POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Hiding in semantics

I just recently finished watching a debate which recently took place between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether or atheism gives ground for “objective” moral values. Objective in the sense of moral values being true beyond the mere opinions, decisions, and consensus of humans and their societies. Craig’s classic example is that objective moral values would say that the holocaust was wrong even if the Nazi’s had won WWII and brainwashed every human to believe that it was right. Craig’s argument is that without God, moral values are not “objective” but rather subjective or relative. You can see Craig’s excellent paper on these matters here.

In other places, Craig presents an argument for belief in God from the existence of objective moral values which rolls out like this.

  • If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist
  • Objective moral values do exist (ie some things are objective good or evil)
  • Therefore God exists.

Those familiar with basic syllogistic logic and philosophical form who note that this is a valid deductive argument. It is deductive in that if you accept its premises as true the conclusion necessarily follows. The form is simply…

If P, then Q.
Not Q.
Therefore, not P

…with P = God does not exist and Q = objective moral values do not exist. It is of note that most atheistic thinkers do not believe that there are such things as objective moral values, but rather ethics/morality are simply evolved conventions of the human animal that suits the survival and propagation of the species. As such, many thinkers, have called “morality” a power game or an imposition of one group of people’s values upon others. Nietzsche called this herd morality and did not think brave and courageous atheists should be bound by any morality other than their own desires or will (and of course what you could get away with around the herd - or by simply ruling the herd). Enter Sam Harris.

Harris is a punchy atheist whose main strength is rhetorical ranting against Christian theology in front of people who have no background and understanding of those issues. He loves to create straw men and smack them down. He loves to make caricatures of faith and smear them with his calm, witty moral outrage. Harris’s recent work is a book which claims that morality is objective but needs no other foundation than science to show this to be the case.

Obviously, he does not like the theist grounding God’s existence in the reality of objective values so he is trying to take this away from the realm of theism. Of course, the reviews of Harris efforts from both atheists (who do not see ethics as objective, supra-cultural realities) and theists (who think Harris is dancing in mid air)

One of things noted in the debate with Bill Craig was Harris, by faith (or “axiomatically”) defining “good” and “evil” out of mid air with the only reference point being the suffering of sentient beings. Such “sentient suffering” is always bad and alleviating it and moving towards “flourishing” always “good.” To be honest, I find his moral reasoning to be rather sophomoric in nature and Craig rightly called him for just playing word games and not dealing at all with grounding “good” in anything but other terminology. Ironically, in the Q&A portion, Harris said this fascinating statement in reply to a question as to whether “this world” was the “worst possible world having the most sentient suffering.” Harris made the remark that since this is the only world we know of (to our current knowledge) it is both the worst and the best possible world and everything in between (I believe around the 1:11 mark). This of course is an exercise in saying nothing. Harris, due to atheism, is left trying to hang ideas such as “worst” and “best” on things in the world without having these things grounded in any sort of purpose for life, reason for our being, etc. He is trying to talk of values without talking about meaning. So he simply rubbishes Islam, Christianity and any other narratives that are not “I’m smart, scientific and don’t believe in all that dumb dumb stuff” while waving his hands, swapping synonyms to give definitions. From what I heard from him, Harris is hiding in semantics. It reminded me of GK Chesterton’s thoughts about the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, another confident atheist whose views were popularized a century ago. Chesterton wrote the following:

This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 7

Is not Harris doing the same thing with morality today? By saying the “good” is the most amount of flourishing (aka good) for people is he not merely hiding among his vocabulary? We still seem lost in Wittgenstein’s word games. Whereas Nietzsche lived prior to WWI, WWII, Cold War and the fears of the 20th century, Harris lives after them. The former was bold enough to declare morality irrelevant, relative and great men should transcend it by hiding in their words. The latter, thank the invisible God, seems to have a concern for the harmony of the world community and wants to declare morality “objective” but without foundations. I prefer Harris’s version of semantic hiding to that of Nietzsche but for one rejoinder. When reading them or hearing them you realize how extremely arrogant they are. Harris’s high opinion of his own thinking is something to behold and his utter disdain (and complete misunderstanding of) theological thought is revealing.

Harris may speak of tolerance and love except for the case of the billions of religious believers of various faiths. These are idiots and scorned. Even Jesus - even in Harris we have someone willing to call Abraham, Moses…and even Jesus an idiotic simpleton in comparison to the wonderful geniuses who live today.

Though Harris attempts to play nice in this debate, his condescension towards faith and religion is quite breathtaking. One can tell he has zero doubts that he is smarter (and seems to think - “better”) than any people of faith. Harris seems to revel in all his talk of our current superiority to all peoples, all religious thinking, all people who have lived in times before he arrived on the planet. Now we have confident, moral, do gooding, smart scientist people like Sam Harris who can show us the way. The funny thing is that similar things have been said in the past by others. It does not end well when such ideas end up power - either in the name of religion or irreligion. For in such men and their ideas, there is no humility.

Hence, even in light of the myriad of self proclaimed good men and super men of history, I still find Jesus a much more preferable master than the Messiahs of our age.