William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011
Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)
Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)
Although I watched this debate when it was first posted online over two and a half years ago and intended to do a full write up of it then, I was still on an extended blogging sabbatical and had not read Sam Harris’ book on morality and ethics, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Now that the dust of their clash has settled, I have read Harris’ book more than once and offered my own thoughts on the burden of proof in showing that the source of human morals is divine, and Harris has issued “The Moral Landscape Challenge”, I now feel that I can dissect this encounter properly.
As with most religious debates, opinion on the blogosphere is divided with as many handing the debate to Harris as to Craig. Luke Muehlhauser at the now-archived Common Sense Atheism (who I repeated described as the web’s most fawning Craigophile atheist, both on my blog and his!) declared Craig the winner on rhetorical grounds (which I believe he consistently overvalued in any event), yet conversely considered the debate a victory for the New Atheists as it gave the wider the public the hear their arguments for secular morality
It is abundantly clear – even more than is usually the case with Craig’s atheist opponents – that Harris has a different speaking and debating style. The format for this debate with 20 minute opening statements and then rebuttals for each side of 12, 8 and 5 minutes, was much more structured than any other debate I have seen Harris participate. At most, Harris and his opponents have been given a few minutes to state their case before the debate turns to a back-and-forth discussion between the two participants and the moderator. In many of Harris’ debates, he has been faced with a very biased moderator who has turned out to be an additional opponent to him!
Harris received much criticism for supposedly straying off-topic in his rebuttals by discussing the problem of evil, Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, the plurality and diversity of the World’s religions, and the contradictions of Christian theology regarding the supposed existence of a good God and hell. However, from the opening sentence of his first rebuttal – “Well, that was all very… interesting…” – it was clear to me that he was not going to conform to Craig’s rules of debating and let him railroad the discussion in an argument of semantics, syntax and philosophical “logic”.
Just because Craig does not want to debate certain issues such as the problem of the “unevangelised” and his own repugnant “divine command theory” in justification of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, does mean that they are irrelevant to the topic under discussion. In his second rebuttal, Craig makes the extraordinary (and presumably unintentional) concession:
[Harris] then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists. Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.” Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism. It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties. So these are red herrings. [My emphasis]
This would be like Craig arguing, “It’s irrelevant as to whether or not unicorns do in fact exist; I’m arguing that the foundation for human morals are unicorn tears.” Craig offered no evidence to show that God’s character was good other than Anselm-esque word games such as (in his final statement):
Dr Harris [argued]… against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing. I don’t think this is the case at all. God is a being worthy of worship. Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God. And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good. More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is the very paradigm of goodness itself. He is the greatest good. So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?” It’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship that entails the essential goodness of God.
Similar to atheist objections to the ontological argument for God’s existence, this is still nothing more than mere sophistry. Word games will not suffice, Dr Craig; we demand evidence in support of your arguments.
As Harris posted shortly after the debate:
While I believe I answered (or pre-empted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands. You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.) Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing. He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set. If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5. It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”
As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarises what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic. The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly. Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth. Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God. This was, after all, the argument that the organisers at Notre Dame had invited me to make.
While fellow-atheist blogger Chris Hallquist initially sided with Craig that Harris had strayed off the topic of the debate, he subsequently conceded:
In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included. I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic. This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.
But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic. They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question. Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.
I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were. Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realise I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.
I maintain that Victor Stenger and Bart Ehrman retain their joint-crown of Atheist Opponent Who Has Made Craig Look Like A Complete Fool At The Lectern, however, Harris in his own quiet and subtle way utterly destroyed Craig and everything for which he stands. Craig simply defined God as good and argued from inside the “theological bubble” (aka “CraigWorld”) whereas Harris argued from the Real World and discussed scientific examples of human behaviour about which religion as little, if anything, useful to say.
Harris also demonstrated with reference to the World’s appalling suffering and the Bible (which after all Craig maintains is the inerrant word of the creator of the Universe) that if some kind of supernatural being is at the heart of the Universe, he must be cruel, capricious and unworthy of worship. Craig dismissed these arguments as “red herrings” and “village atheist objections”, but ultimately Harris won the evidential case as to God’s true character.
It was also a stark contrast in presentation styles. Harris in his plain black suit and open-necked blue shirt was calm, collected and considered. If anyone needs some lessons in public speaking before taking the podium, they could do no better than to watch a few Sam Harris lectures. Craig on the other hand, in his gold-buttoned navy blazer, starched white shirt and neck-crunching tie, looked and sounded harried as the debate progressed as evidenced by the increased volume of his smug, nasally voice at the beginning of his second rebuttal when he became severely irate at Harris’ description of certain Christian beliefs as psychotic. His Gish Gallop was turned all the way up to eleven, particularly in the rebuttals, and stood ill at ease with Harris’ slow and methodical delivery that was filled with pauses at key moments.
As fatuous as some of these comments may appear, there is always an element of “beauty parade” in all public appearances. Harris was JFK. Craig was Nixon.
Craig’s quote-mining of The Moral Landscape
In the middle of Harris’ opening statement he warned the audience not to trust Craig’s reading of his work and that half of the quotes Craig gives in his opening statement are not from Harris himself, but are in fact Harris quoting other authors and “often to different effect”.
I have been through Harris’ book and Craig’s remarks in the debate with a fine tooth comb and on another post I discuss Craig’s presentation of The Moral Landscape together with their true presentation by Harris.
During Craig’s second rebuttal, he upped the Southern nasally drawl aplenty when he accused Harris of accusing all Christians of being psychopaths. When Harris next took the lectern he invited the audience to “sort it out on YouTube”. I have taken up Harris on his invitation and now present the full transcript of the subject under disagreement.
Harris’ first rebuttal
We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalises the slaughter of children. OK, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on “divine command theory”.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own [my emphasis].
Craig’s second rebuttal:
[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter Van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. This is simply below the belt.
Harris’ second rebuttal:
Well, perhaps you’ve noticed Dr Craig has a charming habit of summarising his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube. Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.
Right here, Craig well and truly lets his mask slip. He gives up the pretence of honest debate and intellectual discourse for the sake of scoring a cheap and dishonest point against his opponent. In his post-debate podcast Craig stands by the accusation saying that Harris has argued in his written work that religious belief is a form of insanity. However, this is another misrepresentation of Harris’ work; he makes clear in The End of Faith:
Clearly, there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, p. 72]
This incident, together with my comments in respect of Craig quote-mining Harris’ book is the strongest evidence yet that Craig has no interest in advancing science and human knowledge, but simply to reinforce his own dogmatically held religious convictions.
At the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched. As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.
I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.
The clinching moment?
I fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009. Hitchens conceded the debate at Craig’s final rebuttal before the audience Q & A: he smiled and chuckled to himself when Craig invited him to become a Christian, he raised his arms and applauded when Craig walked past him on his way back to his seat and he leaned forward to the moderator, Hugh Hewitt, to give up his five minute rebuttal so there could be more time for questions from the audience.
There was no such gesture from Harris throughout his debate with Craig, but possibly a glimmer of concession from Craig towards Harris. During the audience Q & A period (c. 1 hour 23 minutes on the tape) the two men locked horns on the question of Craig’s “divine command theory”. Harris states that if God issued such a command to exterminate an entire race of people he would be evil. Craig retorts that Harris has no basis for making such objective moral judgements. Harris replies, “I’ve tried to give you a basis… sorry.” The audience laughs and applauds. Craig glances towards the moderator, raises an eyebrow and then suppresses a frown with a goofy smile that betrays his frustration and confusion.
Craig lost the argument that day, and he lost badly. Not even his attempt to re-write the debate in his two-part post-debate podcast that runs to nearly an hour and features extra encouragement by the fawning Kevin Harris – who clearly gets his money by turning up to kiss CraigButt – can repair the damage.
The Moral Landscape Challenge
Harris has recently issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: readers can win $20,000 if they can disprove his central thesis in an essay of 1,000 or less and Harris will recant his thesis. Even if none of the essays can make Harris recant his thesis, the best essay will still win $2,000.
It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and non-readers alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).
So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.
Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.
Here [is my central thesis]: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
You might want to read what I’ve already written in response to a few critics. (A version of that article became the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Moral Landscape.) I also recommend that you watch the talk I linked to above.
This is either an admiral display of honest inquiry from a brilliant scientist who wants his views to be criticised in order to facilitate self-improvement or a display of unbridled arrogance, depending on your point of view.
Whichever is true of Harris’ motives, suffice it say, a certain Dr William Lane Craig is already out of pocket.