05 / 06
birds birds birds

The Sam Harris Debate (part 2)

June 12, 2011     Time: 00:27:16
The Sam Harris Debate (part 2)


"Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?" debate with William Lane Craig and Sam Harris.

Transcript The Sam Harris Debate: Part 2

Kevin Harris: Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast. Let's continue talking about the Sam Harris debate with Dr. William Lane Craig. [1] Bill, again, these two debates back to back, a lot of preparation on your part. I just want to ask you at the outset: where did this atheist movement come from? And I'll preface that by saying for so long it seems the church concentrated on the cults . . .

Dr. Craig: Yeah, right.

Kevin Harris: . . . aberrant Christian theology, the New Age. We were totally side-tracked and preoccupied with Satanism in the seventies, off doing battle against the forces of darkness and the cults and in the New Age, and then Satanism, and a lot of that was not even a substantial threat. There were a lot of rumors and things like that. But atheism just kind of slipped on through. In Christian's mindset in American Christianity atheists were just so far gone they were off the radar—that was Madelyn Murray O'Hare and her crazy rantings. Now all of sudden you have fresh, younger, good looking Sam Harris; articulate, suave, debonair Dawkins; and this more of a youthful movement that does not resemble in any way, shape, or form the old Madelyn Murray O'Hare movement, or the depressing stuff that Nietzsche wrote, and all this. But all of a sudden this is big.

Dr. Craig: I think that's an excellent question, and I'm not a sociologist, so not really qualified to answer it. I would love to see a sociological study on the roots of the New Atheism. I think probably the collapse of traditional middle class morality and rejection of authority that occurred during the 1960s, and the sort of alienation that was characterized during the Vietnam period probably provided a seed bed for a lot of this rejection of traditional views of God and morality and the values of the older generation. Probably a lot of the groundwork was laid by the radicals of the 1960s, I think. And then in a longer perspective the long influence of positivism and scientific naturalism during the thirty’s and forty's. I am still amazed, Kevin, when I enter into debate with someone like a Lawrence Krauss at how the epistemology of old time verificationism and logical positivism still casts its ling shadow over western culture, and people idolizing science and thinking that science is the only source of knowledge, and the only arbiter of truth. So some of those currents, I think, would come to expression in the New Atheism, and the heightened awareness of militant Islam provided the sort of, I think, explosive power for this to surface and provide a backlash against religious belief.

Kevin Harris: And for the first time in history the internet, suddenly there's a platform. Certainly there's a way to get together, to form communities, and all groups do that.

Dr. Craig: That's a very good point.

Kevin Harris: I mean, we've had church. Our poor atheists buddies—they've been sitting in their basements, and occasionally go to the bar [laughter]. Well, I'm being funny. But there certainly hasn't been the sense of fellowship and community, and those things can, like anything else, cause a spread. But, Bill, you spend an inordinate amount of your time attacking the philosophy of atheism—why? I mean, you don't spend a lot of time on Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or anything like that. And the church, I'm sure, and Christians ask you, 'well, Bill, why do you mess with those guys?'

Dr. Craig: I've sensed right from the start, Kevin, when I became a Christian and then went to Wheaton College that the real cultural force of opposition to Christian belief wouldn't be from the cults – like Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science and Mormons – that, as you say, so many Christian apologists at that time seemed to be focused on.

Kevin Harris: It's all we did!

Dr. Craig: Rather it would be the forces of secularism that were so already triumphant in Europe and were now, I think, increasingly influencing American society as well. I think Francis Shaeffer saw that very clearly, and as one who had his teeth cut on Francis Shaeffer I suspect that that was why I saw that also as the principle challenge to be answered.

Kevin Harris: Well, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, New Agers, Satanists, these guys – I'm not lumping all of them into Satanism, or anything like that – I'm just saying that's where so much of the concentration has gone in apologetic outreach of the past. They're as marginalized as Christians are. I mean the media go to the university for its resources, sound bites; [2] so the academy is ten thousand times more influential on culture. And that's where atheism is. These other religious movements and cults are just marginalized. So even though they're in the past, there's always been such a minority of people who were self-identifying as atheists. Not only is that growing now, but they packed a bigger wallop, they made a bigger impact than any poor Jehovah's Witness could ever do.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's true because they have become ensconced in the university. And, again, I think frankly this is a reflection of the revolution that took place during the 1960s and the rise of radicalism on our university campuses then. Those folks went on and got professorships in departments of literature and humanities and religious studies, frankly, and women's studies and so forth. And those are now our university professors, and many of them are deeply committed to a secularist mindset and worldview.

Kevin Harris: Well, many have seen this coming. You've certainly seen this coming for a long time. We're here. I think that it's very important that you're targeting these philosophical underpinnings, exposing them and trying to interact with them in the academy, in the universities.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's right, Kevin. I could fill my schedule with Christian conference speaking and church speaking, and I choose not to do that because the venue that I want to speak on is the secular university campus – our state universities and private secular universities – that's where I want the debate to be joined.

Kevin Harris: Let's go through some of Sam Harris' responses, then. Dr. Harris says, writing after the debate, “I've received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking my critics seem to have been duped by Craig's opening statement in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate.” Harris says, “I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands. You can read an amusing behind-the-scenes account here.” And it gives a link. Okay. Let's just address that first.

Dr. Craig: Well, this was all a matter of negotiation—it wasn't a matter of making demands. I wasn't in any position to make demands. I could only make requests. And so I proposed the typical format that I participate in when I do debates: twenty minutes, twelve minutes, eight minute and five minute speeches for each debater, and he was alright with that. And then we had to decide on a topic, and Michael Rae proposed several topics. And I said, how about 'Is the foundation for morality natural or supernatural?' And everyone liked that topic – including Sam Harris – so we agreed on that topic. So there wasn't a matter of demanding anything, it was a matter of, well, is this mutually agreeable topic and format? And it was. As far as the timing was concerned, Kevin, I was rather amused by this because when I arrived the day before the debate I found that the organizers were so loosey-goosey about this that there wasn't even a time-keeper for the debate. And I said, “But how are we going to know when our twelve minutes is up if there isn't any time keeper?” You always have a time keeper who sits down in the front row with time cards so that you know how much time you've got left to speak. And Micheal Rae says, “Oh well, when you've got one minute to go I'll interrupt you and say 'one minute, please.'”And I said, “Michael, rather than sort of interrupting the speaker how about if we just have a time keeper with time cards who will sit down in the front, and that way we can see how much time we have left.” And so Dr. Rae got his thirteen year old son to serve as the time keeper. His son had a stop watch and as you noticed during the debate Michael would look at his son very pointedly to make sure he's ready – begin – and the son would hit the stop watch, and then we could see the time cards as he held them up. So it was rather funny to have this kind of put together at the last minute. But, honestly, there's nothing sinister here. It's just a matter of . . .

Kevin Harris: It's extremely important, and things can go terribly wrong if you get the timing off. You can't keep the time yourself, you've got to concentrate on your delivery, and things like that. I read the link that Sam Harris gave here, and all it says is that you were insistent that time was kept, and that you wore your signature suit and tie. Okay, well I don't find anything amusing. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I interviewed the fellow who wrote the article—Nathan Schneider. He's actually doing a book for The University of California Press on the revival of Christian philosophy in our day and age. [3] And that's how he happened to be at the University of Notre Dame for this debate, and so writes this nice article kind of with a peak behind the scenes with the students who organized it, and everything of that sort. And, as you say, I was definitely alarmed when I found out there was no time keeper for the debate. And so they quickly put one together. In terms of going first, again, that was just mutually agreeable. The affirmative usually goes first in a debate.

Kevin Harris: First and last, usually.

Dr. Craig: Well, that's true in an academic debate – yes – usually the negative gets two speeches together in the middle, so the affirmative goes last, as well as first. But we didn't do that. I just opened with arguing for God as a foundation of morality, and then he got the last word. And he didn’t have any problem with that, so that was fine.

Kevin Harris: Quoting Sam Harris:

Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don't seem to understand the game he was playing. He knew that if he began 'here are five bogus points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect' this would lead me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set. If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return the next round to say, 'you will notice that Dr. Harris entirely failed to address points two and five, it is no wonder because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.'

Again, this smack of coaching and emailing from Craig debate watchers that came into him. But, again, because you went first did you therefore set, had the advantage of setting the tenor or the tone, and then he had to play along?

Dr. Craig: The affirmative speaker who goes first gets to set his contentions out, which he will defend in the debate. And so that's what I did. I said, “Here are the two contentions that I'll defend in tonight's debate and here are my arguments for them.” But you notice, Kevin, that I don't speak in the kind of tendentious and pejorative language that Sam Harris suggests there – “that if Harris has a shred of respect he will answer these bogus points” – I mean, that's really quite incorrect; that's not the way I handle myself. I handle myself as a gentlemen in these debates and treat my opponent with respect and treat his argument seriously. And what the negative speaker is obliged to do in a debate is to answer the case that the affirmative speaker has put forward. That is what debate is about. And so by refusing to engage with my case he in effect abdicated his role in the debate. In fact after his opening speech I thought, “Well, this debate is over. He doesn't have anything to say.” Now that doesn’t mean that therefore one gets up and proclaims victory or anything of that sort. But you do point out to the audience – because the audience isn't taking notes, they need to be reminded of your points – and so you point out to the audience here are my three arguments, my three criticisms of his view, and here is how he then has responded to each one, and review this in the audience's mind. And if he hasn't responded yet you point that out and invite him in the rebuttal speech, then, to give his response. And the odd thing about Harris' deportment in the debate was that he not only didn't respond in his opening constructive speech, but he didn't even bother to respond in the rebuttal speeches. He never got around to responding to my three criticisms of his moral theory.

Kevin Harris: Harris goes on,

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned more about – Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience. He falsely summarizes what his opponent has said. He falsely claims that certain points have been conceded. And in our debate he falsely charged me with having wondered from the agreed upon topic”

Well, he can blame me, too, because I think he did, too.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think clearly, Kevin, that he was introducing a lot of red herrings because it isn't essential to divine command morality to believe in things like the Christian doctrine of hell or in thinking that all of the unevangelized are damned, or transubstantiation, or these other doctrines. Those are just irrelevant to the question 'Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural?'

Kevin Harris: He says, “The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format especially when the participants are unable to address one another directly.”

Dr. Craig: I want to say something, Kevin, in defense of the debate format because I think that the problem with so many of these other fellows that I've debated is that they are used to giving lectures where no one from the other side is on the platform to challenge them, [4] and so they get a free pass. And they, frankly, are simply not used to having their views seriously challenged, objections posed to them, and then being required to give answers to those objections. I find that these fellows are just not ready to do that. And so I think it is the genius of the debate format, that it is the unique format in which both sides of an argument are given a level playing field, and the other person is called to account for his views and how he would respond to objections to those views. I don't know of any other format that has that kind of advantage to it. Certainly giving a lecture and answering audience questions doesn’t call a speaker onto the carpet in that way that a debate format does.

Kevin Harris: Anybody who wants to do away with structure and organization and fairness and levelness in a debate, do not know what they're asking for. They're asking really for chaos. I mean, this is what keeps people often talking past one another and shouting one another down, and not giving the other person a chance to reply, and the more boisterous or extroverted of the two would have the advantage. And there's a myriad amount of problems if you just have a free for all. I remember when you and Parsons sat down and kind of had an exchange. Even that was moderated by our friend Kirby Anderson. But even then it was difficult to not step on one another, and the audience began to get into it and applaud, and you couldn’t here the other response.

Dr. Craig: Sometimes I will, as in the Parsons debate [5], participate in a cross-examination debate. This is not unusual. And I enjoy that, and audiences often enjoy that a great deal. I think of just this year my debate with George Williamson at the University of Saskatchewan was a cross-examination debate where we had a chance to ask questions of each other, and that can be a component of a debate. And I'm perfectly willing to engage in that—I think that can be very interesting.

Kevin Harris: Some good points have been made, too. In the exchange with Wolpert one of the great misunderstandings about the nature of God was able to be pointed out by you because of the one-on-one exchange you were having. [6] So it's not all lost.

Dr. Craig: Right, or think of the moderated discussion with Peter Atkins and William F. Buckley Jr. where I said there were all kinds of truths that science can't discover. And Atkins said, “like what?” And I ticked off five areas of truth that science was impotent to discover. And Buckley says, “put that in your pipe and smoke it.” [7] [laughter] It was just hilarious. So I'm quite happy to have these kinds of interactive formats as well. But what I disagree with is the idea that most of these fellows do, and that is just give solo lectures where no one is present to challenge their views. That is giving them a pass.

Kevin Harris: Anyway, Bill, those are just complaints about the format and so on. I think the format of a debate is, like you, very important that we maintain. And this is a very ancient art form, very ancient learning tool that's been around for just centuries, hasn't it?

Dr. Craig: Right, in the Middle Ages the so-called disputed questions – questionas disputates – was a regular medieval forum for getting at issues of this sort.

Kevin Harris: Let's get back to your objections and responses to the claims that Dr. Harris is making, now.

Dr. Craig: Right, well the first of these, you'll remember, concerned his attempt to ground moral values, what he calls the value problem, on naturalism. And I argued that he had a knock-down argument for showing that in fact goodness is not identical with the flourishing of sentient creatures as he claimed. But then in additional to that there's the question of moral duties and how do you ground objective moral duties. And this has to do with the question of moral obligation and prohibition, things that we ought or ought not to do. And on atheism, Kevin, it's very difficult in the first place to see any source for objective moral duty because there is no divine law-giver or commander. Obligations arise as a result of imperatives that have been issued. And in the absence of anyone to issue these sorts of moral imperatives, it just doesn't seem there's any grounds for moral duty on atheism. Now, Harris tries to derive moral duties from science. And here my objection was that science is descriptive, not prescriptive. [8]

Kevin Harris: Describes, doesn't prescribes—describes what people do?

Dr. Craig: Right, and so as a result science can't derive an ought from an is. It can only tell us what is the case, but not what ought to be case. And therefore even if we agree that, say, creaturely flourishing is good that doesn't absolutely nothing to show that we have a moral duty to promote creaturely flourishing.

Kevin Harris: And then you pointed out ought implies can. Now, is that just what it means—that if you ought to do something that implies that you can do it?

Dr. Craig: Yes. Puppets or machines don't have moral obligations – do they? – because they have no ability to act in response to moral obligations or prohibitions. They just run. And so in the absence of freedom of the will there is no moral responsibly. As I said in the debate, if somebody shoves you into another person you're not morally responsible for running into that other person—you had no choice about it, you were pushed. So ought implies can. Now the difficulty is here that Harris is a determinist. He makes it very clear in his book that he thinks that everything we think and do is causally determined, and he rejects not only libertarian freedom, Kevin, he rejects even compatibilistic freedom. He says in no sense are we free beings. Well, that simply makes moral responsibility and therefore moral duty, impossible—it's just logically impossible that we would have objective moral duties of any sort given that there is no freedom of any kind. And that, again, seems to me to be an absolutely knock-down objection to his view that on naturalism objective moral duties do exit.

Kevin Harris: What is the difference between someone who holds to libertarian free will and a compatibilist?

Dr. Craig: Well, both of them would say that we are free but the libertarian would say that freedom is incompatible with being causally determined to do something whereas the compatibilist would say you can be causally determined to do something, but you still do it freely. And I think that's because the compatibilist redefines freedom to mean you do it voluntarily. It's not that you do it as as result of an indeterminate choice of your will – you are determined causally to do it – but it's not as though you're constrained against your will to do it. You do it voluntarily even though you're determined to do it. But Harris, I think, quite rightly rejects compatibilistic freedom, and he also rejects libertarian freedom. So he is just a classic determinist.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, Sam Harris' book, as you have pointed out, has been panned by the critics. Anecdotaly there has been a lot of criticism of the book. But a lot of people anticipated it because it seems that Sam Harris wanted to fill a gap in moral knowledge lacking in the secular movement, or in secular thought. One of the main things one of my atheists friends said when they heard the book was coming out, “We wonder if he's going to be able to get from an is to an ought—we'll read the book and see.”

Dr. Craig: That was the project – wasn't it? – and he is reacting against the sort of moral nihilism of a person like Richard Dawkins who says we're just machines for propagating DNA and there is no good, there is no evil, nothing but pitiless indifference. And Harris says that view is morally unconscionable. And he gives the example of the genital mutilation of little girls. He says when this is done the only question is 'how severely such a person should be punished,'—quoting from Donald Simons on this point. But he thinks it's clearly objectively morally wrong to do such a thing, and he is really quite against his fellow atheists and secularists who are nihilists and relativists. He is a staunch objectivist about morality, and so he wants to provide some basis in science for it.

Kevin Harris: Oh, you took Sam Harris to task for talking about how you're a psychopath to believe some of these things that Christianity teaches and theism teaches, and so on. You took him to task for saying that. And Harris claims that he wasn't calling people psychopaths in the debate.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, in his book, Kevin, he characterizes religious belief as a form of mental illness. And he certainly intimates, at least, that people who are religious believers manifest some kind of psychopathia or other sort of mental derangement. [9]

Kevin Harris: Delusion.

Dr. Craig: Well, stronger than that; a form of mental illness. And it seemed to me that such a claim is just stupid, frankly. It's just silly. And the examples I gave were a couple of my University of Notre Dame colleagues in the Philosophy department there – people like Peter van Inwagen and Thomas Flint – of whom it would be simply silly to say that these are mentally ill people.

Kevin Harris: Bill, wrap it up today. I've criticized Sam Harris' approach, others have, you were disappointed in red herrings and things like this. If you could do the debate again or if another one could be scheduled maybe in the future or something, what would you want Sam Harris to do differently, how would you want him to respond?

Dr. Craig: Well, I would want him to engage with my arguments. But I hope, Kevin, that you don't have the impression, and I don't want to give listeners the impression, that I didn't enjoy this debate or that I didn't think it was great. I thought it was a fantastic evening, and I was delighted in how it went. I thought it was terrific. And I was very pleased that the criticisms that I offered held up, as far as I'm concerned. So I would do it again—I'd be happy to have another debate with him. And I would just hope that he would engage more with the arguments that I give. If he doesn’t then we'll just have a repeat of the same sort of shadow boxing.

Kevin Harris: Again, as you pointed out, you're taking notes on the other speaker and ensuring whether he ever replies to your points.

Dr. Craig: Yes. My opponent can be guaranteed that I will respond to the points that he makes that are relevant to the topic under consideration.

Kevin Harris: If you just have an empty page there when you're taking notes beside your points then there hasn't been a response yet.

Dr. Craig: That's correct.

Kevin Harris: And then at the end of the debate you can kind of look and see what was not responded to, what was, and what those responses were.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: Okay—good job, Bill. Thank you. We'll talk some more about it next time on Reasonable Faith. [10