The God Debate II: My Two Cents

“Is good from God?”

On April 7, Sam Harris, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism, faced off against famed evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig at Notre Dame University to debate this seemingly simple question. You can watch the debate in its entirety on YouTube, and I highly recommend doing so by clicking the image below:

Sam Harris has gained fame in recent years thanks largely to his books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which are focused on exposing the faults and dangers of faith-based reasoning. His most recent book, “The Moral Landscape,” is an exploration of how science can come to bear on morality. Harris holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA.

William Lane Craig is a graduate of Wheaton College, with masters degrees in philosophy of religion and church history from Trinity University, a PhD in philosophy from the University of Birmingham, and a ThD from the University of Munich. Craig is arguably the most famous modern Christian apologist. He’s well-known for championing the Kalaam Cosmological Argument and for his masterful debate skills, which were on full display at this event.

Actually, there’s little doubt that from a formal debate-point-scoring standpoint, Craig likely won. He’s a professionally trained debater with decades of experience, and it shows. He insisted on going first (as I understand he usually does), which allows him the opportunity to effectively frame the debate in his own terms and remind spectators constantly that his opponent has failed to meet the standards of his challenge. (Whether or not those standards are reasonable is another issue altogether.) The man is really good at what he does and he’s so eloquent that it’s almost hypnotizing to watch him work.

That said, I believe Harris did admirably given his steep competition. Where Craig tried to keep the debate focused on a highly contrived, specious argument about the “ontological grounding” of morality, Harris stuck to what he does best: laying waste to the religious mindset by pointing out the nonsensical nature of religious reasoning. I do believe he gave an adequate response to Craig’s argument, but he did so in a somewhat fleeting manner and probably would have done well to have reiterated and elaborated on it. Here are some of my specific observations and opinions:

  • As is the norm in philosophy, definitions are everything. By far, the key term in this debate was the word objective. I really wish they had dedicated time to the meaning that they each ascribed to this word. For the most part as viewers we were left having to try to deduce the differences and similarities or their definitions of this term, yet it was the crux of the debate. Both Craig and Harris seem to agree that in order for something to be objective it must not be wholly reliant upon culture, mere personal preference, or mere emotion.
  • Craig (rather arbitrarily as Harris objects) asserts that for morality (a code or standard of conduct for human behavior) to be considered objective, it must be “valid and binding independent of human opinion.” But what does he mean by independent of human opinion? For Craig this means it must originate from an extrahuman, supernatural, authoritative source (aka the God of Abraham)!
  • To which Harris responded (and should have driven home more clearly): what other area of human inquiry or knowledge should we hold to that same arbitrary standard? Is the proposition “2+2=4” likewise unsound unless explicitly dictated by a supernatural entity? Is it somehow unsound to measure length in centimeters or inches, or volume in liters or gallons, or mass in grams or ounces unless a deity explicitly dictates the units of measurement? In reasoning about our world we always start with certain axiomatic assumptions about reality and as humans we codify units of measurement and definitions in order to facilitate efficient communication and knowledge-gathering, and those who contest these axiomatic assumptions and units of measurement we deem to be impaired cognitively or psychologically. (Harris likes to use the concept of physical health as an example of an area of human inquiry similar to morality where the units of measurement aren’t as clearly defined as other areas, yet we can objectively speak of what is more healthy than not, and we don’t criticize doctors for failing to have an “ontological grounding” for their definition of health.) Craig even admitted that he and Harris largely agree on issues of applied ethics. They both agree that human suffering is to be avoided and flourishing to be promoted (the equivalent of agreeing that length may be valued in inches, and 12 inches equals a foot!), but Craig still maintains that without an extrahuman source dictating moral truths to us that Harris has no basis for believing them. This is completely arbitrary and unreasonable, and I believe it to be a fatal flaw of Craig’s argument.
  • I do believe that Harris makes a sound foundational case for objective moral truth: truth that is not wholly reliant upon culture, mere personal preference, or mere emotion. Morality in the context of human behavior is no more or less subjective than the concept of physical health in the context of medicine so we may therefore validly speak of objective morality without reference to a deity.
  • Craig’s pristine organizational structure, rhetorical skills, and debate-point-scoring prowess may have given him an ostensible upper-hand, but at the end of the day his argument doesn’t cut the philosophical mustard. For a more in-depth, technical treatment of Craig’s argument from moral ontology, see here.

Here are some of the money quotes from Harris:

1. “If someone doesn’t value evidence” 45:05-46:06

2. “Elvis pancakes” – 1:06:38-1:07:15

3. “Axiomatic assumptions”- 1:18:36-1:19:42

4. “We have hit philosophical bedrock” – 1:22:09-1:22:55

5. “You have to pick yourself up by your bootstraps” – 1:57:36 -2:00:04

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4 comments on “The God Debate II: My Two Cents

  1. William L. Scurrah
    May 3, 2011 at 2:01 am #

    I have posted some thoughts on Harris’s book on my blog at http://www.ugotitwrong.wordpress.com,

  2. Jeff Mitchell
    May 6, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    I (humbly) believe Craig’s argument could have been presented in a single statement: “I define ‘objective good’ as that which can only come from God; therefore, ‘objective good’ must only come from God.” I would be fine with that statement if instead of “objective good” he had said “Godly good” (something that makes sense from his definition). But why re-define objectivity as something only his hypothetical God (Craig claims he is not referring to a specific god) can exhibit, especially when there is no practical reason to do so? Is it only to “win” a debate?

    On the other hand, if we could determine what “objective good” is being promoted by this generic God, and prove that something exists simply because we define it as having existence, we would have just about all the answers.

    I know this isn’t a terribly sophisticated response, but it seems to me that a simple fallacy remains fallacious regardless of how cleverly it is presented.

    • Louis
      May 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

      Jeff,

      I agree with your analysis. At bottom, Craig is merely arbitrarily defining “objective” morality as “theistic” morality. He imposes a standard of objectivity onto morality out of mere convenience to the theistic worldview. In no other area of human inquiry is such a definition of objectivity considered remotely necessary. Thanks for commenting!

      -Lou

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