I’ve long thought that one of the reasons for believing in God is the fact that without God, it is hard to make sense of ethics and human freewill. But here’s an atheist (and a philosopher) who turns a lot of things on their head – he agrees it is hard to make sense of these things, because he says they are just an illusion.
How does he get to this view?
Science and scientism
Science deals in things we can measure or observe, i.e. this physical universe we see all around us. It struggles a little to understand and explain less physical things – like human minds and consciousness (see my previous post, The human mind – a challenge for materialism?). But it has been a wonderfully successful tool in doing what it does.
Some people argue that the physical world is all there is, and that therefore everything that can be known can be addressed by science. Some even go as far as saying that science can address all questions. This view is known as scientism, and it has often been criticised for claiming too much.
Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher, an atheist and an author. He believes in scientism because he believes that is the logical conclusion of atheism. It works like this …..
If the physical is all there is, there is no God and everything is determined by physical laws. The “higher” sciences (e.g. psychology or sociology) and the humanities (e.g. history, literature) are, in the long run, able to be understood in terms of chemistry and physics. Ultimately, everything can be understood in terms of fundamental particles, because that is what everything is made of.
Corollaries of this belief
Human behaviour, then, is not the result of us making choices, but of the electro-chemical processes that occur in our brains as a result of external and internal stimuli. Choice, self, morality, purpose are all illusions which have helped us evolve, and so seem real.
Introspection is pointless because it tells us nothing that is real. It is illusory to think “our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds”. There are no true answers to “questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage” – we will all simply end up with the answers we like.
And so Rosenberg says confidently that we need to re-think almost everything, and science will give us whatever answers there are. Here’s a sample of his answers:
- Is there free will? Not a chance!
- What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
- Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
- Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
Some atheists have come to similar conclusions.
- Francis Crick wrote of the ‘astonishing hypothesis’: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
- And William Provine wrote: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.”
Not so sure
But few have been so sure and comfortable with these conclusions as a basis for life.
Many atheists believe they are just as moral as believers, and are at great pains to make this clear. Philosopher Michael Martin: “Atheists and theists both agree that prima facie this is a moral universe with objective moral values. Atheists who are moral realists attempt to show how this appearance is not deceptive and that such a universe is possible without God.”
Many scientists believe that reducing the human mind to fundamental particles is not the correct way to understanding:
- Experimental psychologist Stephen Pinker: “Human behaviour makes the most sense when it is explained in terms of beliefs and decisions, not in terms of volts and grams.”
- Todd Feinberg: “the mind cannot be reduced to the brain”
It is interesting that christians are more comfortable with Rosenberg’s logic than most atheists – they tend to agree that without God, there can be no rationality, ethics or choice. But they use this fact as an argument for the existence of God. And they tend to feel that the atheists who disagree with Rosenberg are not following the logic of their beliefs because the conclusions are uncomfortable.
Philosopher Edward Feser is highly critical of Rosenberg’s arguments, suggesting that:
- Scientism is unproven, unlikely and implausible, and Rosenberg doesn’t provide any good reasons for thinking it is true. (He does offer the success of science, but Feser says, agreeing with Kitcher and Ruse, that this doesn’t show that it can answer the “big questions”.)
- His conclusions are “preposterous” – if there are no purposes and meanings, how can there be illusions and falsehoods such as Rosenberg writes about? In the end all statements, including scientific ones and Roasenberg’s own book, would be meaningless.
- He criticises “the sheer naivete of supposing that morality could have the same hold over us once we are convinced it is an illusion.” (This view has some support from scientific studies.)
Craig Schwarze praises Rosenberg’s honesty, but questions how he can call his conclusions “nice nihilism” when the morality of being “nice” is supposedly an illusion. He sees Rosenberg as inconsistent at this point.
I have avoided evaluating Rosenberg’s arguments myself because I haven’t read the book (just a few excerpts available on the web), and my main interest is in the various responses to it. But I am left with the impression that his views deepen the chasm between atheist and theist thought.
He is so certain that he is right about (i) the non-existence of God, (ii) the supreme value of science, and (iii) that self, choice, morality, rational thought, purpose and meaning are illusory, that he does not appear capable of considering an alternate view. On the other hand, theists and some of his fellow atheists are equally certain that his views are self-refuting (if all is illusion, so are his conclusions) and he has reduced everything down to meaninglessness.
I expect he, and those who think like him, will confidently remain on one side of the chasm, out of earshot from the other side, while the theists will remain unmoved on their side. The interesting questions to me are:
- What will become of the dissenting atheists? Will they slip in to the chasm and disappear, eventually climb up on his side, or find a way to explain what currently seems to be an inconsistent view?
- If Rosenberg’s view becomes more widely accepted, how will society change?
- The human mind – a challenge for materialism?, Are our brains like computers? and How do we know right and wrong? on this site.
- An interview with Alex Rosenberg.
- Reviews by philosophers somewhat sympathetic to his views: Philip Kitcher and Michael Ruse
- Reviews by christians: Philosopher Edward Feser and Craig Schwarze writing for the Bible Society.