Atheism: reality or illusion …. or both?

December 26th, 2012 in clues. Tags: , , , , , , ,


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

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.

True answers?

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.

Atheist reactions

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.”

Philosophers Philip Kitcher and Michael Ruse both felt Rosenberg had greatly overstated the questions science was capable of answering, and hence devalued other ways of knowing.

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”

Christian reactions

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:

  1. 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?
  2. If Rosenberg’s view becomes more widely accepted, how will society change?

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  1. Alex Rosenberg’s views are self-refuting, because if all our thoughts are merely determined by biochemical reactions and all ideas have arisen merely for reasons of utility, then nothing he asserts can be taken seriously. He cannot claim an exemption for his thoughts and ideas. According to his own philosophy, all his assertions are also meaningless, and have arisen in his mind for the purpose of his own ‘survival’. Ergo, he is wrong. Dead wrong.

  2. “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.”

    This and what Al said. I haven’t read his arguments so I can give no educated verdict, but it would seem that he would be vulnerable to various formulations of the argument from reason. If human evolutionary history has provided us with unfounded ethical, personal and religious beliefs, what reason is there to suppose that our brains would have a reliable evolved capacity to reason or can even present reliable sense data?

  3. I agree with what both of you say, but I would think his logical response is to say that he doesn’t think his brain is reliable nor that his views have any meaning, he is just predetermined to hold such views. Neither does he wish to persuade us, but it is possible that our brains will respond to the stimulus of his book and come to similar conclusions.

    It would be interesting to see if he was willing to make such a response, and how it would be received – for example, by his university. On his view, universities can hardly be places where people develop their minds in a stimulating environment!

  4. If the physical is all there is, there is no God and everything is determined by physical laws.

    I assume that’s a quote or paraphrase of Rosenberg. But it does not say that everything else follows from atheism. Rather, it says that everything else, including atheism, follows from Rosenberg’s physicalism/materialism.

    I think you make a mistake by stressing atheism as the basis for Rosenberg’s conclusions.

    I have come across other people with similar views. Rosenberg is not alone in those views. But, personally, I think his argument works very well as a reductio ad absurdum of Rosenberg’s version of physicalism.

  5. Neil, I think you are both right and wrong (how’s that for an each-way bet?!).

    “I think you make a mistake by stressing atheism as the basis for Rosenberg’s conclusions.”

    Logically, I think you are right that scientism based on physicalism is the fundamental view, and atheism flows from that. And I didn’t mean to infer any particular order in these beliefs, just a connection.

    But Rosenberg’s book is titled “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” so my title and my discussion were based on that.

    Can you explain to me, please, what you mean by “I think his argument works very well as a reductio ad absurdum of Rosenberg’s version of physicalism” Who is “his” here? Do you mean Rosenberg’s argument is a reductio ad absurdum of himself? Or were you referring to one of the other references?


  6. Do you mean Rosenberg’s argument is a reductio ad absurdum of himself?

    Yes, that pretty much my point.

    Rosenberg’s conclusions are so absurd, that he ought to be questioning his assumptions.

  7. We agree on that then. But what do you think is the correct way to understand naturalism, dualism, choice, etc?

  8. For myself, I reject materialism, physicalism and naturalism. I reject them, because we are still discovering more about what is matter, what is physical, what is nature. I don’t see that materialism makes sense unless you already know what is matter.

    I acknowledge being a behaviorist, of kinds. We learn about the world, about nature, etc, using our behavior to explore it.

    As for choice – I am puzzled that many people deny we make choices. It seems quite obvious that we make choices. When somebody tells me that he has no free will, no ability to make choices, my reaction is to ignore him, for if he did not tell me that as a matter of his choice, then there is no reason to pay attention to it.

    All of science depends on us making choices, so as to critically test our theories. To argue that science shows we cannot make choices is to contradict oneself.

    On dualism – no, I am not a Cartesian dualist. I don’t see any evidence of immaterial substances.

  9. Neil, thanks for that explanation. I am very interested in these questions. But I have trouble seeing what other alternative there is to materialism and dualism. Are you saying you think that matter is more than current materialism recognises? Would this not be dualism under another name? Thanks.

  10. But I have trouble seeing what other alternative there is to materialism and dualism.

    Atoms interact with one another, and we refer to those interactions as processes. As best I can tell, we are not made of atoms – we are made of processes. Most of the atoms in your body will be gone within a few months, replaced by other atoms. But the processes will continue.

    When I said that I am a behaviorist of sorts, I had in mind the behavior of atoms as the interact in processes.

    A materialist such as Rosenberg looks at the atoms, and concludes that atoms do not seem likely to be able to have experiences (such as with conscious experience). So Rosenberg declares that experience is a delusion, ignoring the problem that atoms probably can’t have delusions, either. But why couldn’t it be the processes, rather than the atoms that have experience?

    That’s the direction that I am working on.

    If you want to call that dualism – I suppose that’s as good a name as any, but it is not traditional substance dualism. It’s more like a mathematical duality. In geometry, any two distinct points determine a line (the infinite line joining them), and the dual is that any two non-parallel lines determine a point (where they intersect). You could say that I’m looking at an analogous duality between atoms and their motions.

  11. OK, thanks for that further explanation. It reminds me a little of John Polkinghorne’s preferred option of “dual aspect monism”. In the end, whatever the name, we either think the material as we currently know it is all there is, or we do not. You, Polkinghorne and dualists all agree that it is not, but all explain how it isn’t in different ways.

  12. Hi, I don’t really see how we can have freewill, although things seem to work fine if we assume people have free will. I just don’t understand how the fact that God exists means that we have free will. How does it actually work? Does it have something do to with something like a soul? To me, we have our memories, basically the existing state of the neurons in our brains, sensory input, and a randomizing factor – quantum effects, radiation, etc, that combine to result in the choices we make. How would the God given free-will function work? I agree that to me it seems like I am choosing to write this comment, but how is that free choice taking place? I guess my next question would be where exactly is our soul in our body, but I am afraid the answers or non-answers are related.

  13. Hi TJ, thanks for reading and commenting. You are asking big questions which I, and I guess many others have asked. I don’t feel I have too many answers, but I’ll have a go.

    I just don’t understand how the fact that God exists means that we have free will. How does it actually work?

    I think it is hard to define exactly what choice is. We can understand an action that is 100% caused (e.g. falling if we step off a cliff) and an action that is random (like throwing a dice), but choice must be somewhere in between.

    I think we can see why a physicalist view leads to determinism, because that is the way physical processes work. My thought is that if God exists, physicalism isn’t true, and there are other processes than the physical. This makes free choice possible.

    Does it have something do to with something like a soul? ….. where exactly is our soul in our body?

    If the soul was located in our body it would be part of the physical system. When the Bible talks about “souls” the Greek word could just as well (perhaps better) be translated life or self. So I don’t think we have a soul, but I think our selves are more complex than the physicalist explanation allows.

    How would the God given free-will function work?

    Obviously I’m guessing, but I think God is spiritual, rocks are physical, but God has made us hybrid physical/spiritual beings. The two interact, and I don’t think we can understand exactly how, but an analogy might be how software runs on a computer. WE can’t measure the spiritual because we can only measure what is physical, but we can, and do, experience it. Experience is as valid a way of knowing things as science, and in fact all things in the long run depend on it – even the results scientific experiments have to be experienced through our senses.

    So that is the way I think I’d approach your questions, but I don’t claim much certainty. My main point is that I think Rosenberg’s views contradict experience, while his atheist critics’ views contradict logic. I think theism at least conforms to both logic and experience, even if it cannot be fully explained.

    What do you think about that?

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