Friday, April 8, 2011

Craig/Harris Debate

William Lane Craig and Sam Harris debated yesterday on the topic "Is Good from God?" You can listen to it here. I have a few criticisms of both sides, mostly with respect to Harris' statements.


Opening Statement

Contrary to Craig, "ought" does not imply "can." Craig uses this an analogy to attempt to show otherwise: "if somebody shoves you into another person, you're not responsible for bumping into him. You had no choice." This presupposes determinism is incompatible with choice. That does not follow. Determinism is incompatible with free will - the ability to choose apart from antecedent, extrinsic causation - but it is compatible with choice. Choice is volitional, but it is an actual exercise of one's will. Hence, it does not imply one's will has the capacity to have been exercised contrarily. One's choice can be volitional yet necessitated. Religious philosophers as far back as Augustine and as recent as Gordon Clark have noted this. Craig has repeated this false dichotomy for a while now, and he even threw in the robot/puppet caricature one will sometimes hear in these contexts. As I have written elsewhere:

//Neither God’s revelation of what is good nor His decree that men are responsible for obeying His precepts is arbitrary, for in the same way God’s declaration of what is good reflects His own eternal nature, God’s declaration that men are responsible for obeying His law reflects their created natures. That God sovereignly made men for His own ends and glory functions as the very means by which Paul substantiates, in Romans, his claim that men are responsible (Romans 9:19-21). In the absence of a Creator-creation distinction, moral dogmatism is irrational. A dictator may desire to heedlessly enforce his ideas, but he can never possess the divine prerogative. Only a sovereign Creator can universalize His moral precepts to those whom He has created for that purpose, and this God has done by the full, sovereign, and authoritative disclosure of His holy nature and law in Scripture...

Advocates of the free will defense may object that man cannot be faulted for his choosing that which he was predetermined to choose. They also sometimes caricature men in a deterministic world-view as puppets. This method of argument is question-begging and poisoning-the-well. There is no self-evident reason that one who has broken a law is excused from law-breaking because he was unable to do otherwise. Additionally, Scripture teaches that men, in relation to God, are pots, axes, and other instruments God may use as He pleases. What, then, besides emotion, could be the underlying objection laced in the puppet analogy? In fact, God is actually much more sovereign over mankind than a puppeteer is over his puppet. God controls everything men do, whereas a puppeteer is confined by strings and joints. God made men as they are: creatures with minds, wills, emotions, intellects, feelings, and other privileges to which puppets are not privy. Even so, men are not “forced” to will, as that would be a contradiction in terms. Rather, insofar as man always chooses in accordance with his most strongest desire, and insofar as God determines our desires (directly or indirectly), our will is determined and yet voluntary. It is certainly we who choose, feel, think, and act – and yet it is all in accordance with God’s determinative purpose. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:36).//

To be fair, Craig does add the addendum that compatibilism is a position which avoid his criticism, but given his statement that" ought implies can," something with which Calvinists disagree, it is not clear whether or not he would include Calvinism in this group.


Opening Statement

Even if it were allowed "good is well-being," as Harris states, Harris seems to miss the point that providing a demarcation of what is good does not explain why one ought to do good. As I point out in a different post, goodness and oughtness are not synonyms. So when Harris says "if we should do anything in this universe, if we ought to do anything, if we have a moral duty to do anything, it's to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone," again, even if this is true, Harris must substantiate the "if." He doesn't show that the "if" is the case. He doesn't show we should or ought to do anything. He doesn't show we have moral duties. He defines good but provides no objective reason we should do good.

Now, it is true Harris appeals to common sense, but if I were to point out that what Harris considers to be common sense can be thought by another - like myself - to be emotive stupidity, what can be his response? Argumentum ad populum? Harris is an unusual Positivist (he strikes me as one, anyways) in that he argues morality is objective. Most Positivists thought ethical discourse was possible (to a certain point) but that ethical claims themselves are unverifiable.

When Harris says one's values can be objectively wrong with respect to deeper values one holds, this is what Feigl would call "validation" and is analogous to an internal question. But Harris forgets to explain how one can verify these deeper values are objective. Feigl at least admitted that if one cannot "vindicate" his ethical system against another - an external question - there remain root disagreements for which there is no recourse for resolution, at least on Positivistic grounds. At this point, it seems Harris wishes to pass off his own system as objective, but that is clearly not the case. To illustrate how unintelligible Harris becomes at this juncture, he says that those who disagree with him are wrong with respect to values they would hold if they were "deeper persons." What does that even mean? How does Harris know counter-factuals?

A still more fundamental criticism of Harris would simply be to attack the idea his naive utilitarianism can be verified. Suppose - and this is quite a stretch, given the above - that Harris' definition of good is true and that one ought to do good. Criticisms nevertheless remain:

//Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which defines good along a spectrum. A choice which causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest good, and a choice which causes the greatest pain to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest evil. This understanding of good and evil leads to arbitrariness and irrationality. As a form of consequentialism, choices made by Utilitarians are, incredibly, prospectively a-moral; since one cannot know the future consequences of his choice, the choice must be made arbitrarily. Possibilities of future consequences also suggest that the moral value of any choice is subject to change at any instant. Even [relatively] simple knowledge of all the ways in which a past choice has affected present reality is itself a problem, because one would need to be omniscient to know his calculations are both accurate and exhaustive. Yet another problem with Utilitarianism is that in order to judge the comparative “goodness” of one’s choice, one would need to know counter-factuals; ironically, such is only possible by divine revelation. There are still more complications when one considers, within a Utilitarian framework, whether or not one individual’s pleasure could qualitatively exceed the sum pleasure of many, whether or not it is proper to state minorities possess rights, and whether or not utilitarianism can escape the demerits of empiricism, inductivism, and subjectivism. Given the extremely relativistic and flawed nature of Utilitarianism, one may well believe the demise of Utilitarianism would maximize the pleasure of those who sincerely desire to be moral.//

1st rebuttal

Harris takes an intellectually lazy route in his argument against the divine command theory when he references the problem of evil. Not much needs to be said in reply to Harris here:

//The problem of evil is purportedly an internal critique of Christianity. If the Christian God does not harmonize with the atheist's arbitrary and subjective moral perception, why should the Christian suppose that to be a problem? Smuggling non-Christian concepts into the argument – concepts which they use to profane God’s character – can lead nothing more than an inept attack on a straw man. Confusion can only be avoided by providing clear definitions of key terms.//

Harris has provided definition of the key term - good - and it does not square with Christianity. Why Harris would think any Christian would find his argument meaningful, then, is mystifying.

Much more amusing is Harris' attempt to analogize the Bible to The Lord of the Rings. He states that to call Scriptural passages evidence for Hell is like stating passages in LOTR which reference Valinor are evidence for Valinor. He makes the same analogy to Hell in the Qur'an later. Well, if Harris thinks he can show that LOTR or Islam can produce a sound, epistemic system, then he is by all means invited to do so. He didn't, however, so this too is another evidence of intellectual laziness.

After listening to Harris' rebuttal, I almost doubt Harris has read the Bible beyond snippets of quotations provided by fellow new atheists. He accuses Christianity of lacking moral accountability, given that a person can live in sin and nevertheless repent and believe in the gospel unto salvation just prior to his death. His argument suggests unfamiliarity with penal substitution and justification, although he in fact alludes to this view (derogatorily) 5 minutes later. Moreover, Harris accuses God of cruel behavior towards innocent people. Has Harris never heard of the doctrine of original sin? Harris never critiques Christianity on its own grounds. He assumes his view is true and projects it onto other world-views in order to disprove them, which is a faulty methodology.

In any case, Harris imperceptibly shifts from attempting to answer "what are the preconditions necessary for sound moral dogmatism?" to "is Christianity moral?" If Craig is right, evil presupposes theism and every attack Harris makes against Christianity would be an admission his own view is inadequate. Harris doesn't seem to understand that.

2nd rebuttal

Harris here attempts to clarify his position, but I think he really only muddied the waters (perhaps unintentionally). It wasn't clear to me whether he was trying to justify moral statements on the basis of science or if he accepted morality as axiomatic such that aim of science is thereby determined. He said in one part of the rebuttal that axioms are necessary and later states one doesn't need to accept anything on faith. Very confusing. He also tried to distinguish between the way in which he and Craig were using the words "objectivity" and "subjectivity," and here again I didn't really follow what he was trying to say. In his closing statement, Craig noted that he had consistently defined objectivity as that which is independent of human opinion since his opening statement.

Needless to say, none of this was relevant to Craig's criticisms. Harris continued to fallaciously equate preferences with oughtness. Instead of answering the fundamental questions like "how do you know utilitarianism is true," Harris would call such questions stupid and his view objective in a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate opponents into silence. I thought Harris was rather disrespectful throughout the debate.

Concluding Statement

Harris compares morality to mathematics and physics and claims that since the latter don't presuppose God, neither does the former. Actually, the latter do presuppose God, and in any case, "ought" is not synonymous with "is." Harris never addressed the is-ought dilemma Craig mentioned several times.


Craig makes similar points to ones I made or might have made with a few mistakes and omissions.

Harris is neither a logician nor a theologian.

1 comment:

TransAm said...

Good review. I thought Craig won the debate easily, but Harris won the crowd. I've noticed that in both the WLC v. Hitchens debate and the WLC v. Harris debate that the Atheist side tends to go off-topic whenever they can. Their debate strategy seems to be an admission of the weakness of their main points. I did like how Harris kept going back to The Brothers Karamazov with the pleas about children.
For atheists it is a forgone conclusion that all religious thought is man-made. That is to say they believe all the morals we have come from man. This is why they argue off-topic I think. They do not escape the fundamentals of their belief system. This creates a lack of empathy and understanding of religion and it is why they do not seek to refute Craig directly. It is because they have a kind of "faith" that all religion is man-made that they attack what parts of relgious thought they do not like.
It is strange to me that Atheists don't see that the structure of their beliefs and behaviours is within a religious framework. That is to say they go about being anti-religious in a very religious way. It strikes me as ironic, others may disagree. My thoughts on this are heavily influenced by Rene Girard's "Violence and the Sacred."
Harris ignorance about the nature and purpose of religion is on full display when he talks about the nature of sacrifice. He seems to misunderstand that sacrifice has everything to do with the community at hand, whereas he seems to think that religion is the invention of crazy individuals. A violent god is a sign of a violent people. It is not some crazy's imagined angry god that requires a sacrifice, but an angry mob. The sacrifice itself is a measure against out of control violence. The violence of the community goes into one instead of all against all. Both violence and desire are infectious like a disease. Zombie movies of all things display this well. A sacrificial morality is better than total war which is where Hitchens and Harris consensus morality leads. Notably, terrorism would be an example of sacrifice turned upside down. Where the individual sees a community as guilty and acts accordingly. Harris's basis for morality does not deal with these realities. It is only because he lives in the Christian West that he can even think that way.