Harris is right, I was wrong

Sam Harris blogs about his debate with Craig:

While I believe I answered (or preempted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands. You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.) Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing. He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set. If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr. Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5. It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarizes what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic. The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly. Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth. Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God. This was, after all, the argument that the organizer’s at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included. I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic. This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic. They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question. Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were. Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realize I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

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6 Comments.

  1. Well said. I have noticed Craig’s attempts to frame the debates in his favor, rather like the Mongol general luring his opponents into a trap by saying “here, lets fight on this open field where it will perfectly fair.” Then the enemy army marches into the trap and it’s all over. Good for Harris for not falling into it.

  2. Harris never ceases to amaze me with his laser-like focus and precise attacks.

    You mentioned in another blog that you thought Harris was a lot smarter than people give him credit for. I totally agree, and have never understood why some people, especially some atheists, continue to give him such a hard time. He has never done anything but impress me, especially with his clarity.

  3. Thanks for admitting you were mistaken. And I agree with your last bit that it still would have been nice if Harris would have engaged Craig’s terrain just a bit more.

  4. I think I’d feel a lot better about Harris’ performance during the debate if he’d actually said the above at any point during his rebuttals.