Friday, April 8, 2011

Special Event: Sam Harris v. William Lane Craig

EDIT: Here's video of the debate, broken into 9 parts. Here's the official ND video, one long file.

Yeah, this is way outside the realm of what I usually do, but it was cool as shit and I couldn't help commenting on it.

Last night Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig at the University of Notre Dame on what the source of morality is. A friend of mine from ND told me they'd live-stream it over teh interwebs, so I was able to watch it remotely, and it was fucking sweet. I'm sure eventually they'll have video up on their YouTube channel; apparently this was the second in a series, and they have last year's debate up. I'll link it when it goes up, because you should definitely watch when you get a chance.

A Google search of the debate reveals how much a bro's predispositions influence his opinions on the outcome - several athiest blogs seem convinced that Harris crushed WLC, and Christian apologists are already bragging about their debate superstar chalking up another one.

Here's the deal: WLC wrecked Harris' shit.

Let me qualify that: I'm a trained debater, and from the perspective of a trained debater, this was a fucking bloodbath. WLC has a strict flow, he stuck to the proposition at hand (He constantly affirmed that objective morality must be based in God and can't exist without Him) and he easily and consistently dismissed arguments of Harris' that didn't matter to that proposition.

So when Harris trotted out the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized, WLC shrugged those off and went about laying waste to Harris' case like a machine. Yeah, if I'm a judge at a debate tournament, and these two get up and say exactly what was said last night, I'm signing a ballot for WLC and giving high speaks all around. I had never heard of WLC before, so I thought that Sam Harris was going to have no problem, but holy shit. Apparently the bro did debate in high school and in undergrad, and it shows.

Okay, here's my caveat: there's no real clear sense of what it means to win one of these things. Yeah, WLC did a better job of affirming the proposition at hand; but Sam Harris was a much more broadly compelling speaker. He was definitely funnier, and the audience just seemed more stirred by what he had to say. Is that closer to a win? Because really, what's at stake here? Google tells me that pretty much everyone knows that WLC is a fucking badass at debate, so it's not like reputation is the issue - national championships don't get handed out at this level, kids, sorry. So when Harris says something like, "It's odd that, when we have all our preconceptions out of the way, when we were dealing with the world as it is, assumptions stripped bare, that's precisely the time when we have nothing to say about the most important questions of humanity - wouldn't that be strange?" And then sits back down, the rippled whispers might be more important than WLC's rhetoric. It's hard to say.

I would imagine that at ND the audience is a pretty fucking sophisticated group of kids; everyone who goes there has to take philosophy and theology, even the engineers. So when Harris mentions the problem of evil, they all go, "Um, don't we have two bros with definitive solutions to that problem on our faculty?" (Maybe that's up for grabs, but they're definitely two of the most important solutions in the last century, and they're both at ND.) and aren't necessarily impressed. They've probably thought through every word WLC had to say three or four times over in their first two years of undergrad. So just because Harris really stirred them doesn't mean he had better points; maybe he just had newer points. 

Anyway, I'll post a link to the video when it goes up. It was a really interesting debate, even if there wasn't as much clash as I'd like. 


  1. What format debate did you do bro?

  2. Definitive solutions? Not so fast, there, bro. I'm not alone in suspecting that "free will" defenses/theodicies fail to solve the problem. According to the PhilPapers survey, only 13.7% of philosophers surveyed endorse libertarianism--and certainly some number of those who think otherwise don't think it's logically nor metaphysically possible and would rightly protest the conclusiveness of some argument based on it.

    Others have given careful responses to these "definitive solutions" of the problem; for a positive account (rather than a criticism of the defense), see Nathan Hanna's forthcoming article "Resurrecting the Logical Problem of Evil."

    A (former) Notre Dame graduate student in the department of philosophy has this to say about Plantinga's supposed "refutation" of the problem of evil:

    Can we leave the triumphalism to the Christian echo-chamber over at the Prosblogion blog?

  3. So, again, "maybe that's up for grabs" - my point is, I'd be willing to bet that ND students are probably not impressed by Sam Harris just mentioning the Problem of Evil.

    Those solutions aren't conclusive, and both links include criticisms right below the explanation. But they are pretty wide ranging and thorough, respectable attempts. And they both come from ND faculty that students at ND will be familiar with. If Harris wanted to win the Problem of Evil on Plantinga's home turf, he had to put in a lot more work.

  4. Would you please review this debate?

    "Yale philosopher Dr. Shelly Kagan defends the idea of morality without God in a debate with Dr. Craig that questions the basis of many views that are held today."

  5. WLC debated Christopher Hitchens in April 2009. Was released on DVD.

    "Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child." according to this review:

  6. Webmaster Bro,

    I found this site only when looking for reviews of the debate. You've nailed it bro! I listened to audio only last night and came away thinking craig had whooped up sam but good. For my second go-round, I watched the video; some of sam's humor seems more apparent - like when sam mentioned about someone's gammy getting her eczema cured and stuff.

    Think is though, sam is a philosopher, and should be able to tackle rigorous argument and debate. He seemed to just punt because all of his stories had been told before in prior debates.

    Anyway, thanks bro for your awesome sauce bro'ly review.

  7. It felt like the intellectual equivalent of WLC defeating Harris in a battle to the death when WLC had a paper sword and Harris had steel.

    WLC's points were the same old, same old weak stuff (why is God good? Because God's good!), but he delivered them eloquently and owned the debate entirely. Harris' points were new, interesting and I think pretty formidable, he just didn't use them as well as he could and therefore kind of fell on his face.

  8. Another Phil bro here. Craig laid the hammer down. The best thing he said all night was the point about ought implies can and Harris not having free will.That pretty much makes this game over.

  9. I don't understand how that makes it game over?

  10. Bro, glad to hear that you're a trained debater. But given your remarks about WLC wreaking Harris' shit and your attempt to defend that remark, it's clear to me that you desperately need some training at debate assessment and skills related to that, like listening and thinking. Either that or we watched two different debates.
    Sorry bro, but your shit stinks on this one. Wish I had time to add a proper defense of my remarks to you but I really don't see any point in that -- having watched and read many WLC debates with reputable philosophers, anyone who claims that WLC could, or has, wreaked anybody's shit, needs more help than I have time, energy or interest to provide.

  11. Woweee, that's to the people claiming that WLC did anything but win this debate. Come on!
    It could not be clearer that wlc demolished harris' arguments, showed up all of the red herrings he used and even had 3 knock down arguments against harris' position.
    if i need to remind you they were:
    (i) The ought from the is problem and the fallacy of equivocation. Harris smuggles in oughts from is statements using the fallacy of equivocation. (This distinction was made by David Hume, who himself was an atheist.)
    (ii) The 'knockdown argument' proving that Harris falsely attributes identity between the moral good on the one hand and well-being of conscious creatures on the other hand. If the identity does not hold for one possible world then it does not hold for any world.
    (iii) The ought implies can argument from Kant, who rejected every single argument for God's existence except for a slightly watered down version of the moral argument.

    And Harris provided no defence of his view from this three-pronged attack. His 1st speech was actually ok, but then after wlc's amazing rebuttal, harris sudddenly starting changing subject to the old testament, moral epistemology, problem of evil, the problem of many world religions, the fate of the unevangelized, miracles etc, which have nothing to do with the meta-ethical foundations for morality.
    So because we received no reply from Harris regarding the three major arguments, we can conclude that Harris' position was really shown up to be very weak indeed.

  12. I'll grant you that Harris didn't do much to defend his view from Craig, but... Craig didn't do anything to support his own view. If you added up the undefeated arguments for both sides at the end of the debate, Harris had zero and Craig had zero.

  13. Craig was whooped in the Q an A and seemed rather flustered in a few of his rebuttals, particularly his response "the less moral position is atheism!" which was just a big "no you!". Harris was cool through out.

    John Loftus pointed out something I thought made a lot of sense: If you're going for points like a debate judge at a high school competition, then Craig won, because he is actually a trained debater. If your looking at the bigger picture however, who laid down a more convincing case and who made better arguments, Harris won the day. Craig was begging the question throughout: God is good beause he is worthy of worship, and he is worthy of worship because he is good. It seems the ND audience thought so too, considering how many cynical questions were pitched at Craig, and how he blew off several of them. Craig even recognized this.
    It also seems common for people to confuse Harris' refusal to engage Craig on his own turf as an inability to respond to Craig's arguments. The key point here is that the debate is not Craig's to frame. Craig frequently said "This is a red herring, I am not going to respond to it," in regards to Harris' own points, but that wasn't the case at all. Harris' points were valid, and Craig avoided them because they were not part of the debate he wanted to have.
    That's what I got out of it anyway...

  14. I find that WLC lost because, at one point, his ears went red and his voice got shaky. I found he lost composure.
    SH presented his case calmly and didn't do the mistake of addressing WLC's rebuttals. What I saw from SH is that he didn't fall into WLC's bullshit web. I don't find it productive to even try to refute that kind of pseudo-thinking, since theologians and many philosophers are trained to weave tangled webs of deceptive language and pass it off as "deep, technical thought". SH got off higher, because his points were directly accessible to our human moral sensibilities. WLC was in the magical theology land of pseudo-logic and latin.

  15. WLC attacks SH by saying that he is simply redefining goodness, but it seems clear that he himself is open to the exact same attack, as is any divine command theorist. They only way such theories make sense is if you simply define good to mean obedience to God.

    In the end, this seems to be an argument about which conception of goodness is more intuitively plausible. I'm not sure how anyone can come down on the side of DCT.

    That said, WLC did make a cool argument when he showed that SH was making an identity claim that was simply false. Unfortunately, he quickly seems to switch to question begging and bold assertion by the time the second rebutal comes around.

    Perhaps my biggest problem is that WLC constantly argues "If X, then Y...", where Y is the subject in contention, but then refuses to address the argument "Obviously not X" in any way. That is "If God exists, then he must be the source of morality", followed by "Gods existence is not the point of this debate!" It became the point of the debate as soon as he assumed it as a premise!

    This is equivalent to my having an argument about whether there's a cup on the table. Someone says "If I just had a cup of coffee, then obviously there is a cup on the table." I respond with "But you just walked in the door this second!" to which he replies "That's not the point of the debate. We're not here to argue about my previous location! So, given that I did just have a cup of coffee, the cup is obviously on the table."

  16. I think WLC is confusing general and special revelation. Our morals are known to be theistic emanations becuase of a special text which is the voice of the creator, spelling out the deal, but christian scripture clearly specifies a chosen people, through covenants that obligate them only; the original covenant was restricted to the genetic line of Abraham,i.e., Israel and via new covenant in Christ, which if you take Calvin to be true, is predestined genetically.
    The chosen people are the only morally considerable agents in ethical calculus as salvation in eschatological terms is restricted to believers, i.e, Luther refutation of works-based salvation. hence the good person who is atheist literally gets the lake of fire at Final Judgement no matter their quality of their moral life.
    hence, only a covenant-holder can talk of theistic morality; how others figure morality is irrelevant because, being forsaken, they are not moral agents in that framework (though they are moral subject of love, love thy neighbour etc.).

  17. If you're interested in a critique of Craig's so-called "knock-down argument" against Harris, see:

  18. here is a question asked to Dr. Craig sometime after the debate, very enlightening and thoughtful.

  19. I don't understand why you need to "put in any work" against the free will defense.

    It reduces to "god is all powerful, except when it comes to things that matter, then he isn't, but he still is".

  20. My understanding is that the Jews who died in the Holocaust, as well as the SS men and capos who committed the murder and the entire Nazi apparatus, all end up in "Hell" anyway according to the bible. The book of Apocalypse is quite clear that people are judged on the basis of their faith, and their punishment is eternal and conscious, the victims are aware of their torment.
    Hence, Jewish victims go straight from death in the gas chamber / ovens to the horror of the Inferno, alongside Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann. Hence, I find it perplexing how one can talk of a universal moral imperative against the Holocaust, based on God, when apparently worse awaits the unregenerate.

  21. Anyone claiming that WLC won the debate obviously didn't watch it. WLC was shaking like a leaf (watch him squirming playing with his pen at the Q&A session at the end).

    Anyone reading this blog, check out the video, see it for yourself. Only someone completely delusional, who has no interest in seeking an objective truth would claim that WLC won.

  22. @10:40:

    Two things: first, WLC's physical composure has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the debate, so it's hardly a substantive objection.

    Second, i think he was shaking because he has Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, not because he was nervous. Its not really fair to hold that against him.

  23. Just watched this debate last night. I think it is clear that the term "debate" means different things to different people. For one looking for logic and sound arguments based on propositions, sure, WLC was much more on that game. But, to me it was very uninteresting to watch him give his arguments, and fail to discuss anything outside of those. It is like from the beginning he was saying "I won't discuss anything of substance." I won't even begin to say what I think about making a claim that "God is good" and then giving no real reason why anyone would think that is true except saying that he is the "greatest imaginable being." I mean, seriously, Harris did demolish him on this point. What God was he talking about? I can think of a million ways that this God who many claim created this world filled with suffering could be much more compassionate.

    Again, if one is looking at "debate" as a certain skill or way of discussing issues, sure, WLC understands those rules. But if one was looking for an enlightening discussion of how we view morality, Harris was much more interesting and engaging. I am not saying that I agree with Harris and his propensity for speaking his mind no matter who it may offend. But I have to say, that guy has a huge set of balls. Equating many Christian beliefs with the mind of a psychopath, wow, takes balls.