Reading Rosenberg, Part I

I called attention in an earlier post to my review in First Things of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Here I begin a series of posts devoted to examining Rosenberg’s book in more detail than I had space for in the review.  The book is worthy of such attention because Rosenberg sees more clearly than any other prominent atheist just how extreme are the implications of the scientism on which modern atheists tend to base their position.  Indeed, it is amazing how similar his conclusions are to those I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition.  The difference is that whereas I claim that these consequences constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that lead to them, Rosenberg regards them as “pretty obvious” and “totally unavoidable” truths about an admittedly “rough reality,” which atheists should embrace despite its roughness.  How rough is it?  Writes Rosenberg:

Science -- especially physics and biology -- reveals that reality is completely different from what most people think.  It’s not just different from what credulous religious believers think.  Science reveals that reality is stranger than even many atheists recognize. (p. ix)


The right answers are ones that even some scientists have not been comfortable with and have sought to avoid or water down. (p. xii)

What these answers amount to is nothing less than a pretty thoroughgoing “nihilism,” though a nihilism that Rosenberg assures us is of “a nice sort,” or at least can be made bearable given that “there’s always Prozac.”  Part of what he has in mind is what you’d expect any atheist to claim -- that there is no God, no life after death, and that neither the universe as a whole, nor history, nor any individual human life has any point or purpose.  He also has in mind claims that some atheists try to resist or qualify but which many of them would allow are at least hard to avoid given their metaphysical assumptions -- that free will and morality (including any secular system of morality) are illusions.

But Rosenberg goes well beyond these familiar atheist themes.  In his view, when followed out consistently, scientism entails that introspective consciousness does not give us genuine knowledge of our own nature or of the causes of our behavior.  Indeed, it entails that the self is an illusion.  It entails that meaning and purpose are illusions even at the level of the individual human mind -- that none of our thoughts is really “about” anything at all, and that no individual human being ever really forms plans or has any purposes of his own.  And it entails that history, the humanities, and much of social science, to the extent that they presuppose that there are selves with meaningful thoughts who plan and act purposively, give us no genuine knowledge about the world -- they are, at best, mere entertainments.  In general, narratives or stories of any sort (including allegedly “true” narratives or stories, and including allegedly true secular narratives or stories) are sheer fictions.  Only the “formulas, wiring diagrams, systems of equations… geometrical proofs” and the like of scientific discourse give us actual knowledge.

What Rosenberg is committed to, then, is the claim that the scientism upon which modern atheism rests entails a radical eliminative materialism (though he doesn’t employ that term in the book, perhaps so as to avoid too much technical jargon in a work aimed at a largely non-philosophical audience).  Common sense takes it to be obvious -- indeed, so obvious that it seems that only philosophers ever bother calling attention to the fact -- that the things we say and the thoughts our words express have meaning, that they are about or refer to things in the world.  That is to say, they have intentionality, the philosopher’s technical term for a thought’s meaningfulness, “aboutness,” or “directedness toward” an object or referent.  Eliminative materialism (or the version of eliminative materialism Rosenberg endorses, anyway) holds that this is an illusion, that intentionality is not a genuine feature of the world and ought to be eliminated from our picture of reality.  Much (though not all) of what Rosenberg has to say rests on this fundamental thesis.

Some of this ground was already covered by Rosenberg almost two years ago, in his online article “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.”  (I replied to that article in an earlier series of blog posts, here, here, and here.  What I said in those posts applies to the book as well, though naturally I will have new things to say in the present series of posts.)  The article is useful reading for anyone who wants a prĂ©cis of the book, though (perhaps for marketing reasons) the book is slightly less downbeat than the article.  (The last line of the article is “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”  The subtitle of the book is “Enjoying Life Without Illusions.”  On the other hand, by the time of the book’s last line, Rosenberg is advising his readers to “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.”  I hope Duke University’s health plan affords Rosenberg a generous prescription drug benefit!)

The article also seems a tad more explicit than the book is about just how radical the implications of denying intentionality are.  To be sure, the book makes it clear enough that Rosenberg holds that none of our thoughts is really “about” anything.  But except for an allusion here or there, it does not make it as plain as the article does that this entails that linguistic meaning (including the purported meanings of the very words in Rosenberg’s book and article themselves) is also an illusion, and that strictly speaking there are no such things as beliefs, desires, and the like.  Perhaps Rosenberg was concerned that even the average secular reader would find it difficult to read such claims sympathetically.  As a combox remark following his original article indicates, Rosenberg is impatient with what he regards as facile attempts to show that eliminative materialism is self-refuting (“He says he believes that there are no beliefs!” etc.)  So, perhaps Rosenberg hoped to forestall such objections by putting the emphasis on the idea that the “aboutness” of our beliefs is illusory, rather than on the theme that beliefs themselves are, or that the “aboutness” of even our words is.

Rosenberg is correct to hold that the eliminative materialist can easily avoid using locutions like “believes that,” so as to evade any direct self-contradiction of the “believing that there are no beliefs” kind.  The real question, though, is whether the eliminativist can, even in principle, entirely avoid stating his position in a way that does not presuppose intentionality.  And the answer (as I argued in my earlier posts on Rosenberg and in chapter 6 of The Last Superstition, and as I will argue in this series of posts) is that he cannot avoid it.  That much suffices to refute Rosenberg’s position.  But there are many other problems with it.

Scientism’s guide to reality

We’ll get to all that.  For the moment let’s look a little more closely at Rosenberg’s scientism.  The first thing to say about it is that scientism (the view that science alone gives us knowledge of reality), rather than atheism, is the true subject of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Atheism is for Rosenberg just one of the consequences that he takes to follow from scientism, not something he argues for independently.  Indeed, while one could argue for atheism on non-scientistic grounds, one imagines that Rosenberg would have no interest in such arguments if they were positively at odds with scientism.  What he is interested in is spelling out what else follows from the scientism that motivates his atheism.

For this reason Rosenberg does not even bother saying much by way of criticism of theistic arguments.  Much of his justification for this neglect is New Atheist-style bluster to the effect that “belief in God is on a par with belief in Santa Claus,” etc.  (Rosenberg confesses that the tone of his book is bound to come across as “patronizing” and “smug.”)  But he does try to offer what he takes to be three substantive reasons for it.  First, he says, everything that needs to be said by way of philosophical criticism of theism has already been said by others, and indeed was pretty much said by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Second, the fact that theists persist in their belief despite these well-known criticisms shows that they are not going to be convinced by arguments anyway.  Third, atheists are, accordingly, better advised to devote their attention to exploring the implications of their own position rather than arguing against theism.

Needless to say, these are not philosophically serious reasons for refusing to engage theistic arguments, for they blatantly beg the question.  Rosenberg himself acknowledges that there are intelligent and well-informed people who are not atheists.  He surely realizes that they are not going to agree with him that Hume put paid to theism over two centuries ago, will also not agree with the insinuation that those who think otherwise are either ill-informed or dishonest, and therefore will disagree as well with the judgment that the atheist need not make any case for his position but can focus instead on spelling out its implications.  Rosenberg has offered them no argument for thinking otherwise, but only assertion.

No doubt Rosenberg would accuse those who would make such a retort of bad faith; indeed, his book is peppered with condescending accusations of bad faith against those who disagree with him.  But such accusations also simply beg the question, for whether contemporary theists really are acting in bad faith is itself part of what is at issue in the dispute between atheists and theists.  The only way to establish that they are would be actually to deal with their arguments, and to show (rather than merely to assert), not only that the arguments fail, but that they fail so spectacularly that no intelligent and well-informed person acting in good faith could possibly accept them.   

That would be a rather bold claim to make even if Rosenberg showed any evidence of being familiar with what serious philosophers of religion, past and present, have actually said.  In fact one suspects that his reading on the subject ended with whatever was in the anthology they used in his undergraduate PHIL 101 class.  Rosenberg comes across as a paradigm case of the sort of person the atheist philosopher of religion Quentin Smith had in mind when he judged that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  Their naturalism, Smith says, typically rests on nothing more than an ill-informed “hand waving dismissal of theism” which ignores “the erudite brilliance of theistic philosophizing today.”  Smith continues:

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.

Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist… the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.  If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.  [“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy (Fall-Winter 2001)]

Now Smith, unlike Rosenberg, actually has expertise in the philosophy of religion.  He also has expertise in areas of philosophy for which Rosenberg no doubt has greater respect (such as philosophy of science and metaphysics) and in natural science as well.  Nor is Smith by any means the only prominent naturalist to regard many of his fellow non-believers as prone to just the sort of ignorance and dogmatism of which they accuse theists.  (See the passages from the likes of Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Tyler Burge, and William Lycan quoted at the end of this recent post.)  Rosenberg can hardly accuse such thinkers of ignorance of science and philosophy, or of having a theological ax to grind.  Yet if they are right, then atheists cannot pretend to have a so strong a presumption in their favor that they needn’t bother engaging the arguments of the other side.  And even if they are wrong, the atheist has to show that they are wrong, not simply assert that they are.

Consider also that Rosenberg’s sword cuts both ways -- that the move he makes could be made against atheists themselves.  Suppose a theist wrote a book called The Theist’s Guide to Reality, but devoted no attention to answering any atheist arguments against theism.  And suppose he tried to justify this by suggesting, first, that everything that needs to be said against atheism has already been said by others, and indeed was pretty much said by Thomas Aquinas; second, that the fact that atheists don’t acknowledge this shows that they are not going to be convinced by arguments anyway; and third, that theists are accordingly better advised to devote their attention to spelling out the implications of their position rather than arguing against atheism.

Rosenberg would no doubt regard this as delusional.  But of course, we theists regard his own refusal to engage the other side as delusional.  There is no way rationally to break this deadlock except to do what Rosenberg refuses to do -- actually to examine the arguments for both sides of the dispute between atheism and theism, rather than shamelessly to beg the question in favor of one of the sides and simply declare this farcical procedure to be the “rational” one.  (Any atheist reader tempted at this point to deploy the Myers Shuffle by shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” should know that that would simply be to beg the question yet again, since whether the arguments for theism are really comparable to those of a naked emperor’s apologist is precisely what is at issue.)

Writes Rosenberg:

[T]his book is written mainly for those of us who are already deniers, not just doubters and agnostics.  Although we will address the foibles and fallacies (as well as the wishful thinking) of theists, we won’t treat theism as a serious alternative that stills [sic] needs to be refuted.  This book’s intended readers have moved past that point.  We know the truth.  (p. xii)

“We know the truth.”  Replace “deniers” with “believers,” and “theists” and “theism” with “atheists” and “atheism,” and Rosenberg sounds exactly like Jerry Falwell (or at least like what liberals think Jerry Falwell sounded like).  This is not philosophy.  It‘s a shout-out to an amen corner, an appeal to the mob.  That those in the mob have advanced degrees and Darwin Fish on the trunks of their cars doesn’t make it any less so.

So much for what the book does not say.  In the next post we’ll get to the first of Rosenberg’s actual arguments -- the reason he thinks scientism is unavoidable.
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