Monday, April 11, 2011

Harris vs Fraser in London

Sam Harris leads off with three reasons that people argue he is wrong about the (essentially utilitarian) nature of moral talk:

  1. At least some religions are true

  2. At least some religions are useful

  3. Atheism is unpleasant and corrupting

Harris rejects these contentions and goes on to present essentially the same opening statement as he did in his recent debate against W.L. Craig, making the case that the science of ethics is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize mental health, just as the science of medicine is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize physical health, and neither should be considered unscientific on account of the fact that both fields strive to maximize human well-being in an attempt to fulfill widely shared values.

Giles Fraser leads off with a bizarre and highly metaphysical critique of utilitarianism, bringing out the nasty old utility-monster from some dark corner of his mind. For some reason, Fraser considers this retort so effective that he doesn't really expound upon any other critique.

Harris and Fraser go back and forth on this a bit, and Harris basically concede that beings who are more richly capable of joy and suffering really should count for more than beings (e.g. cockroaches) who are less capable of such subjective experiences. I'm confused as to why Fraser thinks this is such a problem, unless he is suggesting that theism is basically the same as utility-monsterism. Perhaps this might yet be so, if the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu ever gets their way.

The debate goes downhill a bit from here, until Fraser and Harris get into it over the nature and utility of moral philosophy in general. On this point, Harris does three interesting things: he explains why he avoids the traditional modes of philosophical ethical talk, he clarifies that he does indeed consider himself a philosopher, and declares that he is willing to personally engage the traditional moral philosophers, even if he refuses to write books as they do.

Fraser's next serious challenge is about Harris' repeated use of the phrase "conscious creatures" but it falls fairly flat when Sam explains that he is simply making room for the possibilty of non-human suffering.

I've got to comment for just a second on the first question in the Q&A. This smarmy little bastard stands up and says "What is the scientific reason to care about the well being of conscious creatures?" I'm beginning to lean towards the notion that there is only one correct answer to this question, and it is to walk calmly over to the questioner, stop calmly just short of an arm's length away, and bitch-slap his ass into next week. After all, if he has the sheer cheek to seriously suggest that I should not be concerned about his subjective experience of suffering, why not just take him at his word? I've got to admit, though, that the answer given by Harris was more cogent and persuasive.

Overall, it was a good talk, but it was clear that Harris performs significantly better when up against a worthy opponent such as Craig than he does when facing, well, someone like Fraser.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Harris vs. Craig at Notre Dame

Last night I was well-filled with cheap pizza and pricey booze, and much like the Biblical character Boaz on the threshing floor, perhaps not in the best possible condition to make a dispassionate and rational assessment of the situation. With that caveat out of the way, I have to say that I thought Sam Harris pretty much held his own against William Lane Craig last night. I'll put up a more detailed review whenever I find an mp3 copy, but here are my first impressions for now.

Craig makes the argument that morality must be objective, not in the usual sense of the term, but rather in the sense of being universally binding upon all persons on account of what he calls a "Competent Authority" by which he means the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Here is the argument in deductive form:

1. Objective morality requires moral rules laid down by God.

2. Objective morality, in this sense, really does exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The argument is deductively valid, but both of the premises are evidently false. Craig's argument for the first premise is essentially that morality can only be understood as a set of rules laid down by an authority figure. He begs the question really hard here, but he does it with the flair of a showman and the conviction of a true believer. Craig's argument for the second premise relies on the audience not noticing when Craig makes the subtle shift from the almost universal moral outrage at the examples he provides to the idea the we cannot be properly outraged unless God is as well. Okay, well it doesn't sound at all subtle when I put it that way, but I promise he does is smoothly.

Harris, for his part, tries to make the case that we should not think of morality as binding rules handed down from above, but rather as a set of ideas derived from our best scientific understanding of how to bring about the flourishing (and avoid the suffering) of conscious and sentient creatures such as ourselves. He makes a strong analogy with the field of medicine and the idea of health versus illness. We assume that health is better for everyone, then we use science to derive ideas about how to get there, e.g. stop smoking, do your cardio, eat your vegetables, wear your rubbers, etc.

If you want a better sense of Harris' opening statement and basic arguments, you can have a look at this video or others like it, in which he stakes out his position and unpacks a sort of simplified utilitarianism for the 21st century.

During the rebuttals, I noticed that Craig retreated a bit further into philosopher mode, in which he seems to assume that everyone in the audience is taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy and can understand what he is saying even when he doesn't bother define his terms. Meanwhile, Harris stuck with plain language, powerful analogies, and memorable one liners. He also takes a direct shot or two at Catholicism at Notre Dame. He falls short just a bit, though, when he failed to make it perfectly clear that this debate ultimately consists of a sematical struggle over what it means to act morally. The entire debate can be summed up thusly:

WLC: Morality consists in following rules issued from above
SH: No, morality consists in helping people because we happen to like people.
WLC: No, no no, it is all about binding rules from a Competent Authority.
SH: There is no such Authority, and have your read those rules? They are God awful.

And so forth. Basically, it comes down to the question of whether we are morally motivated by fear of God or by the love of people, and I have trouble believing that anyone showed up to the debate truly agnostic on this issue, because one has to settle the question of whether any gods exist before you can really get on with the moral arguments. I agree with John Loftus that the best anyone can do against Craig is break even, but I have to give Sam Harris major props for very nearly doing so, especially on a topic like morality, where both our language and our intuitions are strongly biased towards a dualistic and theistic understanding.