it.
Next, Dr Craig does move on to discuss a divine command theory of ethics, saying that theism provides a basis of objective moral duty. Here I find strong agreement with him as he says that what God commands us to do constitutes moral obligation. Craig deflects the possible objection that divine commands might be arbitrary by noting that God could only command that which accords with his loving and good nature. This only makes sense, I say, if God’s nature is non-morally good (I will be presenting a paper on this theme to the Australasian Philosophy of Religion Association in Auckland this July). On this basis, “we can affirm the objective rightness” of love, self-sacrifice, equality, generosity and so on, and we can also condemn as objectively wrong, abuse, discrimination, hatred and so on. This use of the language of “rightness” is the way to go, so say I. If there was a shortcoming here, it was likely only due to time constraints. Just as every answer can be met with a retort of “but why?” so too the claim that God’s commands constitute or cause our moral obligation too can be met with this easy reply. But why do they constitute or cause moral obligation? Here an answer can be, if not fully explained, at least very roughly sketched in terms of proper function or final causes. God created the universe and had intentions in doing so, and hence it makes sense that there be a way in which we were meant to live.
But what of atheism? If God does not exist, then why think that humans have objective moral worth? If we are in fact no more than an accidental by product of nature, then Craig asks: why is human well-being objectively good? Here too I think the language of the debate can be less than clear. Obviously whether atheism is true or false, human well-being is good for us, but this is not a moral fact, it is merely true by definition (since well-being just means experiencing what is good for us). What Craig needs to mean (and must surely mean) is that if atheism is true than we don’t have an objective moral duty to promote human well-being. For this reason I would not draw the distinction that Craig continues to draw between objective moral values and objective moral duties. That being said, he obviously has a point here. What makes it a fact that we ought to promote human well-being over, say, insect well-being? If Harris wants to maintain that moral facts are really scientific facts, says Craig, then he must grapple with the fact that on Harris’s view, the moral values we hold are just by-products of biological evolution and social conditioning and do not refer to anything higher, let alone anything truth aimed. While certain patterns of behaviour may be advantageous, there’s nothing in an atheistic outlook that could make such values objectively binding.
Craig observes that Harris simply defines the language of good and evil in terms of maximising the well-being of conscious creatures. Therefore saying that it is good to promote the well-being of conscious creatures is a mere tautology, a matter of definitions. Harris therefore seeks to “solve” the fact-value problem just by redefining words, by defining moral truths as scientific facts. In the end he is not genuinely talking about moral values, but only about what is conducive to the flourishing of life. Harris’s “moral landscape” is thus not moral at all.
Dr Craig didn’t mention it, but there is also a difficulty in speaking of a being “flourishing” unless we know what it is for that creature to flourish, since the idea of flourishing implies an Aristotelian teleological nature of being. A thing flourishes if it grows into a good example of what that sort of thing should be. But for Harris, surely, there’s nothing that we should be. There are ways to be, and that is that.
As far as providing a natural or scientific basis for moral duty goes, Craig notes what Harris is surely well aware of, that the reviewers of The Moral Landscape have been pretty merciless. In the first place, science can only tell us about what is, not what ought to be. It can’t tell us that we should promote human flourishing. It can only tell us how.
Craig also notes that “ought” is generally taken to imply “can.” If you can’t help doing something, then you’re not responsible for it. But Dr Harris rejects all accounts of free will. He even admits this in his book, saying that moral responsibility is a social construct rather than an objective reality.
In closing, Dr Craig stresses that he is not offering Dr Harris a new set of moral values. They agree already, more than they disagree, on what is right and wrong. What he is offering is a sound moral foundation for the values that Craig and Harris already hold.
Setting aside my concerns with talk of God being morally good, and setting aside linguistic concerns that can foster confusion, what impressed me with Bill’s opening address is his ability to remain exactly on topic. Every line of argument, every example, every fact brought into play, contributed directly to establishing the truth of his key contentions, which in turn spoke directly to the subject of the debate. This, I submit, was the fundamental difference between the case made by Dr Craig and the case offered by Dr Harris.
Opening presentation: Sam Harris
Sam Harris started out relating the fact that a number of atheists emailed him as this debate drew near, more or less saying “brother, please don’t blow this!”
Dr Harris says that as he has criticised religion plenty in the past, he has heard from plenty of people who think that this is a bad thing to do, not because there is evidence that God exists, but because they think that religion alone provides a framework for objective moral values. He says that “clearly Dr Craig is among their number,” which was an unexpected remark, given that Dr Craig has gone on record so many times arguing that in fact there is good evidence for God’s existence.
Sam shares the view that without moral realism (although he does not call it that), without the view that there really are true answers to moral questions, humanity will lose its way. The concern that some have that secular morality erodes away is not entirely mistaken. But his very next statement raised a red flag for me, and I know I’m not alone. He announced his view as the view that “once we understand morality in terms of human well-being, we’ll be able to make strong claims about which behaviours are good for us and which aren’t.”
Wait a second, is that really what the debate is about? Surely not. Even if there are no objective moral values, we can still make strong claims about what’s good for us and what’s not. The issue in question is not whether or not we need God to provide a basis of what’s good for us. The issue is whether or not we need God in order to have a basis for right and wrong, and why we have a moral obligation to bring about what is good for others. This is exactly why I raise the concern over linguistic confusion between “good” and “right.” This issue will arise again in Harris’s arguments, so I’ll set it to one side for now and proceed. The point to note, however, is that Harris’s self-professed line of argument was one that simply does not address the question in dispute.
Harris expresses concern at the way so many atheist intellectuals appear to endorse a lack of objective moral standards. They defend relativism, to the point where one of his fellow speakers at a recent conference told him that he had no objective basis for condemning the treatment of women at the hands of the Taliban. This phenomenon really is a problem. However, Harris says, “Religion is not the answer to this problem.” In fact belief in God, he says, is a source of moral blindness. It’s important to note here a distinction that Harris seems not to draw. He’s talking about the sociological phenomenon of religions, but of course the issue in debate is not whether or not we need that phenomenon in order to gain moral knowledge. As Craig notes later, atheists are perfectly capable of having moral knowledge. The issue is whether or not God, if one exists, could provide a basis of objective values. Now, it should be clear that all organised religion could teach some whacky and even immoral things, and yet still God provides a basis for objective moral values. The debate is not over what religions can achieve, but over what God can achieve.
Harris notes the widely held distinction between facts and values. Science, many think, can “tell us how to get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value.” On that view, science can’t answer the most important questions in life, and our moral beliefs are the product of evolution and cultural pressures. Many religious people see no alternative but to “insert the God of Abraham, and iron age god of war,” into the “clockwork” as an arbiter of moral truth. On this view, it is wrong to cheat on your spouse because Yahweh says so. Harris caves into the temptation to add that this is curious because elsewhere Yahweh is fine with outright genocide, slavery and human sacrifice. As this comment was meant as an aside to add fuel to the fire and little more, and as it is also quite obviously not about the debate moot, Harris is happy not to actually engage those issues on biblical ethics in any serious way.
Harris explains that he is going to argue that morality reduces to the well-being of conscious creatures. This may be open to doubt, he says, “but it shouldn’t [be].” Imagine a universe where conscious creatures all suffer as much as they possibly can. That universe is bad, he says. “If the word bad applies anywhere, it applies here.” The minimal standard of moral goodness, Harris says, is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. “If we have a moral duty to do anything,” then we have a moral duty to do this. This is just obvious, says Harris. You can be wrong in your beliefs about how to do this, of course. “You can be wrong in your beliefs about how to navigate this space.”
Although I am not sure whether or not Harris realises it, it is crucial to see that agreeing with this claim, as I would assume Craig does, is not the same as agreeing that morality reduces to the well-being of conscious creatures. The question in this debate is not over whether we do have a duty to care about the well-being of conscious creatures, but over what grounds that particular moral judgement.
One thing that also struck me at this point is that Harris isn’t talking about what the basis of moral facts are. He is talking about there being certain moral facts that are just obvious, or basic. He is talking about epistemology, how we know things. He says here and later in the debate as well that some facts strike us so clearly that we can just see that they are correct and because they commend themselves so obviously to us, we are justified in believing them even if we can’t provide another person with a basis for those facts. What’s ironic about this, of course, is that in a religious context precisely this kind of epistemology would be written off by Harris as blind faith, as unscientific, and as believing things for no good reason, or just because we like the promise such beliefs offer us. How interesting that Harris helps himself to an epistemology that he would never allow a Christian to use when appealing to belief in God as properly basic (as philosopher Alvin Plantinga does).
But what Harris said next caused me to sit upright and listen carefully. He said: “So here’s my argument for moral truth in the context of science.” Well, actually he doesn’t have to convince us that there is moral truth, but hopefully what he means is that he’s about to present his argument that moral truth can exist even if naturalism is true. I was waiting with bated breath. Harris proceeded:
Questions of right and wrong depend upon minds. Minds are natural phenomenon. Morality can therefore be understood by science, since the possibility of conscious experience can be understood by science.
That was the argument. But what is really going on here is that Harris is smuggling a good deal of moral agreement into the first claim. Yes, most of his listeners will agree with him that in practice morality is (at least mostly) about promoting certain types of experiences in other conscious creatures. But if this is all that is meant in the first claim, then when he says that “morality can be understood by science,” he can’t (or at least shouldn’t) mean that science can provide a basis of morality. All this tells us is that science can tell us which states of affairs coincide with our pre-existing criteria of moral action, and the entire debate is supposed to be about what grounds those criteria.
Apparently unaware of this confusion in his argument, Harris presses on. We know that there are many ways in which conscious creatures can thrive, but there are many more ways in which they can fail to thrive. The Taliban is a good example of this. It seems perfectly obvious that the best, most moral response to others is not to throw battery acid on girls who want to try to learn to read. And this is a truth about biology, neurology, psychology, economics etc. It is not scientifically wrong, says Harris, to say that this is immoral. Of course, some people might ask the pesky question, “who is to say that we should care about the well-being of little girls?” This comment from Harris made me think that perhaps he was now going to turn to the vital issue: What grounds our duty to care about the well-being of conscious creatures? Would this be the moment that Harris turned to the subject of the debate? Alas, not at all. Harris’s reply to this hypothetical question is to say that values can be objectively wrong. After all, it’s clearly possible to value things that will “reliably make you miserable.” It’s possible to reject things because you’re not intelligent or well developed enough to know that they’re good. But notice that by “good,” Harris means “conducive to the well-being of conscious creatures.” But this is a major fumble by Harris. The person asking this hypothetical question already knows that, for example, throwing acid on girls is not good in this sense. The question was what grounds our duty to promote the good of those girls? It doesn’t even seem to register in Harris’s mind that these two issues are distinct.
In response to the worry that Harris isn’t clearly defining what well-being is, Harris uses the analogy of physical health. How healthy should a person be? How fit should they be? The answer might not be clear, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t believe in facts about health. A person who says “who are you to say that it’s not healthy for a person to vomit until he dies” is clearly wrong. The way that we think about moral values is a species of how we think about scientific facts, Harris says. If a person doesn’t think that water is H2O then we appeal to the facts of science. If a person doesn’t accept those facts then the conversation is over. So what are we saying when we say that science can’t answer moral questions? This would be to say that when we are thinking clearly, being unbiased and making honest observations, science cannot address the most important questions in life. “It would be very strange if that were so,” says Harris in his final remark in his opening talk.”
As he ended his talk I thought: “Very strange? What?” Why on earth should it be very strange for science to not be able to answer the most important questions in life, namely moral questions? As Harris has already said, this is what most people do in fact think. The appeal to the H20 analogy obviously misses the real issue. Yes we can use science to tell us that water is H20. But can science tell us about whether or not, for example, we have a duty to play water sports? Clearly not. The overall impression I got – and the impression that I got each time Harris introduced a new idea – was that he really didn’t appreciate just what the issue of debate was. The issue was never whether nor not we do have a duty to promote one another’s well-being. Harris can tell us as many times as he likes that this claim is obviously true. Maybe it is, and Craig would happily grant as much, but the debate is over what makes this claim true, and Harris simply never scratched the surface of it. It’s hard to see how his opening statement offered anything at all in terms of a contribution to the debate topic.
First Rebuttal: William Lane Craig
Craig recapped his two contentions: If God exists then we have a basis for objective moral values and duties, but if God does not exist, then we do not. But one thing Craig now stresses, due to a comment that Harris made in passing, is that the issue here is moral ontology: What is the basis of morality? The question is not a semantic one, where we ask what moral terms mean. “Good,” says Craig, does not mean “commanded by God.” As an illustration, light is a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum, but that’s not what the word means. People could meaningfully refer to the phenomenon of light and the difference between light and dark long before people knew about its actual properties. Similarly, people may know what right and wrong mean and the difference between the two without knowing that goodness is grounded in God.
Appeals to the atrocities of the Bible don’t debunk divine command ethics in principle. Maybe the Bible is wrong, that’s not the issue, since divine command ethics does not require that any particular religion be the right one. Also, Craig refers here to Paul Copan’s recent book, Is God a Moral Monster? for some reading on the actual practice of what people call genocide and slavery in the Old Testament, as these practices are largely misunderstood and misrepresented today. But the issue raised here is irrelevant to this debate. Harris really hasn’t offered an objection to a theistic grounding of ethics.
True, Craig agrees, it’s better for creatures to flourish than to suffer. But the question is – if atheism is true, what makes it objectively good. Harris, says Craig, is being equivocal on the word “good.” He talks about a “good” move in chess, but he means it is apt for winning. But this discussion is about moral good. When Harris contrasts the good life from the bad life, he’s talking about a pleasurable life and a miserable life, not a moral distinction.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while Harris’s bungled use of the word “good” ruins any hope he might have of grounding moral duty in scientific facts, Craig’s concern over the multiple applications of the word “good” is something that should really have informed his presentation better. Recall that Craig drew on Anselm to make the claim that God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the greatest good. Why are things like mercy and kindness good? They reflect God’s nature who is good as a matter of definition. Here is where Harris could have twisted the knife. Why, Harris might ask, does Craig get to define God as morally good and then use God’s nature thus defined as the basis of our moral duties? Why can Harris simply not define morally good as what is conducive to human flourishing? How does Harris’s use of “good” count as re-defining while Craig’s does not? He makes a very brief reference to this later in the debate, but did not make much of it, preferring instead to talk about things like Islam and hell (talking about miscalculating the type of debate that he was involved in!). Now, I know what Craig’s response could be to this, and he would be right. He could abandon this talk of what moral nature God has by definition, and say that it’s just the case that God is good in a non-moral sense. That is, God’s nature is such that he just does value kindness and mercy etc. As such God’s commands ground our moral duty, and these commands are not grounded in God’s moral nature (because morality is logically subsequent to God’s commands, not prior to them), but simply grounded in God’s nature.
Back to Dr Craig’s rebuttal. In Harris’s book, he says that if thieves and rapists can be just as happy as us, then the “peaks” of the moral landscape could be inhabited by immoral people. But Harris admits that millions of people are psychopaths who are made happy by suffering. Surely this means, Craig argues, that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical properties, since there is a range of possible worlds where the greatest well-being is enjoyed by people who Harris grants are not moral (and are in fact psychopathic!). The relationship of identity is one that applies necessarily, so if there are any possible worlds at all in which those two properties are not identical, then there is in fact no possible world where they are identical. This, says Craig, is an absolute knock-down argument. Harris must be wrong.
I’m not at all satisfied that this is even a good rebuttal, let alone a knock down argument. It’s a caricature of Harris’s position to say that morality is satisfied just if some people have their happiness and well-being fulfilled. The peaks and valleys on “the moral landscape” that Harris talks about are not occupied by individuals at all. They are occupied by states of affairs or, to use Craig’s language, by possible worlds. The overall state of affairs in which a psychopath goes about raping women is very likely to contain less human flourishing and more human suffering overall than an otherwise identical state of affairs where this man does not rape anybody, regardless of how his own personal well-being might be improved by raping women.
Harris has said that “if we have a moral duty to do anything…” then we have a duty to avoid the greatest possible misery. But, Craig rightly notes, this misses the point. The question is how this duty is grounded, not whether or not it exists. Harris skips this issue altogether in his argument. In the absence of God, there is no moral authority to give moral imperatives, and so whence comes the obligation to do anything?
Lastly, Craig reiterated the “ought implies can” objection and pointed out that Harris’ belief that there is no free will obliterates moral responsibility. Of course, Harris has not yet had the chance to reply to this argument because his first rebuttal round follows Craig’s. Closing his rebuttal, Craig observed that while he endorses Harris’s belief in objective moral values, Harris’s worldview simply does not allow for them.
First Rebuttal: Sam Harris
“Well that was all very interesting,” Harris remarked as he took the stage for his first rebuttal. The remark, along with its tone, gave an overall impression: “Oh no. What am I going to do now?”
I do not think that it is an understatement to say that the debate may as well have ended at this point. Here is where the wheels came off the cart and Harris’s presentations became erratic in their topic, certainly not focused on the issue in debate, and strangely reminiscent of the tub thumping tirades one is likely to encounter from one of Harris’s online fans. Harris began his rebuttal by introducing the issue of hell. This was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise, since Dr Craig (the person Harris was meant to be rebutting) never mentioned it once. “What is wrong with spending eternity in hell?” Harris says here that the whole point of Christianity is to prevent people from going to hell. Nine million children die every year before reaching the age of five. Imagine the Asian tsunami of 2004 occurring every day, killing only children under five. Think of their parents. Most of them believe in God and are praying for their children. Their prayers will not be answered. According to Dr Craig, this is part of God’s plan, says Harris. Most of these, Craig believes, are going to hell through no fault of their own, being born into the wrong culture. There are 1.2 billion in India who, according to Dr Craig, are doomed no matter how good they are, and will be tortured in hell for eternity. So God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus, and created the penalty for this ignorance, eternal conscious torment in fire. On the other hand, a run of the mill serial killer who rapes and kills children, need only come to Jesus on death row, and he will spend eternity in heaven. This vision of life has “absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.” We’re told that God is loving and kind and just etc, but when people point out that God visits suffering on innocent people, we’re told that God is mysterious. “This is how you play tennis without the net.” Speaking this way, Harris says, is morally reprehensible. It’s narcissism. God loves me. He cured my eczema. He makes me feel good. But given the way God visits suffering on children right now, this faith is obscene. It fails to care about other people. If God were to morally guide us with a book, why give us a book that endorses slavery and killing people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft?
What in the world is going on here? I checked my computer to see if this was still the same debate and I hadn’t accidentally switched over to watching a debate on whether the biblical God is awful or not, but no, this was still, supposedly, a debate on whether or not God is required for there to be objective moral duty. But try as I might, I couldn’t detect even a trace of that subject in Harris’s comments, and they certainly did not seemed designed to rebut what Dr Craig had said. As I listened back to the debate for a second time, it really did seem to me as though Harris had taken no notes (mental or otherwise) of the arguments that Craig had used, and had just been banking on the fact that he could reach into a bag of old rhetorical zingers, throw them out there and just hope that nobody would really notice the difference between this and an actual rebuttal.
Where was Harris’s attempt to address what Craig said about the gap between scientific facts and values? What did he have to offer in response to Craig’s charge that he had just re-defined the word “good”? What of the charge that Harris falls afoul of the principle of “ought implies can”? What about Craig’s argument that the property of maximising the well-being of conscious creatures is not identical with the property of moral goodness? Amazingly, Harris chose not to address any of these central issues raised in the debate at all! It’s not that he offered a feeble or easily dismissed reply on these subjects. He simply offered nothing – not a word – on the issues at stake, and resorted to criticisms of Christian theology, begging the listener to think of the children. It also becomes obvious at this point that Harris has none little or no preparation for debating Craig, who has done plenty of writing on the scope of salvation, discussing the hope or lack thereof for those who have never heard the Christian Gospel. Craig simply doesn’t hold that everyone who dies without hearing will go to hell. For my own part, I think an effective remedy to some of this mock outrage is to explain the biblical teaching on hell, which is not that the lost will be tormented for all eternity, but rather that they will, being separated from God the very source of life and being, actually lose life and being itself and cease to exist. Now of course, offering a reply like this put put someone out of favour with a number of evangelicals who don’t share this view, and what’s more it is simply not relevant to the subject of the debate.
Harris presses on, nothing that Craig says that God has no moral duties. OK, this might be a step towards the subject. This, says Harris, means that when God commanded Israel to kill the Amalekites, that act becomes intrinsically good. This is a psychotic and psychopathic attitude. It is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. This is the true horror of religion. It enables sane people to believe by the billion what only lunatics believe alone. If you believed that you could turn pancakes into the body of Elvis, people would think you insane, but if you think that crackers can be turned into the body of Jesus, you’re Catholic. Now, I am no friend of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but it is hard to see how these comments about pancakes and the eucharist belong in the debate at all. The comments about the killing of the Amalekites, however, is at least attached to the subject of God and ethics (perhaps the only part of Harris’ first rebuttal that was). But here Harris is mistaken. If a person believes that actions are right or wrong depending on whether or not God commands or prohibits them, then of course those actions are not “intrinsically” right or wrong. For an action to be intrinsically right or wrong would be for that act to be right or wrong in and of itself, regardless of whether or not God commanded it. Harris’s use of philosophical language is merely confused. What he probably meant is that if God commanded Israelites to kill Amalekites then this made it the right thing to do, which of course Craig would say that it did. However, even if Craig fully granted that this makes the Old Testament God counter-intuitive, this is a far cry from showing that theism doesn’t make possible a foundation of objective moral values and duties.
Continuing to talk about Christianity, Harris asks: Why is there now no evidence? What we now know makes it hard to believe in the biblical God. Christianity, Harris says, is a cult of human sacrifice. It’s not a religion that repudiates human sacrifice. It celebrates a human sacrifice – John 3:16. This is astride a contemptible history of scientific ignorance. Once upon a time people buried children beneath buildings to protect them from their imaginary God. “These are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible.” If there is a less moral being than the one Craig believes in, “I haven’t heard of it.”
This seems to be a common theme with Harris’s rebuttal. There isn’t an argument contained in each paragraph. There’s a collection of rhetorical jabs bundled up together, and the listener, it is hoped, will conclude that taken together these jabs can be strung together to form an argument that is both relevant and cogent. But unfortunately Harris’s comments don’t do this at all. Firstly, there’s equivocation between Christianity being a “cult of sacrifice” and not repudiating human sacrifice, and also celebrating a human sacrifice. Being a cult of sacrifice, specifically of human sacrifice, means practising human sacrifice. It doesn’t mean celebrating the fact that someone else engaged in self sacrifice for your good. Otherwise America is a cult of human sacrifice by virtue of the fact that Americans celebrate veteran’s day! As for the bizarre reference to burying children (alive, presumably) under buildings to secure protection from God, Harris does not reveal who he is talking about, other than to say that “these are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible.” What? Paul? Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? James? Peter? Isaiah? King David? Solomon? Moses? Which one? And when did they do this child burying? What’s the evidence? Harris doesn’t tell us, and for good reason. Needless to say, as Harris ended his rebuttal I found myself both bewildered and disappointed.
Second Rebuttal: William Lane Craig
In Harris’s talk, he gave absolutely no defence of the view that atheism can sustain moral facts, and did not address any of Craig’s argument to this effect. Harris gave little but red herrings, says Craig. Some of Harris’s comments simply show how poorly Harris really understands Christianity. You don’t believe in God to avoid going to hell. God as the supreme good is worthy of worship, he is goodness itself, to be desired for his own sake. It’s not about promoting your own well-being, it’s about the moral worth of God.
I’m not certain what I make of this. What is moral worth? Is it something that we value because we ought to? If so then we’re talking about duty. But certainly we can think of it being appropriate to desire God because God is truly good, and morality does not even have to enter the picture. But what is it about desiring goodness that makes it fitting for us to do so? I will confess that here I don’t share Craig’s view that it is not really about our well-being. True, it is not only about this. As our creator, God deserves all credit (we call this glory) for being the all powerful awesome being that he is. But our attraction to God due to his goodness is intimately tied up with our own well-being. It was Augustine who remarked that our souls are restless until they rest in God. Similarly, the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, something Craig quotes frequently, claims that the chief end of human beings is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. We trust and worship God because that is what we are made for, and it is in doing so that we rise to the level of all that we should and can become. Now of course, this could have been offered as a remedy to the childish notion of faith as fire insurance that Harris offered, but I do not think Craig needed to (or should have) distanced Christianity from the thought that following God is at least significantly about what is in our best interests.
In regard to the problem of evil and of the unevangelised, Craig notes that this is irrelevant since Craig has not argued that God exists. Craig’s two contentions were not about whether or not God exists. Craig has elsewhere written on the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelised, but that’s not what the debate is about.
This, just in terms of adequate rebuttals, is enough. Craig is simply correct, Harris did not defend the claim that atheism can provide a basis for objective morality, and he never offered arguments that theism can provide such a basis. Never! In a way I felt sorry for Craig at this point. Ordinarily a rebuttal time is used to rebut arguments, but when your opponent just didn’t give yu any, what are you supposed to do? You could just say “sorry, there’s nothing to respond to,” and then sit down again, but by not holding your nose and wading through the rotten red herrings thrown out by Harris, Craig would have enabled some to (quite wrongly) conclude that since Craig wasn’t replying to fallacious arguments, he must therefore be conceding defeat.
But appealing to the problem of evil, says Craig, creates a problem for Harris. Evil proves that God exists. If moral evil exists, then objective moral values and duties exist, but if Craig’s two contentions in this debate are correct, then it would follow that God exists. So you can’t use the argument from evil and argue that God does not exist. Harris has no foundation for claiming that Christian thought is morally detestable.
Again, I’m not sure how persuasive this argument is. True enough, if moral evils occur, acts that are objectively morally wrong, then of course objective moral values and duties exist. But I don’t think this is primarily what Harris was complaining about. In arguing that the Christian God (if he exists) allows large scale suffering, Harris was arguing that God is not the benevolent being that Craig says he is. This is a purely descriptive matter, and does not require that Harris appeal to moral truths. However, Craig is on the mark to say that on the basis of his two contentions, Harris has no foundation from which to condemn as objectively immoral the actions of Christians.
Nonetheless, Craig is right to reply to all of this by saying that if Harris wants to have a debate about theism, Craig is willing but that’s not what the debate is about.
What about moral duties? Harris says that the Bible supports slavery. As this debate is not about the Bible, Craig notes that Paul Copan’s book addresses this, but Craig isn’t defending the Bible in this debate. So what about the Taliban, to whom Harris refers? The answer is simply that God did not command them to commit those atrocities. God only commands that which is compatible with his nature and for which he has “morally sufficient reasons.”
I agree with the point being made, but I think it is quite the mistake to talk about God having “morally” sufficient reasons. Having moral reasons to do something means that doing something aligns with one’s moral duty, and as Craig has said, God does not have moral duties. Nonetheless, if God is good and only commands in accordance with his good nature, and has reasons that move this good being to command as he does, then appealing to examples like the Taliban simply miss the point.
Craig says that it’s obvious that if God existed, then objective moral values and duties could exist. The real debate, he says, is over whether or not atheism can provide a basis for objective moral duties, and we have good reasons for thinking that it cannot.
Second Rebuttal: Sam Harris
Dr Harris says that Craig has merely defined God as intrinsically good. But this is a game of definitions, which is precisely what Craig accused Harris of.
If this were a boxing match, although Harris would by now be battered, bleeding and barely conscious, this observation comes like a surprising jab just when we thought the losing fighter had no energy left. Harris is correct. The opportunity for this point arose simply because Craig did indeed say that God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore he is perfectly good – and in the context of a debate about moral goodness this appears to mean morally good. As I’ve noted previously, Dr Craig can manoeuvre his way out of this objection without too much difficulty, but it certainly is a situation that needs to be manoeuvred out of.
But even speaking of non-moral goodness, it’s not a problem to say that as a matter of fact God is good (i.e. loving, just, forgiving etc). Dr Harris says here that there’s no reason why there couldn’t be an evil God. Presumably he means (or at least in order make sense he should mean) not a morally evil God but a nasty god. A god who is mean, cruel, hateful and so forth. In fact there is a reason to think that there isn’t an evil God. The moral argument exists because of the phenomenon of morality that we experience. We realise that it is wrong to be hateful, vengeful, torturous and so on, and we form the position that there exist moral facts. This is where Craig’s contentions come into play. The only way that there could be moral facts (and this is the language I use, as opposed to moral values), is if God exists. But the only way that the particular moral facts that both Craig and Harris accept could exist is if a God who is not nasty and malevolent, but good and loving, exists. As such the moral argument for theism does not merely allow for just any old theism, but it shows, if sound, that God exists and that God is good.
Harris says that contrary to Craig’s claims, he has presented a positive case for grounding objective morality in science. I’m probably not the only one who thought upon hearing this: “when?” Deriving morality from science is only a problem, says Harris, if you believe that the science of morality can be self-justifying in a way that no kind of science can be. You need only assume that the worst possible suffering for everyone is bad and worth avoiding. If having a value assumption at the core renders an outlook unscientific, then what is scientific? But here Harris quite misses the point again. Nobody has said that you shouldn’t do science with certain important value judgements being presupposed. The point is that if those value judgements are at the core as Harris says, if they are taken as given before we engage in science, then they were not justified by science. It is frustrating to get to this point in the debate and still to see Dr Harris just not grasping what they are even supposed to be arguing about.
Craig has said that given naturalistic science and nothing more, we’re just constellations of atoms. But there are two ways to speak about things being “objective,” says Harris, and Dr Craig is confused about these. In epistemology, it means we’re trying to jettison bias and reason in a way that is open to the data. This is the foundation of science. This is what separates science from religion, Harris says. But science doesn’t ignore the fact that certain facts about humans are subjective. We can study those facts and learn that our lives are richer and deeper than the facts about science. “There are subjective facts.” e.g. the painfulness of pain at being burned alive. Morality is about such subjective facts. So we can see that it’s possible to value the wrong thing. If you think that you should be in pain and neurotic, then there is something wrong with you. Objectively wrong. You get closer to the state of the worst possible suffering for everyone. Is that bad? This is where we hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question, said Harris. But he is clearly mistaken. This is not where we hit philosophical bedrock, as though we have plumbed the depths of ethics here. On the contrary, this is where we move away from raw data and into ethical theory to begin with. Yet again, Harris is revealing that he is not in the least offering a scientific basis of morality. All he is doing is taking his moral beliefs as they are and then talking about scientific ways of knowing when those beliefs are complied with and when they aren’t. But it’s those moral beliefs themselves that are in need of a basis, and Harris shows no signs of ever offering one.
In his closing words in this rebuttal section, Harris went on an inexplicable tangent. Atheists, he says, can have mystical, transcendent experiences (e.g. love, meditation etc). Jesus, he says, could have been a spiritual genius, so Harris can imagine the profound experience of his disciples as they spent time with him. In order to account for such things we don’t have to take anything on faith, “We don’t have to lie to ourselves or to our children.” To understand the deeper things in life, we have to do so in a scientific spirit. Since many religions have these experiences, we can’t possibly see these things in a sectarian context. We can’t just have a first century conversation as the founders of Christianity did. We can’t have a seventh century conversation like the founder of Islam had. A 21st century conversation, by contrast, leaves us open to “the full wealth” of human learning..
Closing Statement: William Lane Craig
In closing, Dr Craig sums up the arguments for his two contentions. If God exists then God provides a sound foundation of moral values and duties, and there actually hasn’t been any real argument to the contrary. Has Craig defined God as good as Harris alleges? No, says Craig. God is worthy of worship. God is the greatest conceivable being and he is the greatest good. Asking why God is good is like asking why all bachelors are unmarried. It’s part of the concept of being God. But this, rather than deflecting the objection, only seems to confirm its correctness. That bachelors are not married is a matter of definition, so drawing this comparison suggests that Craig is indeed saying that God is good by definition. A far more effective comeback would be available if we maintain that God is non-morally good. For then we Craig could say “Wait, let’s be careful not to equivocate. This debate is about the basis of objective moral goodness. If we have a creator who issues commands, then there is such a basis. If God is non-morally good, then what he commands is good in the sense that it reflects God’s mercy, justice and so on. But none of this means that God is morally good at all, let alone by definition.”
Moving on to his second contention, Craig lists the arguments that he gave for thinking that Harris’ position is incorrect and that without God there cannot be a foundation for objective moral values and duties. Craig argued that that the moral landscape is not identical with the landscape of human well-being. He also used the “ought implies can” argument and noted that Harris himself, in his book, accepts that there is no objective moral responsibility. But Sam Harris just never addressed these at all.
Harris has said that we have to just use certain axioms, which is the same, Craig says, as taking them by faith. If they are axioms then science does not ground them, since science uses axioms, it does not provide a foundation for them. And while Harris is right in saying that science can study subjective facts, we have to ask, is the wrongness of an action a subjective fact? If so, genital mutilation is subjectively wrong, not objectively wrong. If atheism is true, is it objectively wrong to do what the psychopath does? Harris’s attempt to clarify the meaning of subjectivity really doesn’t help his case.
Craig closes with the quotation:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why any thing should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot —and General Custer too— have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics,” Duke Law Journal
Closing Statement: Sam Harris
As with his rebuttal sections, Harris’s closing statement made no real attempt to engage the issue in debate. He began his closing statementwith the left-field question, “How many of you consider yourselves to be devout Muslims?” You know the Qur`an exists, says Harris, and you think the rest of us are going to hell. He goes on to say that problem is that everything Dr Craig says could be used in defence of Islam. There’s a book that tells us right and wrong and we all have to live by it. What if the Muslims are right? We have been born into the wrong culture. Dr Craig is doomed. I have been misled by science. Where is Allah’s compassion? Allah could change this in an instant and give us a sign, but he’s not going to. Hell awaits us and our children. Now appreciate how little sleep you have lost over this possibility. What are the chances that we’re all going to go to hell in eternity for not recognising the Qur`an. This is exactly how Christianity appears to someone who has not been indoctrinated. Scriptures were written by people who have less access to science and basic common sense than most people in this room. Most of those people had moral worldviews that were indistinguishable from that of an Afghan warlord today. This vision of reality cannot be true. Just as there’s no Christian physics, there is no Christian morality. There are only facts for us to discover. The challenge is to build a global world where people can flourish. Sectarian disputes about God is not the way to do it. The only tool we need is honest inquiry. If faith is right about anything, it’s right by accident.
And thus ended his rebuttal. The level of irrelevance was simply amazing. In a debate about whether or not a basis for objective morality exists if God does not (or does) exist, Did Harris really have nothing to say in closing about how he has addressed the fact/value distinction? Can he think of no way to actually address Craig’s point that what is in question is not any specific religion, but rather the question of how objective morality can be grounded? Is he willing to offer no excuse for choosing to ignore Craig’s argument that the moral landscape is not identical to the landscape of well-being and suffering? Isn’t he even going to make a casual reference to the principle of “ought implies can?” No, apparently not! Instead he closes by talking about the problem of pluralism (i.e. the problem of deciding that one religion is right and all others are wrong), and a passing reference to the merit of faith!
Harris now owes a few emails to his atheist friends: “Sorry brother. I blew it.”
If you enjoyed the Craig / Harris debate, you might also enjoy these, which are a sample of other material on similar themes:
- Episode 039: Divine Command Ethics (podcast)
- Episode 035: Sam Harris, Science and Morality (podcast)
- Confusing the Good and the Right
- Does the moral argument point to a benevolent God?
- Divine Command Ethics and the Epistemological Objection
- Divine Command Ethics: When will sceptics update their arguments?
- Wolterstorff on Divine Command Ethics – Part One
- Ethical (super)naturalism
- Is Religion a Barrier to “Clear Thinking” on Morality?
- John Loftus on the Ten Commandments
- Bradley on the alleged contradiction of Christian ethics
- Engaging with critics of religiously grounded ethics: A depressingly bleak scholarly landscape
- Episode 004: Parodying Plato
- Divine Commands and Reasons
- Is there an echo in here?
- A simple explanation of the moral argument
- Aquinas and his “Moral Argument”
- Episode 010: The Moral Argument, Part 2 (podcast)
- Episode 009: The Moral Argument, Part 1
- Episode 035: Sam Harris, Science and Morality
- Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality
- Apologetics 3:15 Interviews Glenn Peoples
- The New Atheism, Science and Morality – University of Auckland
- Coming up…
- Do babies know right from wrong?