Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:


Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

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.

A Guide to Reality, Part 13

Chapter 8 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions is called “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything At All”. Without thinking about anything at all? That sounds like another of Rosenberg’s rhetorical exaggerations.

He grants that it’s perfectly natural for us to believe that our conscious minds allow us to think about this and that. Yet he claims that science tells us otherwise:

Among the seemingly unquestionable truths science makes us deny is the idea that we have any purposes at all, that we ever make plans — for today, tomorrow or next year. Science must even deny the basic notion that we ever really think about the past and the future or even that our conscious thoughts ever give any meaning to the actions that express them [165].

But despite this claim about science and the title of the chapter, Rosenberg doesn’t really “deny that we think accurately and act intelligently in the world”. It’s just (just!) that we don’t “do it in anything like the way almost everyone thinks we do”. In other words, we think but we don’t think “about”.

Before getting to his argument against “aboutness”, Rosenberg offers the observation that science is merely “common sense continually improving itself, rebuilding itself, correcting itself, until it is no longer recognizable as common sense” [167]. That seems like a correct understanding of science; it’s not as if science is a separate realm completely divorced from what’s called “common sense”. When done correctly, science is a cumulative process involving steps that are each in turn commonsensical, i.e. based on sound reasoning or information:

Science begins as common sense. Each step in the development of science is taken by common sense. The accumulation of those commonsense steps … has produced a body of science that no one any longer recognizes as common sense. But that’s what it is. The real common sense is relativity and quantum mechanics, atomic chemistry and natural selection. That’s why we should believe it in preference to what ordinary experience suggests [169].

So, if you have a mental image of the Eiffel Tower or suddenly remember that the Bastille was stormed in 1789, ordinary introspection suggests that you’re having a thought about Paris. But, according to Rosenberg, that’s a mistake. Assuming that this thought of yours that’s supposedly about Paris consists in or at least reflects activity in your brain (the organ you use to think), that would imply that there must be something in your brain that represents Paris. We know, however, that any such representation isn’t a tiny picture or map of Paris. Brain cells aren’t arranged like tiny pictures.

But perhaps there’s a kind of symbol in your brain, an arrangement of neurons that your brain somehow interprets as representing Paris? Rosenberg rejects this possibility, arguing that any such interpretation would require a second set of neurons:

[The second set of neurons] can’t interpret the Paris neurons as being about Paris unless some other part of [the second set] is, separately and independently, about Paris [too]. These will be the neurons that “say” that the Paris neurons are about Paris; they will be about the Paris neurons the way the Paris neurons are about Paris [178]. 

Rosenberg argues that this type of arrangement would lead to an unacceptable infinite regress. There would have to be a third set of neurons about the second set, and so on, and so on.

I confess that I’m having trouble understanding why the regress is necessary. In Rosenberg’s notes, he references a book called Memory: From Mind to Molecules, by the neuroscientists Larry Squire and Eric Kandel, which he says explains “how the brain stores information without any aboutness”. Maybe it’s clearer there.

However, if we grant that Rosenberg’s argument is correct and one part of the brain interpreting another (symbol-like) part of the brain would require an impossible infinite regress, it still seems questionable whether he has shown that nothing in the brain can be about anything. What his argument will have shown is that one part of the brain can’t interpret some other, symbolic part of the brain. Perhaps thoughts can be “about” something in some other way.

Rosenberg next offers an interesting account of how our brains work. Briefly put, human brains work pretty much like the brains of sea slugs and rats. Scientists have discovered that all of us organisms learn by connecting neurons together. Individual neurons are relatively simple input/output devices. Link them together and they become more complex input/output devices. The key difference between our brains and those belong to sea slugs and rats is that ours have more neurons and more links.

When a sea slug is conditioned to respond a certain way to a particular stimulus (like one of Pavlov’s dogs),

[the training] releases proteins that opens up the channels, the synapses, between the neurons, so it is easier for molecules of calcium, potassium, sodium and chloride to move through their gaps, carrying electrical charges between the neurons. This produces short-term memory in the sea slug. Training over a longer period does the same thing, but also stimulates genes in the neurons’ nuclei to build new synapses that last for some time. The more synapses, the longer the conditioning lasts. The result is long-term memory in the sea slug [181].

The process in your brain was similar when you learned to recognize your mother’s face. Rosenberg cites an experiment in which researchers were able to temporarily disable the neurons that allowed their subject to recognize her mother. Since she still recognized her mother’s voice, she couldn’t understand why this stranger sounded just like her mother.

Rosenberg concludes that there is nothing in our brains that is “about” anything:

None of these sets of circuits are about anything….The small sets of specialized input/output circuits that respond to your mom’s face, as well as the large set that responds to your mom [in different ways], are no different from millions of other such sets in your brain, except in one way: they respond to a distinct electrical input with a distinct electrical output….That’s why they are not about anything. Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world [184]. 

Of course, how the activation of neural circuits in our brains results in conscious thoughts that seem to be “about” something remains a mystery. Today, for no apparent reason, I had a brief thought about Roxy Music, the 70s rock band. Maybe something in my environment (which happened to be a parking lot) triggered that particular mental response. Or maybe there was some seemingly random electrical activity in my brain that suddenly made Roxy Music come to mind. 

I still don’t see why we should deny that my thought this afternoon was about Roxy Music, even if the neural mechanics involved were quite simple at the cellular level. If some of my neurons will lead me to answer “Roxy Music” when I’m asked what group Bryan Ferry was in, or will get me to think of Roxy Music once in a while, perhaps we should accept the fact that there are arrangements of neurons in my head that are about Roxy Music.

Philosophers use the term “intentionality” instead of “aboutness”. They’ve been trying to understand intentionality for a long time. How can one thing be “about” another thing? Rosenberg seems to agree that intentionality is mysterious. He also thinks it’s an illusion. Maybe he’s right. In the last part of chapter 8, he brings computer science into the discussion. That’s a topic that will have to wait for another time.

God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes with Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative) that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as Schneewind tells the story in the first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all. Plato presented the problem in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly, there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”: God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be the right ones. God cannot make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that God might not even be necessary for morality. Concerns like that convinced some to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or immoral would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.

A Guide to Reality, Part 10

Chapters 5 and 6 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are all about morality. In chapter 5, he lays out what he calls the “bad news”: there is no “cosmic value” to human life and moral questions have no correct answers. Rosenberg explicitly endorses ethical nihilism:

Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways. by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of examples that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none….All anyone can really find are the answers that they like [96].

To be completely consistent, Rosenberg would probably have to admit that there is no “bad” anything, not even news. Since, on his view, “physics fixes all the facts” and there is nothing truly good or bad in the world at all. After all, one quark is just the same as another.

Rosenberg explains that nihilism isn’t the same as relativism or skepticism. It’s not the case that ethical views can be correct at some times and not at others, or that we can never know for sure which ethical views are right or wrong. Nihilism doesn’t even mean that “everything is permitted”, since nothing is morally “permitted” or “forbidden”:

[All moral judgments] are based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. [Nihilism] can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible”. That, too, is untenable nonsense [97].

Nothing at all is morally valuable in itself  (“intrinsically”) or even as a means to something that is.

Notice, however, that Rosenberg isn’t a nihilist about everything. At least, he gives the strong impression that he believes some ideas are true and some are false, and some beliefs are justified and some aren’t. But it’s generally accepted that truth and justification are “normative” concepts just as much as “right” and “wrong”, i.e., they are value-laden. True statements are those which “correctly” describe some state of affairs, while justified beliefs are those that have “good” reasons for believing them. But physics has nothing to say about correct descriptions or good reasons.

In the rest of chapter 5, Rosenberg offers an argument for the truth of ethical nihilism. He begins with a version of the famous question Plato asked in his Euthyphro dialogue: If our favorite moral rule (whatever it happens to be) is both morally correct and favored by God, is it correct because God favors it or does God favor it because it’s correct? Some Christian theologians have tried to deal with the question by invoking the Trinity or by claiming that the question presupposes a misunderstanding of God’s nature, but most people would probably agree that God favors moral rules because they are correct, not the other way around.

Rosenberg, of course, isn’t really interested in a theological version of the question. He brings it up because he thinks it presents an important challenge to his own scientistic position.

He next argues that there is a core set of moral principles common to all cultures. These principles are so common and so obvious, in fact, that they are rarely discussed. For example, we all agree that parents should protect their children; self-interest is acceptable until it becomes selfishness; and it’s wrong to punish people at random. Rosenberg thinks this core morality is the product of millions of years of human evolution (which sounds right to me, too).

He then asks a Euthyphro-like question: did evolution result in our core morality because it’s the correct morality, or is it the correct morality because it resulted from evolution?

Is natural selection so smart that it was able to filter out all the wrong, incorrect, false core moralities and end up with the only one that just happens to be true? Or is it the other way around: Natural selection filtered out all but one core morality, and winning the race is what made the last surviving core morality the right, correct, true one [109].

This question seems more difficult to answer than the theological version. Rosenberg, in fact, argues that the question has no answer. On one hand, evolution is blind, so there was no way for evolution to “know” which morality is correct. Furthermore, evolution has resulted in common views and practices that don’t seem ethical at all, like patriarchy and xenophobia. For that matter, the fact that religion is so common implies that evolution is good at generating false (but useful) beliefs.

On the other hand, just because our core morality resulted from evolution doesn’t make it right. Lots of things have evolved that we’d be better off without (like using the same anatomical feature to eat and breathe). More fundamentally, Rosenberg suggests that there is nothing morally right about having children who tend to survive and have other children, which is the principal thing natural selection makes happen.

But if our core morality isn’t correct because it evolved, and it didn’t evolve because it’s correct, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that our morality isn’t correct at all. In other words, morality isn’t true. It’s merely useful:

Scientism cannot explain the fact that when it comes to the moral core, fitness and correctness seem to go together. But neither can it tolerate the unexplained coincidence. There is only one alternative. We have to give up correctness…

Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts – the facts about us, our psychology and our morality…The biological facts can’t guarantee that our core morality (or any other one, for that matter) is the right, true or correct one. If the biological facts can’t do it, then nothing can. No moral core is right, correct, true. That’s nihilism. And we have to accept it [113].

We might immediately object that the biological facts might not justify morality, but the social facts do. Rosenberg claims that lower-level facts, like the biological, determine higher-level facts, like the psychological. That may indeed be true (I think it is anyway), but isn’t it likewise the case that psychological facts determine social facts, which in turn determine ethical facts? If there are ethical facts (if ethical evaluations can have truth values – which is, by the way, a controversial view among philosophers), aren’t those facts determined by lower-level facts as well?

Those who think ethical statements can be true or false would probably argue that evolution has generated morality, but moral disagreement occurs because we simply haven’t figured out what all the ethical facts are. We know some ethical facts (it’s wrong to hurt people at random and other elements of Rosenberg’s core morality) but not others (is paternalism good in some cases? how about euthanasia?). 

I’ll end for now with the comment that philosophical arguments, even interesting ones like Rosenberg’s, hardly ever destroy the opposition. They almost always lead to more arguments. 

In our next installment, we’ll proceed to chapter 6, in which Rosenberg argues that nihilism is nothing to worry about, since nihilism can be nice. 

A Guide to Reality, Part 9

Alex Rosenberg begins chapter 4 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by pointing out how wasteful biological processes are. For example, a frog or fish may lay thousands or even millions of eggs and only produce a few offspring. Many organisms go through an entire life cycle without having any offspring at all. In addition, 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct, partly as the result of various prehistoric cataclysms (like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs).

Rosenberg says this is what we should expect from the Second Law of Thermodynamics: “a lot of order relentlessly turned into entropy” [75]: 

Can any process produce entropy as fast as natural selection?… Build a lot of complicated devices out of simpler things and then destroy all of them except the few you need to build more such devices… [Adaptations] persistently get more complicated and so use even more energy to build and maintain themselves…. Any process competing with natural selection as the source of adaptations has to produce adaptations from non-adaptations and every one of the adaptations it produces will have to be rare, expensive and wasteful [77].

However, Rosenberg’s main thesis in this chapter is that it’s logically impossible to reconcile God and Darwin (although many have tried). He begins with the traditional idea that God is omniscient and omnipotent (aside from being unable to perform impossible tasks like creating a rock so heavy He or She can’t lift it). Rosenberg also assumes for the sake of argument that God intended to create us or something like us “in His image”.

So, assuming that God knows everything, can do anything, and wanted us to exist, how can we harmonize God and evolution? The common approach is to suggest that God used evolution to make us, either by kicking off the process long ago, knowing it would eventually lead to us, or by manipulating evolution at key points, with the same result. In other words, evolution is part of God’s plan.

A problem with this idea, as Rosenberg explains, is that natural selection is a matter of probabilities. That’s what we should expect from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Mutations just happen. Organisms that might do very well never get the chance because of some random event (like being eaten while still in the nest). There is no guarantee that particular species will evolve. That’s what science tells us.

If God cooked the evolutionary books, therefore, interfering with the randomness of evolution, Darwin got it wrong. We didn’t evolve in the way the theory predicts. On the other hand, if God let evolution take its random course, He or She didn’t know what the result would be. Our evolution wasn’t planned. Either evolution is a random, probabilistic process or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.

My guess is that a proponent of intelligent design or creationism would say “so much for evolution”. It doesn’t work exactly like the biologists say. So what? Or that God in His infinite wisdom can arrange things any way He wants. It’s all way beyond our understanding.

Personally, I don’t have any religious faith that needs to be reconciled with Darwinism. But what if you’re serious about reconciling your faith and your scientific views? Is there a good response to Rosenberg’s argument?

I think there is. My first reaction to Rosenberg’s argument in chapter 4 is that he seems to be ignoring something he discussed in chapter 2, namely, the “multiverse”. As Rosenberg pointed out, many theoretical physicists, perhaps most of them, think that our universe is just one among many, where “many” could be a truly vast number, even an infinite number. But if there really is a multiverse, it seems beyond question that people like us were certain to evolve in universes here or there, given enough time and randomness. God, being omniscient, could have initiated the multiverse knowing full well that people just like us would eventually exist in some of its parts. If anyone would, God would understand that if you roll the dice often enough, you’ll eventually get all the combinations.

Along with Rosenberg, we can accept the fact that evolution is a truly random process in our universe. It might even be a random process in every universe. But if there are enough universes around, pretty much everything will end up evolving somewhere or other many, many times. If that’s God’s plan, there is no conflict with the Second Law or the theory of evolution. God and Darwin can be reconciled.

My other reaction to Rosenberg’s argument is that he should take into account what physicists and many philosophers say about the nature of time. I have trouble with the idea, but the current scientific view of time is that all moments are equally real. Ours is a “block” universe in which there is no past, present or future; there is merely earlier and later. It isn’t clear to me at all how the universe can be probabilistic and physical events truly random if what’s going to happen is just as real as what did happen, but that’s what physicists believe. I guess it just means the past doesn’t fully determine the future at the quantum level, even though future events are just as real as past events. 

Anyway, if anyone can reconcile quantum indeterminacy and a block universe, it’s God. After all, according to the theologians, God is outside of time (whatever that means). God isn’t sitting around, waiting to see what happens. As Rosenberg says, God is “omnipresent”, which means there is nothing in space or time that is off-limits to God. Being omniscient as well, God knows the whole story. That should be especially easy for God if earlier and later events in the story are equally real.

For that reason, even if evolution is random and inherently unpredictable, God is fully informed. Every event, earlier or later, is right there in the history of the universe for God to know about. If what physics tells us is true, it’s a perfect setup for someone like God, being outside of time, to know how evolution eventually leads to people like us. Randomness prevails, Darwinism is correct and God knows the whole story anyway. If indeterminacy and the supposed nature of time are in harmony, so are physics, Darwin and God. 

Rosenberg ends chapter 4 with some remarks on purpose:

Scientism means that we have to be nihilists about the purpose of things in general, about the purpose of biological life in particular, and the purpose of human life as well….There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the universe. It’s just one damn thing after another. Real purpose has been ruled out by physics [92].

I don’t think he’s right about that, but to avoid repeating myself, we’re going to move on. In our next installment, we’ll consider chapter 5. It’s called “Morality: the Bad News” (the good news supposedly comes later).

A Guide to Reality, Part 3

Continuing to work through The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg:

Professor Rosenberg begins chapter 1 by explaining why he’s not going to spend much time arguing for atheism: others, especially David Hume, have already done that quite well; such arguments, even very good ones, don’t convince true believers; and anyway, it’s more important to understand how science can help us live without illusions than to keep talking about religion.

Instead, Rosenberg is going to discuss a view called “scientism”. As he notes, “scientism” is usually applied in a negative way to people who supposedly worship science, or try to extend it beyond its natural borders, or simply take it too seriously. Rosenberg welcomes the term, defining it this way:

[Scientism] is 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 (6-7).

The idea that the current scientific description of the word is fundamentally accurate is known among philosophers as “scientific realism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best [scientific] theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences”. In other words, science is a highly reliable way to acquire knowledge of the world. Science allows us to learn about the world as it is, independent of our minds. Science even allows us to find out about things we can’t directly observe, like the Big Bang and sub-atomic particles.

Rosenberg is clearly a scientific realist. Not all philosophers are (they, in fact, disagree to some extent about what science is). But Rosenberg’s scientism goes beyond simple scientific realism when he asserts that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”.

Maybe he’s exaggerating on purpose (not something philosophers ordinarily do), but are you and I doing science when we look out the window and agree that it’s snowing? Is a student doing science when she concludes that Socrates was mortal if Socrates was a man and all men are mortal? As Rosenberg knows, of course, science relies on occasionally unreliable activities like seeing and hearing in order to gather evidence. Even though scientists don’t rely on a single person’s observations, they do use the same perceptual abilities the rest of us employ to acquire knowledge. In addition, most of us would agree that people clearly know lots of things that aren’t “scientific” in the usual sense (including math, logic, historical facts, cultural practices and whether the Ford is in the driveway).

Perhaps it’s enough that an adherent of scientism believes that, when applied correctly, the various methods of science are by far the best ways we have to get at the truth about many or most features of the world. Those methods include classification, observation, experimentation, measurement, replication, discussion, publication and other things physicists, chemists, biologists and psychologists regularly do.That seems right to me, but I don’t think it’s enough for Rosenberg.

Before moving on, I should mention that Rosenberg also considers this question: if science is such a reliable method of determining the truth, why do so many people reject scientific conclusions? One reason, of course, is that scientific results are often revised. Another is that scientists often disagree among themselves, especially on topics that make the news, in some cases because they are influenced by un-scientific factors, like working for Exxon. Yet another big reason why many are skeptical about science is that scientific conclusions often make people uncomfortable (as in the case of climate change, for example).

Rosenberg, however, mainly discusses the human need for “stories”, by which he means our tendency to understand the world in terms of personalities and purposes. He argues that our ancestors became good at recognizing and interpreting purposeful behavior because that skill made it much easier to live and prosper among other people. Evolution, however, overshot the mark. People heard thunder and concluded that Someone was angry. Today, according to Rosenberg, people have trouble understanding math and physics because their subject matter doesn’t include human beings or other creatures doing things. In other words, science is especially hard because most people haven’t been built (through evolution) to understand it. Religion, on the other hand, often involves stories, which we generally find more easy to understand than science.

In the next installment: physics and the nature of reality.