0. Underlying Rosenberg’s project is the claim, made but not defended, that science reveals that God does not exist. Obviously, no well-confirmed theory of empirical science implies anything about God and thus science implies nothing about God’s alleged non-existence. Rosenberg assumes that if there were good reasons to believe that God exists, they would reside in theistic explanations of things that in fact science explains better. This is one of many false beliefs he shares with religious fundamentalists. However, Rosenberg can hardly be blamed for taking so many Christian theists at their word when they insist that what contemporary science tells us of the world and our place in it is antecedently improbable from the perspective of the Christian faith. They are wrong about this: the naturalistic implications of science are antecedently probable on Christian theology. But it’s not Rosenberg’s job to figure that out.
1. On Rosenberg’s account introspection reveals little or nothing of explanatory relevance about the human mind/brain because conscious states (a) are (something like) epiphenomenal, (b) no more than post hoc rationalizations of the unconscious goings on in the brain that actually cause human behavior, and (c) lack intentionality so they aren’t about anything anyway. Indeed, unconscious mental states, those that do cause behavior, also lack intentionality. There are experimental results (famously Libet’s) that support (a) and (b), though there’s plenty of distance from this evidence to these sweeping conclusions. The status of deflationary claims about intentionality, or to change the idiom, about the mind/brain having no semantic properties, is a central issue in the philosophy of the last century. I take it that all physicalists take it for granted that the facts about meaning are ontologically superficial, that in some sense the brain is a syntactic device that simulates a physically impossible semantic device. Where the mainstream sees this as setting the task of locating meaning in the world science knows, Rosenberg sees it as reason to elimiate serious talk of meaning. This is a manifestation of a general strategy, see #4, infra.
It would be nice to see at least a gesture toward the obvious issues of self-reference that arise from the claim that none of our thoughts are about anything. How do we manage to have scientific knowledge when our scientific beliefs are not about the world that makes science true?
2. Physics, Rosenberg reasonably asserts, fixes all the facts. (We theists who agree of course acknowledge an implicit scope restriction: physics fixes all the facts about the created world.) However, he appears to slide effortlessly from this to the stronger claim that all the facts are physical facts, or at least that all the facts are physical facts or facts reducible to physical facts. Most humanly important “facts,” e.g., those of folk-psychology or morality, thus turn out not to be facts at all. Here, as in other places, Rosenberg’s claims seem finely balanced between interpretations on which they are true but uncontroversial and interpretations on which, if not false, they are at least very controversial.
3. On the epistemological side there’s a similar move from the true, “Science is our best way of knowing,” to the highly problematic, “Science is our only way of knowing.” Such inferential leaps are all too familiar, but surely they are not mere mistakes on Rosenberg’s part. His texts in the philosophy of science are admirably clear and carefully reasoned introductions to many of the subjects he addresses in An Atheist’s Guide. The main disappointment of this book is that it seems to have been written by someone else! Writing, or trying to write, for a popular audience, one cuts all kinds of philosophical corners, and we see this going on left and right in An Atheist’s Guide. Yet it often seems that the wrong corners have been cut and that the effect on the philosophically innocent reader might well be the opposite of what Rosenberg intends: to instill the idea that the implications of taking science seriously are simply crazy. (I’m tempted to blame some editor’s notion of what’s appropriate for a book buying public.)
4. Along the way I’ve complained about Rosenberg’s strategy of reasoning from the fact that nothing in the reality known to science precisely answers to a familiar human concept, e.g., meaning, freedom, purpose, to the conclusion that that concept applies to nothing and should be eliminated from serious thought about the world. Why in at least some of these cases isn’t it more reasonable to regard our concepts as being corrected and revised by science and thus accorded their secure place in the world? We need not suppose that our pre-scientific concepts are infinitely malleable, but it’s hard to accept that they cannot sometimes be retained in versions improved by the encounter with science. And this is especially hard to accept in instances where the concepts at issue are adaptations that enable us to navigate the natural or social environment. But, of course, if all the facts are facts of (and not just fixed by) physics, there’s no place for such things in reality.
Here it’s worth pointing out Rosenberg’s reliance on folk-philosophical conceptions as though they are in perfectly good order. For example, he regularly tells us that since science shows that human behavior is causally determined, we are not free. But, of course, this is valid only with the addition of the premise that no causally determined action can be free. That premise remains unreflectively embraced by many, including many of the scientifically well-informed, and it might be true. The centuries of philosophical attack on it may be misguided. But the mere fact that this seems simply obvious to so many is no more a good reason to accept it than, say, the still-popular belief that heavy objects fall faster than light objects…or that our choices cause our actions.
5. An abiding question is about the supposed connection of all this—Rosenberg’s radically eliminative materialism—to atheism. Does he think that run of the mill naturalistic philosophers, engaged in the project of trying to explain how mind, rationality, meaning, purpose, freedom, and so on might fit into the physical universe best known by way of the sciences are some sort of crypto-theists, clinging to concepts that make sense only if there is a God? It would be interesting to see a case for that. (Perhaps Rosenberg and folks like Al Plantinga are on the same page: if no God then no meaning, no rationality, etc.) Insofar as anything like this appears in An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, it seems to be no more than one more fast inference, this one from the fact that there is no purpose in nature to the further claim that there is no purpose for nature. (For Rosenberg the claim that there is no purpose in nature encompasses not just the obvious fact that there is no final causation in nature, that evolution’s trajectory is blind, and that the etiology of human action is entirely a matter of efficient causation, but the not at all obvous claim that human beings do not really do things for reasons, i.e., that beliefs and desires are not the causes of behavior.)