Sunday, May 13, 2012

Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good From God?"

In 2011, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris debated evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic of morality and god entitled, “Is Good From God?” The debate, largely was an attempt by Dr. Craig to critique Dr. Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As you may know, I have a bone to pick with Dr. Craig regarding his attempts to rationalize the more troubling aspects of his Christian faith, and in the debate he offers several examples which I will criticize.

Dr. Craig opens the debate with his two primary contentions. First, that if god exists, he offers a sound foundation for the existence of objective morals and duties, and second, that if god does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral duties and values. Dr. Craig defines “objective” morality as being valid and binding, independently of human opinion. Both Dr. Craig and Dr. Harris assert the existence of objective morals and duties, and only disagree with what is its foundation. On my blog, I have written repeatedly about how I believe there is exists a certain core of values that are objectively true, and are not relative to anyone’s opinion. And I have argued against the idea that the existence of god is what these objective values are founded in. What I want to do is critique line by line, the objections that Dr. Craig makes against Dr. Harris’ argument that science can offer us a foundation for objective values.

Right off the bat in Dr. Craig’s opening remarks he asserts the ontological foundation for goodness:

11:20 On the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.

One of the problems I have with this statement is the fact that the greatest conceivable being is a highly subjective expression. For example, Muslims and Christians have distinct beliefs on the nature of god. Muslims disagree with Christians that god had to rest on the seventh day after he created the universe because resting is not a property of an omnipotent god. If a god who needs to rest is less great than a god who doesn’t, than it follows that the Muslim concept of god may be better than the Christian concept. So a greatest conceivable being to a Muslims, is different than that of a Christian. And what if a psychopath’s idea of the greatest conceivable being would be that of a sadistic dictator? Could the greatest conceivable being then an aggregation of all these diverse concepts by taking the best from each? God’s nature consists of many things and jealousy is one of them. He is also wrathful, and capricious. Are these the characteristics of greatness?

Dr Craig goes on further:

12:19 On a theistic view objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties, then, are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect his essential character.

Dr. Craig has said before that might does not make right. That is to say, it is not god’s power that makes his commandments objectively right. It is my view that even if god did exist, his commandments would not be the ontological foundation of objective morality, because god could command you to commit a heinous moral act, such as to kill your child, as he did to Abraham in the Old Testament. God’s commandments would simply be just his opinion, backed up by his tremendous power, but no more necessarily relevant to what is morally right or wrong than the opinion of a powerful dictator or king. Rather, I like Dr. Harris agree that it is nature itself that is the foundation for objective morality and I have two contentions in this defense:

(1) If the theist thinks objective moral values are grounded on the existence of god, he has to explain how moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different. Imagine if there were two identical universes with the same exact laws of physics existing side by side. In one universe an omniscient god exists, and in the other universe there is no god. In these two universes, moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would have the same exact affect towards living things and that of course includes human beings. Therefore, morality is founded in nature itself, in real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of moral actions hold the objective foundation.

(2) Morality only means anything when it affects conscious creatures like human beings, and the higher the level of consciousness, the greater the moral considerations toward that being. Thus, it is not necessarily ethical to consider the flourishing of bacteria and viruses, because they are not conscious beings. So with these two arguments, we can an objective foundation for morality.

God’s commandments are far from being consistent from his “holy and loving nature”. God commands slaves to obey their masters, and he allows the arranged marriage of underage girls to older men, which we consider illegal in the West today. Early in the debate, Dr. Craig agreed with Dr. Harris that female genital mutilation is objectively wrong. But what about male genital mutilation? Dr. Craig cannot condemn that because he knows it is commanded by his “loving” god. And so if god did command female genital mutilation, and he did for males, Dr. Craig would have no moral basis for counter argument, other than to say perhaps that that was a commandment from the Old Testament and that Jesus’ crucifixion nullifies that commandment. Or, he might say that god would never command such an atrocious act. But if his god can command slavery, and genocide, it seems consistent that he could have commanded female genital mutilation.

Dr. Craig then argues his second contention, that without god, there is no reason for objective moral duties and values

14:26 On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.

I don’t particularly mind the fact that we are all going to die individually and collectively. I think the idea that we will exist consciously for an eternity, whether in pleasure or pain, is a terrifying concept. I am willing to accept the inevitable annihilation of ourselves, the Earth, Sun, Milky Way Galaxy and Cosmos based on the evidence. I refuse to believe that we are all going to live in a fairytale theme park, or dungeon of pain, based on whether we believed in the right holy books during our lives.

14:42 On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being.

Our morality is indeed the byproduct of our socio-biological evolution. As I’ve said before, morality can only mean anything when it affects conscious beings. A universe devoid of all life, that just consisted of rocks, stars and gas, would likewise be devoid of any morality. And since morality only has implications when it affects conscious beings, it would logically conclude that the higher the level of consciousness for a being, the higher the level of moral consideration toward it. Therefore, since human beings posses the highest level of consciousness that we know of, that makes for an objective argument that human well being should have the highest ethical consideration.

17:20 If we were to rewind the film of human evolution and start anew, people with a very different set of moral values might well have evolved….For us to think that human beings are special and our morality is objectively true is to succumb to the temptation to species-ism, that is to say an unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species.

This is one of Dr. Craig’s classic moral arguments. His “species-ism” accusation is laughable. If we turned the clock back on evolution, people with a difference set of moral values would not have evolved because in order to get “people” or homo sapiens like us, they must have evolved in very specific circumstances. Any slight change in the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, and it would not have been us that they evolved into, it would have been another species. The objective moral values that I argue for are not relevant for other species’ treatment of one another. I obviously do not expect lions and baboons to treat one another with the same moral values as humans do to each other. And this is the cusp of my counter argument to Dr. Craig. The objective values we speak of, are only relevant when you have human beings. If there were no human beings in the world, animals would follow their own evolved morality, and our morality wouldn’t apply. Surely Dr. Craig doesn’t believe animals and insects should behave like us. Even if theism is true, gods commandments would only apply to human beings.

Now we get to heart of Dr. Craig’s criticism of Dr. Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape.

19:00 So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem? The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms. He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.[9] So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”[10] And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”[11] Why not? Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures. So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles! So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms. It’s nothing but wordplay.

The “wordplay” accusation at the heart of Dr. Craig’s critique is exactly what Dr. Craig does when he argues for the ontological grounding for the existence of moral values. He is simply just defining "god" as "good", while desperately trying to retroactively rationalize the biblical barbarism of god as being in the perfect order of omnibenevolence. Now if “good” in moral terms, is not that which maximizes the well being of creatures, than what is? What is Dr. Craig’s definition of good in moral terms? He argues that god’s commandments constitute our moral duties, and thus, any failure to adhere to those commandments would be the opposite of good. But that would mean that any recalcitrant slaves who disobeyed their masters, were morally wrong according to the Bible in Colossians 3:22, but their masters were morally good having slaves in the first place since slavery is sanctioned by god. If god's commandments determine right and wrong, then slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs would all be morally right when god commanded them (and he has). This turns morality into a joke.

On Dr. Craig's website he states that "Values have to do with whether something is good or bad...Good/bad has to do with something’s worth..." Dr. Craig has just defined "good" or "bad" to mean somethings worth and is using it in non-moral terms as well. A "good" tool is worth something to us: it's productive, useful, efficient or easy. This is not a moral use of the term good. 

I would actually disagree here slightly with Dr. Harris' definition of good as being that which supports the well-being of conscious creatures. Rather, I say a better definition of good and evil in moral terms would be that good morals are actions that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and evil morals are actions that intend to negatively affect conscious beings. This way good morals result in the flourishing of those beings, but good and evil are not to be confused with the flourishing itself.

And finally to anyone who's read scripture, it is so obvious that the god Dr. Craig speaks so fondly of, is not the source for our morality. Even if goodness is an essential property of god, then it is a property that can apply to other things, just like how being hot is an essential property of fire, but hot can exist and apply to other things in the absence of fire.

Now in his rebuttal of Dr. Harris’ opening statements, Dr. Craig offers what he thinks is a “knock down” argument of Dr. Harris’ moral landscape:

52:55 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.

Couldn’t there be a possible world where there is an evil god who also enjoys commanding his created subjects to behave in unrealistic ways, and who then enjoys punishing them when they fail to measure up? Dr. Craig says no. He maintains that goodness is an essential property of god, and that an evil god would be like a square circle: it would logically contradict itself. But why is goodness an essential property of god? As I’ve said before, if god is the greatest conceivable being, this is highly subjective to the being conceiving it. One could conceive of a god that is all-knowing, and all-powerful, but not all-loving. Dr. Craig for example in his debates with Muslims, hammers away at the Islamic concept of god because of his lack of love and compassion for those who are not Muslim. So Islam’s concept of god would not result in a world in which god is in essence the source of all love and goodness, according to Dr. Craig. And aside from the resurrection of Jesus, which Muslims and Christians disagree on, Dr. Craig offers no other evidence that the god of the Qur’an is a logical impossibility. That being said, Dr. Craig too suffers from the very same accusation that he is accusing Dr. Harris of. That is, that even under a theistic view, there is a possible world in which there could be an evil god, whose commandments would not necessarily be moral, or result in the well being of conscious creatures. This evil god’s commandments might reflect that of a sociopath, who obtains pleasure from punishing those who fail to meet them.

In defense of Dr. Harris, a moral landscape populated with peaks amounting to sociopathic ideals would not lead to the well being of conscious creatures. Here consequentialism comes into play. What matters here is not what the peaks of the moral landscape correspond to, but rather what the consequences of the morals that the peaks correspond to. Because sociopaths get pleasure from harming other beings, a moral framework consistent with their beliefs would not result in the well being of conscious creatures. Many creatures would suffer at the will of these sociopaths. And some sociopaths would suffer under the will of other sociopaths. So Dr. Craig’s “knock down” argument, falls flat on its face.

55:16 What about objective moral duties?.....Moral obligations or prohibitions arise in response to imperatives from a competent authority. For example, if a policeman tells you to pull over, then because of his authority, who he is, you are legally obligated to pull over. But if some random stranger tells you to pull over, you’re not legally obligated to do so. Now, in the absence of God, what authority is there to issue moral commands or prohibitions?

I don’t make a big deal about moral duties. It is true that under atheism there is no cosmic police officer, and there is no cosmic judge. If that is what you are looking for, then atheism is not for you. The difficulty with atheism is that morality epistemology becomes much harder than under theism. Theists can simply point to the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and say “that’s the source of morality”. Or, they can simply invent a god and define it as the source of all goodness and morality as Dr. Craig does, and it doesn’t require a lot of thinking. Atheists on the other hand have it much harder. Thousands of years of moral epistemology from the ancient Greeks, to the great enlightenment philosophers, to the thinkers of today, have contributed to a toolbox of moral framework. No one ethical philosophy is perfect, but together they complement their weaknesses. Philosophers are not moral authority figures; they are merely suggesting that their applied ethics be considered. And philosophers do not say that hell awaits those who disagree with them.

Dr. Craig made a big fuss over the conditional “if” that Dr. Harris made in his opening statements where he said “if we have a moral duty to do anything, it’s to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.” If by duty Dr. Craig means at the result of commandment of god, then yes, atheism offers no such authority. I will say that atheists do not have to rely on commandments in order to know and do what is morally right, and this might offer a slight edge over the theist.

When it comes to what we ought to do, I disagree with Dr. Craig iteration of David Hume’s is/ought distinction. The idea that we can never derive an ought from an is, is a false notion. If it turns out that something is a certain way, because we have new evidence about it that contradicts previously held assumptions, then of course we ought to reconsider our treatment towards it. For example, if we found out that a certain species of animal that we routinely cage and eat had much higher capacities for consciousness, emotion and pain then previously known, than we surely ought to reconsider our treatment of towards it. If a person accused of a crime was found to not be mentally competent to have known better to not commit the crime after being examined, then we ought not to hold him or her to the same level of responsibility as someone who is mentally competent. We can and do logically derive an ought from an is all the time, and it is actually necessary for our behavior to make rational sense.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Craig acknowledges the accusation of merely defining god as good, and responds to it:

1:26:29 God is a being worthy of worship. Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God. And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good. More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is, uh, the very paradigm of goodness itself.

But Dr. Craig has not shown how it is logically impossible for there to be a god, whose goodness was a contingent property and not an essential one. Sure, if you simply define god as essentially good then he must be good, just as I can define a car as being essentially blue, and so it cannot be red. But goodness, just as the color blue, is a contingent property, because it cannot be shown that it is logically impossible that there can be a greatest conceivable being whose moral perfection is not essential. The “greatest conceivable being”, is such a subjective statement as I have shown earlier. So here Dr. Craig is simply just asserting that his god is moral perfection, while his documented record (the Bible) shows otherwise. Dr. Craig’s god is simply not the god of the bible. If he exists, he is some other god, perhaps yet to be named.

In conclusion, I want to summarize my views towards theistic ethics while borrowing an analogy Dr. Harris used in The Moral Landscape. Looking at morality through the narrow scope of religion, would be like freezing forever all the moral beliefs you had when you were ten years old, so that when you grew older and more knowledgeable about the world around you, you still had to believe what was morally right and wrong as you did when you were ten. Sure, when you were ten, you might have had a few clever ideas on morality that may remain unchanged far into adulthood, but there were certainly moral beliefs and assumptions you held at age ten that you had to change as your intellectual growth forced you to when you grew older. Religions are philosophies frozen in dogma. They draw a line representing an absolute moral standard during the infancy of our intellectual and cultural growth, and they all reflect this by their barbaric and outdated beliefs and morals.

The analogy Dr. Harris proposes is by asking “what is good health?” It’s not a question as easy as you might think. Two hundred years ago good health meant living to the ripe of age of 40, and not dying from a disease shortly after being born. Today, good health means living to about 80 and be able bodied well into your 60s and 70s. And two hundred years from now, good health might mean living to age 150. So the ceiling on what is good health has no limit, because it can always get better. The same is true with morality. So what religions do is claim that “we have the best and final standard for morality, and no more progression is needed.” This is tantamount to a Doctor declaring two hundred years ago that good health means living to age 40, and asking us all to believe this forever as dogma. Of course such a statement today would be embarrassingly outdated; such is the morality of our man made religions created during the infancy of our intellectual growth.

Finally, I want to reiterate my rebuttals against Dr. Craig’s two contentions. He said that first, if god exists, he offers a sound foundation for the existence of objective morals and duties, and second, that if god does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral duties and values.

  1. If god exists, he offers simply another opinion backed up by tremendous power. The commandments that I have described in the Bible are not from a competent moral authority but rather, if true, would simply be from a very powerful authority. And even if there was a god whose commandments somehow were conducive to us all living the most fulfilling lives possible, the objective truth for his commandments must lie in the consequences of, or the virtue behind the intentions of their actions. What atheism does not having is a cosmic police officer standing there commanding you to not do something or punish you from doing it, and theists like Dr. Craig are hung up on this idea that without an authority figure, there is no right or wrong in the objective sense. As atheists all we can appeal to is the fact that certain behaviors and certain actions will result in the flourishing of conscious beings and others will not. That is the objective source for our moral truths; we don’t need a cosmic judge to have objective morality. 
  2. If god does not exist, our foundation for objective moral values are grounded in nature itself. Moral actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity positively benefit all beings affected by them, not just physically but emotionally as well. That’s why they're morally good. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how these moral values and actions would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different enough to render them subjective. Human beings can flourish best we live humanly and concentrate on finding cures for diseases and solving energy problems rather than spend time of warfare. All things being equal, in a godless universe the affects of morally good actions would be exactly the same. Therefore, these morals are naturally good in and of themselves and do not require the existence or the commands of a deity to make them objectively good.

I wish Dr. Harris made these points more in his rebuttals of Dr. Craig because too many opponents of Dr. Craig do not debate him in such a style as to be best effective  I will continue with the refutation of Dr. Craig’s logical attempts to smear atheism by showing that he is offering a worse alternative under the name of Christianity in the weeks and months to come.

Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Fine Tuning Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
God, Time & Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig
The Ontological Argument: Putting the Absurd Where it Belongs

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