Harris vs. Craig: live online tonight

April 7, 2011 • 2:09 pm

Reader Heber Gurrola has reminded us that tonight’s debate at Notre Dame between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig will be livestreamed here, starting at 7 p.m. EST.

The topic is “Is Good from God?”, and here’s Notre Dame’s blurb on the debate:

Who is Sam Harris? Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism”, a neuroscientist, philosopher, and bestselling author, will seek to show that the separation between scientific facts and human values is an illusion. Harris will prove that science, not religion, should provide the basis for morality.

Who is William Lane Craig? William Lane Craig is an American Evangelical Christian apologist, theologian, and analytic philosopher known for his work in the philosophy of religion, historical Jesus studies, and the philosophy of time. One of the foremost apologists in the field, Craig has faced some of the best and has been known to hold nothing back in his sharpshooting style of debate. Point by point, Craig will show that morality must be based upon the bedrock foundation of divine revelation, defending the vital role of religion in our modern times.

73 thoughts on “Harris vs. Craig: live online tonight

  1. The Squidmeister posted a notification about this one, too, and I’m afraid I must concur with the tenor of the comments there.

    Sam is marvelous, but Craig’s forte is sophistry targeted specifically to his opponent’s weaknesses.

    Expect lots of pseudoscientific blather from Craig that Harris isn’t credentialed to authoritatively correct.

    Dawkins’s refusal to lend his credibility to such as Craig is, I think, the best tack.



  2. “Expect lots of pseudoscientific blather from Craig that Harris isn’t credentialed to authoritatively correct.”

    If anything, Harris, being a neuroscientist, is much better credentialed to speak -not only on the side of science- but indeed about science, than Craig.

    1. …except, of course, that Craig won’t be going near neurophysiology with a ten-foot pole. Instead, he’ll go for cosmology and quantum woo. He seems to be on a recent kick on Bayesian statistics, too. I’m sure Sam is as well versed in basic statistics as any PhD, but I don’t think he’s ever specialized in it.

      All of Sam’s brilliance as a neuroscientist won’t help him explain in a detailed-yet-engaging manner accessible to laity why there’s actually a range of possible values for α that would permit life-as-we-know-it to develop in the universe.

      …which is why you wouldn’t expect Craig to mention cosmological fine-tuning in a debate with Lawrence Krauss — for Krauss, he’d start pulling out the Chopra-style quantum consciousness woo that he’ll avoid like the Plague with Harris tonigh.



      1. Yes, my point exactly.

        Craig is a master at controlling debates by placing them on a footing that is exactly and precisely the opposite of the stated topic — if that topic involves the opponent’s expertise.

        I too expect a ton of Bayes and quantum and the precise components of the universal constants — and other such nonsense.

        A god that defines objective morality (whatever the hell that means) AND allows humans “free well” (ditto) is a contradictory mass of contradictions.

        I suspect Craig will run as fast as possible in the other way … and Harris will let him. Because Harris has some basic decency and honesty, and Craig has none.

      2. The basic thing of course is if everything had to be created, then who/what created god, and what is the evidence for this? Why is god exempt from the “must be created” mantra? Indeed, what is the evidence for the existence of any deity? Comsmological hogwash doesn’t even come into the picture.

        Now I wonder what Craig has to say about the “historical Jesus” – if he’s any damned good he would say there’s no evidence for his existence and indeed there is plenty evidence against the claim of his existence.

        1. Craig would explain that God is exempt because of the first premise of the Kalam argument: things which being to exist have a cause. Since God has always existed, he’s exempt!

          The old-fashioned cosmological argument has the exact problem you describe – it’s special pleading to say everything must have a cause, but then exempt God from your own requirement. The Kalam version of the argument gets around that, by building the special pleading right into the first premise.

          My own attack on that first premise is: what things that we know of “begin to exist”? Only two that I can think of: subatomic particles, and the universe itself. A painting, for example, doesn’t begin to exist – it’s just a rearrangement of stuff that already existed. So out of the things that actually begin to exist, we know for sure that subatomic particles coming into existence have no cause. The universe itself, we don’t know (yet). So what does he base that first premise on again? He’s proved false right out of the gate.

          1. Which “begin to exist“?

            But “things which being to exist” sounds woonderful! (And the italics give it so much deepity!)

  3. One also have to love the ingratiating panegyrics ornamenting Craig’s description as opposed to the more concise and less adulatory qualifications attributed to Harris. The table has been tilted from the get-go.

    1. Bleah. One would think, though, that Harris could easily skewer “the bedrock foundation of divine revelation,” if Craig indeed goes there…

  4. I hope for 2 things.

    1: Mr Harris has seen Krauss’s statement regarding his debate with WLC and intends to fight with gloves off.
    2: A replay will be available 🙂

  5. I hope that Harris, rather than try to “prove that science, not religion, should provide the basis for morality”, will instead focus on why morality need not be, and in fact is not, “based upon the bedrock foundation of divine revelation”.

    In other words, instead of trying to prove the thesis of his latest book (which takes a lot of background explanation), I’m hoping that he simply points out how ridiculous it is to maintain that morality comes from religion. If he takes the latter approach, I’m sure he’ll wipe the floor with WLC.

  6. I love listening to brilliant people like Harris and Krauss, but why include an unsavory Craig, whose only purpose seems to be to use the light emitted from the brilliance of people like Harris and Krauss to illuminate a path for his energy sucking dark body of spewing misinformation?

  7. Considering the title of the debate, Sam could point out Craig’s absurd take on God ordering the Israelites to commit genocide:

    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.

    No one was wringing his hands over the soldiers’ having to kill the Canaanites; those who did so were national heroes.

    Robert Price has great response to it (http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/robert-m-price-reads-my-question-hilarity-ensues/).

    1. In his latest podcast Dr Price suggests that April 1st should be the great atheist holiday where we all celebrate god renegging on all his promises! LOL.

  8. I’d rather hear a talk by Sam Harris than another of these dreadful debates where the Other Side just makes stuff up secure in the knowledge that there target audience knows no better and won’t really care.

    Still, when it comes out on Youtube I can skip the bits with the blathering in.

    Even under the best conditions debates are a poor way of discussing an issue. I much prefer a conversation between two speakers, such as the unedited & unmoderated style that Richard Dawkins has tried, very successfully in my opinion.

  9. OMG, are other people listening to this? Craig just made the ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT–not to prove God exists, but to prove God is good. Because, you know, any being worthy of worship has to be good, and God is worthy of worship, so he has to be good.


        1. this debate was frustrating in that, craig accuses harris of moral semantics multiple times. then, as if he himself is excused as such, engages in exactly that as well as providing no real proof that religion/god is most decidedly the only foundation of morality available/possible. proof, yet again, that religious mega-mouths cannot see beyond their own faulty reasoning.

          this is the first i’ve ever heard of craig (late to the game, i know) but, his strength seems to be condescension, not logical coherency. it’s a shame, too, as harris is, while admitting he’s no diplomat, is pretty respectful in his opposing arguments.

          all the same, the Q&A was great, the second question (the girl), seemed to really tear apart craig’s light analogy.

  10. I don’t have time to listen to the debate tonight, but I’m sure that Sam Harris will be utterly annihilated by Craig. I feel like I’m the only atheist on the fucking planet that realizes that Craig is not such a good debater just because he is an excellent rhetoritician (which he is!), but also because HE LITERALLY KNOWS ALL THE ARGUMENTS BETTER THAN PROBABLY ANYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET.

    A friend of mine (actually the only other atheist who acknowledges Craig’s amazing skills) said that it’s like Craig has the first 10 moves of a chess game memorized and his opponent only has the first move memorized—Craig knows the top objections to all of his arguments and knows exactly how to counter them, while his opponents just come in blindly. Even his most skilled opponents only seem to know the first two moves, leaving Craig a substantial advantage.

    1. Nope, Sam was not annihilated–not at all. The debate stayed on the ground of ethics, and Sam did fine. I stopped listening after a while because the sound was so low that I had to hold my laptop up to my head, but Craig was holding no advantage, and of course his arguments that all morality comes from a good God didn’t resonate with me–though they might have done so to the audience.

      1. Yeah, I can’t hear a bloody thing. I’ll have to watch it some other day — with headphones.

      2. The sound volume was very low and it came out the left channel only. I was listening using only my right earpiece for a while and wondering why there was no audio! Doubt I missed anything, as it was WLC’s opening statement.

        Also, Josh’s prediction was wrong. Harris wiped the floor with WLC unless a person is fond of circular arguments and begging the question (assuming the proposition is proven implicitly or explicitly in the premise).


      Let’s not confuse making the same transparently cheesy arguments over and over again, completely disregarding multiple opponents’ pwnages over the years, stating over and over ad nauseam that atheists have no basis for morality when Harris gave him basis for morality a zillion fraking times, and playing cheap debating pretend gotchas that don’t freaking matter like a nanny-nanny boo-boo–let’s not confuse all of that with knowing arguments better than everyone else. We might just as well say a stopped clock knows its arguments better than everybody else.

      1. The Courtier’s Clock Reply: A stopped clock knows what time it is way better than all of the other clocks in the world all put together. Lol.

    3. If his arguments are so convincing, and you’ve never seen anyone counter them effectively, why are you still an atheist?

    1. Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa. [William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 36.]

  11. Sam Harris was pretty damn good, alright. His portions really make you think, unlike WLC’s tautological insistence that good is God because God is good.

    WLC relies on the weakest possible grounding for objective morality – Divine Command theory. If God were to command repugnant acts (murder of innocents for no purpose) or even neutral acts (one must always tie one’s left shoe first) – we oughta reject the moral authority of such a God. Acts must be moral or immoral for some reason independent of divine commands. This is maybe half an hour of an introductory ethics lecture before we move on to challenging topics!

    1. I entirely agree with you. When I first read a certain passage in the bible when I was about 10 years old I realised what an atheist is, and I knew that I was one. Our priest didn’t read it to us. I just happened to find it as I was bored in church one day. Even though I was only a kid, I knew this was just plain wrong, because this deity is advocating genocide.

      It is one of the few passages in the bible that I can still recall myself reading it. It is Deuteronomy 25:17-19
      Remember what the Amalekites did to you as you were coming from Egypt. They had not fear of God, and so they attacked you from the rear when you were tired and exhausted, and killed all who were straggling behind. So then, when the Lord your God has given you the land and made you safe from all your enemies who live around you, be sure to kill all the Amalekites, so that no one will remember them any longer. Do not forget!

      To make it clear, I realised even at that young age that this is a deity that is advocating the extermination of an entire nation in retaliation for what some of them did. It is my favourite passage, not because it is nice, but because it provided to me the clarity of thought and belief that I was seeking. I realised that this god does not have any moral authority. I just knew that a loving and kind god that everyone was talking about would not do this, so I knew I wanted no part in this obscene fiction any longer. As a consequence it changed me in a profound way all those years ago, so it is still burned into my memory.

    2. If God were to command repugnant acts (murder of innocents for no purpose) or even neutral acts (one must always tie one’s left shoe first) – we oughta reject the moral authority of such a God.

      Well, QED then! We oughta! Half the Babble is God commanding something either repugnant or inane.

      Sound’s like a Craig own goal.

  12. Just finished listening to the debate, and there was one point that really annoyed me that it was not addressed, WLC argued:
    If god exists, then we have an objective basis for morality.
    If god does not exist then we do not have an objective morality, therefore morality does not exist.

    Of course this argument is for saying that god must exist, or we would not want to suffer the consequences. Consequentialism is not a good reason for having an unfounded assumption.

    I would have preferred a response to this argument that was reframed from an atheist point of view. A better response is that we know morality exists, and because god doesn’t exist* morality must be intrinsic in how conscious creatures think. Easy peasy. I think that is what Sam Harris is getting at in his book.

    * no evidence for god = no god.

    1. Why would God care about morality? God could probably care less about how humans treat each other, hell we might not even be part of his plan for this universe at all, but just a side effect.

      1. Yeah, I see your point. One idea is that god actually is trying to experiment with entropy, and we are just a by-product of that. God may be interested to observe just what can happen when you have a few laws of physics and enormous amounts of time.

    2. A better response, in my view, is that we don’t need an objective basis for morality, we merely need a consensus.

      1. So if all Germans agreed that wiping out the Jews was a neat idea, that would make the Holocaust moral.

        1. Piero,

          I think about six million German Jews might vote otherwise, joined by countless more Jews and rational non-Jewish minds around the world, ruining your hypothetical consensus. Your example, then, is broken.

          1. No, it is not. What you are defending is the oppression of minorities by the majority, even if we assume (and it is certainly an unwarranted assumption) that the majority will be composed of rational minds.

          2. I don’t see anything in my or Greg’s statements that advocates the oppression of minorities. He said “consensus” (virtually everyone), not “popular opinion” (51% of the people). And I pointed out that your hypothetical example would not even get a consensus.

            Besides, since when have people needed to get a consensus before oppressing anyone? They just need their leadership to rationalize the oppression, often using religion as an excuse. American Slavery did not have the support of the majority of Americans (or even the majority of free white male Americans), yet it was allowed to continue due to an abuse of our then-flawed system of Congress, which allowed the less-populated Southern states extra votes on behalf of 3/5 of their slaves.

            In any case, I don’t think a consensus is required, just a solid foundation in human empathy: recognize the humanity of everyone, and don’t cause human suffering with your own actions or inactions.

          3. I’m sorry, but I fail to see whay point you are trying to make. Greg said “…we don’t need an objective basis for morality, we merely need a consensus.” I challeged that, and you disagreed. Now you say “In any case, I don’t think a consensus is required, just a solid foundation in human empathy.” So you agree with me, but somehow disagree as well. Can you please state your position clearly?

          4. Sorry fot the typo. It should be “what”, not “whay”.

            Also, I forgot to mention: when is consensus consensual? 60%? 70%? 80%? 99.9%?

  13. William Lane Craig debates like a sophomore nanny-nanny boo-boo. He pretends throughout like he “gotchas” opponents with stupid archaic debating rules that nobody gives a crap about. People watch debates for the meat and potatoes, not for the runny old cheese sauce.

    1. In the last two debates, Craig got to go first. Obviously getting mired down into his outline is a mistake (as Krouse demonstrated). Sam’s approach was better. Craig, the debate robot malfunctions if you don’t go down his outline.

  14. I saw the debate live and was a very pleased atheist. Sam laid out his basis for objective morality in his book which is pertaining to the well-being of conscious entities and wasn’t required to respond to Craig’s list which stems from the proposed existence of invisible people with magic powers that live in another dimension somehow and never communicate such as demons, angels and gods. I would have ignored Craig’s list too. He may as well have been talking about Yoda who’s pronouncements are the basis of all morality.

  15. Ah, Harris “will prove” while Craig “will show”.

    I wonder what “analytic philosopher” or “philosophy of time” are. I guess I must be theologically ‘unsophisticated’. None of the timekeepers I’ve met over the past 20 years ever mentioned a ‘philosophy of time’. Maybe it’s a cabal secret …

    1. No, you are not theologically unsophisticated, you are not brainwashed with Medieval concepts like Craig is. And it is useless to argue with brainwashed people. There is a theory that says that beliefs that you still hold at age 18 are very difficult to get rid of, and religions know this and brainwash children at an early age.

      This is why loosing your faith is often so traumatic for older people.

  16. Why is the supposed fine tuning of the universe an argument for the existence of God? If things were otherwise we wouldn’t exist, of course, but this only implies God if we also assume that God wants us to exist. Why, apart from scripture, must we suppose this?

    It boils down to “we exist, therefore God exists”, which is too nakedly narcissistic to be taken seriously.

  17. I missed it (South Africa, connection not the greatest, buffering makes for a painful listen). From what I have heard Harris made Craig look, well like Craig, but does anybody have the results?

  18. I’ll catch up with the debate later. But I do think “it takes a thief to catch a thief” applies in cases like this.

    In particular, scientists who “play by the rules” (try to explain their points fairly and coherently, don’t use rhetorical tricks, don’t hide from complexities, …) tend to do rather badly in this kind of format.

    I suspect those with a strong philosophy background (like Harris) might fare better. Especially if they’re experience debaters.

    I’m just sorry J. Mackie’s not around to flay WLC. His absolute classic book “The Miracle of Theism” trashes the WLC’s Kalaam idea in a single page.

    1. I should have said that Mackie’s book only does this after a very careful analysis of the ontological and cosmological arguments, in which he is (in his usual way) exceedingly generous in conceeding points in favour of the argument, but still shows their irreperable flaws. With this hard work done WLC is easy meat. But undoing the slipperly logical of the ontological argument, and the superficial plausibility of the cosmological argument (as well as removing the “blind ’em with science” factor of modern variations) take a careful analysis. Even so, it’s a lot easier to read than Kant!

  19. Harris simply outshone Craig in the debate. Craig’s oft ploy of itemizing what he believes are the principal points of the debate, in his efforts to corral the opposing speaker to debate on his [Craig’s] terms did not work. Harris saw through that trick and was steadfast in not allowing to be deflected from the debate as he was going to deliver. By the second rebuttal period Craig was shaken, and began repeating already made points, and mewling that Harris had not even bothered to address his [Craig’s] points. Needless to say, Harris was right not to because the points were a deliberate construal to get Harris to respond to Craig’s agenda, and drumbeat.
    Craig’s ire and discomfort was clearly visible during the final Q&A session on two occasions, once when he kept repeating that the question had misunderstood his black/white analogy, and when the gay christian revealed god had said homosex was a beautiful as heterosex. Craig was most unimpressed.
    Needles to say, Harris acquitted himself well against the verbose blather of Craig.

  20. Well, I have to say that I appear to have been wrong about Harris and the outcome of this event.

    I’m more-than happy to be proved wrong.

  21. Not seen the debate, but read through all thecomments. One point I saw Prof. Myers make a couple of weeks ago (I think) that I have not seen here is this : Craig and other Christians tend to mistake morality for obedience. Obeying what someone (or something) tells you to do is not the same thing as being moral. Morality comes from a shared consensus of what is right and wrong, what is fair/unfair. i think this is a pretty good way of thinking about the major difference of opinion of morality *is*. Morality is not obedience. Wish I could find the post that I think Prof. Myers put together.

  22. I didn’t get anything out of this debate because of the poor audio & my ignorance of the meaning of some of the terminology used

    I will give it another listen when I have earphone, but to get me kick started can someone define “Objective Morality” for me ?

    I heard WLC say it more than once & SH didn’t comment on it so I assume it’s an accepted, well understood expression ? I have a feeling it’s the difference between relative & absolute morality & Objective Morality is just code for Absolute Morality

    1. I took “objective morality” to mean a form of morality that doesn’t change based on cultural tradition and personal opinions.

      WLC attempted to define the term more specifically as a series of binding rules that are independent of human thought (not his exact phrasing). Harris seems to call it objective in the sense that morals can be objectively measured in their ability to promote human physical and mental wellness.

      I think that the core difference is that WLC views morality as a series of divine laws we must obey and Harris views it as ethical questions we must answer using the value of human wellness as our guide.

      1. Thanks Richard

        I will have to away now & read SH re “human wellness”. I’m uneasy about the whole idea because I can’t see how a definition of wellness can be arrived at & how would one determine which measures are most important ? It all seems rather woolly.

        I wasn’t impressed by SH’s performance ~ he failed to address much of what WLC said. I expected SH to shred WLC, but it didn’t happen (though I couldn’t hear everything). SH could do with some zest, some passion in his delivery

        Actually the debate was thoroughly boring, but that could be me…

        1. Sam Harris isn’t the shredding type. He instead focused on defending his view that morality does not originate from a god. Part of that was to present Sam’s own case for sectarian morality, and part was to show that religious views are anything but objective. That may lead to a boring debate, but it’s a classy one.

          I can agree with you that “objective” here is a slippery definition, and that it’s hard to objectively measure human well-being. But that’s really a matter of semantics. We know what suffering is, we have empathy for what people go through, and we know what actions promote and reduce human suffering.

          Keep in mind most of the attacking and dodging was done by Craig, who failed to back up any of his views or really address Harris’s points other than to deny he ever made any. Craig spent nearly his entire opening statement talking about or attacking Harris’s book, while limiting his own argument to two short slides: that morality must come from God because if there isn’t a god there isn’t morality, and that God’s morality is to first love God and second to love your neighbor. He did not back up either of those statements. He even attempted to explain that he’s not here to argue if there is a God (thereby dodging that entire issue), only that without God there’s no morality. The entire rest of his twenty-minute opening was spent on Sam, Sam, and more Sam.

          It might be more fun to watch a cage match between Craig and Hitchens, but that’s not what this was.

          1. I wholeheartedly agree, Richard C. I did not find the debate boring at all: on the contrary, it was extremely illuminating to watch a coherent set of ideas politely shred the shallow complacency of thoughtless belief.

          2. I recently realized the flaw with the whole love thy neighbor/do onto others as you would have them do onto you/golden rule ethic. It is entirely dependent on the definition of others/neighbors. Unless you class all humanity as being equals/neighbors/others then it is possible to hold fast to the golden rule while simultaneously carrying out genocide or slavery – for the simple reason that those you oppress/enslave/massacre are not considered equals.
            For instance the Exodus accound of the Israelits escaping from slavery in Egypt mentions that the took their own slaves with them as they fled. Whats more the narrative has been used as a means of pointing out the morality of ending African American slavery in the southern US states. However if the southern states had managed to break away then the same story could have applied to them, excaping from the tyranical northern rulers!

          3. That’s the real difficulty. Golden rule etc sound great… In discussions between like minded people. But how far does it extend. In practice we all know religion is about in-group cohesion and out-group isolation.

            Should these rules (‘thy neighbour’) include other Jews? Men? All humans? Other primates? All mammals? Analysed like this it loses most of it’s utility.

            And that’s how religions manage crusades, slavery, witch trials, genocide etc. They convince themselves their target is not ‘as human’ or ‘chosen’ or counted as ‘neighbour’ – which permits all.

            There’s an argument Jesus was referring to Jews only in his discourse. He was after all pretty intolerant of the caananite woman etc. Didn’t have much to say about slavery… Not such a nice rule when you’re on the outside!

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