Friday 8 April 2011

Debate: Is Good from God? — William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris

Though I've not yet seen the video, I've heard the audio recording of this debate that took place on April 7 between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris, hosted by Notre Dame University. The motion was "Is Good from God?" The following are my thoughts, noted while listening.
Craig starts, using his "argument from morality", which he frames in his usual way:
  • If God exists, objective moral values exist.
  • If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  • Objective moral values do exist, therefore God exists.
The problem with this argument is the definition of objective. Craig characterizes Harris's formulation of morality in The Moral Landscape — where Harris says that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures — as just a redefining of morality, which is no more than saying that the well-being of conscious creatures is about the well-being of conscious creatures. This, says Craig, is circular tautology. But Craig's own definition of morality — in particular objective morality — is itself circular. You only have to listen to his "argument from morality" to realize (despite his denials) that his definition of objective morality is morality originating from a transcendent source, so it's no surprise that in his view morality can't come from a source other than God.

What many of Sam Harris's critics fail to grasp is that he's not attempting to resolve the "value problem". He's not trying to derive values from facts (ought from is). His book The Moral Landscape begins not with an is but with an ought, as he explains in this debate. He starts off with the worst possible misery for everyone, then says that everything else — states or conditions that are not "the worst possible misery for everyone" — is obviously better. It's higher up the moral landscape; no-one can doubt this. It's a value judgement, but it's a judgement we all share, and it's as near to objective as we're likely to get.

Naturally Craig doesn't accept this. He claims that objective morality must come from an authority, and in the absence of God, that authority is moot. Like many theists, Craig cannot get around his authority fixation. He claims there's nothing, in the absence of God, to say that the well-being of conscious creatures is "good". He insists that Harris isn't using the words "good" and "bad" in a moral sense. Again this is hardly surprising from someone who believes that goodness and badness in the moral sense can only be derived from a transcendent source. Craig's definition of morality is inextricably entwined with his personal concept of transcendent authority.

Perhaps Harris misjudges his audience in his first rebuttal, launching into an excoriation of religious morality without tying it sufficiently to his argument. What he says is true, but possibly not on point.

Predictably Craig follows up with the claim (he always does this in debates, whatever his opponent says) that his points have not been responded to, then goes on to claim that theism provides a foundation for morality — even though Harris has just illustrated the moral vacuity of divine command theory. But Craig insists that the existence of evil proves the existence of God; that moral authority comes from God, therefore God exists. God exists, therefore we have objective morality. Of course you can't refute this because objective moral authority, by Craig's definition (despite his denial) comes only from God.

Harris, in his second rebuttal, points out that Craig has misquoted him, but concentrates on the theme of his book — that we can use science to investigate ways to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. He does, however, point out that Craig is merely defining God as good.

In his concluding statement Craig takes up this last point, denies it, then proceeds to do precisely what Harris accuses him of: he defines God as good. Remarkably, Craig objects to Harris's statement that we rely on certain axioms. Craig says that's taking something on faith, which it isn't. Axioms are self-evidently true — no faith is required in order to believe them.

In his concluding statement Harris gives an impassioned plea for rationality in our investigations into how we should live. It's heartfelt, but probably too subtle a response to Craig's rather simplistic, point-scoring style of debate. Craig is a good debater; he uses rhetorical tricks to get his audience on side, but the philosophical content of his speeches is relatively low. He sticks to basic points (most, incidentally, long since refuted), and repeats them, usually along with the mantra that they've received inadequate response from his opponent.

Harris, on the other hand, is less interested in point-scoring, just wanting people to see where he's coming from, and to give his ideas serious consideration.

Half an hour of mostly insightful questions follows the debate proper, and the answers are necessarily short and consequently not very enlightening, except to show that Harris and Craig are never going to agree on the foundation for morality. It seems likely, therefore, that the two sides of this question will continue to talk past each other.

Audio here:

Video here:
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UPDATE 2011-04-22:
YouTube now has the whole debate in single video: