The logical conclusion from atheism …. or science?

The atheist's guide to reality

Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher and an atheist. He was one of those participating in the Moving Naturalism Forwards workshop, so he is apparently well-respected by his fellow atheists. I previously blogged about his thinking in Atheism: reality or illusion …. or both?

In 2011 Rosenberg published a book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. The book seems to have been controversial, and almost two years later is still generating comment.

A quick summary from a distance

I have not read the book, but here is a quick summary of what I can glean from the reviews and from Rosenberg’s own summary.

Science and scientism

Rosenberg believes science can provide the answers, not just to scientific questions about the natural world, but to ‘bigger’ questions such as ethics, meaning and the existence of God. This view is known as ‘scientism’, and is based on physicalism, the belief that the only things that exist are physical.

Physicalism and answers to questions

Most atheists come close to believing in physicalism and scientism, but Rosenberg is more rigorous than most, arguing that the only real things are the basic physical particles, and all questions can only be answered in terms of these particles. Thus he arrives at some interesting (and much-quoted) answers to some of life’s big questions:

  • Is there a God? No.
  • What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
  • What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
  • What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
  • 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.
  • What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

That last one sounds a little cosmic, but otherwise many would find this a rather bleak view of life. So it is not surprising that his book has generated a lot of comment, much of it critical.

Reactions …. not only from christians ….

Theologian and philosopher, James Anderson, recently blogged on what he saw as the weaknesses in Rosenberg’s arguments, and how they could easily provide good reasons not to believe atheism is true. Anderson accepts Rosenberg’s argument that atheism/physicalism entail the conclusions outlined above, such as no objective morality or free will, but argues that thse are so contrary to our common human experience that they suggest atheism is false, reductio ad absurdum.

He emphasises three points:

  • Rosenberg argues that none of our moral beliefs are really true, or even meaningful, not even those that we may have developed via natural selection, something many atheists would disagree with.
  • Then there is the argument that none of our beliefs (the things we think) are actually about anything at all – they are just movements of particles in our brains (remember, everything can be reduced to particles). So if our thoughts aren’t actually about anything, neither is his book. Rosenberg agrees, and says it is just part of a process of re-arranging neural pathways in the readers’ brains.
  • But if no beliefs are true or about anything, then scientism, which is a belief, cannot be true either. And so the book’s premise seems to be self-defeated.

So, Anderson argues, the book shows that there is no reason to believe scientism/physicalism are true, because it is self contradictory and it conflicts with what we observe within ourselves. Therefore there is good reason to believe that atheism is not true either, because Rosenberg argues that atheism logically entails physicalism.

In an older review, philosopher Edward Feser comes to similar conclusions:

In arguing that these conclusions really follow from scientism, he is largely successful. What he fails to do is to provide any good reason to think either that his scientistic premises are true or that the preposterous conclusions he draws from them are anything other than the decisive reductio ad absurdum they appear to be.

…. but from fellow atheists

The response from fellow atheists has been mixed.

To philosopher Michael Ruse, the book was irritatingly smug, inaccurate about details and claiming more than Rosenberg can demonstrate – for example, he doesn’t show that science can answer questions about origins or God. On the other hand, he found helpful Rosenberg’s discussion of the evolutionary basis for morality, and the argument that evolution, being random, is inconsistent with God having purposefully created. Ruse concludes that the good outweighs the bad.

Professor of psychology, Gregg Henriques, is much more negative – he describes it as “A Completely Misguided Guide to Reality”, a “deeply misguided, misleading, and blatantly self-contradictory approach to both atheism and scientific knowledge”. Henriques thinks the book is damaging to atheism, his main gripes being:

  • Atheism doesn’t necessarily lead to the reductionist physicalism of the book.
  • Rosenberg is ignorant about “the human mind, the practice of psychotherapy and the scientific models that guide it, and the research that confirms its effectiveness”.

Blogger Nicholas Covington is quite impressed with the book, but nevertheless finds several points not well expressed or well argued.

Other reviews by atheists tended to fall into the same range – from guarded approval through to strongly critical.

Reflection

It is good that these questions have been raised, and both atheists and theists can follow the evidence and issues through to conclusions. I will blog some more on some of these issues as I have time to research them a little. In the meantime, I have touched on some of these issues in:

3 Comments

  1. I don’t know. It sounds like this author is performing the same childish acts as the religious obnoxious out there, there has got to be a good Latin term for that, it’s all or nothing with every one. He wants atheism to be the only answer so badly that he writes a book that cannot support itself.

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