William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality

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

MP3 Audio

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!)

As part of my post discussing Sam Harris’ debate against William Lane Craig on whether the foundation of human morality was natural or supernatural, I discuss Craig’s presentation of Harris work alongside their true context in Harris’ books The End of Faith [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006], The Moral Landscape [London: Transworld Publishers, 2006] and Free Will [New York: Free Press, 2012], together with his articles “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape and The Moral Landscape Challenge” and give my verdict on how Craig sought to misrepresent Harris.

Craig’s opening statement:

[Harris] rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished …”

This quote appears on pp. 66 – 67 of my edition of The Moral Landscape and is in fact Harris citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002, p.273], who in turn is quoting Donald Symons.  The full quote continues:

…, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction.  But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, it suddenly becomes ‘culture,’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.

The passage appears in Chapter 2: “Moral Truth” in The Moral Landscape under a segment entitled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”, which includes Harris’ transcript of his conversation with a female advisor on President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues who thought that it was better to “respect” a hypothetical ancient culture’s crackpot religious tradition of removing the eyeballs of every third child than to declare them morally wrong.

Craig’s quotation of this passage (notwithstanding that it was not even from Harris’ pen!) is misleading in that it gave the audience the impression that Harris simply advocates stern retribution to those who carry out female circumcision.  However, Harris’ argument runs much deeper than this as he is decrying the appalling moral relativism of secularists who are too afraid to criticise the practices of religious cultures in respect of actions that they would find morally repugnant were they carried out in isolation by individuals.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem?  The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms.  He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.  So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”  Why not?  Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures.  So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles!  So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms.  It’s nothing but wordplay.

If Harris actually uses the term “Value Problem” with the pages of The Moral Landscape, let alone explicitly redefining what we mean by “good”, then I must have missed it.  The term seems to have been something constructed by his critics.  However, in his article “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape published in January 2011, three months before his debate against Craig, Harris discusses the issue in detail; too much detail for me to include in this post in its entirety, but I present some relevant extracts.  Harris is responding to philosopher Russell Blackford’s review:

The Value Problem

My critics have been especially exercised over the subtitle of my book, “how science can determine human values.”  The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging.


[T]he same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole.  As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc.  One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.  But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. Scientists need not apologise for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.  In my book, I argue that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—is on the same footing.  There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.  To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”  Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.  The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole—or reason generally.  Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations.  We need not apologise for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way.  It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

Harris clearly acknowledges that he is starting with a scientific and philosophical presupposition, but one that is both reasonable and applicable to other areas of science.  It certainly makes far more sense than the theist presupposition of goodness which is whatever God commands is automatically good.

It is also rank hypocrisy on Craig’s part to accuse Harris of tautology and wordplay since throughout the entire debate he offered no evidence whatsoever of the goodness of God’s character but simply engaged in Anselm-esque ontological word games that God’s character was the definition of goodness rather like the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.  Dr Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom.  But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume.  Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.  His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.

Harris discusses his views on “free will” on pp. 135 – 147 of The Moral Landscape under the sections entitled “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Moral Responsibility” as well as in his short book Free Will.  It is clear to me that just because Harris believes that human thoughts and actions are governed by prior causes over which we have no control (“determinism”), this does not negate the existence of human choice and moral responsibility.  On p. 143 of The Moral Landscape under the section “Moral Responsibility”, Harris writes:

Of course, we hold one another accountable for more than those actions than we consciously plan, because most voluntary behaviour comes about without explicit planning.  But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy?  Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us.  What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.  If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.  Consequently it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

The endnote in The Moral Landscape to which Craig refers is endnote 109 on p. 279 of my edition which itself refers to a passage in the main text on pp. 143 – 144 under the section “Moral Responsibility” and again is Harris quoting another author; this time the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga from his paper “Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong”, Nat Rev Neurosci, Volume 6, Number 8, 653 – 659.  The full passage from Gazzinga, with the parts that Craig quoted in bold, is as follows:

Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains.  It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.  Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus, so psychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain state is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.  The issue of responsibility (like the issue of who can drive school buses) is a social choice.  In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.  We are all part of a deterministic system that someday, in theory, we will completely understand.  Yet the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.

The endnote continues in Harris’ own words with the extracts that Craig quoted in bold:

While it is true that responsibility is a social construct attributed to people and not to brains, it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given certain facts about a person’s brain.  I think we can easily imagine discoveries in neuroscience, as well as brain imagining technology, that would allow us to attribute responsibility to persons in a far more precise way than we do at present.  A ‘Twinkie defence’ would be entirely uncontroversial if we learned that there was something at the creamy centre of every Twinkie that obliterated the front lobe’s inhibitory control over the limbic system.

But perhaps ‘responsibility’ is simply the wrong construct: for Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that in ‘neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’  Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious.  Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.

The relevant paragraph on pp. 143 – 144 of the main text to which the endnote refers reads as follows:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.  Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others.  But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Accordingly, it is clear to me that Harris’ views on “free will” are far more complex and layered that Craig let on in the debate.  It is equally clear that Craig has simply skimmed through Harris’ book, noted that Harris does not agree with the theist concept of “free will” and hastily concluded that Harris thinks there can be no moral responsibility on a deterministic view of “free will” without actually reading the remainder of Harris’ views, or at least reading them properly.

See also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and lectures he has given on the topic.

Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that.  He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing.  And he’s not offered any defence of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it.  Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.  On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.  Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.  That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others.  They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape.  The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people.  But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either.  For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A.  So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position.  But I think we’ve got one here.  By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

For once, Craig has actually quoted Harris’ own words (although notice the rather ominous and accusatory description that they appear “on the next to last page of his book”).  The full passage is at pp. 241 – 242 of The Moral Landscape in Chapter 5 “The Future of Happiness” under the section “On Being Right or Wrong”:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses.  Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched.  Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding.  However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone who has ever stubbed his toe can attest).  No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible.

Like all good scientists, Harris has actually armed his opponents with the tools that they need to disprove his thesis.  Yet, contra-Craig, he has only admitted that in one possible World his thesis would require amendment, but would not be completely invalid.  However, Harris spends all of Chapter 2 “Good and Evil” arguing that love, compassion and well-being can be understood as good for us at the level of the brain and that psychopaths do not in fact occupy the same peaks of happiness and well-being as those who exude love and compassion toward their fellow creatures.

Just because it is possible to imagine a scenario where Harris’ thesis does not apply does not invalidate is applicability in The Real World.  Yet again, Craig takes Harris’ words out of their true context, cobbles together a possible World where they do not makes sense and declares Harris’ thesis null and void on that basis.


As I stated in my main post discussing the outcome of the debate, 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.


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One Response to “William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality”

  1. Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which […]

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