A Guide to Reality, Part 15 (the End, or Maybe Not Quite)

The final chapter of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions is “Living With Scientism”. Rosenberg defined “scientism” in his first chapter as a worldview that isn’t merely consistent with atheism, but is:

the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share…[It’s] the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that, when “complete”, what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today…Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about [6-7].

Anyone who accepts scientism as Rosenberg explains it may well be an atheist, since there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God or gods. But the idea that all atheists accept Rosenberg’s version of scientism is clearly false. Rosenberg’s scientism is an extreme example of what might be called “nothing-but-ism”. The universe is nothing but subatomic particles. Everything can ultimately be explained in terms of those particles and their interactions. In Rosenberg’s words, physics fixes all the facts.

Yet one can deny the existence of God or gods but believe without contradiction that there are ethical truths and that some higher-level phenomena cannot be reduced to physics. Rosenberg himself calls attention to so-called “secular humanists” who may be atheists but who also “treat the core morality we share as true, right, correct and really morally binding on us” [277]. Rosenberg, of course, thinks that morality, as well as meaning and purpose, are all illusions.

He has an answer, however, for anyone who wonders why someone with his beliefs would bother getting out of bed in the morning:

Luckily for us, Mother Nature has seen to it that most of us, including the secular humanists, will get up most mornings and go on living even without anything to make our lives meaningful. The proof is obvious. There is nothing that makes our lives meaningful, and yet here we are, out of our pajamas [280].

Natural selection (aka Mother Nature) has made human beings generally capable of surviving and reproducing. Some of us do better at the components of being alive and some do worse, as should be expected. Anyone who worries too much about the meaning of life can look to religion, philosophy or science for answers, although there aren’t any answers to be found, since life has no meaning. Fortunately, we who need special assistance getting out of bed can seek medicine from psychiatrists or conversation with therapists, either of which may rewire our brains and relieve our suffering. As science progresses, it will become easier for psychological problems to be addressed. But we should remember that:

Your neural circuits, and so your behavior, may get modified as a result of the therapy, but it is an illusion that the change results from thinking about what the therapist said and consciously buying into his or her diagnosis. In therapy, as in everything else in life, the illusory content of introspective thoughts is just along for the ride [286].

With respect to morality, Rosenberg endorses what he calls “nice nihilism”, the view that moral distinctions have no basis in reality (that’s the nihilist part), but most people behave morally anyway as the result of natural selection (that’s the nice part). He points out that moral disagreements usually concern facts, not values. For example, some argue that capital punishment is morally acceptable because it’s a significant deterrent. But that’s a question that can be answered by looking at statistics. Some moral disagreements result from conflicting ethical ideals. In those cases, there are no “right” answers. 

Rosenberg argues that scientism is most consistent with tolerance toward other people’s ethical views and willingness to question our own. We shouldn’t assume that people who disagree with us are evil; they’re simply misinformed. And since scientific conclusions are almost always subject to revision, we should admit that our own scientifically-informed ethical views may be mistaken.

As Rosenberg points out, most scientists (not all of whom accept Rosenberg’s brand of scientism, of course) are on the political left. As evidence, he could have cited a 2009 poll showing that 81% of American scientists are Democrats or lean that way, while only 12% are Republicans or lean right. (These numbers shouldn’t be a surprise, since scientists tend to know about science, and therefore about reality, which has a well-known liberal bias).

Furthermore, Rosenberg thinks that anyone who accepts scientism should oppose retributive punishment and favor political egalitarianism. In his view, there is no free will, so nobody is really responsible for the painful things they do or the pleasant things they accomplish. He concludes that prisons should resemble hospitals: sick people (criminals) should be treated and seriously infectious people (those can’t be rehabilitated) should be quarantined. Meanwhile, society’s goods should be distributed rather evenly. None of this should be done for ethical reasons, since ethics is an illusion, but for practical or prudential reasons. For example, people with lots of money can interfere with the operation of free markets, which tend to benefit society as a whole (of which we are a part), so it makes sense to redistribute some of their wealth.

Rosenberg concludes with the suggestion that we consider emulating the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. He was ahead of his time in believing that everything in the universe, including our minds, is made of atoms. He also thought that pleasure and pain are the best guides to what’s good and bad or right and wrong. He didn’t favor riotous living, however. As Rosenberg explains:

A tranquil self-sufficient life along with your friends was the key to securing the good and avoiding evil…The tranquility he commended requires that we not take ourselves or much of anything else too seriously…. Epicureanism encourages a good time [313].

Epicurus also argued that death is nothing to fear. There is no such thing as immortality, so death is the end of our existence. Since we no longer exist when we are dead, we have no reason to fear death (although the process of dying may be very uncomfortable, as Epicurus realized)..

When I started writing about Rosenberg’s book almost two years ago, I thought it would be an interesting experience, but didn’t anticipate taking so long to get through it. (You never know if you’ll enjoy reading a book a second time, even if you really enjoyed it the first time.) This was going to be my last entry on this topic, but a few final thoughts may be appropriate. Not tonight, however, unless they’re yours.