Friday, November 15, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- The Great Debate, Part 2, Harris

Harris opens with the point that when one criticizes religion, one  receives a great many emails on the subject. He points out however, that the fear which most of these emails express to him is not that the writers are upset about his questioning the existence of God so much as they are upset with the idea that without God there is no objective basis for morality.

Harris then adds that he himself finds much to fear in the erosion of values in the attitudes of some. He points out that a woman who is a noted and respected ethicist, and who is actually working for the President in that capacity, does not see that there is anything wrong with the Taliban's brutality toward women. She says that you have to look at it in the context of their society. The attitudes the Taliban are expressing are traditional attitudes. Since they are culturally acceptable to many in that area, therefore they are perfectly moral.

Harris's objective test of morality which says that that which promotes the well being of intelligent species is moral and that which impedes that development is immortal clearly condemns this action. The species is not benefited when half of its members are denied an education. The species is not advanced when those who dare to attempt to gain an education are brutalized, mutilated, or even murdered. 

However, Craig's standards could allow for these actions as perfectly moral. Greg would say there immoral because his God says they are immoral. But the Taliban worships exactly the same God. Allah is just the Arabic word for God. Muslims worship the same God of Abraham who is worshiped by Christians.  Some of them, especially members of the Taliban, just disagree as to what that God says is moral.

I began my long journey in an attempt to find objective measures of morality which were always applicable without any question when I was exposed to the idea of moral relativism and morality as whatever your society says is moral back in 1970. I was taking a class in cultural anthropology. I didn't devote as much time to it as I should have, as I was spending more time at my fiancé's college than at my own. I did this so much that many people at her college thought I was an enrolled student. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the course and the professor. Except for one issue.

That was the issue of moral relativism. I was most upset when we were discussing discussing a tribe called the Dani in the Highlands of New Guinea. They were in a state of constant, endless war because they believed the ghosts of every dead person would not be happy until a person from the neighboring tribe was killed in retaliation. That meant that the neighboring tribe was now haunted by the new ghost until they killed someone in the first tribe in retaliation. And so on, and so on, and so on. 

Among their customs was the belief that you had to cut off one joint of one finger of the female relatives of a recently killed or deceased person. This resulted in little girls having no fingers whatsoever by the time they reached adolescence.

I found this disgusting and repulsive as did almost the entire class. The professor nevertheless defended this practice. He said that this was just their cultural way of mourning the dead. He said it was in fact neither better nor worse than our custom of bringing flowers to a gravesite. I disagreed then. I disagree now.

Bringing flowers to a grave can bring comfort to the living. It can be demonstrated to have a very positive effect upon individual human psychology and upon the human species as a whole.  Severely mutilating half of your population, on the other hand, is clearly not adaptive in evolutionary terms.

By Craig's definition of morality, if the Dani are correct in regard to what their gods demand, and of course they think they are, then what they are doing is totally moral. But, by the actually objective position of Harris, it is clearly not adaptive and is detrimental to the well-being of the individuals, the tribe, and the human species in general.

I never could find the simple, totally objective, universally applicable moral truth I sought. Morality is a difficult issue and is always a journey that we are taking. There is no ultimate single destination that is foreseeable at this time. Each issue must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but there are some good rules to apply in making that judgment. One of them is: that which is moral is that which advances the well-being of a sentient species.

Harris goes on with the interesting example of someone who believes that water isn't what science says it is because of a rather complex biblical argument. It's interesting but it's theoretical. I refer back to examples I mentioned in earlier posts which are not theoretical but factual.

There is a respected medical school, I believe it is in Cairo, Egypt, which was reported about 10 years ago to still be teaching that the human body had more bones than every other university in the world teaches. Their reason for teaching this was that the Koran says so. Since the Koran is never wrong, it is medical science which must be wrong. Even though they could look at a skeleton, count its  bones, and see that the Koran is wrong.

Also, some years back the LA Times reported on a highly trained, fully certified nuclear engineer. As I commented before not a Homer Simpson, but the real thing. He was capable of  designing and running nuclear power plants. That is to say, he was a real nuclear scientist. Nevertheless, he was excited because he decided he had solved all the energy problems of the world. All we have to do is capture a genie and it will provide no cost, pollution free energy for everyone.

How could he believe that? The Koran says there are genies and they have some sort of mystical power. Therefore it's true. Therefore we can do this.

Science flatly declares that both of those attitudes are wrong. And yet they are held by doctors, practitioners of medical science and by a fully trained and fully qualified nuclear physicist.  Why?  Because they refuse to face facts.

Although it's not so simply and clearly exact in it's factuality, scientific evolutionary morality, nevertheless, is illustrative. Religion carried to extremism allows some people to insist that counter factual things are true, must be true, cannot be questioned. But science says otherwise. Only science is truly objective, even though it sometimes has difficulty getting there.

Harris then makes the most telling and effective point of the entire debate on either side. If someone does not value proof or evidence, then what evidence can you offer them? He asks if people don't value logic, what logical argument what can you offer to them? The answer, of course, is nothing. And he is correct in his assessment that his opponent does not value these things. His opponent's arguments are all emotional.  Further, since he feels good about his emotions therefore his position is a literally unassailable as there is no way to disprove anything that he believes except by somehow changing his emotions.

Going back, Harris talks about a person wanting to experience suffering being used as an example of someone for whom morality is not determined by evolution. Clearly, such a person is doing something that is hurtful and self-destructive, so if he wants to do it, is it not then moral for him to do so? Let me add that medieval monks thought suffering was good. They practiced all manner of terrible cruelties upon their own bodies believing that this made God happy. Science would say damaging your body is not helpful or good for you. However, only say that God wants us to and these individuals act self destructively.  

So again we see the real dangers of believing that there is some absolute figure out there who knows all that is right and wrong. You can overrule reality. You can overrule facts. You can overrule all evidence to the contrary. Thus, believing that God is the absolute and final arbiter of morality is the exact opposite of objectivity. Is the exact opposite of any kind of stability. Given that, then whatever you think God wants is reality for you and may be totally different from the reality of every other human being on the planet. That is not objective.

He concludes by pointing out that it is very strange that people contend that we must take our most objective, our most fact-based, our most logical outlook in the world, that is to say the scientific one, and declare that it has no application to morality. That is objectivity is ruled out, eliminated, simply because it is, after all, nonemotional.

I have said very little about Harris's presentation because there is very little to say. Speaking as a debater, he makes his own points rather well, but does almost nothing to criticize or demolish his opponent's points. That is a serious failure in terms of debate.

Craig's rebuttal. 

He repeats his first two essential arguments upon which he bases everything he concludes thereafter. Disprove either one of these issues and his entire argument falls apart. This is the black swan argument. Remember that one?

So the very first thing he says that is that whether you believe in God or not, on a purely theoretical basis, if God exist that gives us an objective measure of morality. However, I believe I have demonstrated that this is patently false. I find it surprising that Harris did not address that particular issue which is essential to his opponent's arguments. I've made my point if God exists and if he is not merely a robot with no free will and no consciousness then he has free will and can change his mind. Which means that if God exists and if he is the fountain of all morality, then morality is utterly, completely, and totally subjective. There's no objectivity about it whatsoever, because God can change his mind.

Greg destroys everything he says thereafter. He himself admits that if this one statement is not true than all that follows is not true. Since that statement is patently false there's no need to waste any more time discussing the rest.

This is a great danger in absolutism. It sets up a structure in which every piece of the structure is totally dependent upon every other piece of the structure. Prove a single tiny bit of it wrong and everything falls apart.

Craig also declares that God is perfect, and holy, and loving, and gentle, and kind, and a list of other wonderful attributes. But he offers no proof of that either. What if God is vicious, hateful, mean, cruel, and nasty? Craig doesn't even consider that to be possibly true. There is no objectivity in any of his beliefs. They are all beliefs which satisfy him emotionally. And that's all they are.

He then goes on to make yet another error. He says this is about ontology. He simply asks where do my morals come from? His answer is God and God alone. But this ignores all the evolutionary developments which have occurred.  We are back to the 10 Commandments, and it can be argued that there is an evolutionary basis to each every single one of them. They aren't arbitrary rules, they fit our evolutionary history. Only Craig says they don't because he doesn't like that, so it can't be true because it doesn't feel good to him.  

Little girl, I really am having trouble with this. I hope what I did already was enough because this man irritates me so much. He then makes another bizarre claim that we can know the difference between good and evil throughout all of human history. Yeah, except even now we have many thousands of different ideas, millions of different ideas, possibly billions of different ideas about what actually is or is not moral.  We certainly had extremely different ideas about this in the past. None of this can be explained by Craig's beliefs, but he doesn't seem to notice that.

I'm sorry, but this man is anti-intellectual. He has a positive contempt for logic. He actively rejects all falsifiable evidence because it is falsifiable and he demands nothing less than the perfect, universal truth. He makes one argument, and one argument only, over and over again. This is what feels good to me, therefore it is.

Time to call it quits. I don't think the rebuttals are going to contribute much, certainly Craig is just already repeating all his old arguments as if repeating them makes them truer than simply saying them once.

1 comment:

  1. Another thought that I should have put in, Kid. Harris should have said, let's just assume for the moment that there is a perfectly moral God who knows perfect morality and for whatever reason will never, ever change his mind. That would be objective morality, but only in heaven. It still would not apply here on earth.

    Why not? Because every single human being has a different opinion about what God's perfect morality is. In other words, there's absolutely no way for that morality to ever be transmitted to us effectively. We will all just make up our own minds. And that is totally subjective.

    And just to be sure it goes on the record, I do believe in God. As you know I'm fond of saying I don't need to believe in him because I know him personally. And I know he is good and loving and kind and cares very much for all of us. But that does not change the fact that that's my opinion as compared to other peoples' opinions. I know that I cannot offer any objective proof of these things. I know them because I know God and I trust him. That is an emotional judgment, not an objectively, falsifiable, testable, hypothesis.