Misguiding Atheists

Richard Dawkins, and some others who see Christian faith and science in intractable conflict, take it for granted that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is the correct one, and that when biblical scholars advise us to read Scripture in ways that do not make it at odds with science, e.g., they tell us not to think the Bible teaches that there was a literal Adam, Eve, talking snake, magical trees, etc., all on a flat Earth under the turning metal dome of heaven, this is a dishonest dodge to avoid the plain implication that the Bible teaches these things and is wrong.  It seems to me that Rosenberg adopts an analogous, and no less hard to justify, position on our common sense concepts. Whatever the man in the street, untainted by philosophy, believes about the nature of freedom, consciousness, meaning, purpose, moral truth, and so on, is correct, and any naturalistic philosophers who try to explain how these things can, with some conceptual re-engineering, find their place in the world science describes, engage in a bad-faith effort to avoid the obvious unsettling news. Rosenberg’s account leaves the uninformed reader, whether atheist, agnostic, or theist, who accepts the idea that physics fixes all the facts about this world ,with the impression that if any such project exists, it is a marginal and futile effort, not the mainstream of contemporary philosophy.

Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality V Chapters 7 & 8

There doesn’t seem to be much to say about Chapter 7.  Taking heed of scientific knowledge of the human mind/brain, including what it reveals about the fallibility of introspection, does significantly reshape our image of what we are. (I find the degree to which our minds are modularized and its modules encapsulated the more radical discovery.)  But Rosenberg’s quick move from the fact that introspection is not infallible to the conclusion that it is not reliable is a bit much.  Even when an apparent way of knowing fails in some dramatic way, as in the case of blindsight, this does not justify the inference to unreliability. “If it can fail in this way then it must be overall unreliable!”  Reliable ways of knowing may come up against unexpected limits. By analogy: it was extremely surprising news when Russell in 1902 wrote to tell Frege that the set theory in which he sought to ground mathematics is inconsistent, or 30 years later when Gödel proved that any formalization of arithmetic is incomplete.  That whatever cognitive mechanism underlies mathematical intuition is not infallible is a conclusion in some ways as surprising as the discovery that introspection can fail in spectacular ways.  But no one draws from this the conclusion that it is not a reliable means to obtain knowledge. Nor, when it comes to it, does the fact that we are subject to visual illusions–ones that persist when we know they are illusions, a manifestation of perceptual encapsulation–imply that vision is not a reliable way to know.

Chapter 8 is a different story:

Of course: no physical thing inherently means (represents, is about, etc.) anything, i.e., it’s not about anything in virtue of its intrinsic physical features. From this truism Rosenberg infers that no physical thing is about anything. He is entitled to this inference only if it is also true that if a physical thing is about something, then it is in virtue of its intrinsic physical features. A physical thing also has non-intrinsic properties, its various relations to other things.  Among these are causal relations.  It exists as an effect of other things, and other things exist as its effects. In a particular setting it plays a characteristic causal role: it has typical causes and effects. These causal relations are, of course, manifestations of the laws of physics recruited by natural selection in the construction of brains that navigate organisms through their natural and social environments. There is, say, a neural state typically caused by there being a cat in the vicinity, and this state in turn has, in conjunction with other mental states, typical effects. There is a mental state in Karen caused by the cat being on the table, via her visual system, and this state, together with Karen’s desire for the cat not to be on the table, causes the behavior that consists in Karen evicting the cat from its illicit location. Whatever plays this causal role in the economy of the nervous system, irrespective of its physical constitution, is a representation of the cat. This is how mere physical things can be about things.

What seems very tendentious is the claim that this is not an account of how neuronal things can be about things, but the revelation that they are not about anything. A familiar pattern: start with a folk-concept of something, show that nothing in the world where physics fixes all the facts perfectly answers to it, and announce that nothing answers to it. The alternative, that we have discovered that the concept needs revision, remains out of sight. The reiterated assertion that nothing in the brain can be about anything invites us to wonder what is being denied. The causal role theorist claims that chunks of grey stuff are about something, but that this is not in virtue of their intrinsic properties, Rosenberg says, “That’s not genuine aboutness!” But why isn’t it? What is it that those clumps of grey matter lack that precludes them being about anything? We’re entitled to ask Rosenberg to complete the sentence, “A chunk of grey stuff would be about something if_______.” Is there no way to finish the sentence because what’s required is some non-physical property? I suppose that he would regard it as equally obvious that if there were a non-physical thing, it could not be about anything either. So is it that there’s no way to complete the sentence because the concept of aboutness is incoherent; nothing can be about anything just as nothing can be a square circle? But then there’s a burden to reveal the contradiction allegedly implicit in, “That clump of neurons is about Paris.” There’s no sign of this burden being discharged.

If there’s an argument lurking here, I imagine that it’s something like:

Aboutness must be either intrinsic or derived.

Nothing possesses intrinsic aboutness.

Something possesses derived aboutness only if something else possesses intrinsic aboutness.

Therefore: Nothing possesses aboutness.

There is, I suppose, some intuitive appeal to the third premise. But is it really true? The idea is something like: the word “cat” is about cats, but not in virtue of any intrinsic characteristic; its aboutness derives from human beings, who establish the convention that makes it about what the idea cat in their minds is about, and that is about cats not derivatively but intrinsically. But then we’re left with the truistic: nothing is about something by convention unless something else is about something not by convention. Clumps of grey matter in the brain, like the word “cat,” lack intrinsic aboutness, but this does not imply that any aboutness they could have must be conventional. It might simply be natural, having its antecedents in neural structures like those of the sea slug, in which there is no good candidate for being a mental representation. Between the sea slug and humans there need be no sharp phylogenic line where aboutness appears. Eventually, though, we can economically explain a creature’s behavior only by describing some of its neural structures as representations. That which is about something arises gradually from what is not about anything; in this sense, its aboutness is derived, but not from something that has intrinsic aboutness.

This said, it might be that the upshot of all this is that we’ve found that the concept aboutness (intentionality, representation, meaning, etc.) is useless; on analogy, we’ve come around to the view that the concept witch has no application in the real world. But this strikes me as implausible. Representation, e.g., seems to me precisely how we want to describe that mental state in the mind of Karen caused by the cat and causing her cat controlling behavior.

Blogging Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality IV (Ch 6)

1. Whatever experiments such as Libet’s imply about free will or its lack is indirect. At face value, what they support is some kind of epiphenomenalism, i.e., that conscious states, at least the introspected experience of making a choice, don’t have the causal powers we are apt to ascribe to them. Thoroughgoing epiphenomenalism is, I assume, incoherent: if these states of what we call consciousness exist, then they do have effects, at least our reports of them. But it is surprising if, as the evidence suggests, one’s conscious choice to perform an action is not its cause, but also an effect of whatever unconscious brain event causes it. Libet’s results undermine a particular conception of free will, one on which a choice is free only if (a) it is the effect of a conscious act of will, and (b) that conscious act of will is not the effect of some antecedent event. Which is to say it subverts a robust libertarian idea of freedom. (Maybe it is an effect of the person that chooses, in contrast to some event in her, but no one has any idea how we could manifest such “agent causation.” And we really have no idea how a material being could be an agent cause, even if we believe that God is free in this radical sense.) Materialists either accept this libertarian idea of free choice but say that we do not have it, or reject libertarianism in favor of a compatibilist conception of freedom: choices are free so long as they have the right kind of causal history, i.e., they deny condition (a). However, compatibilists have traditionally accepted condition (b), assuming that the proximate cause of a free act is a conscious choice to do it, one which is a free choice in virtue of having causes of the right kind. This is typically spelled out in terms of practical rationality: a choice is free just if it is caused by the chooser’s very own, reflectively examined reasons, i.e., her desires and beliefs. Can compatibilism survive the demotion of conscious acts of choice to a semi-epiphenomenal status?

2. I don’t find this a threat to compatibilism. First, we all know that the standard account on which something or other causes one to have various desires and beliefs, these cause a conscious act of choice, and that in turn causes the bodily motion that constitutes the action, is an idealization. Most of our free and responsible behavior proceeds without conscious deliberation and choice. Libet’s experiments bring into focus what we are already introspectively aware of: Conscious deliberation is relatively rare; mostly, we just do things, without consciously examining reasons. The essential compatibilist claim is that our free choices are caused by our reasons, and compatibilism has no interest in denying the obvious fact that we are only episodically conscious of them. At this moment you have a great many beliefs and desires but almost all of these mental states are dispositional, not occurrent.

3. There is a familiar worry that our conscious awareness of the reasons for which we act need not be entirely accurate, and we act for reasons other than the ones we think we act for. This is plausible enough to have kept psychoanalysis in business for years. Compatibilism is not committed to any given free choice being an effect of conscious deliberation, but it is in general committed to the idea that a high degree of freedom and responsibility does depend on a disposition to conscious deliberation under certain conditions, e.g., when the best course of action is not obvious but getting it right matters. This is, I assume, arises from the connection of self-consciousness to personhood, and of personhood to moral responsibility.

4. It might be that our concept of freedom is incoherent, that it combines the idea of free choice as uncaused and as having causes of the right sort. (There are empirical studies that support this.) If so, we may ask just what science leaves us and whether what’s left is worth having. Is it a sufficiently robust idea of freedom and responsibility to sustain the practices where we put it to use? As I noted earlier, when we discover that something lacks a feature we’ve long regarded as essential to it, we must either continue to regard it as essential and conclude that there is nothing to which the concept applies, or revise it, acknowledging that it was a mistake to take that feature of essential. Science sometimes shows us that things do not exist, e.g., witches, caloric, phlogiston, and sometimes that what exists is radically different than we thought, e.g., atoms, gravity, the mind. Rosenberg, for reasons not fully clear to me, seems strongly inclined to elimination over revision.

5. With many philosophical naturalists, I think a good case can be made for compatibilism, but difficulties lie ahead. One worry, which I suspect figures in Rosenberg’s rejection of it, is due to the fact that at face value it depends on the idea that human behavior generally can be explained as the effect of reasons, of beliefs and desires. Explaining, and predicting, and making sense of what human beings−others and ourselves−do by appeal to these mental states manifests our innate folk psychology, a presumed product of natural selection. Suppose, as may well be true, that folk psychological concepts cannot be smoothly mapped onto the physical, or even information-theoretic, structures of the human brain. These mental things can be identified with nothing in the domain of neuroscience. In what sense can beliefs, desires, and other intentional states be said really to exist? (“Intentional” here in the sense of having semantic properties, being about something.) When kinds of thing that we want to invoke in causal explanations cannot be reduced to the things physics refers to, the status of those explanations can be problematic. Is there are place for these mental states in the objective, physical universe, and if there is, is it a place that affords them a role in causal explanation? (It’s worth recalling that it’s not reduction, but reduction’s failure, that raises doubts about the reality of things. It’s the irreducibility of mind to matter that challenges the materialist.)

6. The other worry arises only for theists. Even if compatibilism is in general true−there’s no insurmountable conceptual difficulty in human action being at once caused and free−free choice might still be impossible if God is the First Cause. After all, if God created the universe, i.e., he brought about its initial conditions ex nihilo, and authored its causal laws, then his free creative act is the remote cause of every human action. Even if our actions could be free and responsible despite being the effects of natural causes, if what one does is caused by, foreknown by, and intended by someone else, then we are not free and responsible. If you choose and act as you do as result of the microchip a clever neuroscientist surreptitiously implanted in your brain last year, then you are not free and responsible. It will seem to you that you satisfy the compatibilist conditions for freedom, but this will be an illusion. Whatever investment a theist has in free will and moral responsibility as such−maybe not all that much−a Christian theist has a profound investment in human beings being capable of relating to God interpersonally and this requires that vis-à-vis him we be free, that what we do is distinct from what he does, and that we can do other than what he wants us to do. We might be free even if everything we do is causally determined, but not if it is causally determined by God. For this reason, the Christian hopes that nature’s fundamental laws are indeterministic. If they are, then God remains the most remote cause of all our actions, but he does not specifically foreknow or intend them. So long as the creation is indeterministic God and creatures can share responsibility for what creatures do, a view that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, which confesses the crucified God who takes responsibility for his wayward and ruined creatures. Whether nature’s laws are deterministic or indeterministic makes no difference so far as the issue of compatibilism goes, but it matters a great deal when our aim is to integrate a naturalistic account of the human condition into the Christian faith.

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. ​