Friday, April 8, 2011

William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris Debate

For those not in the know, there was a debate held last night (this morning Australian time) between philosopher/professional debater William Lane Craig and atheist/professional speaker Sam Harris at the University of Notre Dame (a famous Catholic university in the states).

Audio is available here for those who did not get to see it.

Last year I decided to start taking morality seriously. To say I didn't understand what the big deal was would be an understatement. Then I sat down and did what I usually do. Find the state-of-the-art philosophical papers which deal with this exact subject and read them. Many would opt for the historical route, but I'm impressed with the way modern Western analytic philosophy writers are clear and concise and can cut through the bull.

At first I took the ultra-sceptical route and declared that morality did not exist. This I took to be almost obvious under an atheistic world as any definition of "good" or "moral" would ultimately end up being circular or arbitrary. I even took this position to a debate at the UWA Atheist and Agnostic society last year against our resident Peter Singer supporting utilitarian. This half debate served two purposes - one to gauge the reaction of my peers and to see to what extent I could defend this view.

The first paper to change my view was Erik Wielenberg who presented an atheistic defence of moral ontology. He showed that the potential existence of morality under atheism didn't represent a challenge to those who take a permissive view of the extent of ontological development. If an atheist can accept that mathematical truths exist in an objective sense despite not being material, then there is no real reason to suppose that an atheist couldn't also take morality to exist in an extended ontology.

Okay. So that didn't convert me - it showed me that it was in theory possible to construct an atheistic objective morality. What actually changed my mind was a rewatch of a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan (Professor of ethics at Yale). It was funny to first hear William Lane Craig say exactly word for word my current position and then to hear Shelly Kagan provide a moral framework in which not only is moral objectivity permissible under atheism, but in fact describe what this framework is.

The more I thought about what Kagan said, the more I believe it and the more I saw the exact same or similar framework being proposed in the literature (including Wielenberg). For those who are interested, the debate can be seen here: (Part 1/10) Given that this was one debate that even Christians themselves admit Craig probably lost - it's worth a watch and I cannot do justice with it in words.

So what does this all have to do with the debate between Harris and Craig. Well to put simply one should listen to the debate Craig had with Kagan before the debate with Harris. You will notice that Craig presents what is basically the exact same case despite Kagan providing top quality answers to his questions. There may as well have never have been a debate between Craig and Kagan considering Craig didn't take anything from it.

Craig definitely won this debate against Harris - whatever that really means.

Harris is a good speaker. He is actually funny and says some really insightful things. The problem is he was all over the place in terms of answering Craig's objections and never refuted Craig's knock-down argument that he presented in the 1st reply. Craig on the other hand was clear, concise and devastatingly brutal with his rhetoric. Harris was a Brazilian soccer team which showed individual talent yet lack cohesion whereas Craig was more like the 70's Netherlands and their "total football" philosophy.

Enough rhetoric from myself - what might I have done differently? Here is my case:

My Case Against Theistic Morality

Craig mentioned that only under theism is there a sound grounding for an objective morality. He also criticised Harris who brought Christianity into the equation. I would argue that Craig actually presented a homo-centric morality - something which isn't warranted given theism qua theism.

Imagine if you will that there was an alien species who were actually the basis or teleology for the universe. Us humans then would be accidental by-products and merely animals in comparison to this advanced species (AS). In fact "real God" (RG) told AS that we humans were to be treated the way humans today tend to treat animals. (Paralleling to the "stewardship" espoused by Genesis) RG also provides verifiable miracles which help AS and no AS could be persuaded by atheism due to the obvious nature of RG's influence. AS then comes to earth and tells us that we are to be perpetual slaves to AS because we are merely slightly advanced animals (compared to the brilliance which is AS). In such a universe it would not be immoral for AS to do this to us - in the same way that Christians/Muslims and Jews see no problem with slitting the throats of live animals to kill them.

In this universe, human morality would be useless and irrelevant - similar to how monkeys may show reciprocal altruism but because they do not display "higher functionality" they are not moral agents. Should us humans then permit ourselves to be slaves? Given that this scenario is possible under theism, it is unclear how anything in humanity could be grounded when the morality is only relevant to AS. By not considering such a scenario I believe Craig is inadvertently smuggling in homo-centric theistic theories.

This is where I believe atheistic morals would surpass theistic morality. Theistic morality, in the case I just presented may not consider humans to be the highest being worthy of moral consideration. Atheistic morality (as espoused by Kagan etc) on the other hand is concerned with the well-being of ALL sentient beings. This would inform AS as to the proper treatment of us as well as us to other animals.

In such a world with RG and AS, us humans would never accept the state-of-play and would revolt against any plan to enslave us. This to me speaks of why theism (without smuggling in homo-centric ideas) doesn't naturally provide the basis of morality because morality MUST pertain to at minimum, the interests of humans. Theism on the other hand could base it on anything, from AS, to iPod's to God itself. Why should we care?


A is for Atheist said...

I enjoyed your AS/AG analogy. As an atheist, and a professor of philosophy and religion, I have posted a refutation of Crag's previous arguments on Objective morality at

Kel said...

Kagan's arguments were really compelling, I thought he nailed Craig in that debate. If you're getting a master of rhetoric arguing that atheism lacks justice, then under questioning admits in his view it's people who recognise their immorality who go to heaven, you've done really well. Craig might be a master debater, but there's only so much one can do to talk their way out of the really unfavourable parts of their worldview.

One thing that's perplexed me is why anyone thought God had something to do with morality in the first place. Isn't morality a question of how we ought to treat each other? I can understand the moral nihilists, moral sceptics, and moral subjectivists just fine, but I've never understood what God's got to do with it. I still don't, really, and the best I seem to get out of theists is that God is necessary for morality - something that doesn't have any utility in answering moral questions at all!

Anonymous said...

If you're interested in a critique of Craig's "knock-down argument" against Harris, see:

adamryan said...

The "debate" with Kagan wasn't actually a debate but a dialogue. It was set up by the Veritas Forum to be a discussion for the body of students at Columbia who were non believers and, subsequently, is why Craig wasn't as aggressive in his presentation as he normally is in debates. Re-watch the video if you'd like, and this time focus on Craig's facial expressions and body language. At times, you can almost see how uncomfortable he is with the format he's agreed to undertake. He looks like his not being able to respond to certain things Kagan says really bothers him (which is understandable, since Kagan likely wasn't familiar with Craig's well-worn arguments).

Shortly after his debate, on his site, he was asked about the "debate" with Kagan. Craig begins with,

"I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan's view, Alexander, but I didn't press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did."

Source: here.Craig also discusses the dialogue here.


adamryan said...

Was my comment removed?

Reasonably Aaron said...

adamryan: Your comment was caught by the automatic spam filter. I just now marked it as not-spam. Thanks for your comment.

José said...

I'm reading your entire blog! It's an absurd that there is a category for my type of shyness and I didn't knew about it (though, I already realized 'all' the symptoms and etc, hehe).

I have something to add: I guess love-shy people are smarter them average ;) I mean, I consider myself smart. Well.. Only my english sucks :)

But please, stop being shy and post once more! I'm waiting for you posts! :)

Happy New Year and that 2013 be a year full of non-shy moments for you - if you desire so - and full of posts! :)