William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Sam Harris & William Lane Craig Duke It Out

The debate question was: Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?

Winner? By acclamation Harris, but then the deck was stacked against Lane because the event was held at Notre Dame, a Ɔatholic university. By objective measure it was Lane, who managed to stick to the topic and to answer the question of the debate.

What Lane could never make Harris see was the distinction between these two questions:

  1. Accepting classical God of theism exists, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?
  2. Accepting classical God of theism does not exist, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?

If anybody comments, please don’t emulate Harris and shirk from answering (1). It appears cowardly. Incidentally, just as Lane repeatedly emphasizes, the question is NOT “Does God exist” so please don’t let’s discuss that. (Click over to Ed Feser’s site for definitions about the “classical God of theism”.)

Answer to (1) is yes, to (2) no.

Harris flees from (1) like a child who stole a dollar from his mother’s purse, but he insists (2) is yes. His (listen for complete description) basis begins with the “worst outcome” for every person alive, by which he means pain, suffering, etc. He’s very proud of this, and dismissive of Lane who insists—correctly—that saying “pain and suffering is bad” is a groundless assumption (if God doesn’t exist). Why is pain bad? Because Sam Harris says so. How does he respond to somebody who says pain is good? He can’t: moral truth comes down to a vote, and that’s it. If (2) (there is no God), then it just doesn’t matter what happens to people. We are all dead meat in the end. Better not to have been born. Whatever the majority says is good is “good”, what they say is bad is “bad.” The reason the Nazi’s were wrong is because they were outvoted. Etc. etc. etc.

But the poor man cannot be consistent. He concedes (33:40) “We declare certain events to be right or wrong. But in doing that it seems we are merely projecting our own preferences and desires onto a reality that is intrinsically value free.” This just is to answer (2) no, which is Lane’s position.

Conclusion? Lane won.

Harris must have known he lost, which is why he was so anxious to change the debate. So he tried this:

  1. (Whether or not God exists) Are some religions bad, i.e. have some people acted badly in the name of God?

I can’t think of a soul, alive or dead, who disagrees with this. Yet his resounding “Yes!” earned much applause. Recall this was a university audience, people who are often pleased with themselves for asserting the obvious (but more research is needed).

He then had a go with:

  1. Given that evil exists, can God exist?

This is irrelevant, I emphasize, to the debate’s stated purpose, even if per impossible it is turns out the answer is no. The ability to differentiate (3) or (4) from (1) or (2) requires a certain level of sophistication, I suppose.

And then this (~59:00):

  1. Given God exists and that people who disobey him will spend eternity in Hell, isn’t this awful/rude/unfortunate/not-to-be-desired?

Suppose the answer to this is yes. It’s very odd that this argument is then conflated with this:

  1. Given (5), can God exist?

To which the weak-minded answer no. My dear readers, this just doesn’t follow. It’s equivalent to a boy saying to his biological male parent, “You’re not my father because I don’t like your rules.” If you can’t see this, please focus on the conditional in (5), which assumes God exists. You cannot start from the assumption that God exists to then prove that God does not exist in an argument like this.

Not unless you’re Sam Harris.

Remember: all comments to count as honest must answer (1) and (2).

34 Comments

  1. You are wrong and Harris is “right”. The trouble is that you are using the definitions in different meanings. Harris is using “objective” as like “as objective as any other scientific truth”. He is not an objectivist, he is someone like me who has seen through the mistake of it and embraced relativism in the philosophical sense (but not on the pragmatical sense).

    He is correct in proclaiming that without God, we can have a moral assessment of things that are just as “objective” and “true” as any other scientific truth without God, just as long as we accept as premises some fundamental core values that he outlined.

    You are correct in proclaiming that without God, we can not have a completely objective moral truth. What you people don’t understand is that people like Harris and me we don’t give a crap about that ellusive invisible and unnatainable truth. We care about the truths that we reach, not the “godly” “innefable” ones. This is why Harris does not care about what Lane insists he should care.

    I understand we disagree in this point violently, but at least make the effort to understand that not only we do understand the disagreement, we find this “objective morality” completely boring, vacuous and irrelevant. If there should be an “objective morality”, then it is not the task of any mortal to declare them, and anyone who arrogantly does so is just talking more than he should.

  2. About your 5 and 6, you again misunderstood Harris. He is not saying “can God exist given 5″, he is saying “can the GOD YOU PEOPLE BELIEVE IS ALL FORGIVING AND LOVING exist given 5″. The answer is clearly, unequivocally, undeniably a giant planet-sized NO.

  3. Briggs

    7 December 2012 at 11:23 am

    Luis,

    Lane makes the same point about the multiple definitions of “objective,” pointing out Harris can’t keep them straight. So you agree (1) is yes and (2) no?

  4. To answer yes to (1), wouldn`t you also need some form of communication from God to Man? (1) could be no if we don`t have a direct line of communication.

  5. Luis,

    Your argument seems to be that we can have something objective if we all agree to some starting premises. Do any such exist?

    If anyone can, in good faith, disagree with any of them, does that make them non-objective? I suppose I can’t rule out the existence of such beasts, but given the human experience, I cannot imagine what they might look like.

    So I think you’re right when you say that different definitions are being used. In particular, you and Harris use “not objective” where the question puts “objective.”

    It seems to me like talking about whether there is an “objective direction of north on the globe.” Sure, we can all agree to call one way north, and that’s very useful. But it doesn’t make our working definition of north “objective.”

  6. Briggs

    7 December 2012 at 1:10 pm

    David,

    Good question: Lane answers it. That absolute morals rules exist is different than knowing what they are. (1) merely says they exist.

  7. Thing is, your usage of the term “objective” is useless unless you *do* have a connection to the above lord, which an atheist will obviously deny you do have. For an atheist like Harris “objective” then means something different than for Lane. You keep saying he “can’t keep it straight”, but he does. He explained the difference very concisely and rigorously. You are just in denial here.

  8. Dr. Briggs:

    The assumption of a “classical God of theism” can lead to a frame of reference in which morality is objective.

    The absence of this assumption does not preclude other frames of reference in which morality is objective.

    An example of the latter would be to simply assume that morality is objective.

    So the answer to both (1) and (2) would be “yes”.

    Since you are referring to God-as-moral-authority, rather than God-as-Creator, the correct analogy would not be a child denying his ancestry in his his father, but rather a man denying the monarchy of a pretender.

    V/r.

  9. Eric —

    For morality to be objective, it must exist objectively in all reference frames. Attempting to stealthily add ‘relative’ to the definition of objective doesn’t win the argument. It is trivial to argue a case where morality is objective entirely inside it’s frame of reference. But that doesn’t make it objective, it makes it conditionally objective. Case 1) does not require additional conditions past the stated one to be true. Case 2) requires different, unstated conditions to be true for each and every imagined frame of reference.

    All you’ve done is move the ‘relative’ in relative morality from the morality to the objectivity.

  10. Why is God the arbiter of what is good or bad? This is a serious question. Defining morality as being whatever God says it is is as arbitrary as saying morality is whatever I say it is.

    Where has it been proven to be true that God can accurately assign morality to our actions?

    There will always be a debate about whether we have interpreted what people think God is saying correctly. This results in the same practical difficulties as non-religious moral philosophy – you are always left wondering if you are doing it right. The religious may claim they know what God thinks is moral, but that is simply an assertion and it is perfectly possible to say the opposite while claiming the same divine sanction.

    Command theories of morality will always be left with the problem of interpretation and reliance on authority. I see this as in no way superior to secular moral philosophy which has the added advantage of not claiming God is on its side when it claims a behaviour is morally acceptable or not.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    7 December 2012 at 6:26 pm

    people like Harris … don’t give a crap about that ellusive invisible and unnatainable truth. We care about the truths that we reach, not the “godly” “innefable” ones.

    Which is why Harris wrote that some beliefs are so dangerous it would be moral to kill people for having them. But how do you distinguish between the “truths” we reach and the “truths” reached by, say, Josef Stalin?

    Agreement or disagreement has nothing to do with objectivity. Objective means the quality resides in the object; subjectivity means it resides in the subject. So length, weight, number, location, etc. are objective while color, smell, taste, etc. are subjective. And since Heisenberg et al., we ain’t to sure about location and shape…..

    The weird thing is that those who have argued most strenuously against the idea that an objective morality can be derived without God have been atheists like Nietzsche, Rorty, Sartre, Voltaire, Rodenberg, etc.
    Rorty, for example, wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
    “For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncicular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. … Anyone who thinks that there are well grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or metaphysician.”

    Stanley Fish, another atheist, argued (a la Nietzche and his denunciation of Anglophone atheists as “flatheads” and crypto-Christians) that secular foundations for morality are typically parasitical on already-existent morality and smuggle in teleology through the back door. cf. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/
    When Harris says that something is good if it does not lead to pain and suffering, he is already assuming that not-pain is good to begin with, and hence circularizing his definition (as Fish points out). Does Harris contend that the pain felt by a long-distance runner is an evil? Should he not just take it easy and walk? Or are there times when pain is not an evil but a good. (Beside: for consequentialism to be a basis for morality one must be able to foresee the consequences. How far out?)

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    7 December 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Footnote:
    Why is God the arbiter of what is good or bad? … Defining morality as being whatever God says it is is as arbitrary as saying morality is whatever I say it is.

    It’s a good thing that morality is not defined as being whatever God says it is, then.

  13. The Creator of Morality obviously doesn’t have to stick to his own rules: do as I say not as I do. Therefore the classic theistic god is as immoral as the gods of Olympus. If you counter this by stating that some parts of the Bible are alegorical, then you have made your first step on the slippery slope to atheism.

    You can’t have it both ways: The all loving god is not the god of the bible.

  14. Yes of course the answer to #1 is ‘Yes’. But that is not interesting as the definition of the classical God of theism includes being the unique source of absolute objective morality which makes the ‘yes’ answer no more than a tautology. So I can’t blame Harris for not “answering” that question.

    It is only #2 that is at all interesting because it raises a substantive question – namely “is there any *other* possible source of absolute objective morality than the classical God of theism?” Here, I see no logical reason why not. Perhaps some other god *does* exist with different values for example, and I am not convinced that there is no possible atheistic alternative. But I think Harris does a poor job of undermining Hume, and I do agree with Craig that in the absence of *any* god there is as yet no convincingly argued case for absolute objective morality.

    It is ironic to see Craig accuse Harris of distorting the question into a tautology by defining values in terms of well-being of conscious entities when he himself makes so much of the tautological half of his own argument and also is guilty of distorting the question by inserting the words “absolute” and “objective” into the wording of the resolution. I’m with Luis Diaz that it is possible to make forceful and effective moral judgements without any need to label them as absolute and objective and I generally see such claims as demonstrating the insecurity of one who “doth protest too much”.

    At the risk of being accused of the same kind of distortion, let me add that the resolution can easily be resolved in favour of the “natural” if one takes (as I do) the definition of nature as including everything that exists.

  15. I sometimes think these types of debates are what Paul was referencing when he was inspired to write, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy …”

    In my opinion, to consider debates such as these is to acknowledge that God’s existence is a product on man’s intellectual skills.

  16. @ Chinahand
    God is the absolute arbiter of morality because he is the absolute being. Read the definition ‘classical God of theism’. This argument does not require that we understand God’s morality, or that we even are capable of knowing it, just that it must exist objectively given the premise. You’re bringing in the questions of ‘does God exist’ and ‘if so, what is God’ when both are assumed true by the premise of question 1. They’re irrelevant to the answers.

    Please note that I am a confirmed agnostic, and do not know if there is or is not any such things. But if you’re going to argue the point, you need the argue the point, not things beside the point. And the point make clear using understood definitions what God means in this context.

    @ Hans
    You’re arguing things not put into evidence. The classical God of theism is not required to be anything we can understand, nor is he held to any standards of the Bible or your imaginings of what he must be. The definition of that phrase says that he is the absolute,the totality, and nothing more or less. Things wrought by man do not impinge.

    @ Alan
    Yes, 1) is trivial, but it’s there to contrast 2), not be interesting by itself. However, I disagree with your assertion that some ‘other’ god or force can provide objective morality absent the classical God of theism. If such a being existed, in such a manner as to be able to declare universally objective morality, it would be a classical God of theism, and thus fall into 1), not 2).

  17. No one really knows the answer, but let’s call it “God.” Problem solved.

  18. @spellbound
    Which other “classical God of theism” is there apart from the god that is described in the Bible? “God works in mysterious ways” is the easy escape phrase if you can’t explain His biblical unjust actions. (e.g. Flood)

    If you really are an agnostic, why don’t you just simply say: “morality is created by _something_ we don’t understand”?

    The alternative explanation is by the way straightforward: Morality is the logicalal evolutionary result of animals living in social groups. Proof: Give two monkeys different amounts of fruit and watch what happens.

  19. Prop. 2, [Accepting classical God of theism does not exist, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?] ties the existence of objective morality to the existence of something called the “classical God of theism.” If this is meant to invoke “Nature and Nature’s God” from the Declaration, say, it is problematic, as the laws of such a God are clearly intended to be understood as the non-teleological laws of Newtonian physics. Quantifiable regularities in and of bodies doesn’t argue in any clear-cut way for the existence of objective moral rules?… laws?.. principles?

    OTOH, if you would like to argue for a mover that is not itself moved (along with the impossibility of an infinite regress), you might have the beginning of an argument for a teleological understanding of nature and thereby an objective standard for moral judgment. There will, of course, be other problems to deal with—not even God can bring about a free lunch.

  20. Leopold Kronecker is credited with a quotation to the effect tha “God created the integers; all else is the work of men.”

    Assuming the classical theism of God, is arithmetic objective? Are the axioms — by definition the unproven foundations underlying our quantitative reasoning — a basis upon which sapients other than humans would point to, recognize, and agree upon? Or are we all like the blind men grasping a piece of elephant? Are our maths personal, subjective, and founded only on the cultural biases with which we have been indoctrinated?

    Assuming we can’t agree about the arithmetic of integers, is there any reason to suppose we might agree about ethics? Assuming we CAN agree to some common set of axioms — some we accept without proof, and some we reject even though we have no basis upon which they should be rejected — are there comparable ethical principles of however restricted a set that can form some basis of structure for more complex reasoning?

  21. @Luis Dias:

    Starting from the end: you say this,

    I understand we disagree in this point violently, but at least make the effort to understand that not only we do understand the disagreement, we find this “objective morality” completely boring, vacuous and irrelevant.

    but then go on to add:

    If there should be an “objective morality”, then it is not the task of any mortal to declare them, and anyone who arrogantly does so is just talking more than he should.

    Craig is not claiming that “objective morality” consists in this or that set of moral claims. Rather, what he is claiming is that a set of moral truths exists independently of our prejudices, tastes, opinions, social vagaries, etc. This is a meta-ethical claim; what exactly are the claims in that set of moral truths and how we can discover them are two different questions altogether.

    But ontology determines epistemology. For if there is no objective truth of the matter about moral claims, then a fortiori there is nothing to discover in the first place — morality can only be at best, a matter of social consensus. So what can you possibly mean when you say that “objective” means “as objective as any other scientific truth”? Scientific claims are objective in the sense that they are claims about reality, not about our thoughts, opinions or what have you — precisely the same sense Craig is using. Or are you asserting that scientific claims are not objective in this sense?

    He is correct in proclaiming that without God, we can have a moral assessment of things that are just as “objective” and “true” as any other scientific truth without God, just as long as we accept as premises some fundamental core values that he outlined.

    Translation: if you accept my unargued prejudices and biases, you will come to see the truth of my moral claims. What a nice little piece of circular reasoning.

    You are correct in proclaiming that without God, we can not have a completely objective moral truth.

    No, Craig is making a stronger claim: without God there are no objective moral truths, period. It is a difference that makes all the difference.

    We care about the truths that we reach, not the “godly” “innefable” ones.

    And what truths are those? Let me guess: the ones following from your unargued prejudices and biases?

  22. @Pouncer:

    Assuming the classical theism of God, is arithmetic objective?

    Yes.

    Are the axioms — by definition the unproven foundations underlying our quantitative reasoning — a basis upon which sapients other than humans would point to, recognize, and agree upon?

    If by “sapients other than humans” you mean rational beings, yes.

    Or are we all like the blind men grasping a piece of elephant?

    I do not understand what you intend to convey by this metaphor, but the elephant is a solid block of matter (among other things) that is there to be grasped. A blind man can grasp it with the aid of his sense of touch and make an idea of what an elephant is. Maybe it is an imprecise idea, or an incomplete idea, but it surely is no less objective.

    Are our maths personal, subjective, and founded only on the cultural biases with which we have been indoctrinated?

    No.

  23. Sander van der Wal

    8 December 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Who cares about morality? If the classical God of theism exists the only thing that matters is to get your spiritual ass in heaven. Everything else is filosophers not keeping their eyes on the ball. Intellectually the classical god of theism is at least as bad as solipsism, chages are it is even worse. But intellect is completely irrelevant when the classical god of theism exists. If you get your ass in heaven, you can always ask what the point was about the universe, life and everything. It is waiting for the answer of the sunday crossword, but or three scores and ten years instead of a week.

  24. @Spellbound
    I kind of expected that someone would say that, and you may be right. But I am not sure that advocates of the “classical God of theism” would all agree that that label might also apply to a Spartan god of manly violence or to one whose moral law is “maximize your own physical comfort”. But nor do I really care about that because my main point is that the resolution does not specify that moral values are necessarily universal and I agree with Hans Erren that such moral values as really exist are probably just the “logicalal evolutionary result of animals living in social groups.”

  25. @Spellbound
    Ah I see we are debating a tautology. Premise: God defines moral absolutes; Conclusion: therefore God defines moral absolutes?

    Not a very useful debate is it.

    I wish to challenge this presumption. I am not debating the existence of God, I am debating the characteristics of God. Why must God define moral absolutes? Answering because God is perfect or absolute is not logically explaining it is simply re-stating the initial assumption.

    Why is that assumption valid and not able to be subjected to reasonable scrutiny?

  26. “You cannot start from the assumption that God exists to then prove that God does not exist.” On the contrary, that is exactly the structure of of an argument from contradiction. The same argument demonstrates that the square root of two is not a rational number by assuming first that it is and deriving a contradiction.

    So, assume that God exists; add the information that people will suffer in hell for all eternity; declare that this contradicts your first premise and conclude that therefore the starting assumption is false (because assuming it leads to a contradiction).

    And there is no solution to a^2 = 2*b^2 where a and b are integers so if God made the integers he must have left some out…

  27. Briggs

    10 December 2012 at 7:04 am

    Rich,

    True, and a good point. But of course the minor premise in this case does not contradict the first. The argument in short form is “God exists & He does things I don’t like. Therefore, He doesn’t exist.” And that is not an argument from contradiction.

  28. @Rich:

    “And there is no solution to a^2 = 2*b^2 where a and b are integers so if God made the integers he must have left some out…”

    First, God did not “make” the integers, because the integers are not “things” that are”made” in the first place.

    Second, the fact that such an equation does not have a solution just says that the square root of 2 does not exist in the field of rational numbers. Are you suggesting that somehow it was failure of God when “making” the rational field, which in fact He did not “make”, not in the sense of the word you are using, of adding the square root of 2 to the field? What kind of dumb-ass argument is that?

  29. @ Alan

    If moral values are not universal, then they are not truly objective. As argued earlier, objective ‘within a specified frame of reference’ is just playing around with subjectivity (subjectivity being the mortal enemy of objectivity). Much like scientific theories that successfully describe a locally observed phenomenon, if said phenomenon is observed to operated differently from the theory, then the theory is insufficiently objective in describing the effect and needs revision. It cannot be claimed that a set of morale values locally observed are universal (in fact, it’s guaranteed they are not because they are the result of local conditions), and therefore not objective (as they are entirely based on said local conditions).

    As for the ‘logicalal evolutionary result of animals living in social groups,’ it doesn’t really work, because while, yes, there are a large number of social groups that do develop similar group moralilty, they do not represent ALL groups that could or do develop moral values. It is difficult to claim that such moral values exist as an objective standard when it’s more likley they’re just one form of successful social adaptation to local conditions.

    And that’s a touch shaky as well. Take Hans’ ‘proof': “Give two monkeys different amounts of fruit and watch what happens.” What happens is one monkey gets angry when he receives less fruit. This is not a moral reaction, it is a recognition of less preferable treatment. Give the same monkey more fruit for a year while the other gets less, and then reverse the shares, and the first monkey will likely have an even stronger reaction when on the losing end of the uneven distrubtion. This isn’t morality, or, at least, not the morality implied by Hans. It is perhaps a moral value of survival of the strongest, or self-interest, but not any group morality. Can it inform group morality? Yes, self-interst is at the heart of most of our ‘moral’ structures, but self-interest is hardly objective.

  30. For open-minded people only: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

    “Atheists do not lose morality by giving up God. Instead, they must find it where it lives: in the natural world.
    Admittedly, some atheists are nihilists. (Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press.) But such atheists’ repudiation of morality stems more from an antecedent cynicism about ethics than from any philosophical view about the divine.

    Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable.
    But Socrates finds this definition ambiguous, and asks Euthyphro: “are the pious acts pious because they are loved by the gods, or are the pious acts loved by the gods because they are pious?”

    To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

    What could make anyone think such things? Ironically, I think the answer is: the same picture of morality that lies behind atheistic nihilism.”

  31. “Can’t we stop talking about sex all the time?”-Keaton, Love and Death

  32. The qutieson of God is not like the qutieson of Todd.Whether a particular Todd exists or not is an emperical qutieson we gather the facts and make a determination based on the weight of the evidence.The qutieson of God is a qutieson about the nature of ultimate reality.The basic disagreement between atheists and all those with some form of God belief is whether ultimate reality is conscious, creative, and purposeful and that the regularities we see in the universe are a result of that, or whether ultimate reality is instead unconscious, accidental and non-purposeful natural laws. This is a much more interesting qutieson to me than whether a particular tribal anthropomorphism of God and religious practices is absolutely real and correct, and all the other tribal anthropomorphisms are wrong. I suspect 95%+ of the readers of this blog have already decided that fundamentalist tribal religion is not absolutely and exclusively true, while the qutieson of the ultimate nature and basis of reality seems much more unsettled.

  33. @spellbound
    point taken, bad example. Another one: I had a blackbirds nest in my garden and a young bird hatched and fell on the terrace, I tried to place it back in the nest and was fiercely attacked by the mother.

    What do I learn from this: Altricial animals need empathy to survive. Moral is nothing more than codified empathy. If you have need for a Codifier, then the Law of Gravity is also written by Him. Moral is not a miracle requiring specific divine intervention, it’s part of the package of evolution.

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