Why Harris Lost the "Is Good from God?" debate to Craig

 

I just stumbled upon a year-old YouTube video named, “Sam Harris gets destroyed by Dr. William Lane Craig”. It’s the 2-hour University of Notre Dame debate held on April 7, 2011, between Harris and Craig. It was titled: “The God Debate II: Is Good from God?” The video can be found at the bottom of this page.

And guess what? Harris really was destroyed by Craig! What a disappointment.

Craig started off with the premise that objective morality can only exist if God exists and, alternatively, if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

Harris then presented his premise that science can identify objective morality by determining what contributes to the well being of conscious creatures.

Craig rebutted with a scholarly evisceration of Harris’ premise that cited: the absence of moral objectivity in atheism; the subjectivity of human flourishing; the is/ought distinction; and more.

As Harris walked up to the podium for his own rebuttal, I realized that he CAN’T rebut Craig because he agrees that there is an objective basis for morality: namely the application of science to the question of human flourishing (well being). And sure enough, Harris didn’t counter a single Craig rebuttal. Instead, he launched into his usual attack on the Bible and its morality.

In disgust, I stopped watching when Craig came back to the podium and rightly pointed out Harris’ lack of a rebuttal.

Harris was so invested in his flawed thesis that “science can solve moral problems” that he was blinded to the risk of agreeing that morality is objective. The fact is that Craig is right! Objective morality can only exist if God exists: if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

The atheist position should have been that objective morality can not exist because God does not exist. In other words, morality is subjective.

If atheists do not believe in God and the supernatural realm, that leaves only the natural realm: the universe and everything in it. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. There is no good or bad, right or wrong, in nature. Morality is a human construct and, as such, can never be perfect – because humans can never be perfect. Human morality can never be objective: that would require a perfect God, a perfect authority.

Harris should have had a 2-pronged strategy: 1.) point out the lack of perfection in the biblical God and 2.) provide a naturalist understanding of morality; admitting up front that it is subjective and relative but, in the end, far superior to the flawed morality of an imperfect God.

As atheists, we’re familiar with the myth of God’s moral perfection so I won’t go into much detail except to flesh out the slavery criticism because it’s upheld in the New Testament as well as the Old.

I’ve recently written on the naturalist understanding of morality. If the following is familiar to you, just skip to the end.

The naturalist understanding of morality asserts that we have evolved empathy as an impetus to cooperation. Combined with personal experience, empathy leads most of us to a "Golden Rule" sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me: with empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too. Experience and empathy is all we need to decide most moral matters. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive and prosper." We are complex social animals, so this rule of thumb isn't sufficient for every moral decision but it is fundamental to most. Without this impulse for cooperation to counter our impulse for violence, we would probably squander the intellectual prowess responsible for our survival advantage.

It's a fallacy (with obvious religious motivations) that “we can not be moral without God”. Our morality is part of the human condition and existed long before Moses. Morality is not a dispensation from God: it is subjective and personal and, because it is informed by experience and empathy, develops as we mature. As a matter of fact, we ALL use our personal morality to overrule Biblical morality. And by ALL, I really do mean ALL: believers and nonbelievers alike. This fact is amply demonstrated by our universal rejection of slavery and the subjugation of women (well, maybe not the Muslims so much). Even though God/Jesus condoned the subjugation of our fellow humans in both the Old and New Testaments, we ALL overrule God's morality with our own and reject such human subjugation. Not only is God NOT the source of morality but he stands corrected by us all. WE decided what is moral. WE decide what is religiously worthy. NOT God.

You need to ask yourself: "If we overrule God, why do we need him at all?"

This subjugation of our fellow humans is a failing of Biblical morality that can't be reasonably addressed by apologetics. This is critical for all believers to understand. THEY CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either God is perfect or he's not. Either the Bible is divinely inspired or it's not. Either God is the source of morality or he isn't. Even a believer, if he’s honest with himself, must admit that if God's morality grows outdated, it was never perfect and timeless to begin with. The alternative is to claim that God is right and that the subjugation of our fellow humans is NOT at all immoral – that it is, in fact, desirable. But we ALL know that's an untenable position. We all know that is WRONG. We will not reverse our hard-earned moral progress to align it with God’s morality. This is why the issue is out of reach of apologetics.

The truth is that the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran reflect the morality and level of ignorance that existed in their respective eras and areas . . . precisely as they MUST if they’re written without the benefit of God's input. These ancient tomes are NOT divinely inspired. God is NOT perfect. The issue of human subjugation proves that the personal, revealed, theist, God of the Abrahamic religions is irrefutably false. This doesn't completely close the door on God, however: there's still supernatural hope for the impersonal, cosmic, God of deists and pantheists.

Empathy is a human trait that spawns a number of other human traits just as naturally as it spawns morality. Empathy also spawns human dignity and worth, cooperation and compassion. We can live reasonably moral lives without God but not without empathy.

 


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


Views: 744

Tags: God, Sam Harris, William Lane Craig, debate, morality, objective, subjective

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Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 10:37am

And I agree with you 100%, Sandi. Losing a debate doesn't mean your argument is invalid. Winning a debate doesn't mean your argument is valid.

Comment by Sandi on May 8, 2012 at 9:27am

I totally agree with Kenny Bellew, being unable to argue a point in a debate, does not make the other side true. Xtians don't 'own' morality and if an atheist can indeed act morally, live morally or make a moral decision makes xtians point even more moot.

Comment by Matt VDB on May 8, 2012 at 8:13am

Atheist Exile,

There are assumptions at the root of all knowledge and I can see the soft sciences making subjective value judgments but the hard sciences? Can you give me examples of what you mean by "value judgments" in say, quantum mechanics or chemistry?

It's certainly incredibly obvious in the soft sciences, and again, nobody is knocking down their door with charges of subjectivity. Since Harris' study of morality would find right in alongside these disciplines (medicine, psychology, economics), I certainly see that as a point for him.

It's less obvious in the hard sciences but even in physics or chemistry it's impossible to correctly model all the properties of an interaction, so physicists and chemists are constantly in the business of giving priority to one aspect over another, neglecting a certain aspects because they think its impact won't be large enough, etc...

Now again, Harris' morality would be a soft science so it obviously does more of this than hard sciences, but even though have to play that game at least partially.


With the definition of objectivity that I provided, when something is objective, it is real, not perceived, and therefore perfect and timeless and absolute (can't be more real, it just is).

So mind-independence then. Fine: my table is mind-independent as far as I can tell (it certainly seems to be there regardless of whatever state I'm in, and other people attest to the same phenomenon), but I don't see how that makes my table "perfect or timeless".

It doesn't help to weigh a perfectly useful term like objective down with extra bagage; Craig does that because it's the game he plays.

As for all those Wikipedia variations on objectivity . . . yawn.

Don't give me crap about them being Wikipedia variations, please. Objectivity is used in various ways, especially with regards to ontological or epistemological questions. If you don't like that or it doesn't interest you, you probably shouldn't have written a long post about objective morality in the first place...

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 12:31am

Hi Michael OL,

Yes, I agree . . . and find nothing to argue with . . . darn it.

Something I forgot to include is the question of the possibility of morality from an omnipotent creator God. If something is moral because God wills it, why does he will it? Does he have a reason? If he has a reason, then the moral exists independent of God. If he has no reason, then the moral is arbitrary or capricious.

That line of reasoning suggests that morality CAN'T come from God and MUST have a reason. This, to me, reaffirms that morality is a human construct with significance only humans understand.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 12:13am

@Matt VDB,

There are assumptions at the root of all knowledge and I can see the soft sciences making subjective value judgments but the hard sciences? Can you give me examples of what you mean by "value judgments" in say, quantum mechanics or chemistry?

With the definition of objectivity that I provided, when something is objective, it is real, not perceived, and therefore perfect and timeless and absolute (can't be more real, it just is).

As for all those Wikipedia variations on objectivity . . . yawn.

Comment by Michael OL on May 7, 2012 at 12:26pm

I agree - Harris lost because the debate was framed in a manner which gives the game away to the theistic position.  But there are several subtleties here....

We first have to examine what we mean by "good".  Religionists would shunt aside the argument by claiming that what God says is automatically good.  To phrase more precisely:  "God says" <=> "good" (that's and if-and-only-if).  Then for humans, goodness is the pursuit of doing what god wants us to do.  Observation of this quandary goes back all the way to Plato, who asked the question:  is the good "good" because the Gods decreed so; or, do the gods have the special property of decreeing only that which is good?  If the former is true, then indeed there can be no good without god, since "good" is contingent on "god".  If the latter is true, then god (perhaps) happens to understand and appreciate goodness, but the goodness is an abstract property that exists independent of god.  If we deny the existence of god, then the former meaning of "good" becomes moot, while the latter meaning still holds.  That is, there would not be a being with the special property of being all-good, but goodness can still exist, and can still be observed.  This is the position that we as atheists need to emphasize.

Second, there is the difficulty of distinguished between what is maximally effective, and that what is abstractly good.  The golden-rule is probably maximally effective as a means of exchanging favors and punishments - as a means of building and maintaining a stable society.  But is it "good"?  Does its effectiveness make it good?  Or maybe there is a less-effective but "more moral" approach that has a higher goodness?  As already pointed out, the golden-rule predates religion and is not greatly modified by it; if anything, religion detracts from the golden rule by creating specific classes of people with non-reciprocal privileges (e.g., men having more privileges than women).  Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for golden-rule morality.  But it remains to show that religion does not, in fact, propose a morality superior to that of the golden rule.  As atheists, have we actually shown this yet?

Comment by Matt VDB on May 7, 2012 at 7:44am

I obviously, repectfully, disagree. Harris failed when he ignored Craig's rebuttal. This is a formal debate, after all.

Well yes, that too.

The difference here is that even if science could solve moral problems, it would not be truly objective and it would not be science because, in the end, it would require humans to make value judgments.

Which data has priority? Which response best serves humanity's well being? Who decides? Harris was claiming objectivity but wasn't backing it up because his wayward brainchild was more important to him than the debate.

Making value judgements does not preclude your discipline from being objective or being a science, because all science needs to make value judgements or judgements calls in some sense. The question of "Which data has priority?" could just as easily be levelled towards medicine when they need to decide what's more important: cardio-vascular fitness or proper flexibility?

The same goes for history, archaeology, psychology, and all the "soft" sciences. But as Harris points out, nobody is knocking down history as a "subjective" discipline simply because it makes judgement calls.

It is absolute, perfect and timeless because it is objective.

None of that follows from the definition of objective, or requires it. Ontological objectivity simply relates to a property independent of minds; that is all. "Absolute, perfect and timeless" is all superfluous.

And when you say that, "it is impossible to come to believe that this universe contains such a God without appealing to a morality other than that God's", you're missing the point: this theist God is not logical, he (and his morality) is revealed and accepted on faith.

No argument there, but it's a far bigger foundational assumption than anything Harris is doing. 

I don't know about you, Matt, but I use the word "objective" in the usual way. You know . . . like "objective reality" versus perceived reality: it exists as it is despite how you want or need it to exist.

That's ontological objectivity: mind-independence. Harris' morality is not totally objective in this sense (since it partially depends on the experiences and properties of minds), but neither is Craig's. Craig's morality simply depends on a non-human mind that we know nothing about and don't understand -but depends on it nonetheless. That is ontological subjectivity in just the same way, and the root problem ("How do you know that what a particular mind thinks is good?") is exactly the same.

In fact, unlike Craig's morality which depends only on the mind of a celestial being, Harris' morality also depends on objective properties and facts about the way the world works. That the Nazis were not maximizing the happiness and security and fulfillment of their population can be seen as a neurological fact. In this sense, Harris' morality is more objective -that's to say mind-independent- than Craig's.

In human endeavor, perfect objectivity is an illusion or a delusion. Human subjectivity contaminates morality.

That's different. Now you're talking about epistemological subjectivity, which indeed cannot be totally accounted for even despite our sincerest efforts at being objective in the way we analyse data.

But this is not the same as a researched property being ontologically subjective: the state of the sun is ontologically objective, even though my epistemology in studying it can never be perfectly objective.

The state of the debate in terms of objectivity is as follows: ontologically, Harris' morality is more objective than that of Craig; epistemologically, they're about even since our biases corrupt both.

But secular morality still wins.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 7, 2012 at 2:45am

@Kenny Bellew,

You said that:

"I have read Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, in which he points to objective causes for morality"

That is not technically true. He pointed to allegedly objective ways to determine the relative rightness or wrongness of morals. The Moral Landscape is a 3-D map or graph of that relativity. His pet theory is merely utilitarianism disguised in a lab coat. His allegedly objective standards of "human flourishing" and "well-being" are merely utilitarianism's "greater good" paraphrased. It's just utilitarianism updated for a modern audience. And utilitarianism is NOT an objective moral standard -- though it comes as close as we've gotten thus far.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 7, 2012 at 2:23am

@Matt VDB,

I obviously, repectfully, disagree. Harris failed when he ignored Craig's rebuttal. This is a formal debate, after all. You said:

"First of all, the morality proposed by Craig is no more objective than anything Harris is advocating. Craig's argument essentially comes down to "If there is an objective source of goodness that exists, it's possible to believe in objective goodness"."

But it IS more objective because God's existence was built into the debate. The debate was titled "Is Good from God?". Craig's assertion was that, if it's from God, it's good because God is perfectly good; perfect in every way. In contrast, Harris rolled out his pet project and asserted that science can solve moral problems. The difference here is that even if science could solve moral problems, it would not be truly objective and it would not be science because, in the end, it would require humans to make value judgments. Which data has priority? Which response best serves humanity's well being? Who decides? Harris was claiming objectivity but wasn't backing it up because his wayward brainchild was more important to him than the debate.

It seems a little to obvious to point out but objective morality is not subjective: it's not negotiated or explained. It is absolute, perfect and timeless because it is objective. In other words there is no human or natural element to it. It must be revealed to us because human frailty means that we can't discover it on our own. It's written in stone and can not be rightly challenged or changed. It supersedes even truth with its authority. These are the ridiculous but logically inevitable consequences of an objective moral edict, code or belief system.

And when you say that, "it is impossible to come to believe that this universe contains such a God without appealing to a morality other than that God's", you're missing the point: this theist God is not logical, he (and his morality) is revealed and accepted on faith.

I don't know about you, Matt, but I use the word "objective" in the usual way. You know . . . like "objective reality" versus perceived reality: it exists as it is despite how you want or need it to exist. Therefore, in the debate, Harris needed to show that God does not exist and/or that his morality is not perfect. Either approach would have invalidated the objectivity of both God and his morality.

In human endeavor, perfect objectivity is an illusion or a delusion. Human subjectivity contaminates morality. If there were some sort of objective moral standard available, we could never use it without corrupting it.

Comment by Matt VDB on May 6, 2012 at 3:26pm

Craig started off with the premise that objective morality can only exist if God exists and, alternatively, if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

You're granting Craig too much. Harris failed because he didn't succeed in unpacking the loaded words Craig was using and attacked some rather irrelevant points instead.

First of all, the morality proposed by Craig is no more objective than anything Harris is advocating. Craig's argument essentially comes down to "If there is an objective source of goodness that exists, it's possible to believe in objective goodness". Not only is this argument entirely circular, it is impossible to come to believe that this universe contains such a God without appealing to a morality other than that God's.

Otherwise, how would you distinguish a genuinely good God from one who was just telling you he was good but was actually recommending genuinely evil things? Because the Bible tells you so? Because you feel it? 

Second of all, Harris' system of morality is objective in many of the ways that word is used in philosophy. In fact, depending on your definition of objective and subjective, Harris' theory is actually more objective than Craig's.

One of the misconceptions Harris should have shot down right from the get-go is that a system of knowledge (whether science, medicine or morality) does not become subjective the moment you have to make an assumption or rely on a foundational belief. We need to do that in every terrain of discourse (including Craig's system of morality) and it means fuck all.

Also, I agree that it would probably be easier to argue for the position that morality is wholly subjective, but I don't happen to believe that is true. The issue is a bit more complicated, but worth going into.

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