Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Alexander Rosenberg's Attack on Village Atheism

The Churchlands - famous philosophical
eliminative materialists
Alexander Rosenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and Chair of Duke's Philosophy Department. He has secondary appointments in the biology and political science departments. And, he is an atheist.

Rosenberg's recent book is The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.

"This," writes Rosenberg in the Preface, "is a book for atheists." Here are some of the bullets, from a review found here.
  • On atheism, "scientism" is the case. There are no non-physical facts. Physics and evolutionary biology explain everything. I agree.
  • On atheism, there is no purpose to anything. Therefore, there is no meaning to life. I agree.
  • On atheism, there is no such thing as a soul. Of course not.
  • On atheism, free will does not exist. Correct again.
  • Real atheists need to stop arguing against theists, "because it eats into the time atheists should be taking to work through the implications of their own worldview. Atheists need to spend more time getting to grips with what they should know about the reality we inhabit because science reveals it is ‘stranger than even many atheists recognise.’" Indeed. How odd for a real atheist to waste precious time arguing against the existence of unicorns.
  • On atheism, there is no moral difference between good and bad, right and wrong. I agree, again.
  • For Rosenberg, on atheism belief in "purpose" and "free will" is just as hokum-ish as is belief in God. Yes. To assume that free will (as well as self-knowledge) is unproblematic is to underestimate the naturalistic challenge. Therefore "freethinking" naturalism is bogus.
  • Nietzsche correctly guessed this kind of scientism-on-atheism, without knowing the science. Yes. Much of current atheistic naturalism was born out of Nietzsche's inspired guesses.
  • Rosenberg argues for a naturalism of reductive physicalism.
  • "Reality" is only bosons and fermions.
  • Intentionality, meaningfulness, free will, values... can all be ultimately reduced to fermions and bosons. This is eliminative materialism. I have for a long time thought that, on atheism, this logically follows.
  • "House trained nihilism" is also reductively eliminated, on real atheism. There are no "brave intellectual heroes" who have boldly proclaimed the death of God. This is part of the "hocus pocus" that needs to be eliminated. Nietzsche-wise, Rosenberg shows how deep are the roots of a village atheism still unconsciously indebted to Christian theism.
  • On atheism, at bottom everything is pure blind cause and effect. Uh-huh.
  • On atheism, "there are no plans, no decisions, no choices, no meaningful lives really." Yup.
  • On atheism, there is no propositional or sentential reality. Yes.
  • For Rosenberg, the atheist does not have to be a nihilist. Or, if she is, she can be a "nice nihilist." "Nice nihilism implies that attributing meaning to our lives is just an introspective illusion selected by blind evolutionary processes, caused by photons and fermions blindly operating, working in real time in our brains, that has helped us survive. We attach meaning by these determined operations in our brain which give the illusion that there are actual purposes. But there are no such things. As I said, the illusion is explained by natural selection: it has been heavily selected for so that everyone is within two standard deviations of the mean of a happy normal life – the fun life – in the biosphere we find ourselves in. We flourish, or rather, have fun, because we are naturally selected to do so."
  • On atheism there are no Kantian categorical imperatives. We have no "duty." But doesn't this mean there is nothing in atheistic naturalism to underwrite goodness, and thus there is no difference between a Hitler and a Gandhi? Rosenberg answers: That is correct. And, again, I agree.  "Rosenberg accepts this but says we shouldn’t worry. Rosenberg says we are all just hard-wired to be nice. Morals are for him a type of norm expressivism."
  • But..., "If there is no freewill, no actual dessert, then why should we not revert to a Hobbesian state of nature? Doesn’t this imply anarchy?" Rosenberg says: No. "This because he says the state of nature isn’t as Hobbes describes it. Darwinean natural selection has selected for coordination, cooperation, empathy, love and those dispositions that extend what Paul Bloom in Descartes’ Baby calls a ‘moral circle.’ Evolution has selected the illusions that recognise our fates are yoked to living with others harmoniously." On evolutionary naturalism we are not inhernetly aggressive or competitive. Note: I'm not sure of this. For Rosenberg, evolutionary naturalism has selected for sociability. Yes it's just an isntinct, and therefore an illusion, but it's way too powerful and cannot be overridden.
What do I think?

I think Rosenberg has the logic of atheism right. I am not an atheist. But were I, I'd walk arm in arm with Nietzsche and him.

I think he has problems when it comes to telling us how we should live or, in his case, how we will live, instinctively. This is the point where Bertrand Russell had problems after describing so eloquently the absurdity of existence on the non-existence of God. And where an A.C. Grayling also becomes hard to understand, for the same reasons. Actually, I think Rosenberg is to be applauded over the likes of Russell and Grayling in his argument that we will "have fun because we are naturally selected to do so." And of course, that being the case, no one gets any credit for anything.