Interesting! Is there a second wave of interest in Sam Harris’s ideas on human morality?
Sure, many religious apologists really didn’t want to challenge these ideas until WL Craig had said his bit – preferably by way of a debate with Harris. And they got that debate a few days back. But that is hardly serious – they are reacting more like faithful fans at a boxing match. A common problem with debates. Even Craig appears to have a realistic understanding of his cheerleaders (although he attributes the phenomenon to “the free thought subculture” and not his own fans).
But I wonder if that debate might have initiated some rethinking by some of Sam’s original nonreligious critics. Here’s an interesting comment by PZ Myers in his blog post Harris v Craig. He admits to having felt “bugged” after his first reading of ’The Moral Landscape.’ Then adds:
“I kept trying to make, I think, a judgment based on whether we can declare an absolute morality based on rational, objective criteria. I was basically making the same sort of internal argument that William Lane Craig was making in his debate at Notre Dame, and it’s fundamentally wrong – it’s getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”
I think this is a very perceptive comment. It helps explain my disappointment with some of Sam’s non-religious critics who fell back on the mantra that “you can’t get an ought from an is.”
Obviously Sam Harris won’t have the full story but he has made an important contribution with his book. Important because he has refused to be taken in by that philosophical mantra. Also because he has mobilised a much-needed debate among philosophers, scientists and the nonreligious about morality. And particularly consideration of the problem of moral relativism.
But Myers is also raising the problem of how theology and religious philosophy has been able to influence even the nonreligious and create “misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”
So good for you PZ. You were able to recognise where you made a mistake. Perhaps the debate format has in this case actually had a positive effect. PZ says: “It was very helpful to see Harris’s views presented in contrast to a dogmatic fool like Craig, and suddenly it was clear where the truth lies.”
And thanks for helping the rest of us see an important problem. Theology and religious philosophy may currently have little influence in the natural sciences. (although they still motivate external attacks such as the legal attempts to impose the teaching of creation). But their dead hand still has an influence in areas like philosophy.
It’s important to recognise this and be aware when it sometimes affects even the nonreligious philosophers. Or scientists who accept some popular philosophical ideas uncritically.
See also: Foundations of human morality.