Blogging a Great Debate: Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig at Notre Dame (Accompanied by the Ghost of Nietzsche)

Sam Harris recently debated William Lane Craig at Notre Dame, and here it is. The first eight minutes are devoted to the moderator’s introduction, then Craig goes first. The topic is moral reasoning:


Here are the highlights that I took from the debate:

  • At the 17:15 mark, Craig says that if evolution had run differently we might have been a species with a distinctly different sense of what it means to flourish (and to act morally). My translation of Craig’s point (not his example): a conscious, big brained shark doesn’t need to read Ayn Rand to be persuaded of the virtue of selfishness and going it alone; a conscious, big brained social animal related to hippie bonobos, might need some convincing. In atheist terms, moral reasoning is always contingent.
  • Around the 20:45 mark, Craig gets the following zinger observation in: science can address what makes for the flourishing of conscious beings, but it must do so in the same general terms that it pronounces on the flourishing of corn. In other words, it can never really specify what a human being should do at any particular moment, only what generally makes for the flourishing of one species or another.
  • By the time we reach the 24:30 mark, Craig has made a good case that, for the atheist, moral reasoning must dead-end in a confrontation with contingency and nihilism. He now goes for the juggler: Sam Harris’s free will, by his own admission, is an illusion; therefore his moral choices must also be, ultimately, an illusion. (I think that Craig had a very strong opening 20 minutes.)
  • By 28:20, Harris is at the mic and concedes (without elaboration) that the erosion of secular morality is a real danger. What’s to prevent Enlightenment secular morality (the Rights of Man, etc) from lapsing into Nietzsche’s will to power? Harris does not say; he does not go there.
  • At 32:20, Harris says that religion is not necessary for morality, and, in fact, it makes morality more difficult to think about (not less).
  • At the 39:00 minute mark, Harris reflects on the role that entropy plays in frustrating human flourishing, saying the following: “There are more ways to suffer in this world than to be sublimely happy.” This is a great definition of entropy—it is entropy in a nutshell—and it implies that to get the world the way we want it—to overcome, for example, human suffering—it requires a good deal of countervailing thought and work (and not just a nonreflective submission to some ancient religious authority).
  • At 42:15, Harris offers a good analogy between physical health and human flourishing.
  • At 44:50, Harris says the following: “Science has always been in the values business.” He then proceeds to question the fact-value distinction.
  • At 47:00, we’re back to William Lane Craig, who proceeds to make a distinction between moral ontology (that is, morality’s nature or foundation) and moral semantics (that is, morality’s meaning). He offers light as an analogy. You can know, semantically, what light and darkness mean prior to understanding light’s electromagnetic foundation (its ontological nature). Craig argues that religious morality is grounded ontologically in God’s character whereas atheist morality has no ontological grounding in anything. Craig says he is not in a semantic argument with Harris, but an ontological one.
  • At 50:30, Craig asks a great question: “If atheism were true, what would make the flourishing of conscious creatures objectively good? Conscious creatures might like to flourish, but there’s no reason on atheism to think that it would really be objectively good.” Craig, I think, is making a strong point here. By making a distinction between semantics and ontology, he shows that atheism is always on the verge of dropping into Nietzschean nihilism.
  • At the 53:00 minute mark, Craig makes another strong observation. This one concerns psychopathy and human flourishing. If psychopaths are happy in their psychopathy, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which psychopaths inhabit their own subjective “moral peaks” (that is, moral from the vantage of the psychopath’s flourishing). The psychopath, being a conscious being more akin to a shark than a bonobo, renders universal moral prescription based on a universal human nature impossible.
  • At 54:00, Craig presses his psychopath observation to an interesting conclusion: so long as there are psychopaths in the human family (and there are an estimated 3,000,000 in the United States alone), then human flourishing and morality cannot be identical (as Harris asserts). To my mind, this is Craig’s way of saying that humanity consists not just of bonobo-like hippies, but sharks, and the ways that they flourish are very different. Any attempt at objectively grounding morality in a universal notion of “human flourishing” is incoherent.
  • At 56:00, Craig asserts that moral imperatives are accompanied by authority: if a police officer tells you to pull over your car, you’re obligated to do so—you ought to do it—but if anybody else tells you to pull over, you’re free to ignore him or her. And thus the is/ought distinction, in Craig’s view, is “fatal” to Harris’s position. In atheism there is no authority present, beyond yourself, to ground the ought.
  • At 58:45, Harris is back on. He notes that, in relation to suffering, God must be either: (a) impotent to stop it; or (b) evil for not stopping it. And, by Craig’s theology, God also sends people to hell. So Craig’s God, according to Harris, is not competent to pronounce on human flourishing. God would have to be good, loving, just, and kind to be the ontological basis for morality, but there’s no evidence that he is. Harris also raises slavery in the Bible as an issue, and concludes that Yahweh himself is a psychopath. To my mind, this is a pretty strong counterargument to Craig’s claim that God is a better ontological foundation for morality than contingent human nature is.
  • At the 1 hour and 10 minute mark, Craig returns to the microphone. He seems taut to pounce on Harris’s assertion that God is a psychopath. And sure enough, he does, quickly asserting that if theism has dubious grounds for moral reasoning (based in the questionable ontological foundations of a good, just, and kind God), atheism has no grounds for moral reasoning at all. I think that Harris and Craig are both right: theism rests on dubious ontological grounds and atheism rests on ontological grounds that are, in fact, absent. If Nietzsche were alive, he’d declare checkmate. In other words, humanity does not have any very plausible moves toward God or toward secular Enlightenment. We are driven, instead, to an overwhelming confrontation with our own question begging and the problem of nihilism.
  • At the 1 hour and 11 minute mark, Craig calls Harris’s attacks on God’s moral character red herrings. I don’t think so. Harris is simply pointing out the obvious: if atheism is ungrounded, theism is dubiously grounded.
  • At the 1 hour 18 mark, Harris returns to the mic. In this eight minute segment, Harris says that if you think you prefer neurosis to other states, then there is “something objectively wrong with you.” I wonder what Harris would say to Dostoevsky’s underground man.
  • At the 1 hour 25 minute mark, Harris says, “We can either have a first century conversation (as dictated by the New Testament), or a seventh century conversation (as dictated by the Quran), or a 21st century conversation that leaves us open to the full wealth of human learning.”
  • At 1 hour 26 minutes, Craig returns to the mic.  Craig asserts that any God not worthy of worship is not God, and emphasizes again that a universal moral landscape does not overlap the kinds of conscious beings that actually exist (or can exist). Craig’s exhibit A (once again) is the psychopath. In my view, he gets a lot of mileage out of this argument and I can see why he raises it again.
  • At 1 hour 30 minutes, Craig quotes a legal scholar who claims that, absent God, moral universals break down before an overwhelming question: “Says who?” (Nietzsche, not fearing the collapse of universality, authority, and objectivity, would reply, “Says me!”)
  • At 1 hour 31 minutes, Harris is back at the mic. He notes that Muslims also make absolute and ungrounded claims about morality, but they ground them in a different book than Craig. Harris says that “our scriptures were written by people” who lived in non-scientific times. By contrast, Harris wants contemporary people to use the full retinue of humanity’s built-up knowledge and not restrict moral reasoning to what people knew (or thought that they knew) 2000 years ago.
  • At 1 hour and 37 minutes, question time begins. Harris, in response to a question, says something startling: we could come up with a better moral system than the Bible with just five minutes of cursory thought. His example of a good and simple idea for improving theist moral reasoning markedly: just remove Leviticus and Deuteronomy from the Bible and think afresh about morality from that renewed vantage!
  • At 1 hour and 40 minutes, Craig responds to a question with another interesting distinction. He says that we should not confuse moral ontology and moral epistemology. Morality is best grounded, ontologically, in a good God, but it doesn’t follow, epistemically, that we necessarily know what God might want from us. Craig then reiterates his debate emphasis: “My concern [this evening] is moral ontology.”
  • At 1 hour and 43 minutes, Craig says he can see nothing, absent God, for ontologically grounding moral reasoning. Again, I think that Craig is (effectively) pressing Harris on the issue of nihilism. Craig is seeing what Nietzsche saw (that atheism ends in nihilism).
  • At 1:46:50, Harris says that love is at the top of his list for human thriving. That’s a can of worms that, alas, has arrived too late in the debate for any detailed back and forth. Too bad. At this point, Nietzsche would call Harris an adherent of slave morality (his thinking under the spell of religiously derived moral categories).
  • At 1:47:20, a questioner brings up the vision of Fatima (and other Catholic miracles). Harris shrugs. Miracle stories are “a dime a dozen.”
  • At 1:50:20, a questioner does something amusingly postmodern, claiming that God visited him in the night with a revelation that homosexual lovemaking is a good and beautiful thing. What should he do with this religious experience, he asks Dr. Craig. Craig refuses to take the question seriously, even as a hypothetical, and so declares that he will not answer it. The moderator goes to another question.
  • At 1:52:30, a questioner asks Harris a trick question. If flourishing is the measure of moral action, would it be moral to do away with a world where human flourishing is, in fact, not possible? Harris answers no. It would never be moral to destroy the world (for that would put an end, not just to suffering, but to the happiness that is also in the world). But it’s ironic that Harris, a person interested in Buddhist meditation, answered in the way that he did. The Buddha, after all, arrived at the conclusion that this world is, in fact, a bitterly cruel illusion for those who try to extract large or permanent satisfactions from it. The world is inimical to human flourishing. Jeffersonian pursuits of happiness do not end well. Buddha’s solution wasn’t to put an end to the world, or to commit suicide. But it was to see the world as a nihil (as emptiness), and to put an end to the self.

What overwhelming conclusion did I take from this exchange? Though his name was never spoken by either Harris or Craig, it occurs to me that Nietzsche’s spectre must haunt any debate about morality in the 21st century.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Blogging a Great Debate: Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig at Notre Dame (Accompanied by the Ghost of Nietzsche)

  1. I continue to struggle with contingency and free will as an illusion. How could you even tell? Saying we have no free will because we are contingent upon what came before does not work at a quantum level .. and even if it did, how could you ever tell? You would have to track every interaction of every quark since the beginning of the universe – possibly even more if we have any idea of the state of energy before the big bank – to begin to predict the outcome of individual choice.

    None of this gets rid of the question of morality though. But Christian (religious) morality is as varying and subjective as what Christians like to make of morality without god. A simple read of the bible and look at the last 2000 years shows how vastly Christian morality has changed – all morality. Basic morality also predates all modern religions and spans the world. The basic tenets of morality existed long before Judaism was even dreamed up.

  2. David Allen says:

    William Lane Craig IS Vizzini


  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s disappointing that Harris has to resort to ad hominem red herring attacks on Dr. Craig’s specific theistic beliefs rather than attempting to refute his two main points. The debate ceased to be philosophical at that point when Harris simply brought up non sequiturs that are irrelevant to the actual topic of the debate, which was not whether or not we should believe in the Christian God but whether or not there are grounds for objective moral values and duties on an atheistic worldview. In the end, Harris argues that we need to accept on faith the axiomatic “truth” that what is good is what is beneficial to the flourishing and happiness of the largest number of people, effectively proving that there are indeed no grounds for an atheistic moral realism. He simply redefines what is good without providing grounds for it except appeals to pathos. Then he contradicts himself and says that we need not accept things on faith. I was hoping for a more formidable opponent to Craig. I suppose Harris’ Bachelors in Philosophy isn’t sufficient enough to keep his mind on the philosophical issue at hand at least not on par with Craig’s PhD in Philosophy.

    • santitafarella says:

      Your point is well taken, but I wouldn’t characterize Harris’s position a “faith” one. On the contrary, it is a pragmatic one. In the absence of an ontological foundation for values, Harris asks us to simply look at what is before us: the human animal.

      What makes for its flourishing?

      Harris thinks the answers are broadly obvious. Food, clean air, open spaces, social contact with others, security, etc.

      Such things can be worked for absent an ontological foundation. We have to do something while we’re waiting for Godot (or death). We may as well be nice to one another.


  4. Monoch says:

    I see what you are saying, but Harris must acknowledge that it is a position of faith if he is to argue that atheism has an ontological foundation for morality. If he was doing as you say, acknowledging that atheism provides no ontological foundation for morality, than he has already lost according to the subject of the debate (Where morality comes from). He would essentially have gone into the debate believing there is no foundation but arguing that there was one.

    If that is indeed true, than perhaps Harris’ purpose in attending the debate was not to offer a justification for moral realism without God, but to attack the actions of previous religious peoples in effort to promote the atheistic world view. Which is quite strange in my opinion, as all people are hypocrites regardless of their worldview. Even if your morality is placed solely in your own opinions, you will fail to live according to your own standards.

    I do not understand why observing religious peoples acting hypocritically is an argument against a religious faith. It is absurd. How can we expect humans to act like anything that is not human? If i believe that i can fly it will not happen. If i deeply desire to fly it will not happen. In the same way, i could believe that there is a moral truth and also desire to meet its standard but, this will not make it so.

  5. Jon Hynds says:

    Its been a couple of years since this debate, I’ve listend a couple of times now, found this site so I can finally comment. Guts of the debate; Craig says moral authority is from monotheistic ‘God’, his particular version of course! He goes on to make a distinction between semantics in the debade of God ordained moral values & acts but then performs a semantic high wire act. Sam states the scientific pose, natural selection. Bottom line, Craig’s moral authority from God is the best explanation, no proof & semantic gymnastics. By this reasoning I say the Sesame Street Cookie Monster is a living entity in the firnent Cosmos. Go disprove this statement Mr. Craig. To Sam, why waste your time with Mr. Craig? Good on you though, if one audience member in that vast audience at Notredame began to question the basis of their religious faith then it was time well spent!

  6. Cloud2013 says:

    Thanks for the write up. I find both of these guys a little toadish, but the topic is important.
    I agree with your comments about the Ghost of Nietzsche and think the sooner we recognize the real issue the better. You wrote also: If Nietzsche were alive, he’d declare checkmate. In other words, humanity does not have any very plausible moves toward God or toward secular Enlightenment. We are driven, instead, to an overwhelming confrontation with our own question begging and the problem of nihilism.

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