Blogging Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Realty III (Ch 5)

1. Why should the fact that physics fixes all the facts make it hard to find room for moral facts?  If physics fixes all the facts, then if world B is a microphysical duplicate of world A, then A and B are duplicates with respect to all the facts, including the moral ones, if there are any. Physics fixing all the facts implies that any non-physics facts must at least supervene on the physical facts, which is to say that things cannot differ in any way without differing physically. So situation x cannot differ morally from situation y unless there are physical differences between x and y.  This is innocuous and tells us nothing about what kinds of facts there are. Rosenberg here seems to treat the claim that physics fixes all the facts as though it were the much stronger claim that all the facts are facts of physics. If all the facts are physical facts then it’s hard, in fact impossible, to find room for moral facts, since no moral facts are physical facts.

2. Nihilism, I take it, is the view that there are no moral facts: no moral statement is true, e.g., it is not true that one ought not to eat babies. This is no more true than the claim that one ought to eat babies. (I’m assuming that there being a fact that P is the same as it being true that P.) There just isn’t anything that morally one ought, or ought not, to do.  If nihilism is true, it’s not because physics fixes all the facts.

3. The no coincidence argument:

As a result of natural selection humans are innately disposed to believe certain things.  It would be wildly coincidental if these beliefs were true independent of this evolutionary history.  If moral beliefs are true, then they are true of reality, independent of our evolutionary history.  Our moral beliefs are products of our evolutionary history. Therefore, nihilism is true: there are no true moral beliefs.

If this reasoning were sound, it would justify many kinds of nihilism, e.g., humans are innately disposed to believe that dogs give birth to dogs and cats give birth to cats, and not the other way round. Yet it is true that dogs give birth to dogs and false that cats give birth to dogs.  This is true independent of our evolutionary history.  Sometimes the best explanation of why we have been selected to believe certain things is because they are true, and true beliefs about some matters enhance fitness.  The fact that we were naturally selected to believe that there are things we ought to do, or not do, irrespective of our desires, supports nihilism only if there can be no such facts in a world where all facts are fixed by physics. If we can’t reasonably believe that natural selection has endowed us with some capacity to know the world then total skepticism is inescapable and we are no more justified in believing the well-confirmed theories of science than anything else. The Neurathian boat in which natural selection has launched us might be pretty leaky, but we have to think it keeps us afloat! (“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.” Otto Neurath, 1882-1945)

4. However, there is a good reason to doubt that there are such facts because, as Rosenberg says, that they all rely on false presuppositions.  If it is true that someone ought to do x, then he has good reasons to do x. (On one account, this is what is means to say that he ought to do it.) However, any reason he has to do something is rooted in his desires. No practical reasons are grounded in objective reality; the fact that such and such is true of the world in itself creates no reason to do one thing or another. That fact must connect to what one wants. Natural selection has installed in us the illusion that certain objective facts constitute reasons to behave in certain ways, particularly when we have competing reasons not to do so. This internalized constraint on self-interest is the “aim” of human moral psychology.  Objective reality has nothing to say about what one ought to do, but human minds, adapted to social life where constraints on self-interest promotes inclusive−but not necessarily individual−fitness, project the moral ought onto the world. Evolution has equipped us with the disposition to categorize social reality in moral ways, e.g., to identify some acts as unjust.  And that judgment generates the conviction that we ought to do something about it, the feeling that one has a reason to do something about the act just because it is unjust. The presupposition of all moral claims, that there are reasons to act “out there” in reality, is false.  For some, this suffices for the conclusion that all moral claims are false, i.e., nihilism.  This conclusion is sometimes called fictionalism, and its adherents often contend that while morality is a fiction, a kind of illusion, it is a useful one.  If so, then what we want gives us good reasons to act as though we believe that there are reasons to act independent of anything we want.

5. However, we must accept fictionalism only if belief in moral facts cannot survive the realization that there are no practical reasons built into the fabric of reality. Our longstanding concept of moral fact includes the idea of an objective state of affairs that presents us with reasons to act. Nothing actually falls under this concept so either there are no moral facts, and the concept should be abandoned, or our concept of moral facts must be revised. This is an instance of an important question that arises often in the attempt to find a place for what’s important to humans in the world science portrays: when have we discovered that things of a kind do not exist, since nothing has property F, which we have always regarded as essential to being a thing of this kind, and when have we discovered that we were wrong to believe that things of this kind must have property F? The answer is not always obvious. Perhaps we can reasonably continue to believe that there are moral facts even as we abandon the illusion that they impose upon us reasons for action that are ultimately independent of our desires. (Across the board, Rosenberg seems strongly drawn toward abandoning, rather than revising, our concepts. Thus, e.g., not, “We’ve found out that our behavior is causally determined, so we were wrong to assume that no determined behavior is free,” but, “We’ve found out that our behavior is causally determined, so we are not free.”)

My inclination is to reject moral nihilism, and to assert that there are moral facts but that they provide us with reasons to act independent of our desires is an illusion courtesy of natural selection. I’d say that what all this amounts to is the discovery that the moral truth is relative to the human species, not to there being no moral truth. It puts morality in its natural, human place, deflating its pretensions to transcendence. But whether the Christian can reasonably welcome this kind of relativism (or Rosenberg’s nihilism), or reasonably hope to avoid it, is a question that deserves a fuller answer.

Rosenberg’s approach is to accept moral nihilism, because there are no moral facts that provide us with reasons to act independent of our desires; that’s an illusion courtesy of natural selection.

Either way, I think Rosenberg is right to say that all this has no serious deleterious effect on moral motivation; that “nice nihilism” is the likely and reasonable response. We may note that the analogous realization that disgustingness is not a feature of objective reality, but the projection of a response natural selection has programmed us to have back onto the world, is not likely to move us to eat things that disgust us.

An aside on The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Naturalism and the Christian Faith

Rosenberg makes scientism the defining feature of naturalism. (I tend to agree, though I prefer to conjoin what he calls scientism with two substantive scientific claims about human beings: we are material beings, the product of blind natural selection, and to call this scientific naturalism. What Rosenberg refers to as scientism I think of as the epistemological preeminence of science, and I’d use the term “scientism” to denote the claim that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge. But this is just terminology; nothing important turns on it.)

Scientism (as Rosenberg deploys the term) then, is the claim that science is our best way of knowing in the sense that (1) Any other claim to know should be rejected if it is logically inconsistent with the well-confirmed theories of science, and (2) any claim to scientific knowledge must cohere with what science tells us of the nature and capabilities of human minds, i.e., as brains that are products of natural selection and embedded in their particular natural and cultural environments.

Rosenberg, of course, believes that God does not exist and that the belief that he does exist is totally unreasonable. The point I want to stress here is that whatever his reasons for this conviction, his scientism has literally no bearing on it.  Scientism, and thus naturalism, as he understands it, is entirely consistent with theism.  That theism and scientism are consistent in the narrow sense of there being no contradiction in believing both is, I assume, too obvious to be worth defending. No well-confirmed scientific theory refers to God and, while it is conceivable that in conjunction with other things we know a well-confirmed theory implies that there is no God, plainly no such things are in the offing.

Although I don’t think this claim requires a serious defense, a case that is in some respects parallel seems worth noticing.  Those who accept scientism remain in need of some sort of account of mathematics.  Some naturalists—Quine is the salient example—deny the fundamental difference between mathematical and scientific truth and regard the truths of mathematics as differing from those of the natural sciences only with respect to their extreme generality.  They dispense with the traditional view that the truths of mathematics are necessary while those of the sciences are contingent. Those who do not, and think that mathematics differs from science in a categorical way, agree that science is our best way of knowing but with an implicit scope restriction: it is our best way to know contingent reality, but mathematics as a way of knowing is epistemologically superior to science.  In the event that a well-confirmed scientific theory conflicts with a theorem of mathematics, then it is unreasonable to believe science.  Science trumps any competing claim about the contingent natural world, but mathematics trumps science. This is so obvious as to be unremarkable: hypotheses that have false mathematical implications are rejected out of hand; they’re not worthy of empirical testing. Naturalists who adhere to the contingent science/necessary mathematics distinction owe an account of the ground of mathematical truth and the roots of our mathematical knowledge, one that coheres with scientific knowledge in the two ways built into Rosenberg’s definition of scientism.  One familiar form an account can take is mathematical Platonism, the idea that mathematical knowledge is knowledge of a transcendent, non-empirical realm of mathematical objects. I don’t believe this, and I don’t think it coheres in plausible ways with theism, but Platonists believe that they possess good reasons to believe it, e.g., that it best explains the nature of mathematical truth and discovery, or that it best explains the (to some) amazing applicability of mathematics to the description of the natural world.  At face value, whatever the force of these reasons, they do not appear to be at odds with the well-confirmed theories of science, which are to all appearances silent on the metamathematical issues.  Mathematical Platonism’s belief that there is a categorically different reality beyond the world science accesses is not incompatible with scientism.  Nor is the theist’s analogous belief that there is a deity.

However, the theist is in a more comfortable position vis-à-vis naturalism than the mathematical Platonist. The latter faces a fairly serious problem of how the human mind can know anything about the mathematical objects his theory postulates.  On the plausible assumption that these eternal non-physical realities are causally inert they can have no effect on the physical world and the evolved material minds it contains. This constrains the possibility of knowing it in ways analogous to perception, which, as it happens, is often embraced by Platonists as a way to conceive mathematical intuition. The Platonist is more at home with the anti-naturalist dualist view of the mind as transcending physical reality. The theist (assuming that he dispenses, as he ought, with divine timelessness and immutability) has no parallel problem: if there is a God then he can make things happen in the material world and reveal himself to the likes of us. We have no need to posit powers of mind foreign to scientific knowledge of our evolved brains.  Mathematical Platonists and theists can accept Rosenbergian scientism (and naturalism), but it’s easier for the theist. There are, or might be, good reasons to believe in realities beyond the ken of the sciences, and to believe so is not at odds with scientific naturalism.

Anyway, the interesting question is not about the logical consistency of science and theism, but whether what science tells us about the world is at all likely on the supposition that God exists.  If what science describes is a world not much like any world theists could reasonably anticipate, then theism is unreasonable. I assume that Rosenberg, and many others happy to call themselves naturalists, assume that:

                Prob(S|G) = low

Where S is our scientific knowledge of the world and G is theism.  But there is no reason to believe this. So far as bare, generic theism goes, with no specification as to the nature of God or the reasons for which he creates

                Prob(S|G) = imponderable.

If we think there is a God but have nothing further to say about him we have no basis for regarding the claims of science as either likely or unlikely.  All we can say is that

Prob(S|G) ≠ 0

i.e., God could have created a world exactly like the one science reveals to us.

Once we add beliefs about God, we can easily get the low-probability judgment, e.g., if we believe not just that God exists but that he would have designed the human species, then

                Prob(S|G & D) = very low (if not 0).

As we have seen, Rosenberg (along with any number of theists) believes that this is a relevant judgment of prior probability, and it is, obviously, one on which theism comes out as not cohering with science, and thus as showing that there is no God.  But should those of us who believe G also believe D? Does theism (of the type we take to be true) really imply divine design? On my view it does not.  This is one of the ways in which a consideration not of generic theism, but of the particularities of biblical, Christian theism, brings us to a quite different conclusion about science: the world science describes is the kind of world we could have reasonably expected to find, assuming that the God of Christian faith is its creator. The crucial claim, not defended here, is that that God would not have chosen to design his creatures, but to bring them into existence by means of natural processes of the kind science describes.

Blogging Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality II

Chapters 3 & 4

1. What Rosenberg means when he asserts that there is no purpose in nature is essentially correct. But it’s hard to avoid language that suggests otherwise (cf. #6, infra). There are natural functions–the heart has the purpose of pumping blood–and there are things such as human beings that do things for reasons, but all this is explained (even if quite indirectly) in terms of natural selection, which is purely mechanical, blind, purposeless: efficient, not final, causation.  (But for the mysterious phenomenon of non-locality in the quantum domain, I assume that we’d be entitled to say without hesitation that the natural world is mechanical through and through.)

However, (as noted earlier) Rosenberg ignores the well-known distinction between purpose in and purpose for nature.  There might, or might not, be an explanation of why this world in which there is no built-in teleology exists, and that explanation might, or might not, be teleological.  God, we theists say, created this universe for a purpose and this, on its face, is independent of whether this thing that he for some purpose created is purely mechanical or instead embodies teleology.

E.g., when after close examination of the casino’s roulette wheel we conclude that its output embodies no purposeful pattern, that the series of numbers that come up do so randomly and mechanically.  Nonetheless, the roulette wheel exists to make money for the casino’s owner.  There’s purpose for it but not in it (assuming it’s not rigged.)  From the assumption that the universe (or multiverse) is not God’s creation one may reasonably infer that there is no purpose for it, but there’s no obvious inference from there being no purpose in it to there being no purpose for it and thus no creator.  It’s fair enough for Rosenberg to say that if there’s no God then there’s no purpose for nature.  His avowed purpose is not to argue against belief in God, but to exhibit the implications of atheism.   But he’s mistaken to offer the absence of natural teleology as an argument against there being a purpose for nature.

From the perspective of Christian faith, the question is whether, given the revealed purposes for which God created it, we should expect something other than the non-teleological world Rosenberg describes.

2. Rosenberg writes, “…nothing more powerfully threatens theism than an explanation that meets Kant’s challenge [to explain biological adaptation without invoking design.]” This is false, because on the one hand this kind of explanation does not threaten theism at all, and on the other, because other things do threaten it, e.g., apparently gratuitous evil, but it’s interesting since it’s a view he shares with many theists. It doesn’t threaten theism because it does not threaten Christian theism, which is the most reasonable version of theism, in part because the scientific world picture, including Darwinianism, is likely in light of it.

If the only, or one of the few, good reasons for theism involved explicitly invoking God to explain adaptation, then Darwin’s success threatens theism.  So far as theism is concerned, God acts by secondary causation as well as directly, and the fact that some general feature of the world, e.g., speciation, can be explained naturally, presents no challenge at all.  (It may, of course, present problems for specific things some theists believe, e.g. that some or all species were created directly, miraculously, or that God specifically designed all the species, or humans—that conflicts with God creating species by secondary causes when that causation is indeterministic.) Prior to Darwin it seem plausible to almost everyone that adaptation had no natural explanation, and miracles were invoked to fill the explanatory gaps, but this tells us something about the limits of the pre-Darwinian imagination, not that there is no creator.  If Rosenberg advanced an argument that a God would not create species adapted to their environments by some natural process, or not by the natural process Darwin discovered, that would be fine, but here he takes the easy way, granting what his opponents say when he should know they’re wrong.

3. Here (in Chapter 4) Rosenberg makes a central issue explicit. He asserts that the second law (of thermodynamics) makes reconciliation between theism and Darwin’s discovery logically impossible. Theists try to reconcile belief in a creating God with Darwinian evolution by appealing to the idea of secondary causation.  The natural processes described by science in general and Darwin in particular are the means by which God created living things.  Rosenberg sees this as a dodge, a hopeless attempt “to have our Darwinian cake and eat evolution too.” For the evolutionary process is probabilistic—this is the force of his reference to the second law—and thus cannot reasonably be used to realize specific creative intentions.  If nature were deterministic, theists could claim that God created the various species by means of evolutionary processes, since they would infallibly realize whatever detailed divine plan God had in mind. However, the evolutionary process is not deterministic, so biological adaptation is not the product of divine design.  In my view, Rosenberg is right about this: in our indeterministic world, evolutionary theory precludes divine design.

I’m somewhat puzzled by Rosenberg’s pervasive reference to the second law.  I’m thinking that if the fundamental laws of nature (quantum mechanics or whatever) are deterministic, then the probability that thermodynamics introduces is just epistemic, not built into nature itself.  If those laws are indeterministic, then there’s no need to invoke thermodynamics to secure the outcome that nature is indeterministic, through and through.

4. But he is wrong to think that theism implies divine design. Whatever the case might be with theism considered generically, or with others kinds of theism, Christian theism does not imply it. In fact, to take seriously God’s revealed purposes in creating is to accord a higher prior probability to the secondary causes by means of which God achieves his ends being indeterministic than to his having created a deterministic universe.  Rosenberg rightly points out that the natural processes being indeterministic is at odds with God having specific aims in creation, but he poses a false dichotomy when he says that either God created for no purpose or he had specific purposes.  God, like anyone else, can do things with general aims in view while leaving the specific outcome to chance or to what others choose to do.  Anyone whose aim is the existence of persons truly distinct from himself, persons with whom a genuine personal relation is possible, will bring them into existence by such “chancy” means, rather than acting on a fully specified design plan.

I suppose that we should not blame Rosenberg for having no sense of what is central to the Christian faith: that God’s aim is to bring persons distinct from himself into loving fellowship with their creator, to share in his triune life, and that whatever we say about creation, or about divine omniscience, must be said in light of this.  It is sad how many Christians seem just as oblivious, and defend the idea that God must have specifically designed living things, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary.

4. Some biological structures are adaptations: they were naturally selected for in the process of evolution. To deny that there are, in this sense, natural functions, seems perverse. We need to make distinctions like, “The function of the heart is to pump blood but not to make a sound; that thumping sound is just a byproduct of what it was selected for.” Whether we should go on to speak of such things in terms of purpose seems to me not a particularly significant matter.  Some worry that purpose cannot be separated from its longstanding association with foresight, intention, and intelligence, but we need some way to mark the distinction, and to speak of purposes seems very hard to avoid.

Blogging Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality


Our faculty and staff reading group is currently reading Rosenberg’s delightful book. I’m storing my thoughts as we go along here on the blog.

Preface, Chapters 1 & 2

Rosenberg’s snarkiness doesn’t relieve us of the duty to read him as charitably as possible, construing what he says in ways that make it true unless he forces us not to.

1. Rosenberg’s “scientism.”  This can be interpreted charitably, so one might reasonably suspect that it’s true, or uncharitably, such that no one could seriously believe it.  On an uncharitable interpretation, scientism is the view that the only justified beliefs are the well-confirmed theories of the sciences.  This interpretation is uncharitable because it is rather obviously false.  The scientist may well know, e.g., where he had lunch yesterday, yet this bit of mundane knowledge is not acquired by the procedures by means of which he confirms hypotheses.  The charitable interpretation is that our only way to acquire knowledge is by way of science and the less well-disciplined empirical procedures of daily life, and of other disciplines, e.g., history, that are continuous with full-fledged scientific methods.  On the traditional view that the reliability of scientific reasoning is due to its rigorous commitment to hypothetico-deductive methods, scientific reasoning differs from ordinary empirical reasoning in degree, not categorically.  Knowledge comes by way of using our senses and critically reasoning about what we sense. On a traditional view, this is still not really true, since there is mathematical knowledge and it’s not empirical, but if we restrict the claim to how we can know contingent reality scientism so construed is not crazy and might well be true.  Whether, with this exception, it’s true, depends on what we should say about evaluative judgments, whether we should regard them as on occasion knowledge, and whether we make them on grounds that are broadly empirical.  My inclination is to say that Rosenberg’s scientism, so interpreted and qualified, is true.

One may, of course, agree with Rosenberg’s general claim about the source of human knowledge while disagreeing on what specific beliefs can be justified, among others the belief that this world the empirical methods most reliably deployed in the sciences is not all there is, but that there is a God who created it, loves it, and acts upon it and within it.  Any knowledge we can reasonably claim to possess about this depends ultimately on the empirical evidence.  One can believe that the empirical evidence is adequate for such beliefs without denying that it is never reasonable to believe what conflicts with the well-confirmed theories of the sciences.  As a way of knowing science trumps the competition but this does not imply that all knowledge is scientific knowledge, narrowly conceived.

Rosenberg (elsewhere) says, “by now in the development of science, absence of evidence is prima facie good grounds for evidence of absence: this goes for God, and a great deal else.” As a Christian, I think evidence is present which is at least good enough for rational hope; whether it’s adequate for knowledge seems to me an exquisitely hard question to answer.  (Perhaps this is not altogether bad news: knowledge is nice, but at least hope does not suffer from the complacency to which knowledge is vulnerable.) What seems to me bad faith on the part of Christians is to ignore the fact that the vast majority of religious beliefs are not rationally justified and certainly false, and that claims we make on behalf of our own beliefs need to be defended from the charge of special pleading.

2. Rosenberg’s “naturalism.”  That the physical facts “fix all the facts” about this world is, I think, roughly true, so long as it’s taken as a claim about the nature of God’s creation. While this is consistent with both reductionism and the eliminative materialism that Rosenberg seems to favor, it entails neither.  Most naturalistically-oriented philosophers reject both, but do hold that the physical facts fix the facts about this world; eliminativism, like reductionism, is a distinctly minority opinion.

Off hand, the thought experiment of a world that is a microphysical duplicate of our world being exactly similar to it doesn’t succeed completely as a way to express the physicalism Rosenberg endorses.  That duplicate world contains many pieces of green paper that are indistinguishable from U.S. Federal Reserve notes, yet they are counterfeit, having originated not with the U.S. treasury, but with its duplicate.  Or: it is true of the world that Sam Martin exists in it but this is false of the microphysical duplicate, though it does contain someone who is highly similar to Sam Martin and who calls himself by this name, because he is convinced that he is Sam Martin.  Thi sort of tign aside, what Rosenberg wants to deny is that there are properties that are emergent in some strong and interesting sense, as if, say, there could be a microphysical duplicate of a human brain that is not conscious mind (a zombie).  The naturalistic claim (or bet?) is that we already have the essentials of what’s needed to explain the mind and we await no discovery of some new stuff or force.  Consider the analogous but uncontroversial claim that this is true for the explanation of biological life.

I find Rosenberg’s discussion of the possibility of ultimate explanations in the context of quantum mechanics rather obfuscating.  On the standard interpretation, quantum mechanical events are the effects of causes, and are explainable by subsuming them under the QM causal laws.   These laws are indeterministic, in that there is more than one physically possible effect of a given cause. The laws fix the probabilities but do not guarantee a particular effect.  So we have a law like: If x, then prob(y) = .5 and prob(z) = .5.  When x occurs followed by z, z does not “just happen;” it was the effect of a cause, x.  What’s left unexplained is why in this instance it was z, rather than y, that occurred.  This is the sense in which the QM event is “random” or a “matter of chance,” not that there is an uncaused event.  If we have the quantum field, governed by the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics, then (on the theory Rosenberg has in view) events similar to the Big Bang are occurring all the time and in a small number of improbable cases, inflation occurs and a universe like ours comes into being.  So far as I can tell, nothing in this answers the question, “Why does this quantum field exist?” and “Why are the laws of QM what they are?”  and nothing in it implies that these are ill-conceived questions.

A partial analogy: there’s a chunk of U238 on your desk and the laws of QM tell you, with extreme precision, the probability of a decaying nucleus emitting a gamma particle in the next 60 seconds.  If it does, we know what caused it, but there’s no reason why the uranium emitted the particle during that span of time when it was no less possible, and perhaps no less probable, that it would not do so.  But this does not imply that that particle hitting you had no cause, and it does not make it unreasonable to ask how this hunk of radioactive uranium wound up on your desk, or why the stuff has the half-life it has.

On the standard (Copenhagen) interpretation of QM as indeterministic it violates what was traditionally called the principle of sufficient reason, i.e., for whatever is true, there is always an explanation why it’s true.  Perhaps the PSR is further violated because there is no explanation of the quantum field and its laws, but this does not follow from the fact that the laws are not deterministic.  As Rosenberg goes on to say, it makes no sense to ask why you won the (truly random) lottery: someone had to win and your chances were as good as anyone else who bought the same number of tickets.  But this truism does not imply that we cannot reasonably ask why the lottery was held, or why a given number of tickets were sold.

At this point traditional natural theology wants to step in, asserting that for all we know the multiverse exists, but contingently, so we can reasonably ask why it exists, and the basic laws of nature are true, but contingently, so we can reasonably ask why they are true.  In Chapter 1 Rosenberg asserts that there is no story anyone can tell about why the basic laws are true.  Assuming that by “a story” he means a teleological explanation, he’s denying that there could be an ultimate explanation of the physical universe in terms of purpose.  In Chapter 2 he goes on to claim that there can be no ultimate explanation at all.  It’s not altogether clear why he thinks he is entitled to rule either out a priori.  To draw an obvious distinction: the fact that there is no purpose in nature does not imply that there is no purpose for nature.  Maybe he helps himself to reasoning that goes:

(i) Scientific explanation subsumes what it explains under the laws of nature

(ii) The laws of nature do not explain themselves

Therefore: there can be no scientific explanation of the basic laws of nature.

(iii) But scientific explanations are the only genuine explanations

Therefore: There is no genuine explanation of the basic laws of nature.

The first two premises and the first conclusion are true, but why believe (iii)? Even if we grant—as I would—(a) that scientific reasoning is our most reliable way of attaining to knowledge of contingent reality, (b) that no philosophical/natural theological claim, e.g. that there is a necessary being which our contingent universe depends on for its existence, is as well-grounded as the well-confirmed theories of the natural sciences, and thus (c) that no such claims should be accepted if they contradict the products of science, it’s hard to see how this implies that no such philosophical/natural theological claim can be rationally justified.  Maybe on analysis these arguments for a teleological explanation of the laws of nature do not fare well, but Rosenberg seems to me mistaken in reaching this conclusion just because there is no teleological explanation by means of the law of nature, i.e., in science.

One might think that our modal judgments about necessity and contingency are simply too unreliable to provide us with any justified conclusions.  And one might reject the application of necessity and contingency to things (like the universe or multiverse) rather than to language. But if this is where Rosenberg is coming from, it would be helpful for him to tell us.

3. Rosenberg’s claims about the humanities purporting to describe a realm of selves, meanings, and purposes which is illusory is, like his scientism, open to both charitable and uncharitable interpretations.  The human Lebenswelt is a system of representations sustained by the neural circuitry in brains adapted by natural selection to their ancestral natural and social environments.  Its contents often cannot be identified with any components of physical reality.  The mental is not reducible to the physical; the categories that organize human subjectivity do not smoothly map onto what is objectively there, independent of us.  To take a simple and obvious example: blue is a feature of the world of human experience, yet there is a plain sense in which there is in reality nothing blue: no physical object outside the brain and no brain has this property and, if there were immaterial minds, there would be no blue in them: if there are colors they are, after all, properties of two-dimensional surfaces, none of which can be found in a non-physical soul.  Our minds represent things as blue but blue is neither a characteristic of our minds nor of the reality it represents. A mental representation of something as blue is not itself blue, no more than the linguistic representation “blue” needs to be blue to do its job. In this way when we speak of things being blue we partake in a kind of illusion.  Whether this implies that it would be a good idea, or even possible, to eliminate blue from our conceptual repertoire, foregoing it in favor of remarks like, “That object is reflecting light in the 5000 angstrom wavelength range,” as some eliminativists envisage, is a further question.  For most naturalists, physicalists, etc., it’s not obvious that we should or could dispense with the conceptual frame with which evolution has provided us for the sake of ensuring that our minds map cleanly onto reality.  The “ontological superficiality” of the human world might be something we cannot escape.

4. Rosenberg is right to say that what we can reasonably say about meaning and purpose, free will, the objectivity of morality is decisively constrained by what science reveals about us and the world we inhabit.  His claims about the shape of these constraints are variegated: some seem obvious while others are contentious.  Much of what Rosenberg contends science implies is at odds with the traditional image that human beings have of themselves.  However, we should not take for granted that what deflates that self-image is ipso facto opposed to the Christian faith, which while calling humans imago Dei also engages in its own deflating of human pretensions.

There are, at some very general level, two great accounts of the world and the place of humans in it.  One originates with the pagan Greeks and has enjoyed a very long association with Christianity.  The other—the scientific—originates in the late-medieval Christian culture, only after long and hard reflection on the attempt to integrate Christian faith and the Greek legacy, on divine freedom and providence, and on the systemic failure of Aristotelian explanation.  Many Christians are enamored of the former account and Rosenberg champions the latter.  Both sides are wrong about what scientific naturalism implies about the Christian faith, but I suspect that Rosenberg is right about enough of the other implications to justify his claims about how science scandalizes our image of ourselves. ​

A Talk for Northwestern College’s ‘Day of Learning’


The Parable of the Unjust Judge

Luke 18:1-8

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear   of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ 

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

Some Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will arrive.  When will long-suffering Israel at last receive its glorious reward? When will God’s avenging angels decimate the Roman legions? When will the collaborators be punished, the faithless humiliated? When will the righteous be vindicated? God accepts us and rejects them: when will the world see it? When will there be justice

Jesus’ answer shocks them.  He predicts a horrifying apocalypse. What’s coming will be like the days of Noah; sudden destruction overcoming the unsuspecting: wedding parties swept away in the flood. Like Sodom; fire and sulfur raining from the sky. People snatched away to disappear into captivity.

Not the vindication that they anticipate but hell on Earth. That’s where their quest for justice leads. 

It’s in the face of this impending horror that Jesus says not to “lose heart,” and tells the little tale about the justice humankind is ready to live, die, and kill for. Our hope and help is the justice of God, not human justice.

Jesus puts human justice in its place.  We keep score. We calculate each person’s due, who ought to get what, good for good, evil for evil, punishment and reward proportioned to our just desserts.  This is human justice. But its relentless pursuit leads to disaster. This thing we call justice can be deadly. 

And justice can be a joke. It’s mostly bogus, true not even to itself.  Not ultimately to be taken too seriously.  The judge, human justice embodied, is unjust.  He says to himself, “This widow keeps bothering me. I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out!” Our translation obscures the comedy.  The term blandly translated, “wear me out,” is literally something close to, “give me a black eye.” The pugnacious old woman gets what’s hers not because the judge cares about what she deserves, but just to shut her up.  Justice is what happens when the woman’s badgering finally outweighs her opponent’s payoffs to the judge.  

Maybe the case has dragged on interminably; whatever was once at stake has receded into insignificance in contrast to the need to win, to be vindicated, not to let that SOB get away with it, to get justice.  Maybe she’s gotten a bit crazy over it: that’s how these things go.  Maybe everyone involved is in for a little mockery.  

The standard lesson: even an unjust judge will give you what you ask for if you persist in asking. How much more confident can we be that God, who is just, will hear our pleas?

Maybe this is not exactly wrong, but it seems a bit off.  Note quite what Jesus means. The woman isn’t asking for what she wants, or for what she needs. She is demanding her due.  She insists that the judge grant her what is hers by right. 

Whatever we hope for from God, it’s not this.  It’s not justice.  What we seek from God is love, help, mercy, grace, forgiveness, none of it deserved. When it comes to giving, with God it’s always more and better than we can ask or imagine, not what we deserve.  Nor, on the down side, do we want an exacting divine judge who sees to it that we get precisely what our misdeeds warrant. (The other guy, sure, but not me!) 

When it comes to God, justice bites the dust: the prisoners are freed, debts forgotten, sins forgiven. Someone said, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” but this is not the voice of God.  God speaks from the cross, and he says, “Father, forgive them.” 

Yet God is just.  But the justice of God is not the justice of human beings.  God’s justice, the biblical righteousness of God, is something else altogether.  This is the contrast that emerges in the parable. It is nothing less than God’s unshakable faithfulness, his firm commitment to his covenant, his steadfast love for his people, no matter how unworthy of that love we manage to be.  

God is just: this means that God is love. God’s justice does not compete with his love and mercy; it’s one thing, not two.  He is not—thank God!—the judge who metes out what we’ve earned, but the compassionate one who hears us and does not delay in helping us, not because it is our due, but because he is true to his love for us. 


God’s justice and human justice are easily confused, not simply because one word denotes both; but because they overlap.  To help those in need and to avoid harm to all is to practice justice on either account.  But the overlap is partial: God’s justice is not an ideal version of our justice: it is discontinuous with it and ultimately at odds with it. The justice of God also calls for actions that are in human terms outrageously unjust.   

Individuals, and communities, of faith are called to share in God’s justice, to ignore the humanly all-important question of who deserves what, and to take up, so far as we can now, between the times, God’s righteousness.  Forgive seventy times seven. Turn the other cheek.  Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive your debtors. When they demand your coat, offer your shirt too. No doubt, our propensity is to underestimate the possibilities to do God’s justice, and to overestimate the inescapability of mere human justice. 

Put in its place, our justice, as a component of human morality, an articulation of our innate moral sensibilities, has a reality and integrity of its own.  Human justice finds its humble and temporary home in the political realm.  Government is not God and doing God’s justice is not its function.  At its very best the state enforces something that approximates authentic human justice. God’s justice is not its concern.  Unconditional love, unstinting forgiveness, indifference to what we deserve: God alone has the wisdom and power to act on these principles.  

Governments that try produce little that is good and do much that is bad.  Plenty of mischief follows from confusing our justice and God’s, and doing so results in neither.  A good deal of what some call ‘social justice,’ the pursuit of equality, and pacifism are examples; but all that’s another story…

More on Equality

Someone asked what I thought of an essay by N. Gregory Mankiw: “Spreading the Wealth Around: Reflections Inspired by Joe the Plumber” (Eastern Economics Journal, 36(2010)). Here are the comments with which I responded:

The fundamental issue here is the moral status of equality/inequality.  My view is that equality per se has no moral significance.  If someone owns something, or otherwise has a moral right to distribute it, then, under certain conditions he has a moral obligation to distribute it and, when he does, to distribute it in certain ways.  Sometimes, his moral obligation is to distribute it equally.  If he does not own something, or otherwise have a right to distribute it, then the question of how he ought to distribute it does not arise, except hypothetically.  E.g., if you have some medicine, A and B are healthy, while C will die without (all of) it, then you might be morally obligated to distribute 100% to C and 0% to the other two.  An equal distribution would be morally impermissible.  (What might be morally permissible for others to do to you to get you to distribute as you ought is, of course, a further question.) Often, there are no moral constraints on whether and, if so, how one distributes what he has.  If you feel like giving away your jelly beans, you may, as you please, give the same number to A, B, and C, or 90% to A, 10% to B, and 0% to C, as you prefer.  There are scenarios in which a distributor is obligated to distribute equally, but I suppose that these are relatively rare and typically occur in some institutional setting which imposes on him precisely that obligation, e.g., you are the father of A, B, and C and an unequal distribution will cause psychological harm to the child who gets less than a sibling, or it will simply send the false—or at least best left unexpressed—message that you value the child who gets more more.  Perhaps the best that can be said on behalf of equal distributions in general is that when there is no reason to make an unequal distribution the equal distribution seems less arbitrary than other possibilities. But such arbitrariness is not necessarily morally problematic.

There’s plenty of talk of how “we,” or “society,” i.e., the government, ought to distribute something, but it depends on the implicit and false assumption that the wealth of the nation is collectively owned and that it really belongs to the government to distribute, or redistribute, as it sees fit.  This is the case whether it aims at equality or anything else.  And it would be true even if it were true as well that an equal distribution of things is morally superior to an unequal distribution.  At least the bare fact that some situation would be morally superior to another does not justify any particular means to achieve it.  If A has no kidney and B has two kidneys then, all things being equal, it would be morally better if the kidneys were distributed so that A and B have one apiece, yet this tells us nothing about which means to bringing about the redistribution are morally permissible; presumably, some are and some are not, and there is no general guarantee that those that are morally permissible are also effective.

There’s no simple route from moral judgments about distributions in the sense of situations to those about distributions in the sense of acts of distributing.

A further source of confusion lies in the fact that unequal distributions do sometimes correspond to need.  But A’s problem, out of which arise moral demands on the rest of us, is not that B has two kidneys while he has none; it’s that he has no kidney.  He’d be no better off if B’s kidneys simply vanished so that kidney-wise, he and B are equal.  Poverty, insofar as this means that people are in need, morally matters, but inequality per se doesn’t.  A society in which the poorest individual gets $100,000/yr while the richest get $10 billion/yr is at face value morally preferable to one in which everyone gets $1000/yr.  Because of envy, someone might prefer to be needy but equal, but envy is neither rational nor morally good. (In A Theory of Justice, Rawls tries to justify a qualified egalitarianism (his “difference principle”) by treating some of the things others call envy as matters of self-esteem, which he construes as rational and morally worthy.)

The other way inequality is associated with what does morally matter lies in the fact that inequality is often caused by morally bad behavior.  The politically well-connected rich influence government policies to cause wealth to flow in their direction from those who are poorer and less well-connected.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is morally permissible for governments to tax: it is not morally permissible for it to tax for the purpose of achieving a more equal distribution of wealth.  (Of course, redistribution for purposes of rectification, as when A has two bananas and B has none because A stole B’s banana, is another matter.) Is progressive taxation justifiable?  Our current system is doubly progressive: rather than everyone paying the same, one pays a percentage of one’s income, so the rich pay more; then the percentage increases.  Arguably, the system is triply progressive, since much of the income of the rich is in the form of profits on investments which are subject to capital gains taxes, despite the fact that the invested money was taxed when initially earned.

Is it fair to force the rich to pay more? When I go to the store and pay the set price for a loaf of bread, it is not unfair that the next customer, who earns ten times what I earn, pays the same price.  In a free market a fair price is whatever the informed, uncoerced parties to the transaction agree to.  (Whether it is morally right to charge what it economically a fair price is a further matter.) Forced payments for government services do not, of course, occur in a free market.  If it is possible morally to justify forcing people to purchase these services, possibly in that justification we can find grounds for counting some charges as fair and others not.  If it is morally wrong to steal from A and from B, it is worse to take $1 million from the billionaire B than to take $1000 from A, who has only $10,000 altogether.  All things being equal, more harmful wrongful acts are morally worse than less harmful wrongful acts.  But I doubt that this is the kind of justification the statist seeks.  Perhaps there is no point to looking for moral justification: governments simply find that they can get more, with less resistance, by means of a system in which the rich pay more, especially if the rich who gain political favor are given preferential treatment in the form of deductions, allowance, loopholes, etc.

A standard argument, construing taxation as payment for services, one of which is protection of property, claims that the rich, having more to protect, get a more valuable service.  This is not fully convincing.  If I am poor, I have little and can devote little of that to buying protection of the rest, but if I am rich I can afford to buy the protection I need on the private market.  If I live on a large estate, I probably pay for more own security and see the police as superfluous.  If I am poor and live in the inner city, my only protection might be the local cops, however inadequate it is.  Similarly for various other public goods funded by taxation, e.g., parks, education, medical care.  So in one sense, it’s the poor, not the rich, who benefit most from tax-funded government services.

In any event, so far as I know no one who claims that the rich are not paying their “fair share” has ever said what that share might be.  In practice, “fair share” appears to be just code for “more.”

An ancient tradition in political thought is that democracy is ultimately infeasible.  Every democratic regime self-destructs, the inevitable collapse coming some time after the poorer 51% expropriate the richer 49% but long before the poorer 99% expropriate the richer 1%.  This was taken as a given in, e.g., Plato’s Republic. The US Constitution was the first serious attempt to create a democracy that would not inevitably self-destruct, by way of stringent constraints placed upon the power of the majority.  Whether this can now be considered a success is, I assume, currently debatable.

Traditionally, utilitarianism  rejects appeals to fairness out of hand. The only fairness utilitarianism demands is that each individual capable of pleasure or happiness has his utility weighed the same as that of everyone else.  But this is consistent with any sort of treatment of the individual, e.g., torturing him to death because it turns out that the pleasure the spectacle affords others outweighs his suffering.  In this and any number of other cases utilitarianism is at odds with our moral intuitions.  This is why it is seen as an alternative to “common sense” morality, not as a way to articulate and systematize it. So it’s odd to see Mankiw treating this as some sort of discovery.  Utilitarianism claims that common sense morality is often wrong, so pointing out its conflicts with common sense morality has no weight as an objection.

Also, Mankiw’s educational explanation of the increase in inequality in this country strikes me as focused on something of secondary importance. What seems much more significant is the confluence, by about 1970, of the US facing serious economic competition from emerging third-world economies as well as from first-world nations finally fully recovered from WW2, with government policies that discourage the production of wealth and facilitate its transfer to non-productive sectors.

Mankiw’s construal of the alleviation of poverty as a public good seems dubious to me. Are free rider problems really an issue when it comes to private help for the poor? Personally, I think I’m especially motivated to contribute precisely when I know that others won’t.  In instances in which one fears that one’s contribution will go to waste, is there an obstacle to agreements to contribute if, but only if, others contribute a certain amount?  We already have something like this when individuals and corporations offer to make “matching contributions,” e.g., your employer offers to contribute to PBS as much as you contribute.

But the underlying empirical claim that private charity “cannot do the job” is a familiar one.  I think whether it is true depends on what “the job” is taken to be.  Statists benefit from the ambiguity: is poverty having relatively less than others, or is it a matter of some people not having what they need for a decent life, however we measure that? It is probably true that nothing short of massive and systemic state action—”spreading the wealth around”—can do away with poverty in the former sense, but, as I said above, I see no reason to regard that as a good of any kind.  What government welfare programs—not just the obvious ones like the subsidy of one-parent households, but things like subsidies for college tuition and medical care—achieve are in the main results no sane person would want.  If instead doing away with poverty is a matter of bringing it about that everyone has their basic needs seen to, this (I would argue) is achievable by private means, at least in a society where there is no powerful central government working to increase need.



A Prayer for Students

Northwestern College


9 May 2014


O God, gracious and wise, consider these students, your servants, your sons and daughters, beloved in Christ before the foundation of the world.

Protect them, encourage them, sustain and uphold them for the sake of your Son our Savior.  Jesus, light of the world: may they see through your eyes.  Jesus, Word of God spoken as flesh: may your way become theirs.

Bless them with a joyful and living faith: not fragile, not rigid, but a deep, resilient trust in Jesus, the truth around whom all truths turn.  A faith that welcomes the world God so loves. Let them embrace that world’s need as their own.  Let them find Jesus in all who are lost, hungry, wounded, judged, condemned, broken. Give them the Spirit of Christ, who did not hold back, but went forth, and gave himself.

Trouble them when they are too sure, but strengthen them when their confidence fades.  Ever-faithful Lord, great in mercy, humble and relentless in love, even when they forsake you, pursue them, bear them up, and restore them to you.

Make seekers of the settled. Give them courage to go the hard way.  Lead them beyond themselves to what’s difficult and strange, to where you wait, Lord of all, ever new.

Endow them with a holy curiosity, discontent with what’s pat, shallow, safe and false.  Teach them to love the questions as well as the answers.  Show them the seams where things don’t fit, the questions they were afraid to ask.  Guide them to the places where you, God of wonder, have more to teach them.

Stand with them in trouble.  Be their beacon in uncertainty.  Within their doubt, hold them fast, their unseen anchor.  Beyond whatever darkness they endure, you their true hope. Past all loss, you their true love.

Provoke them, prod them, surprise and shock them.  Gentle Lord: soften their hearts, sharpen their minds, liberate their imaginations.   Let them never forget they have nothing to fear: Christ is risen!  Free but securely held, their names written on the palm of your hand. Now called, now sent out, forever blessed, forever beloved.