An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 2)

(Read part one here)

Gilson opens his critiques of Harris' responses to Craig by arguing that Harris is "incompetent":
Harris stated, “I hope it’ll be clear to you, at the end of this hour, that religion is not an answer to this problem. Belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it is itself a source of moral blindness.” 
Craig had not argued that either religion or belief could supply the grounding necessary for morality. He said that only God himself could. Therefore religion and belief were strictly irrelevant to Craig’s argument. If he thought Craig had erred in pointing to God, rather than belief in God, as the relevant issue, he never took the opportunity to say so.
Perhaps in Craig's imaginary universe of "possible worlds", it makes sense to talk about what God is versus what people claim God is; but here on Earth, you run into a bit of a hurdle with God as the objective moral lawgiver: there has to be a way for people to objectively know what the objective moral law actually is, and one doesn't exist. Instead, we have seers, sages, mystics, prophets, contradictory claims of 'divine revelation', divine books open to an endless array of interpretations, and claims of 'miracles' that can never be independently verified.

In other words, the existence of an objective moral law is useless unless there is a way to communicate it objectively. But rather than ramble on about this personally, there's a fantastic critique on the matter done by Youtuber NonStampCollector in an uncharacteristically serious video that, in my estimation, eviscerates Craig's argument:

Gilson continues:
Harris assumed the existence of objective moral values and duties, and used that assumption as a question-begging basis for his argument that science must provide a foundation for these objective moral facts.
This shows why definitions are important, because Craig (and Gilson) is relying on an equivocation fallacy to make his point.
Harris begged the question again when he assumed there is no God behind the existence of human minds:
Questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, depend upon mind. They depend upon the possibility of experience. Minds are natural phenomena. They depend upon the laws of nature in some way.
Harris doesn't assume there is a God behind the existence of human minds because there is absolutely no scientific reason whatsoever to do so. Everything we know about the mind, we know from studying it purely as the product of the brain. But again, an important distinction: there is a difference between not making the assumption God is behind the mind, and assuming that God is behind the mind. Harris, as a neuroscientist, does the former because that is what produces independently verifiable evidence about the workings of the mind.

Gilson then erroneously accuses Harris of poisoning the well with this statement:
Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. This seems as value-free an utterance as human beings ever make. But what do we do when someone doubts the truth of this proposition? Ok, all we can do is appeal to scientific values. The value of understanding the world. The value of evidence. The value of logical consistency. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water. Ok, I’m Biblical chemist, and I read in Genesis 1 that God created water before he created light. So I take that to mean that there were no stars. So there were no stars to fuse hydrogen and helium into heavier elements like oxygen; therefore there was no oxygen to put in the water, so either God created, either water has no oxygen, or God created special oxygen to put in the water— but I don’t think he would do that, because that would be Biblically inelegant.”
His characterizations of a “biblical chemist” and “biblically inelegant” are deeply disconnected from reality. No thinking Bible-believer thinks the Bible leads science to such conclusions. Thus he poisoned the well against both Craig and Christianity.
"Poisoning the well" happens when you preemptively ridicule and/or straw-man your opponents' position before they speak. It's not a fallacy unless you're presenting definitions or terms that you will subsequently dismiss unless your opponent agrees to your terminology, or attempt to use the personal ridicule of your opponent as the basis for dismissing their arguments. What Harris was doing was making a legitimate point about the basis for a rational understanding of human behavior. Gilson's comment regarding "no thinking Bible-believer" is irrelevant.
In this passage he was attempting to support his claim that ethical values can be derived from facts of nature. In favor of that conclusion, he offered the evidence that those who study nature do so under the guidance of certain “scientific values.” The conclusion unfortunately has no logical connection to the evidence: that which guides a field of study does not thereby become a conclusion to be drawn from that field of study. This was a non sequitur, a clearly identifiable flaw in his reasoning.
What actually happened is that Sam had gone on to say that those who do not value evidence and logic (what he called "scientific value") and instead appeal to religious dogma as the basis for rationalizing their behavior have removed themselves from the conversation about how we determine what is moral human behavior. Gilson apparently agree with this, since he's spending this section of the chapter criticizing Harris for supposedly not valuing evidence or logic.
Harris confused denying a negative claim (for example, “I’m not sure this is false”) with asserting a positive one (“ I’m sure this is true”). Echoing language he used twice in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (pp. 37 and 91), he told Craig, “It is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality.”
It seemed that he wanted us to conclude from this that it is scientific— it is a conclusion that can be derived from science— to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality, and that it is scientific for science to place value assumptions at its core. But this is confused. To say something is not unscientific is not the same as to say it is scientific.
That's sometimes true, but in the case Harris mentioned, "not unscientific" indeed meant "scientific.
 Harris was careless with his terminology, tripping over a logical fallacy known as equivocation (using the same word twice as if it means the same thing in both contexts, when in fact it does not). Craig carefully identified a specific case of Harris doing so, saying,
Now here Dr. Harris, I think, is guilty of misusing terms like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” in equivocal ways. He will often use them in non-moral senses. For example, he’ll say there are objectively good and bad moves in chess. Now that’s clearly not a moral use of the terms “good” and “bad.” You just mean they’re not apt to win or produce a winning strategy. 
Harris gave no response to that.
He probably didn't respond to it because it ought to be plainly obvious that he was using chess as an analogy for using science to determine moral values, not asserting that chess moves are im/moral.

Gilson rounds out the section with more masturbatory rambling about how wrong Harris was before turning his attention to the print edition of The Moral Landscape, quoting Harris:
By comparison the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems quite collegial. We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion— just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course we could be wrong.
Here he seems to defend, rather than deny, New Atheist incivility.
Yes, apparently it is uncivil to assume that other people will treat religion with the same dispassionate objectivity they apply to virtually every other topic ever.

Gilson goes on, eliciting some major facepalms:
On one page, Francis Collins is guilty of “intellectual suicide.” A few pages later, he is “a paragon of sophisticated faith.” Let’s remember: Dr. Collins successfully led the Human Genome Project, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, and was appointed as the Director of the National Institute of Health by President Obama. By what rational criterion can Sam Harris describe him as brain dead? For Harris to slander Francis Collins’ intellect and then deny that the New Atheists caricature religion is clearly false.
Gilson made the same mistake in his opening chapter. He apparently does not understand the difference between criticizing an idea and criticizing a person. He apparently does not understand that smart people can be, and often are, wrong. Harris at no point "slandered" Collins' intellect. He criticized his arguments, period. And Gilson's reactionary response proves Harris' allegedly uncivil point above.

As if that weren't facepalm-worthy enough, Gilson has another whopper, this time criticizing Letter to a Christian Nation, again quoting Harris:
Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling.
Do Muslims really believe in Allah because of the historical evidence for Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection? I think they would be most surprised to learn that!
I mean, just... wow. Wow. Do I need to respond to something that stupid? Yes Tom, because that's exactly what Sam meant. Good job.

In the same book (p. 16) he writes, 
The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). 
And on page 17, 
It should be clear from these passages [of Scripture] that, while the abolitionists were morally right, they were on the losing side of a theological argument. 
For a picture of how desperately distorted this is, see Glenn Sunshine’s essay in this book (chapter fifteen) on Christianity and slavery. Is Harris ignorant of these relevant facts, or does he twist them intentionally? It’s hard to say.
Ah, the old "you're taking the Bible out of context!" canard. We've already been down that road in this book. And it's one thing to add references or mention related material in your argument (as I do often), but just saying that someone else addressed it in a book is not a rebuttal.
In The End of Faith (p. 19), he writes,
In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable.
That’s an odd position for him to take, considering all the historical and philosophical evidences that have been put forth in favor of Christianity.
Harris is right, though. What is the evidence for the Trinity? For the Host Sacrament? For divine reward for suicide bombers? For cows being possessed by human souls? Pick your religion, and you can find plenty of beliefs that in principle can never be supported with independently verifiable evidence.  And it may be that Gilson has a different standard of evidence than Harris. Holy books, miracles, feelings, and revelation aren't evidence

Gilson closes with another take on determinism:
If our felt authorship of our thoughts is illusory, if we have no control over our intentions and reasoning, and if we cannot choose what we choose, then certainly it does mean that we have no mental freedom whatsoever. Again, if we cannot choose what we choose, then we cannot “choose to focus . . .” Harris’s claim that we have some mental freedom seems like a futile grasping for something that he wants to be real, though he denies its possibility. Whether that’s the case or not, the contradiction remains unresolved, another instance of illogic in print.
Again, he's just missing the distinction of levels of description, which I talk about previously. But just for a refresher, here's that fantastic article by Sean Carroll.

Free Will is as Real as Baseball

This wasn't nearly as bad a chapter as the previous ones. It's full of fallacies, sure. But in this case, there were at least some halfway decent talking points raised.

As for the debate, I'm of a mixed opinion regarding Harris' performance. On the one hand, I think he did the right thing by sticking to his thesis and not indulging Craig's sophistry and dishonest doublespeak. On the other hand, I feel that there were several opportunities where Harris could have made his own position more clear. If anything, this simply reinforces to me why this format of debate, in which each speaker basically has a series of monologues, is not particularly productive. I much prefer a format like Craig had with Shelly Kagan, and it's quite telling to watch Craig struggle when he's out of his element (tellingly, he was absolutely insistent on the monologue format for his "Reasonable Faith Tour" in the UK last year).

To finish, I'll leave you with the full debate between Craig and Harris. Watch it and decide for yourself. 


Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

There is no such thing as sophisticated theology