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 14

It’s been more than three months since I wrote about Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. I left off part of the way through chapter 8, “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything At All”. Having read the book once before, it’s been difficult going through it again, but I’m now going to finish chapter 8.

The principal thesis of Rosenberg’s book is that since the universe is nothing more than subatomic particles, much of what we take for granted about the world is illusory. In the case of the human brain, this means that the brain does its work without anything happening in the brain being “about” anything at all.

Rosenberg asks us to consider a computer:

Neither the … electrical charges in the computer’s motherboard nor the distribution of magnetic charges in the hard drive can be about anything, right? They are just like red octagons. They get interpreted by us [as stop signs or whatever] [187].

Electrical engineers and computer programmers assign meanings to a computer’s low-level states (“on” or “off”, or 32767, or the letter “w”), but those states have no meaning in themselves. It’s only because people are able to assign meanings to the states of a computer and then interpret those them that those states can be about anything, just the way a red octagonal sign with “STOP” on it only has meaning for those of us who know how to read a traffic sign.

But doesn’t that mean that the physical states of a computer can be about something? Doesn’t our interpretation of those states imply that those states are meaningful?

Rosenberg doesn’t think so. Earlier, he discussed how brain cells function as input/output devices. Now he compares the brain itself to a computer:

The brain is at least in part a computer. It’s composed of an unimaginably large number of electronic input/output circuits…The circuits transmit electrical outputs in different ways, depending on their electrical inputs and on how their parts… But that it is at least a computer is obvious from its anatomy and physiology right down to the individual neurons and their electrochemical on/off connections [188-189].

But if what’s inside a computer isn’t about anything, and your brain works like a computer, what’s inside your brain isn’t about anything either. It’s merely an enormous bunch of interconnected cells that have no intrinsic meaning. That’s Rosenberg’s conclusion.

To clarify his point, he then offers an analogy. The image in a still photograph doesn’t move. But string many photographs together, project them on a screen and you’ve got a motion picture. The motion we perceive in a movie, however, is an illusion. Creatures whose physiology worked faster than ours would simply see a succession of still pictures, not actors or objects in continuous motion. In similar fashion:

The illusion of aboutness projected by the neurons in our brain does not match any aboutness in the world. There isn’t any….There is no aboutness in reality [191].

So, despite what introspection tells us (or “screams” at us, using his term), our thoughts aren’t about anything either:

Consciousness is just another physical process. So, it has as much trouble producing aboutness as any other physical process. Introspection certainly produces the illusion of aboutness. But it’s got to be an illusion, since nothing physical can be about anything [193]. 

But doesn’t that mean The Atheist’s Guide to Reality isn’t about anything? Why bother reading it then?

Rosenberg’s answer is that his book isn’t “conveying statements”. It’s “rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information” [193]. But, we might ask, isn’t information “about” something? And isn’t the distinction between accurate and inaccurate information dependent on the idea that information can be about something in a more or less satisfactory manner?

At this point, I can’t remember why Rosenberg is so interested in convincing us that there is no real “aboutness” or what philosophers call “intentionality” in the world.

It’s certainly puzzling how our minds are able to assign meaning to and find meaning in the world. Being appreciative of science, I can accept that there is nothing in the universe but quarks, leptons and bosons when you get right down to it (or their component parts if there are any), but there are also arrangements of those things. Some of those arrangements are meaningful to us and some aren’t. The fact that scientists might and probably will explain our experience of aboutness in biological terms, and then in terms of chemistry, and then in terms of physics, doesn’t change the fact that Rosenberg’s book and the words I’m typing are about something.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know if I’d work through any more chapters in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (although if the universe is as deterministic as Rosenberg thinks – and I tend to think – that was decided some time ago). But now what I think I’m going to do is skip the next three chapters. They’re concerned with purpose (an illusion), the self (also an illusion), history (it’s blind) and the other social sciences, especially economics (they’re all myopic). Chapter 12, the final chapter, is called “Living With Scientism: Ethics, Politics, the Humanities, and Prozac as Needed”. That seems like a good place to stop.

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.

A Guide to Reality, Part 12

Chapter 7 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is called “Never Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide”. A more grammatical title would have been “Never Let Consciousness Be Your Guide”. A longer but more accurate title would have been “Never Let Introspection Be Your Guide to What’s Happening in Your Mind”, because that’s the actual theme of the chapter: “Scientism requires that we give up everything introspection tells us about the mind” [147].

As he often does, Rosenberg overstates his case, apparently for rhetorical effect. After all, is it really true that introspection is a completely unreliable guide to what’s going on in our minds?

He offers as evidence three kinds of phenomena. The first is “blindsight”. Researchers have discovered that people with certain kinds of brain damage can perceive features of the world without being conscious of what they’re perceiving. For example, a person with a particular kind of damage to the visual cortex, who denies seeing anything at all, can “see” colors and shapes and even the expressions on other people’s faces. If asked whether they see something, they answer “no”, but forced to guess, they give the correct answer. Here, then, is a case in which conscious introspection, which indicates that I don’t see anything, is unreliable, because I really do.

Rosenberg’s second piece of evidence concerns our common belief that we have free will. Most of us are quite convinced that we make conscious decisions that result in freely-chosen actions all the time. However, experiments suggest that when we decide to perform a random action like moving a finger a certain way, the physiological process that will inevitably lead to the action taking place is underway before we’re aware of our decision to perform the action. 

The most interesting case he cites is one in which a neuroscientist stimulates a subject’s brain, causing the subject’s finger or wrist to move but also causing the subject, milliseconds later, to claim that the motion resulted from the subject’s conscious decision.The interpretation of these findings and their relevance to the free will problem are controversial, but they do suggest that conscious decision-making may not be as important in making decisions as we think it is.

Finally, Rosenberg argues that the existence of optical illusions shows that consciousness is unreliable. We interpret visual stimuli according to unconscious rules of thumb (mixed metaphor). These rules of thumb, which are probably the combined product of human evolution and our own experience, often mislead us. The circles in the diagram below look different but really aren’t, so here’s another case, according to Rosenberg, in which we shouldn’t let consciousness be our guide. (The book includes some interesting illustrations from the Purves Lab, which are available here.)

download (1)

Chapter 7 is relatively brief, because in this chapter Rosenberg is laying the groundwork for an especially counterintuitive idea he’s going to discuss in the next chapter (that we don’t actually think “about” anything at all). For now, here’s his conclusion:

We have seen that consciousness can’t be trusted to be right about the most basic things: the alleged need for visual experiences to see colors and shapes, the supposed role of conscious decisions in bringing about our actions, even the idea that we [see the world as it is]. If it can be wrong about these things, it can be wrong about almost everything it tells us about ourselves and our minds [162].

An important thing to note regarding Rosenberg’s argument is that he isn’t really claiming that conscious sense perception is completely unreliable (at least that’s not what I think he’s claiming). Although he denies that colors, for example, are mind-independent properties, he clearly believes that we do learn about the world using our eyes and ears. Otherwise, it would be odd to offer evidence that a blind person can perceive the “correct” color of an orange and that optical illusions are illusory (compared to what?). It would also be difficult to explain why most of us navigate the world better when our eyes are open and we’re not wearing headphones.

His principal thesis in this chapter is that certain conclusions we naturally draw from introspection (“the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes”) are mistaken. Specifically, it’s natural for us to assume that we need to be conscious in order to perceive certain features of the world, that our choices clearly determine our actions, and that (prior to being let in on the secret) we can always tell whether two lines are the same length or two circles are the same color just by looking.

I think Rosenberg is wrong, however, when he concludes that introspection can’t be trusted about “the most basic things”. What are the most basic conclusions we can draw from introspection? I’m not sure about that, but some natural conclusions seem more basic than the ones Rosenberg criticizes.

For example, we are better at perceiving features of the world when we’re relatively conscious (like when we’re awake) than when we’re relatively unconscious (like when we’re asleep). Some people see and hear better than others. Sight is usually reliable, even though there are occasional optical illusions. And when we feel angry or sad, we are generally angry or sad. It’s just wrong to think that introspection is always wrong about the most basic things.

I won’t offer a more basic conclusion about free will, except to say that conscious deliberation seems to help in making some decisions (whether to enroll at a college, get married or buy a house, for example) – whatever the underlying physiological processes are. Rosenberg may be right that conscious decisions are always the aftermath of unconscious decisions. We never really know what decision we’re going to make until it starts to “feel” like the right decision or we actually do something. Maybe our brains always do the necessary work unconsciously right before we discover what we’ve decided.

Coming up (sooner or later), part 13 of “A Guide to Reality”: Is it true that the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all?

A Guide to Reality, Part 11

In chapter 6 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Professor Alex Rosenberg offers an explanation of what he calls “nice nihilism”. The point he wants to make is that, although we should all be ethical nihilists and recognize that morality is an illusion, nihilism is nothing to worry about. We humans have evolved to be nice to each other, on balance, so we can continue to behave ethically despite giving up the idea that any of our ethical beliefs are true or correct.

Rosenberg begins with an account of human evolution, beginning a few million years ago when our ancestors left the African jungle and moved to the savanna. 

savanna2

Scientists believe that our ancestors began consuming more protein on the savanna (see striped animals above). This dietary change had certain biological effects, including increased fertility:

[There were] more mouths to feed over longer periods, but mothers prevented from providing for older offspring by the demands of younger ones; males living longer and so having still more offspring, putting further strains on available resources; and those offspring needing literally years of protection and nourishment before they could fend for themselves [118].

Living on the savanna also meant our ancestors had to compete with other predators and scavengers and avoid being eaten themselves. To make a long story short, the key to survival was cooperation, including the division of labor.

Rosenberg admits that reconstructing the very early history of the human race is somewhat speculative, but he invokes game theory to help explain why cooperation won out. Game theory, supported by computer simulations, has revealed that “tit for tat” and “fair and equal” strategies have the most favorable outcomes over time and, as he points out, human evolution was not an overnight phenomenon.

Still, he wonders whether biology and game theory can alone account for the widespread existence of norms like fairness, equity and cooperation:

But how does natural selection get people to adopt such norms? How does it shape such adaptations? … This problem looks like it’s too hard to be solved by genetically-based natural selection. Maybe if there were genes for playing tit for tat, they would be selected for. But at least in the human case, if not in animal models, such genes seem unlikely [134].

It isn’t clear why Rosenberg doubts the existence of a strong genetic basis for cooperation. On the contrary, there is some recent evidence that human infants have a built-in sense of fair play (The Atheists Guide was published in 2011). Instead, Rosenberg argues that core morality (the morality that’s common among world cultures) has come about partly through a process of “cultural natural selection” (134).

Again, I’m not sure what Rosenberg means by “cultural natural selection”, since earlier he suggested that “core morality is almost certainly locked-in by now” (108). Obviously, purely cultural practices are learned, not transmitted genetically. There is no set of genes that transmits the rules of baseball. Maybe he’s merely pointing out that there is no genetic basis for specific moral rules or practices, like keeping promises or tit-for-tat. Instead, he asks:

What kind of a device could nature have hit on in the course of our evolution that could guarantee to others that we will act in accordance with norms of niceness, fairness, equity and much of the rest of the moral core? It would have had to be a device that overrides the temptation to cheat, cut corners, free-ride when the opportunity occurs [136].

His answer is emotion. Emotions are “hardwired by genes we share” and “get harnessed together” with norms that are adaptive in our environments. They “motivate enforcement” of core morality and also morality’s local variations. For example, he argues that different norms will develop in pastoral vs. agricultural communities. Shepherds have to protect against rustlers, since their animals are easy to lead away. Farmers don’t have a similar problem, since a rustler can’t lead away a herd of wheat. As a result, herding communities develop strong emotions regarding theft and the need for revenge, while farming communities don’t (maybe they develop strong emotions regarding their plots of land, but Rosenberg doesn’t say). Some important combinations of norms and emotions enhance fitness in all environments, however; the norms in those combinations become part of core morality.

I don’t think it’s important for our purposes to understand exactly where the obscure boundary is between genetic and cultural transmission of norms and emotions. His thesis is that there is a strong relationship between morality and emotion, and that natural selection has played an important role in the evolution of both. In particular, the emotions of shame and guilt have been especially important in getting people to choose long-term benefits (e.g., remaining part of a community by behaving nicely) over short-term ones (e.g., enjoying candy you stole from your little brother).

Pointing out the strong connection between morality and emotion isn’t new with Rosenberg or isn’t an especially scientistic view. That connection has been emphasized by most philosophers, some of whom have argued that morality is a kind of cultural emotionalism: morality promotes or should promote behavior that makes people happy or feel good in the long run, and discourages or should discourage behavior that doesn’t. It’s also been pointed out that emotions aren’t usually irrational. People often get angry over things that aren’t that important from other people’s perspective, but angry people can almost always say why they’re angry, and there is usually some validity to their reasoning.

The last issue Rosenberg addresses in chapter 6 is why there is so much bad behavior if morality has been programmed into us. The obvious answer is that there is always variation in traits that are subject to evolution. With morality, most people end up in the middle, with saints on one side and sociopaths on the other. The chapter ends with the reminder that, although core morality evolved into its present form and has contributed to the reproductive success of human beings, that doesn’t make it right or true, since ethical beliefs are neither true nor false. 

One question Rosenberg should have considered in greater depth is whether accepting ethical nihilism would make people behave less ethically. His answer is that we shouldn’t worry about the nihilists who may be lurking in our midst because they’ve also been programmed via natural and cultural selection to behave ethically (for the most part).

But some studies have shown that after being exposed to the idea that they lack free will and therefore aren’t responsible for their actions, people tend to become more selfish or dishonest. Being exposed to new philosophical ideas can clearly affect behavior. It’s been reported that one philosopher, Saul Smilansky, refuses to teach his students about free will and determinism because he’s afraid that their sense of responsibility will be affected. So it isn’t clear at all that the widespread adoption of ethical nihilism by itself or as part of scientism would leave society’s moral behavior untouched. This might be a case in which we couldn’t handle the truth.

Next installment: Whether we should let consciousness be our guide.

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).