Once again, we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question

The title of this post is taken from a debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris on youtube in which Sam Harris replies to a question from William Lane Craig (WLC). Overall, it was a great debate. I have been watching a lot of debates, lately. In particular, I’ve been watching debates involving WLC whom I had not heard of until a few months ago.He is apparently the bane of atheists everywhere (I say this with some sarcasm). I’m not going to focus too much on philosophy on this site because I’m not a philosopher, and I find debates about abstract objects (just consider the negative theology used to describe God in general: not within time;eternal, not limited in power;omnipotent, does not change, not evil;omnibenevolent, not material;immaterial, not limited in knowledge;omniscient etc…) tend to be nothing more than mental masturbation. I apologize ahead of time if I misrepresent Harris or WLC, or their arguments.

First, WLC is an extremely organized person. He is a philosopher, theologian and a professional debater. He is a tough cookie. I’m not saying his arguments are correct, but he has a style that is easily underestimated. There are three main issues I find wrong with his arguments. His arguments are circular, his phraseology of the debate itself is purposefully opaque, and he shifts the burden of proof on his opponent by defining what his opponent must show. This usually amounts to proving a negative. In the argument with Sam Harris, WLC argument is as follows:

  • If God exists -> sound foundation for objective morality (ontologically speaking)
  • If God does not exist -> no sound foundation for objective morality (ontologically speaking)

The argument he makes tends to beg the question. He asserts that God is inherently good and his commands are therefore good and is the basis of objective morality (morality not by human opinion). He sets out to first say that he is not talking about God’s existence in the debate. While I find his logic to be tighter than most philosophers he is using a trick to force the opponent on a tangent. In an opaque way he is forcing his opponent to disprove divine command theory. Sam Harris argues the following (I apologize for butchering this):

  • If there exists a worst possible world then there exists a better possible world (one with less misery)
  • Through values we are able to make judgements.
  • We intuitively understand that morality entails a notion of well-being
  • We can increase or decrease our well-being
  • Science can help verify well-being
  • We can therefore create a moral landscape in which the well-being of all is maximized.
  • A maximized well-being would be an objective morality
  • More than one objective morality may exist depending on our initial axiomatic assumptions of values

One really needs to watch the debate because I’m not doing Harris justice. His explanations are very intuitive and simpler than I may have laid it out, but those are some of the major points. Of course, Craig just asserts his points and doesn’t acknowledge any problems with divine command theory despite acknowledging that the epistemological problem exists.He simply sidesteps the issue as if it doesn’t matter because it isn’t part of the debate.  Craig doesn’t show why a God is necessary for an objective morality to exists despite the Euthyphro Dilemma. He just asserts that God=Good and therefore his commands follow are good. I would recommend more on divine command theory here. Craig stresses that without an objective morality one can’t make any moral argument so one must accept that God exists which is so circular that my head is still spinning. He doesn’t seem willing or able to “see” how an objective morality can exist without God.

At the outset, Craig defines God as Omni-God (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent). One could posit a God that is “all-evil” and still have the argument flow that there is an objective morality. In other words, the ontology and epistemology of God are intertwined. If there is an objective morality and no one knows what it is then one is no better off than the “atheist.” Harris illustrates this point by using the Taliban as an example. The Taliban is wrong because they are worshiping the wrong God according to Craig. How can Craig possibly know which “God” is the right one without appealing to epistemology or personal opinion? The Omni-God concept is very vacuous and doesn’t point to any specific God. In light of Craig’s assertion that God is good, essentially by fiat or definition, he avoids defining what “good” is.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma lays this out rather well. If morality proceeds from God, then morality isn’t anything more than “might makes right.” If God refers to an objective morality, than objective morality exists without God. Craig argues for a blending of the two by claiming that by definition God’s commands are “good” because of God’s nature, so any morality will be objective and “good.” Of course, Craig refuses to define what is good simply because it will appeal to epistemology and ultimately to a might makes right philosophy and Harris does point this out with his analogy of the Taliban.

So, what do you think of the debate?


I understand the trick now. It boils down to this: Is WLC argument logically well formed: absolutely. This is no different than an if then statement in programming. In other words, WLC will compile. That said, not all if-then statements are created alike. If I make a statement like If x exists then x exists, I’m not exactly breaking any logical ground. By redefining God as essentially an objective morality; God’s nature is necessarily “good,” he forces the debater to evaluate the statement epistemologically. He then critiques his opponent for evaluating epistemologically by deflecting the criticism as “not the subject of today’s debate.” If this is deliberate on the part of WLC, this would be very disappointing. Harris alludes to the redefinition briefly, but should have nailed him pretty hard with this, since this amounts to using a something like a tautology or circular reasoning; something that is always true (i.e. it is always raining or not raining) or some type of self referencing (I’m not entirely sure which since it seems like a little of both).

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