Good is not from God: Sam Harris and the Science of Morality

Two years ago, Sam Harris, who had recently published his book The Moral Landscape, debated William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher on the question of whether “good is from God.” Harris’s thesis must have seemed nonsensical, especially to the religious audience at Notre Dame: he wanted to prove that science can provide a basis for morality (in other words, establish a scientific “moral ontology”). Dr. Craig, on the other hand, contributed little to the discussion. His constant refrain, which I will get to later, could have been pre-recorded and played on a loop before a microphone for his share of the two hour debate.

Below is my own adaptation of Harris’s argument into a syllogism:

  1. Science answers questions about the causes and consequences of physical processes.
  2. Mental states in conscious creatures are expressions of lower-order, physical processes.
  3. Suffering and well being relate to the mental states of conscious creatures.
  4. Questions of morality concern the suffering and well being of conscious creatures.
  5. Ergo, science can answer moral questions.

I accept (1) as given. As for (2), one need only consider the physiological and psychological influence of various intoxicants. Receiving an extra boost of oxytocin (such as through a nasal spray, for instance), because of its chemistry and interaction with biological systems, translates into a state of love and trust, whereas ingesting, say, arsenic, because of its own unique chemistry, can be deadly. From this, (3) follows: suffering corresponds to a negative mental state (such as minutes after being poisoned with arsenic), and well being (such as after a shot of oxytocin) corresponds to a positive mental state. Point (4) also seems unassailable: as Sam Harris says, a world consisting only of rocks is, morally speaking, an utter vacuum, and if it was discovered that rocks do indeed experience pain, then our moral universe would adjust accordingly (and probably begin with one rather long and awkward apology). The last point (5) would thus be the conclusion: if suffering and well being do indeed correspond to mental states which are expressions of lower-order physical properties, then moral questions fall within the domain of science. Hence, we have Sam Harris’s completed scientific moral ontology.

On this basis, Harris claims we can speak, scientifically and objectively, about moral improvement. He asks us to imagine a state called “the worst possible misery for everyone.” This is a situation in which people are in a state of constant and insuperable pain, fear, and misery. Now, if we imagine a situation in which there is measurably less pain – maybe the torturers lay down their devices for a moment – we can say that there is, objectively, progress. The point of this exercise to preempt the criticism of someone like Dr. Craig, who will riposte that while we may feel that there has been moral progress, we cannot objectively say whether there really was moral improvement. Craig would ask, “on what basis is torture wrong under a scientific worldview?”

According to Dr. Craig, only God can provide a true moral foundation, and all other attempts to ground morality are manmade, subjective, emotive, and fallible. To defend his position, he first stipulates that goodness is an intrinsic quality of God, and thus that whatever God commands must also be good (a position called “divine command theory,” or DCT for short). However, is this not a classic example of tautology, begging the question, and circular reasoning? What good does it to do say that “God is good”? How does this pass as philosophic wisdom? And how does one penetrate this fortress of self-justification? Here is Craig’s argument, though I have slightly reworded it to reflect the terms of this particular debate (you can see the original at his website):

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. God exists.
3. Therefore, objective moral duties do exist.

However, both premises are mere assertions. The first is an unproven assumption: if Harris can lay out an objective moral schema, then it is possible to develop a naturalistic objective morality. The second premise is likewise unproven. Dr. Craig’s divine command theory means nothing if there is no divine authority to issue these commands in the first place. Conveniently for him, Dr. Craig steered clear of proving the latter during the debate, and he failed to convincingly argue the former.

Much of the frustration that Harris experienced derived from Craig’s unwillingness to step foot outside his tiny, circular fortress. When Harris questioned the practicality of divine command theory, wondering how one knows what kinds of actions the divinity deems to be good, Craig claimed he was sticking to the parameters of the debate. Answering questions like, “which God does one listen to?” or “how does one know what God has decreed?” he claimed, are questions of moral epistemology, not moral ontology. Again, how did Dr. Craig plan to spend the evening? How many different ways can he claim that “An objective morality cannot exist without a good God”? Well, in case you decide not to watch the debate, not many.

When Sam Harris chronicled the numerous atrocities ordered by Yahweh – from his introduction of barbaric parenting laws, including the death penalty for a child’s insubordination, to the genocide that Yahweh ordered for Canaanite tribes like the Amalekites – Craig’s reflexive retort was, “on what basis can you call these actions objectively wrong?” In a slightly different context, Harris said that to raise this kind of inquiry “is to hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.”

Still, some audience members were not satisfied. During the Q&A session, one student asked whether the “worst possible misery for everyone” is still not a subjective rather than an objective moral condition. Harris rightly pointed out that one can always play the epistemological or logical skeptic who is never satisfied and ask, “well how do you really know that 2+2=4?” He added that, at some point, every objective system has to “make a first move” and posit some foundational statement, even if the system cannot prove the validity of that initial axiom. (Indeed, this is one application of Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem).

Because I believe so much of the debate hangs on these meta-questions, I think it is important to explicitly confront the unproven (if not unprovable) assumptions of both sides. Sam Harris’s singular, unproven assertion is that the suffering of conscious creatures is bad.* That’s it. When Harris makes this claim, Dr. Craig decries it as an illicit “first move,” points out the absence of God in his argument and concludes that, without said God, there can be no objective morality. However, I think Harris is right here; as he puts it, every objective system must “step into the light” or “pull itself up by its bootstraps,” because otherwise, it is trapped in a Quinean loop of circular reasoning.

Which appropriately brings us to Dr. Craig, who clarifies nothing by assuming God’s existence and then making goodness one of his innate characteristics (it is not clear why this must be so). His generic theistic moral ontology does not have to step into the light and is content to whirl around the “God=good=objective=God=good” centrifuge ad infinitum. In addition to this tautological assumption, Craig offers no explanation as to how one can access God’s moral wisdom, which one might find especially difficult, since Craig’s God is said to exist outside space and time.

When Craig, safe from in-person ridicule as he is on his website, justifies moral atrocities that he assumes a priori to be good, he also reveals the necessary arbitrariness of moral claims issued by a flaky God whose evidence of existence is found in a very old book of very suspect authenticity and historical accuracy.

Israeli archaeology has conclusively shown that a vast majority of the significant events in the Bible are “invented traditions” from the seventh-century BC. Dr. Craig seems to believe that to point out this shoddy history is to negate the moral outrage over them; he writes,

In fact, ironically, many Old Testament critics are sceptical that the events of the conquest of Canaan ever occurred.  They take these stories to be part of the legends of the founding of  Israel, akin to the myths of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.  For such critics the problem of God’s issuing such a command evaporates.

Quite the contrary: Craig’s belief in the historical accuracy and moral wisdom of these tales proves that he is doubly wrong – as if “wrong” were a strong enough word here. To see this matter in greater relief, ask yourself, what university history or philosophy department would hire a faculty member who not only believed that aliens had assassinated JFK, but that this assassination was justified?

Another consequence of the tautology, of the equation of goodness to God and God to objectivity, is that it discounts phenomenological experience. DCT, in its monomaniacal transcendentalism, is fundamentally indifferent toward the texture, indeed the realness, of subjective experience. It is for this reason that one should not take too seriously the criticism that Harris’s naturalism is tinged with, accommodating of, or even grounded in the facticity of subjective experience.

To witness the absurdity of DCT and the theist’s common retort that God is necessary for objective moral truth, consider the following claim: “An objective SAT scoring rubric cannot exist without an omnipotent God.” One can imagine a skeptic with training from Dr. Craig approaching the College Board and saying, “I see you gave my two-sentence essay written in pidgin a 1 and that two-page, complex response with standard English diction and grammar a 6, but on what basis can you say that the latter essay is truly and objectively better? Are you not using human and thus subjective criteria to prop up your so-called objective score? Who’s to say that Standard English is better than pidgin, or that length, complexity, and coherence ought to be factors at all?” Would it not be absurd to reject these manmade and therefore “subjective” criteria because Dr. Craig insisted that his god (the one true god) speaks pidgin and really appreciates succinctness? Would anyone even consider taking these arguments seriously?

This analogy is especially apt because, while Dr. Craig did not make these kinds of absurd statements during his debate with Harris, he has, on numerous occasions, defended moral atrocities according to DCT. For instance, he dismisses the concern of people like Harris who point out a passage like Deut. 20:16-17, which reads

As for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.

Of course, Craig is dismissive of Harris’s moral outrage at how such passages could pass as evidence of God’s omnibenevolence. Why? Yup, you guessed it, (all together now!) because “on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong.”

However, it gets worse. When pressed on this particular matter, Craig claims that Yahweh’s orders, which “are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God,” were just, for they served as legitimate punishment of the Canaanites for hundreds of years of wickedness, and that their extirpation was the only way to clear the land for the Israelites’ settlement. Prepare yourself to see for whom Dr. Craig does reserve some sympathy:

God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.  The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

If this passage does not show the absurdity of DCT, then I don’t know what else might. Not only is the total annihilation of a tribe, including its innocent children justified (on the nonexistent evidence that such children enjoy an eternity of splendor), but mercy is reserved for the perpetrators of this slaughter. In the debate’s Q&A portion, Harris wisely equated Craig’s defense of God’s arbitrary commandments with a psychopathic child’s belief that punching a student in the face is acceptable if only a teacher allows it. Morally wise or normal people know that permission from an authority figure (especially such figures that claim to be infallible) to cause senseless harm is not justified, while psychopaths regard permission as license for such behavior. One wonders, on Craig’s view, what else morality deals with if not regard for the well being of ourselves and others.

So, to summarize. Craig’s generic argument in favor of divine command theory contains two major flaws. First, it assumes what it ought to prove – that God exists and that God is the only possible basis for an objective morality. Second, because of its reflexive self-justification of any of God’s arbitrary commands, it shows that Craig does not regard morality as concerning the welfare of conscious creatures. This weakness (flaw? or, as Harris puts it, psychopathy) reveals itself in his specific endorsement of a Judeo-Christianized version of DTC (not made in his debate with Harris), which confers legitimacy upon a command for genocide issued by an absent yet unchallengeable divinity. (Thus, in practice, one might say that theistic morality is just as – if not more arbitrary – than the “atheistic” or naturalistic morality for which Craig criticizes Harris.)

Harris’s succeeded not only because he showed the embarrassing tautology, impracticality, and arbitrariness of Craig’s theistic moral ontology, but he also laid out the most coherent case to date for the ability of science to weigh in on moral decisions and thus provide a naturalistic account of an objectively moral schema. It is a genuinely Copernican revolution.

* Central to many arguments against Harris’s naturalistic, science-based paradigm is the Humean notion that one cannot derive an “ought” (moral statements) from an “is” (statements of scientific fact). This may or may not be so, but, even if we assume that this distinction is valid, then all one has to grant is (1) that suffering is an objective phenomenon – even if it is “subjectively” objective (i.e. objectively true about a person’s experiences), and (2) unnecessarily causing such suffering is bad. In other words, if one accepts both propositions – the first being an “is” statement and the second being an “ought” statement, then the “is-ought” gap can be legitimately traversed.

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