Tag Archives: Richard Taylor

Preview of Thursday’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris

UPDATE: Audio, a summary of the debate, and my snarky summary of the debate are all linked here.

First, some information about the debate.

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

Live streaming

And apparently the debate will be streamed live by the University of Notre Dame. (H/T Mary)

“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you with an answer about online availability. I got it myself this afternoon. There will be a live stream on http://www.ndtv.net/. On the day of the debate, Thursday April 7 at 7:00, the home page of http://www.ndtv.net/ will be replaced with the live stream. I hope you enjoy it.”

Now let’s see where the debaters stand.

Sam Harris

Here’s a part of a book review of “The Moral Landscape”.


Harris defines morality in terms of human well-being, with its intent being to advance our welfare. He also claims that human well-being is a function of the brain’s state.5 However, he doesn’t present evidence to support the idea that any particular states of the brain can be produced in any particular way. (Yet, evidence exists that suggests certain moral behaviors generally considered evil produce a functional state of the brain indicative of well-being in those morally reprehensible individuals.)

If I am understanding him correctly, Harris thinks that what is good is happy brain states for the biggest number of people. He can measure happy brain states using scientific methods. But then comes the atheist leap of faith. He thinks that from this *IS* we should jump to an *OUGHT*. Harris this that we OUGHT to do whatever maximizes happy brain states for the biggest number of people. I think that Craig should challenge him on why we should accept this ought when it goes against OUR OWN self-interest, and when we can escape the social consequences.

Harris’ view sounds like old-style utilitarianism. And old-style utilitarianism has many flaws.


Harris is blazing a bold path with this assertion, but his case starts to fall apart almost as soon as he leaves the gate. First of all, Harris’s “moral science” is less using science to determine values than it is using science as an evaluative mechanism for what Harris has already deemed to be moral. For instance, without any science in sight, Harris baldy asserts that “the only thing we can reasonably value” is “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.” Far from using science to determine human values, Harris simply assumes as a first principle that his version of utilitarianism is correct. By making this assumption, Harris skips entirely past where his argument should be. Even those whose knowledge of philosophy is limited to high-school debate can list the many potential flaws with a utilitarian worldview, but Harris brushes them aside with a single sentence where he bothers with them at all. Why, precisely, should individuals value the good of the collective whole or of future generations over their own immediate personal wellbeing? It is never precisely made clear, although Harris boldy implies that everybody prefers a fair world to one that favors them. Would it be right for our species to be sacrificed towards the unfathomably immense happiness of some race of superbeings? Harris says the answer is “clearly” yes, and leaves it at that. Should average wellbeing be held in highest esteem, or aggregate wellbeing? This is mentioned and then goes unaddressed.

And you can read more about the flaws of utilitarianism in this excellent article by J.P. Moreland.


Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory. First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

I expect that Craig will use some of Moreland’s arguments on Thursday night.

Now a bit more of that book review.

According to Sam Harris, people are not free to make moral choices. This is because on atheism, human beings are just computers made out of meat, and everything they do is determined by their genetic programming and sensory inputs.

Like many who hold an atheistic worldview, Harris does not accept the notion of free will. Rather, he accepts determinism, as is demonstrated by the following quotes:

  • “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. As we shall see, however, this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”
  • “All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.”
  • “I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”1

How can machines be morally responsible?

Elsewhere, it should be noted that Harris claims to believe in objective moral values, but he thinks they are not discovered but created.


Yesterday, Harris posted an article in answer to some of his critics, titled Moral confusion in the name of “science”.  It turns out Harris has not come up with a theory about any particular objective moral truth.  In answer to the question, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Harris proclaims, “The answer is:  ‘we do.'”  In other words, Harris says we determine objective morality, but this is a contradiction, because objective morality, if it exists, is discovered–not created.

To me, Harris’ view isn’t objective morality – it’s cultural relativism. Because “we” are deciding that human happiness is morally valuable as opposed to something else, doing good things that are good on some objective standard but that make us feel unhappy – like not killing our unborn children. What makes us happy is arbitrary and it varies by time and place – so really what “we” decide is good depends on who the we is, and when the we is deciding. But there isn’t anything really right or wrong out there. In some places and times slavery made the majority of people happy, and on Harris’ view, that was just fine for that group because they had the right brain states. Maybe I am misunderstanding his argument.

I should also point out that Harris is a political liberal, so he would presumably put abortion in the “good” category because it leads to happy feelings for the grown-ups.

Now let’s look at Craig’s views.

William Lane Craig

You should either read Craig’s paper on the moral argument OR watch a lecture he recently delivered at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Here’s part 1:

The full playlist is here.

If you want to read a couple of debates that feature the moral argument, you can read the William Lane Craig vs Kai Nielsen debate and the William Lane Craig vs. Richard Taylor debate.

If you want to see the moral argument played out in a couple of debates, you could watch the William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz debate on Youtube. Yes, that’s the same Paul Kurtz who wrote the “Humanist Manifesto”. Or you could watch the more recent William Lane Craig vs. Louise Anthony debate on Youtube, if you’ve already seen the Kurtz debate.

Here are some recent comments by Craig on Sam Harris’ theory on scientific foundations for morality.

And here are a couple of video lectures on Sam Harris by philosopher Glenn Peoples.

And a post on Harris’ argument by Christopher Copan Scott at the Student Apologetics Alliance.

Extra credit

Brian Auten maintains the William Lane Craig Audio Debate Feed here, in case you get through all of these and would like to see how well Bill Craig performs against other famous challengers, like Marcus Borg, Lewis Wolpert, Arif Ahmed, Bart Ehman, John Shelby Spong, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, etc.

You guys may also be interested in my snarky, humorous summary of Lawrence Krauss’ speeches in his debate with Craig, and in the preview post which featured resources for understanding Craig’s kalam argument, the fine-tuning argument and the moral argument.

Is the murder of abortion-performing doctors like George Tiller morally wrong?

The Wintery Knight Blog strongly condemns all abortion-related violence, whether it’s committed against the born or the unborn.

The news story is linked here by Stop the ACLU, Sweetness and Light, Patterico’s Pontifications, Michelle Malkin, Hot Air and Gateway Pundit.

Can Christians condemn the murder of George Tiller?

Yes, Christians can, and yes, Christians do, condemn any and all violence against abortion doctors. And so do I. I believe that murder is objectively wrong, whether it is performed against born or unborn victims.

Morality is rational on Christianity because Christianity grounds the minimal requirements for meaningful morality. (The post also contains arguments and evidence for Christian theism and responses to the arguments against Christian theism)

The Bible says: “You shall not murder”.

So, anyone who murders the born or the unborn is not a Christian and is not being moral. I am a Christian, and therefore I strongly condemn any violence against doctors who perform abortions, including George Tiller. The murderer of George Tiller was wrong, had no justification for what he did, and he should get the death penalty.

UPDATE: My pro-life friend Neil from 4Simpsons reacts:

I subscribe to over 100 blogs.  Well over a dozen have commented on this.  I’ve yet to see one that didn’t condemn the murder, though I’m sure the MSM will ignore the clear and consistent principles of the pro-live movement and try to demonize and broad-brush us with this.

Now let’s see whether murder is wrong on the atheist worldview…

Can atheists condemn the murder of George Tiller?

The goal is to see whether humans ought to adopt the moral point of view, on atheism. Does atheism ground the the minimal requirements for morality? Is it rational to do the right thing on atheism?

Requirement 1) Objective moral values: NOT GROUNDED

On atheism, moral values have no mind-independent existence. In other words, they are purely subjective. Either you invent your own personal standard or you adopt the standards of the majority of your herd, in the time and place in which you live. Those herd standards change over time and in different places, of course. They are arbitrary conventions. And there is no reason why your preferences are better than anyone else’s preferences, even a murderer’s. On atheism, a murderer and a non-murderer just have different preferences.

Requirement 2) Objective moral duties: NOT GROUNDED

On atheism, there is no such thing as objective moral values, and so there can be no objective moral duties either. Atheism is committed to materialism, and objective moral values and moral duties are non-material. Atheists can only ground subjective moral values and moral duties. But a duty owed to oneself can be canceled when things get difficult. Even a social contract is arbitrary. There is no reason to limit your happiness because of an arbitrary social contract, so long as you can escape the social consequences of disobedience.

Requirement 3) Moral accountability: NOT GROUNDED

On atheism, there is no accountability after death for the decisions we make in life. So long as we can avoid the consequences for violating the arbitrary fashions of the time and place where we live, nothing will happen to us if we put our happiness above the needs of our feelings of “empathy” for others.

Requirement 4) Free will: NOT GROUNDED

On atheism, there are no minds or souls independent of the material that makes up the body. Therefore, everything that humans do is fully determined by the genetic programming and the sensory inputs. To expect moral choices or moral responsibility on atheism is like expecting the same from a computer. Physical systems don’t have free will. There is no “ought to do” for lumps of matter that are not designed by anyone for any specific purpose.

Requirement 5) Ultimate significance: NOT GROUNDED

On atheism, life ends in the grave for them. Scientists have discovered that in the future, the amount of usable energy, such as the heat and light emitted by stars, will run down to zero, the “heat death of the universe”. What this means is that the entire universe will become cold and lifeless at some point. Humans are therefore doomed to extinction. It doesn’t matter ultimately how an atheist acts – they end up the same no matter what they do. The only action that is rational on atheism is the selfish pursuit of pleasure and happiness.

Can atheist scholars ground morality rationally?

Let me cite the views of atheist scholars from a previous post. These are the people who are the most committed, authentic atheists, and who have thought through what it means to be an atheist at the highest level.

The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone. (Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84)

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Source: Richard Dawkins)

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory. (Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

The late atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie said that moral properties are “queer” given naturalism “if there are objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god.”


In my survey of atheist views, none of the ten respondents could oppose slavery on rational grounds, none of the ten respondents could perform self-sacrificial acts on rational grounds, and none of the ten respondents could explain why murder was wrong, on rational grounds. They may have chosen the right alternative, but only based on emotion, not on reason. Morality is not rational on atheism and there is no way to condemn immorality in others.

So long as an person can escape the consequences of his actions, there is nothing wrong with murder, on an atheistic worldview. Atheists can express what they personally like and don’t like, or what the customs are in their society in a certain time and place. There is no “moral ought” on atheism, no principled reason to act any particular way except to be “happy” and to avoid social disapproval from acting unconventionally. So, keep that in mind in the coming days as you discuss the George Tiller story with atheists.

Further study

You can get the full story on the requirements for rational morality in a published, peer-reviewed paper written by William Lane Craig here. You can also hear and see him present the paper to an audience of students and faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008. The audio is clipped at 67 minutes, the video is the full 84 minutes. There is 45 minutes of Q&A, with many atheist challengers.

The video of this lecture is the best material you can get on this issue, and the Q&A from the hostile audience is vital to the lesson. More debates on atheism and morality can be found on the debate and lecture page.

You can find a post contrasting the morality of an authentic, consistent Christian with an authentic, consistent non-Christian here. A post examining how atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million innocent people in the 20th century alone is here. A post analyzing the tiny number of deaths that religion was responsible for is here. A post examining other ways that the secular-left kills millions of people is here.

The Wintery Knight Blog strongly condemns all abortion-related violence, whether it’s committed against the born or the unborn.