An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 1)

With chapter five, editor Tom Gilson makes a reappearance, this time recounting the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, and explaining to us why, in his estimation, Craig was the decisive victor. I blogged about the debate back when it happened (1, 2, 3) and I've talked a lot about secular morality (4), so I don't want to retread all that stuff. But there are several points that Gilson touts, rather uncritically, as wins for Craig when closer examination reveals them to be resting on some pretty glaring assumptions and poor understanding of atheists' arguments (and, as you'll see, that's sometimes atheists' fault).

I'll start of this chapter review the same as I have with each so far: I do not expect this book to convert me. That's an unrealistic expectation. I'm simply looking for some good arguments that provoke me to critically re-examine some of my key positions. So far, though, the book has been utterly dependent on misinformation and sloppy argumentation to make its points. Is this chapter any better? Well, surprisingly, yes. This chapter is actually pretty good. I disagree with what's here and I'll explain why, but at least, unlike William Lane Craig or Carson Weitnauer, it's not relying on outright bullshittery to persuade its readers.

Unfortunately this is another fairly beefy chapter, so again I'll be breaking it into two parts.


Chapter 5: Unreason at the Head of Project Reason
Despite the title, this chapter doesn't actually have anything to do with Sam Harris' Project Reason. It's just a discussion of his debate with William Lane Craig. Gilson puts his cards on the table early, but given what this book is and who its target audience is, that's not going to surprise anyone:
The contrast seemed all too predictable, but for one thing: the one who focused on a reasoned approach to discourse was the theologian and philosopher, William Lane Craig. The one who appealed to emotion, whose arguments were choked with fallacies, was the man representing Project Reason, Sam Harris.
[...]
In this chapter I will show that Sam Harris, despite his self-promotion as defender of reason, resorted to classic fallacies including semantic tricks, equivocation, begging the question, poisoning the well, and more.
Quite a ballsy claim. 


Objective morality?

Unfortunately, we're already off to a bad start:
Craig gave the opening speech. The question to be debated was, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” From the beginning Craig agreed with Harris that objective morality exists.
This bugs me, because it's not exactly true. It bugs me more because it's really Sam's fault for failing to clarify the distinction. It's obvious if you've listened to him lecture and/or read his book The Moral Landscape, but he missed an important opportunity to correct Craig.
  • When Craig says objective morality exists, he means that objective good and evil exist independently from human beings. It "exists" supernaturally. If there were no humans alive at all, objective right and wrong would still exist. It exists independently of us and, accordingly, independently of what any of us think is right or wrong. 
  • When Sam Harris says objective morality exists, he means that we have objective reasons to behave kindly instead of cruelly, morally instead of immorally – that it is objectively, scientifically, in our best interest to do so. But morality, per Harris, is dependent on the existence of conscious creatures who are able to contemplate their actions, anticipate possible outcomes, and alter their behavior accordingly.
Clearly Harris and Craig don't quite agree that objective morality "exists" in the same sense. But it was Sam's job to point that out, and he didn't.

Gilson proceeds to apply some conditions to his chapter:
I will not attempt to build Craig’s case all over again, for that is not necessary for my purpose in this essay. (For his full argument, I refer you to the debate itself.) Neither is it germane to my purpose to show whether Craig’s arguments prevailed. I propose instead to demonstrate the rational manner in which Craig approached the issues, and to contrast that with the approach Harris took. Craig opened the door for Harris to respond, rebut, and even refute him on rational grounds, if such rebuttal or refutations were possible. Harris did not take that opportunity, as we shall see; instead he responded, to a disturbing extent, with appeals to emotion, fallacious logic, and rhetorical maneuvering.
Gilson then proceeds to outline Craig's argument in numbered form. I'll follow each point with a quick response:
If humans are products of nature and nothing else, and if nature intrinsically lacks moral values and duties, then it follows that humans have no objective moral values and duties.
This is true, but only in the sense that Craig defines objective morality. It is not true in the sense that Harris defines objective morality. Whether objective morality is intrinsic in nature is irrelevant to whether conscious creatures have objective reasons for acting in their collective best interest.
To regard humans as having moral significance while animals do not is, on naturalism, to assign a groundless, speciesist, (borrowing Peter Singer’s term), and probably false ontological distinction between animals and humans.
This is true. Suffering exists on a continuum in the animal kingdom given the level of cognition that an animal has. But Craig's argument misses the point that the distinction between, say, a lion and a human is not arbitrary. The fact that a human can contemplate his/her behavior, consider possible outcomes, consider the suffering of others, and alter behavior when a lion cannot (at least to nowhere near the same degree) is not an arbitrary distinction but a relevant difference between humans and non-human animals. This is precisely why Harris defines morality as being concerned with "the well-being of conscious creatures" – because cockroaches, for example, cannot neither suffer nor contemplate and alter their behavior like people can.

(For more on this point, check out Craig's debate with Shelly Kagan)
To hold, as Harris does, that objective morality is grounded in the well-being of sentient creatures, is to re-define goodness, not to explain its grounding.
Again, Craig is equivocating with the term "objective morality", which will confuse those unfamiliar with Sam's work. But this is actually an important point of contention, because if morality is not concerned with our well-being, then morality is only concerned with obedience to whatever standard of objective morality Craig wishes to establish – even if such obedience is flatly in contradiction with our well-being. So if God tells you to slaughter those children or to cut that woman's genitals, by golly that's God's word and that's that.

But I think a broader point of nuance here is that Craig's position simply forces a regress: why should we obey the objective moral standard? If he says it's in our best interest to do so, even if our "best interest" means "getting into Heaven", then he hasn't provided an alternative to Harris' position; instead, he's simply pushing "well-being" back a step from our well-being in this life to our well-being in some magical, mysterious hereafter. But he's still taking it as axiomatic that morality is concerned with our well-being. If, on the other hand, he wants to say that the standard must be intrinsically obeyed just because, then morality has become arbitrary for reasons that will soon become clear.
Harris claimed, “If we have a moral duty to do anything, we have a duty to avoid the worst possible misery.” Unfortunately the dependent clause here is the very issue at stake in this debate. Do we have a moral duty to do anything? This is the conclusion Harris needs to establish, and it begs the question to begin with it.
Harris elaborates quite a bit on this point, but this is consistent with his claim that morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures.


Free will and determinism
Ought implies can, but Harris’s denial of human free will implies cannot. That is, if humans cannot actually make choices as human agents, then it follows we cannot make morally significant choices. Therefore there can be no moral duties.
Craig consistently misunderstands Harris' talk of determinism. To talk of whether determinism is to talk about whether "free will" exists in some transcendent sense in nature – that our brains are not subject to the laws of physics. No serious philosopher or scientist believes that, but a theologian like Craig just might since "magic" is a pretty useful gap-filler. 

A better perspective on free will was put forth by Sean Carroll:
We talk about the world using different levels of description, appropriate to the question of interest. Some levels might be thought of as “fundamental” and others as “emergent,” but they are all there. Does baseball exist? It’s nowhere to be found in the Standard Model of particle physics. But any definition of “exist” that can’t find room for baseball seems overly narrow to me. It’s true that we could take any particular example of a baseball game and choose to describe it by listing the exact quantum state of each elementary particle contained in the players and the bat and ball and the field etc. But why in the world would anyone think that is a good idea? The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.
Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.
I offered my own thoughts on the matter here.

Harris' broader discussions of free will aren't really germane to the discussion of moral behavior, which is probably why he didn't bother talking about it in the debate. Harris' point in The Moral Landscape is simply that thoughts, intentions, and moral considerations are the product of the brain – not of anything supernatural.


Craig's self-proclaimed "knock-down" argument

Gilson then quotes what Craig claimed was his knock-down argument against Harris:
On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr. Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape. Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.
Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr. Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic. That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.
Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr. Harris has asserted in his book.
As he usually does, Craig is relying on equivocation to make his case – and relying on his audience not actually reading the source material. But just like I own The God Delusion, guess what – I own The Moral Landscape, too. This is what Harris actually says:
 [If] evil turn out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially "moral" landscape' rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon with saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks
Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefor, far more similar than different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world.... No one, to my knowledge, believes there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible. 
Craig's talk about "possible worlds" is not, as Gilson contends, "a technical point of logical reasoning". It is outright sophistry. The fact is that anything we can conjure up is in principle "possible", and we don't exist in such a world as Craig portrays. That's a key point – evil, or cruelty as I prefer to say, is objectively not a reliable path to well-being.

What's germane to Harris' argument is that people who are sociopaths:
  • Have independently verifiable structural deficiencies in their brains
  • Are incapable of feeling empathy for others
  • And accordingly, exist as outliers in the discussion of well-being since they are incapable of fully understanding the concerns of conscious creatures.   
This is a key point to Harris' argument; what about people who define "good" in a way that we now consider evil, such as the actions of Muslim extremists or Yahweh in the Old Testament? The answer is that such individuals have removed themselves from the discussion of morality.

Gilson then rounds out the section with a healthy dose of masturbatory rambling about how Harris failed to respond to Craig and how Craig, not Harris, is the rational one.

Part 2 will have Gilson's take on Harris' responses.

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