Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Thoughts on the Craig v. Harris Debate

In the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris, I was pleasantly surprised to see Craig cast out of his comfort zone at a few points - something that rarely seems to happen in the debates he has participated in. The question for this debate was: "Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?" Craig's position on morality is that there is no objective basis for moral values apart from god. Amusingly, he uses a very abstract idea of god, though he is an Evangelical Christian, and he tries to wiggle his way out of challenges to the moral character of his god by semantically stating that the issue is "moral ontology" (what is moral), not "moral epistemology" (how we know it's moral).

My problem with this is that epistemology seems like it has to be involved in a discussion about where the foundations of moral values lie. Even in ontologically considering morals, we deal with the issue of why we think certain things are moral and why others are not. That was the question of the debate that Craig should have dealt with - how do we know moral values are supernatural as opposed to natural? But instead of making his own positive case for divine morality, he spent the majority of the debate criticizing Harris' view and dissecting his 'moral landscape.' Here's the kicker, though: if you demonstrate that moral values are not natural, you still have to demonstrate that they are supernatural. It could be that they're neither.

Obviously, I think Craig failed spectacularly, but what about Harris? Sam is my favorite of the four horsemen of the 'New Atheism', and I have to say I was impressed with him in this debate. Having seen Hitchens bomb miserably in debate with Craig, as well as several other atheists, I didn't have much hope for Harris. But he had a positive argument on his side, which he defended well, and he also made a couple excellent responses to some of Craig's nonsense.

For some time, I've wished that an opponent of Craig in a moral debate would draw attention to the fact that Craig merely defines god as a good and moral being - he provides no evidence, no argument, and no reason to think that a supreme being would have to be good. As Harris poignantly stated, why couldn't it be an evil god? Christian apologists love to talk about god as a moral lawgiver, but defining god into this is just irresponsible, especially when thousands of gods through history have not been moral or lawgivers. Why should we allow Craig to slide this into the definition of god as if it were self-evident? Big kudos to Harris for pointing out this problem in the debate.

Another thing I found amusing was how dismissive and even derogatory Craig was toward Harris' idea of well-being as goodness. In virtually every moral paradigm, though, well-being seems to be at the heart of what is considered good. Harris brilliantly showed that Craig's moral paradigm relies on it too, when he simply asked why hell is a bad place to go to. Craig completely misunderstood the question, saying that Christianity is about recognizing that god is worthy of worship and other warm fuzzy gibberish. But why should we want to avoid hell? Because god is worthy of worship is not an answer. The implication is that hell is a place of horrible suffering and torment, and if you don't want to go there, you should believe. In other words, hell is a bad place because it greatly diminishes well-being. There's nothing else that can be said about the threat of hell. Even if a Christian merely defines hell as eternal separation from god, that still is a harm to well-being according to the Christian worldview. Craig's morality is just as reliant on well-being as Harris'.

A couple of questions during the Q&A also really caught my attention. At one point in the debate, Craig stressed the difference between understanding the meaning of something and understanding how something works (ontology vs. epistemology) by explaining that we understood what the word light meant before we knew it to be electromagnetic radiation. One girl took this analogy a step further and pointed out to Craig that before we knew what light scientifically was, we thought it came from god(s). If we were wrong about that, could he be wrong about the source of morality? Her question wonderfully illustrates what I just said about moral ontology and moral epistemology. In a debate on the source of morality, especially one phrased as a dilemma, it is imperative to make a case for how we know something is moral, not just what morality means under your worldview. After all, like the ancients misunderstood light as a divine phenomenon, perhaps your view of morality could be wrong. Craig replied by again distinguishing between ontology and epistemology, though, utterly ignoring the problem she had pointed out.

In my review of Sam Harris' latest book, I explain that the is-ought distinction is a very misunderstood issue, even by many noteworthy thinkers. Craig raises the is-ought 'problem' during the debate, and later in the Q&A, he is asked if god is either an "is" or an "ought". Craig says god is an "is". The questioner then follows up by asking if any "ought" can be derived from the fact that god exists, or that god "is". Craig says no. The questioner then points out that Craig has a lot of unsupported premises in his arguments. Craig tries to weasel his way out of it, of course, but the student is right. Many of Craig's arguments take the form of god is x, therefore we ought to do y. As one example: god is a moral lawgiver, therefore we should follow god's moral law. The irony is that this wouldn't be a problem for Craig if he understood that the is-ought distinction doesn't actually prohibit us from deriving an "ought" from an "is", but with his current misunderstanding, the student backed him into quite a corner.

Overall, I found the debate very engaging, perhaps one of the best recent debates with Craig that I've seen. I'm still waiting for someone to note that Jesus himself endorsed a morality of a natural kind, though, when he instructed to "do to others what you would have them do to you" in Matthew 7:12. No appeal to the supernatural, just morality as a vehicle of interaction between our fellow human beings, as it should be. It's when we interject third party gods, things, or persons that the trouble begins, and this is no more apparent than in Craig's Divine Command Theory. A law will never be a moral value, because the point of laws is to enforce certain values. Craig has morality back-asswards.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Calling a Spade a Spade

I think there are times when berating someone can be a useful accompaniment to constructive criticism. Generally speaking, I try to make my response appropriate according to the tone of the original statement(s), but occasionally I run into something so ignorant that it deserves to be called out. Usually it's a suggestion that defies all critical thinking and ignores very basic natural explanations. So when a guy on my YouTube channel sent me a link to this video and asked if I had heard of the "jewels argument" for god's existence, I had to call a spade a spade.

The video investigates a small church in Puerto Rico, where the pastor and some of the parishioners claim to find oil seeping through the walls and out of the bible, as well as jewels and diamonds falling from heaven. I should note that I use the word 'investigate' very loosely here, because the one thing the video doesn't do is show any sense of objectivity or skepticism. It begins by stating that major media news outlets seem to be ignoring the "incredible events," while only Christian sources are covering it. I have a guess for why this might be.

No one but the pastor is interviewed for the video. At one point they claim that the diamonds were shown to a professional jeweler who told them the cut was more flawless and perfect than he had ever seen, and yet they neglect to find and interview this jeweler. But how would impressively cut stones make any kind of case for the involvement of the divine? Perhaps the diamonds were purchased and planted there by the pastor or by someone else. Perhaps their quality has been exaggerated by the pastor, since we don't have the actual testimony from his source to consider.

I pointed out to the YouTube Christian the fact that hearsay is all the video has to offer. Nothing has been caught on camera, no experts are consulted in person, and the most we get is a story after the events by people who have a clear bias. I even threw out the idea that if the diamonds had fallen from the sky, they might have leaked out of an open bag in a malfunctioning luggage compartment on a plane. Then my believing friend objected that this "phenomenon" is happening all over the world.

Of course he didn't provide me with other examples of where across the world this is happening, but even so, the real point is that with any number of natural explanations available, it is irresponsible to say that god raining down jewels from heaven and causing oil to leak from walls is the most plausible explanation. South America is well known for its affinity for fake miracles like bleeding statues and fraudulent practicioners like psychic healers. It is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that perhaps these churchgoers in Puerto Rico are either involved in a deceptive ploy for attention or witness to bizarre but entirely natural events.

What is a stretch is god's involvement. As I said to the Christian YouTuber, you don't just get to point to some anecdotal evidence in a completely non-objective and heavily biased Christian video and say, 'explain that if there's no god!' I don't have to account for your gullibility. When you've actually presented nothing of any substance, you are the one that has some work to do, not I. This miracle video is no different from a cryptozoologist who claims to have found bigfoot tracks or an alien abductee who claims to have an alien implant. We don't need to find the bigfoot shoes or run tests on the implant to suspect foul play, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and these have not met their burden of proof.

The thing about insulting and berating someone is that most people who are offended will spend some time mulling over the exchange in frustration. Many of the softer spoken critics might say that this accomplishes nothing, but I don't find this to be true. It wasn't the kind and calm words of a respectful dissenter that motivated me to rethink my beliefs. Sometimes it takes a firm tone to get people to really think. While, as I said before, I don't often adopt this in conversation, it does serve a purpose from time to time. And if the subject of mockery doesn't respond in a friendly manner or change his/her thinking at all, I don't feel that there's been any opportunity lost. I'd rather speak the truth and be thought a jerk than say what's comfortable and politically correct.

Humorously, the Christian responded to my berating by calling my message "hate mail" and trying to argue the implausibility of people dropping jewels from planes all over the world. In a moment of wonderful irony, he demonstrated the appropriateness of my insults by misunderstanding my alternative theory and taking it way too literally. I don't know what else you can call such blind faith and willful ignorance other than gullibility. And I'm not even sure that qualifies for an insult, and certainly not hate speech. We're all gullible in some ways. What's important is recognizing it and taking the steps to change. If you refuse to learn when the facts are slapping you right in the face, then me insinuating your ignorance is the least of your problems.