I don’t usually watch these dog-and-pony shows between theists and atheists because there is little point, at least in terms of learning anything new or forming different ideas. I don’t need to listen to another traveling Christian circus to know that the idea that morals or anything else is God-given is a farce, for two simple reasons: The Christian god is a pitiful but ferociously persistent fiction, and moral behavior and frameworks are adequately explained in naturalistic terms.
But I like watching Sam Harris for the same reason I enjoy watching Christopher Hitchens — I just like his style (and Hitchens and Harris could scarcely be different). So I watched the April 7 “debate” between Harris and William Craig at Notre Dame (video below). My impressions are below the fold lest you prefer for some reason to watch the debate without the dubious benefit of my “spoilers.”
Craig, like every traveling Christian debate circus, is a genial and polished speaker. He is also someone whom I would, if I were an alien placed on planet Earth and given a basic understanding of what human beings can perceive and how they think, assume was mentally deficient in some way. It is or should be evident to any objective observer that Craig makes no effort at all to meet Harris head-on here. His contentions are these:
1) If God exists, God provides a source of objective morality.
2) If God doesn’t exist, there is no source of objective morality.
So taken together he’s claiming that objective morality exists if and only if God does.
The first ludicrous thing Craig does in this “debate” is deny Harris the suggestion that God in fact doesn’t exist, asserting that that is a question for a different “debate.” Only in the purest philosophical sense is this meaningful. Debates that involve accepting flawed premises as starting points are permissible at the level of raw argumentation, but are vacuous in the real world. I could, if I liked, debate a lunar conspiracy theorist whose claim is that if the moon landings never happened, then NASA is covering up vast amounts of deceitful behavior. But if this person insisted that I not introduce the evidence for moon landings because that is a different argument, it would render the discussion even more frivolous. Since Craig can introduce no evidence supporting the existence of his God, Harris or anyone else pointing this out has made a meaningful contribution.
As far as specifics go, Craig makes predictable use of the fact that each participant in this “debate” has a very limited amount of time to speak. He throws out a bunch of bullshit about Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, thereby nominally forcing Harris to respond to Craig’s quote-mining and misquoting. He makes continual references to “atheism” as a world view, when in fact it’s merely the absence of a dogmatic view, so as to knock over a straw man — that is, rather than accept that what Harris is doing is establishing that God in any guise is not needed to define and establish morality, he’s playing games and pretending that Harris is putting some faceless yet active surrogate agent in God’s place. Harris is merely removing the idea of agency, which humans in general and theists by definition cannot get their minds around. He claims in a self-congratulatory way to have made a knock-down philosophical argument when he has not, stating that Harris has merely re-defined “objective morality” in a way that makes his argument circular, when in fact Harris is merely expanding on the idea that theists do not get to narrowly define “moral” for their own purposes. Craig caters to the audience with a bunch of smiling faux-paternalistic head-shaking as unmitigated bullshit spews out of him (the part that I think would make him look mentally challenged to any intelligent entity familiar with the human intellect but not well-versed in the way that otherwise intelligent creationists and theists subvert and abandon it altogether).
Most damningly, when Harris gives powerful, incontrovertible examples of how the Christian God is (if taken to exist) not only morally absent but morally reprehensible, Craig responds with a hand-wave, pointing (literally) to a book and saying “read this, that’s all dealt with here.” It’s the same bullshit Christian traveling circuses always engage in — that’s been answered already, I don’t need to get into it.
It doesn’t surprise me that people ignorant enough to think that Craig has done anything besides unload drivel and nonsense in this “debate” exist in abundance; I just wonder, with a strange mixture of dread and amusement, whether their numbers are shrinking as fast as I’d like to believe.
Harris’ own remarks on the “debate” — which I have not yet read so as to not color my thoughts here — are posted on his blog.