Audio, video and full summary of the William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris debate

The details of the debate:

  • Who: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris
  • Where: The University of Notre Dame
  • When: Thursday, April 7 – 7pm to 9pm
  • Topic: Is Good from God?

Here are the links to my preview, the audio and the video.

This comprehensive summary is from Thinking Matters New Zealand. It is entertaining to read, but accurate and comprehensive.

Here’s an overview:

Summary of Craig’s arguments:

  1. Under theism, God accounts for moral values because he is a perfect being and goodness is part of his nature
  2. Under theism, God’s commands account for moral duties
  3. Under atheism, morality is just an evolved convention, in which case it is not actually morality
  4. If morality is evolved convention, it doesn’t refer to anything objective
  5. We can imagine moral conventions evolving differently; therefore they aren’t objective
  6. Harris is trying to redefine goodness as wellbeing, just by his own fiat
  7. Harris’s describing how to be moral doesn’t explain what grounds morality
  8. Harris faces an insuperable problem in the naturalistic fallacy: you cannot derive what ought to be from mere facts about the universe
  9. Harris’s naturalistic view doesn’t allow for free will, which completely undermines his moral theories anyway

Craig’s two basic contentions:

  1. If God exists we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties;
  2. If God does not exist we do not have a sound foundation for these.

Summary of Harris’ arguments:

  1. Objective morality is important
  2. You don’t need religion to have objective morality
  3. Science can actually tell us what we ought to value because we never really separate facts and values
  4. Moral values depend on nature because they depend on nature-dependent minds, and so can be understood with science
  5. Morality is intrinsically about wellbeing because we can imagine a possible world in which everyone suffers horribly, and we see that we have an obligation to relieve that suffering
  6. Morality can’t be dictated by divine commands because God is evil
  7. We can say scientifically that the Taliban is bad

Harris’ main argument:

  1. Moral values and obligations depend upon minds
  2. Minds depend upon the laws of nature
  3. Therefore, moral values depend upon nature and can be understood through science

And, for an excerpt, here’s their summary of Craig’s first rebuttal:

Craig started by drawing the audience’s attention to how Harris was confusing moral ontology with moral semantics: confusing the basis or the foundation for moral values with the meaning of moral terms. Craig’s argument, and the topic of the debate, was about what grounds moral values and duties—not what words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” mean. Christians readily concede that we can know what good and evil are even if we don’t believe they are grounded ontologically in God.

He then rightly dismissed Harris’s criticism of YHWH’s character as irrelevant. For one thing, there are plenty of divine command theorists who are not Jews or Christians. For another, there’s good reason to think that YHWH (the God of the Bible) is not a moral monster—in that regard he recommended Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?. “We have not heard any objection to a theistic grounding for ethics,” Craig said. “If God does exist, it’s clear, I think—obvious even—that we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.”

He then started to drag Harris over broken glass by showing that the issue of human flourishing, or conscious wellbeing, is not the question of the debate. We agree that, all things being equal, the flourishing of conscious creatures is good. The question is: if atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures good? Craig observed that Harris is using words like “good” and “better” in non-moral ways: for example, that there is a good way to get yourself killed doesn’t imply that it’s a moral thing to do. Harris’s contrast of the “good” life and the “bad” life is not an ethical contrast: it is a contrast between a pleasurable life and a miserable life. Since Harris had given no reason to identify pleasure and misery with good and evil, there was no reason for thinking that the flourishing of conscious creatures is objectively good.

Here Craig brought down the hammer and completely crushed Harris for the rest of the debate, by not only showing that Harris wasn’t engaging with the topic (he was equivocating between moral epistemology and ontology) but that his entire ethical system was necessarily false, by his own admission. Harris was saying that the property of “being good” is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing…but on the penultimate page of his book, he tellingly admitted that if rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape: it would just be a continuum of wellbeing, whose peaks were occupied by good and bad people alike. But as Craig pointed out, this implies that there’s a possible world where the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people (say psychopaths). If moral goodness is identical to human wellbeing it is logically contradictory for there to be a possible world in which the peaks of wellbeing are occupied by evil people. Thus, moral goodness cannot be identical with human wellbeing or flourishing.

Harris was down for the count, and never even tried to address this argument in his followups.

Craig followed up this crushing argument with a further one, noting that moral obligations only arise when there is an appropriate authority to issue binding commands—and under atheism, no objective authority exists, and so objective moral values cannot exist.

If you missed the debate and can’t listen to the audio or see the video, this summary is well worth reading. It is accurate, and yet snarky, but without any exaggerations. I really think that what is behind atheism’s philosophical flirtations with the language of morality is an effort to put a respectable smokescreen around a worldview adopted by those who simply cannot be bothered with any moral obligation that might act as a speed bump on their pursuit of happy feelings and pleasures here and now. They want to be happy, and being good gets in their way. They aren’t trying to explain morality – they are trying to explain morality away… as the arbitrary conventions of a random process of biological evolution and cultural convention. Then they will be able to dismiss their conscience as an illusion created by the arbitrary culture they were raised in.

UPDATE: An even LONGER summary from New Zealand philosopher Glenn Peoples here.

One thought on “Audio, video and full summary of the William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris debate”

  1. I dont think Craig should debate this kind of atheist who uses demeaning personal attacks calling Craig stupid and equivalent to the Taliban.Harris has proved in this debate to show his ignorance of professional discourse very much like his guru Richard Dawkins.Hitchens on the other hand who is a much better debater than Harris has been generous in his praise of Craig calling him a tough debater.


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