Harris’ opening speech
Harris states his case:
Belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it is itself a source of moral blindness.
He begins with the fact-value or is-ought distinction, which he rejects because he makes the case for a reduction from moral terms to physical facts. He does so mostly by appealing to intuitions, for example:
Imagine a universe devoid of the possibility of consciousness… entirely constituted of rocks… Value judgments don’t apply. For changes in the universe to matter, they have to matter… to some conscious system.
What about well-being? …Imagine a universe in which every conscious creature suffers as much as it possibly can for as long as it can… [This] is bad. If the word ‘bad’ applies anywhere, it applies here. Now if you think the worst possible suffering for everyone isn’t bad… [then] I don’t know what you’re talking about… The minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the worst possible suffering for everyone.
Consciousness, well-being, suffering… these are all facts about the natural world, and thus amenable to scientific investigation, without appeal to human opinions or attitudes.
Isn’t ‘well-being’ vague? No more vague than ‘health’, says Harris. And notice, “no one has tried to attack the philosophical foundations of medicine with questions like, ‘Who are you to say that not always vomiting is healthy? What if you meet someone who wants to vomit, and he wants to vomit until he dies? How could you argue that he is not as healthy as you are?’”
As expected, Harris’ opening speech has far less content than Craig’s condensed and polished opening. But opening speeches are not meant for the purpose of replying to one’s interlocutor.
Craig’s first rebuttal
As usual, Craig’s organization is flawless. He opens by reminding the audience of his contentions. Regarding his positive case that God provides a solid foundation for objective moral value, he notes that Harris offered no objections. Craig does clear up a possible confusion about moral semantics and ontology, though.
Next: without God, is there a solid foundation for ethics? Craig quotes Harris as saying “You don’t need religion to have a universal morality.”
Craig quotes Harris as saying that it’s obviously better for creatures to be flourishing rather than suffering. Craig says he agrees that all else being equal, flourishing is good. But why? On atheism, there is no reason flourishing would be good, he says.
Craig also says that Harris equivocates between moral and non-moral uses of terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
He then offers an argument against Harris’ identity claim between moral goodness and creaturely flourishing:
On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr. Harris makes the telling admission that if [bad] people… 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… alike.
What’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr. Harris explained that about 3 million Americans are psychopathic – that is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others… But that implies that there’s a possible world of 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… If there is any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then A is not in fact identical to B.
If you’re not familiar with philosophy: This argument is sound if it represents Harris’ position correctly.
Craig repeats the problem of the is-ought gap while presenting it as solved for theistic moral realism, and then he repeats the point about how moral responsibility requires contra-causal free will. He also claims that Harris denies compatibilist free will, though I’m not sure that’s true.
Harris’ first rebuttal
Harris replies to… something, supposedly… by bringing up the argument from evil, and the argument from inconsistent revelations. This is relevant to the existence of the Christian God, but that is not the topic of the debate. The topic of the debate is secular morality vs. theistic morality. Fail.
He also brings up the horrors of Biblical morality again, even after Craig has explicitly pointed out that this is irrelevant to the topic of debate. Fail.
He says there’s no evidence for God, and that only lunatics could believe some religious things on their own. But Craig repeatedly and explicitly stated he wasn’t defending the existence of God, only that if God exists then he provides a foundation for moral values, and that if God does not exist then there is no solid foundation for objective moral values. Fail.
This diversion does afford Harris the opportunity for a killer quote, though:
If you wake up in the morning, thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
He then argues that Christian theology is monstrous. Off-topic. Fail.
Craig’s second rebuttal
Craig points out that Harris’ points completely missed the subject of the debate. He reviews the positive and negative arguments he has given, and reminds his audience that Harris hasn’t replied to any of them. Craig therefore gets to repeat and strengthen all of his arguments.
Harris second rebuttal
Harris opens by saying that Craig’s grounding morality in God is just as definitional as Harris’ grounding morality in science.
Second, he says that every science starts from certain axiomatic value claims, so a science of morality would be on the same footing as a science of medicine or chemistry.
Craig had said that according to science we’re just constellations of atoms, without moral worth. Harris correctly replies that this misrepresents science, “as if the only thing that could be said about us is that we’re constellations of atoms.” But of course science can also talk about how we have hopes and dreams and pleasure and pain and happiness and sadness and feelings and health and well-being or suffering.
Harris then wastes the rest of his time talking about how atheists can have transcendent experiences.
Next time, I’ll examine the closing statements and the Q & A period, and draw some conclusions.