I finally got around to listening to this debate (and much later, writing about it); it is yet another melee in a growing oeuvre of skirmishes between William Lane Craig and the New Atheists. With the caveats I mentioned in the Craig/Krauss debate post, I found this one to be much more engaging overall. Perhaps that is because Harris is a much more engaging speaker than Krauss was. Also Craig covers somewhat different ground here, less apologist and more critic of atheism’s power to ground objective morality.
I only have a couple of quick observations – I imagine people will draw their own conclusions based on their inclinations, so these are merely my take on it.
As I mentioned, Harris is very easy to listen to. Even when he is intimating that Christians are psychotic, idiotic and comparable to the Taliban he does so in even, reasonable tones that come across like he is just making an observation, not proffering an argument. And Harris often touches on points of agreement rather than merely dismissing his opponents – clitoral circumcision is bad, Jesus was a charismatic leader, we should fear losing an objective grounding for morality, etc.
Indeed one notable aspect of this debate is that Craig and Harris agree on one fundamental fact – that morals can be objectively known. Harris’ greatest critics in this regard aren’t Christians, but other atheists. Where they differ though is that Craig thinks morals are objective because he believes morals have an objective existence grounded in the existence and nature of God. Harris on the other hand thinks science can simply provide the framework for investigating morality by pegging it to human suffering, and we can understand that suffering is wrong because we have minds.
In arguing this Harris engages in a lot of question begging, but that is not my chief criticism of his views. In fact my chief criticism of Harris here wasn’t even one Craig considered. My chief criticism of Harris is that he puts great faith in human nature, though he probably wouldn’t call it that. For example, in his criticism of Craig’s ‘Divine Command’ theory he posits that in classroom of young children the kids might readily accept a direction from a teacher that it is fine to eat a cookie, but would reject a direction that it is fine to hit your neighbor. Apparently Craig has never actually encountered a child. In fact, this is exactly how we often end up with problem children – they have been given free reign by an adult to act as they desired, either through neglect or permissiveness. If humans simply acted in accordance with some inherent intuitive morality that we all innately agreed upon, we would have little need for laws or government at all. We actually have experimental evidence to show that adults will act to harm others in deference to an authority figure (ironically, a scientific researcher!), much less Harris’ imaginary children. So commands of an authority figure certainly do play a role in the moral choices humans make, and that authority should be one that is sufficiently great to warrant our obedience.
The other non-considered issue I take with Harris’ idea that science and provide a purely naturalistic framework for morality is that science has tried to do this before. As has been discussed here previously, the eugenics movement of the early 20th century was primarily an attempt to impose on humanity a purely scientific framework for making a better society. It was thought we could apply evolutionary theory to better mankind and thereby alleviate human suffering. Of course we now know that such efforts failed miserably. Just recently the global-warmists tried to save humanity by imposing on us a framework for how we should behave and act economically with regard to the latest scientific findings. We are only now beginning to realize how replete this ‘science’ is with politics, selfish ambition, and financial gain.
This is in fact that is the very reason we need a transcendent code of morality – because anything less than that is invariably the product of human inclination, and thus subject to the corruption of power and selfish interests. Sam Harris and the New Atheists aren’t above this. No person is.
As an aside Craig alluded briefly to the fact that the naturalism Harris believes in is deterministic with regard to human free will. This is critical, because if humans aren’t actually free to make moral choices, then attempting to determine which of those choices is ‘moral’ is irrelevant.
A number of folks have tried to counter that since by invoking the indeterminism of quantum physics. The problem with this argument is that while such indeterminacy might leave our futures indeterminate, it does nothing to free our will, because our will in purely mechanistic brain would be illusory anyway. Quantum mechanics would no more give us free will than it would cause a computer to exceed its programming and become aware of the its own operations and be able to modify them.
One has to wonder what the end-game for atheists is here. The reality is some subjects are amenable to scientific study – optimally those phenomena which can be readily quantified and subjected to repeatable experimentation. The cause and effects of human morality though are enmeshed with the complexities of human society and the results of bad morality may be stretched over generations. Take the ‘free love’ movement of the sixties. At the time it seemed like a fresh and exciting idea. Decades later, with communities plagued by broken families, deadly diseases like AIDs which cost our society significant resources to combat continuing to spread, and the objectification of women and girls which has turned human flesh into a consumer good has engendered much suffering in our society. While science has been employed to treat the symptoms it could do little to prevent the moral corruption to begin with. It certainly isn’t more effective than a few well understood and adhered to principles that prohibit adultery and sexual immorality, which if followed would lead to vast improvement of the human landscape.
Nonetheless, the debate raises some great discussions, which I think is the best outcome of such events.
You can listen to it here, and see it here.