Luke, the force is not with you: a critique of Luke Meuhlhauser's critique of the Harris/Craig debate

I'm a fan of Common Sense Atheism, even if I'm a little put off by the title (common sense is a pretty lousy way of obtaining reliable information). And while I do enjoy many of Luke's musings, I part ways with him rather strongly in several areas, such as his adulation of William Lane Craig, his contention that the "new atheists" failed to make an intellectually sound case for rejecting theism, and his critique of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.

Given that Luke didn't find TML persuasive, it's not surprising that he was underwhelmed by Harris' recent debate with Craig. He posted his thoughts on the debate in a three-part series (1, 2, 3). I'm gonna lay my cards out on the table here: I think Luke's critique of the debate was sorely misguided, and to explain why I'll have to revisit his criticism of TML – which I felt was similarly ill-conceived.

Luke's central criticism of The Moral Landscape – or at least the one most relevant to his criticisms of the debate – was that Sam Harris didn't offer much explanation as to why we ought to define morality in terms of "the well-being of conscious creatures":
Now, here’s the thing. A great many moral philosophers would agree that if we define morality in terms of the “well-being of conscious creatures,” then obviously most of moral theory becomes a science. When you ask “What actions, desires, institutions, laws, cultures produce the most well-being in conscious creatures?” – well, that’s an empirical question! (Assuming you define “well-being” in terms of a certain brain state.)
The question is really this: Why should we define morality in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures”?
Much of the confusion in the debate over morality stems from what Daniel Dennett would refer to as a "use-mention error". "Moral values" are not ontologically existing objects – they are concepts whose existence is contingent upon the existence of conscious minds of beings who are capable of reflecting on their behavior.  This is precisely what Harris means when he says that the existence of moral values depends on the existence of conscious creatures. Like all concepts, "moral values" is defined arbitrarily.

To understand this more clearly, we can think of a color – say, "red". There is no ontological object called "red"; rather, "red" is the term we use to describe a certain wavelength along the electromagnetic spectrum. There's nothing about that particular wavelength that equals some independently existing object called "red"; rather, the name is merely a categorical abstraction, and it only has meaning to us in relation to other wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum.

Luke's question is, in principle, much like asking why we should define that particular wavelength as red. "Red" is an arbitrarily defined categorical abstraction, and so is the term "moral values". We can, if we so choose, decide that what we now call "red" ought to correspond instead to the wavelength we now call "green". Similarly, we can, if we choose, define moral values in virtually any context we wish. When Sam Harris suggests that morality relates to the well-being of conscious creatures, he is saying that this is what the concept has, throughout history, generally been taken to mean. It need not refer to the well-being of specific people, but some idea of what is the "greater good", or the well-being of all people. This is of course a complex topic that I need not dive into here; I just want to point out what I think is Luke's error in his understanding of Harris' central thesis.

So, on to the debate. Luke thinks that Craig did what he was supposed to do by sounding off all sorts of little points, re-explaining them, and then asserting that Harris didn't respond to them. It's worth noting that Harris has actually posted his thoughts on Craig's tactics, and they are pretty much congruent with what I've stated in the past:
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 wandered from the agreed upon topic. The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly. Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth. 
Luke didn't like this, and claimed that Harris wandered off topic several times:
Harris replies to… something, supposedly… by bringing up the argument from evil, and the argument from inconsistent revelations. This is relevant to the existence of the Christian God, but that is not the topic of the debate. The topic of the debate is secular morality vs. theistic morality. Fail.
He also brings up the horrors of Biblical morality again, even after Craig has explicitly pointed out that this is irrelevant to the topic of debate. Fail.
He says there’s no evidence for God, and that only lunatics could believe some religious things on their own. But Craig repeatedly and explicitly stated he wasn’t defending the existence of God, only that if God exists then he provides a foundation for moral values, and that if God does not exist then there is no solid foundation for objective moral values. Fail.
I find this to be a ridiculous distortion of Harris' arguments, and a distortion that overlooks some vital points. Harris was absolutely correct to point out the absurdity of Craig's divine command theory – that if moral duties are expressed in God's commands (as Craig claimed), then any act commanded by God, including the litany of atrocities in the Old Testament, become "good". Craig's theory implies that morality is not objective at all, but based upon the subjective whims of God. By pointing out the capriciousness of the god Craig worships, Harris undermined Craig's central argument. If divine command theory is valid, then it is not any particular act that is intrinsically moral or immoral, but simply the dis/obedience of God's commands. This undermines the core ideology that Craig espouses, which is that we possess an divinely imbued intuitive understanding of certain acts being either right or wrong.

I also believe Harris was right not to fold to Craig's attempt to narrow the debate topic. It is absolutely absurd to discuss whether objective morality comes from God without challenging the existence of God or Craig's bald assertion that God's nature is good. In fact, questioning such underlying assumptions is one of the most fundamentally important tasks any skeptic can do, and Luke is off-base to suggest that we ought to debate whether the evidence conforms to a priori assumptions of theists rather than challenging the assumptions themselves.

Luke seems frustrated that Harris did not attempt to quell all of those "little fires" that Craig set up. But it's my belief that in this case, we must defer to the keenness of the audience. Just as Christians seem to enjoy debates as a chance to reinforce their group cohesion by seeing their favorite apologist recite their favorite "stick it to the atheists" arguments, Luke seems to want Craig to squirm under the ferocity of an atheist who will take him down point by point. But it's my view that in a debate format like this, which Craig clearly favors, it's a mistake to simply try to chase the tail of one's opponent. The broader point – that science can provide a framework for moral values – was successfully argued Harris successfully argued his broader point – that science does provide a framework for objective moral values. But given that Luke has some misguided criticisms of Harris' view, it seems he'd rather hear Harris chase down Craig's rhetoric rather than argue his central thesis. Harris had to choose his battles carefully, and I think he was right to let some of Craig's tactics slide in order to focus on his core argument, to which Craig did not offer a rebuttal.

Personally, I'm not particularly enamored with debates in general. I much prefer a more discussion-style format, which Craig tactfully avoids these days for reasons that are all too clear when one views his performance in such debates. These more academic-style debates seem to me, on both sides, to be mostly exercises in rhetoric. I'd be lying if I said I ever learned anything interesting from them. I also think they lend far too much credence to what I view as silly ideas – which, incidentally, is why I think Richard Dawkins is right for refusing to debate creationists. Why give such nonsense a platform in which the affirmative position can ramble unchallenged for 20 minutes, framing the debate to favor their side in the process? There are much more constructive ways to learn and critique conflicting ideas.


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