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.

1 comment:

  1. You raise a good point when you talk about the "do unto others command." It's even more effective when you realize that Jesus is simply reiterating a sort of moral code that was around long before his time or the Old Testament (though I don't think the golden rule actually appears in the OT, ironically enough). If we can figure it out by ourselves as a more primitive species, why do we need to appeal to a god with a bad track record in following his own commands?