• Review: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

    There are no ethics. No free will. No purpose to life. Your introspective conscious awareness is largely unreliable. And, you never think about anything. Such are the controversial conclusions of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

    I think most of us in the atheist community agree with Rosenberg’s starting points: we believe science is the best method for getting the truth, there’s no god, and that physical reality is all there is. The conclusions he draws from this are correct (but misstated).

    Let’s begin with his assertion that “there is  no morality.” In chapters 5 and 6, Rosenberg says that it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that a “core morality” exists (a core morality being a set of behavioral rules observed by all or nearly all societies across time). Is this a contradiction? Yes, but I think I know what he means. When he says, “there is no morality” what he likely means is that there are no dictates given by a god that we must follow, or any platonic timeless truths that dictate what we must do. For sake of consistency, we’ll call what I just described “spooky ethics.”  Throwing off spooky ethics doesn’t mean that we no longer have a set of moral oughts to follow for the sake of other people. People do, as Rosenberg says, have a common code they follow. And following that code is important for any human being in any society. It’s something you would naturally want to do and do consistently, because doing otherwise probably will have disastrous consequences for you, among other things. If we think of the word “ought” (in it’s general form, like “I ought to go to store tomorrow”) to mean “must do in order to best satisfy desires” we can see easily that we ought to follow the common core ethic, for the reason just given. And once we’ve adopted the core ethic, most of our old “moral oughts,” after seeming to vanish in the death of spooky morality, appear once again.

    Rosenberg’s comments about free will, that his choices are “not really up to him” are very disconcerting. I worry that this conception could lead all kinds of nasty places and to all sorts of absurdities were it really believed by anyone. More to the point though, this isn’t really a correct way to think about the issue under metaphysical naturalism. You see, “you” are your body under the naturalistic viewpoint, your knowledge and desires are aspects of your brain. To say your choices are not dependent upon you is an absurdity, because the outcome of every interaction you are in is intimately dependent upon your desires/knoweldge/etc. It is intimately dependent on you. Not only is there room for choice-making and “free will” under metaphysical naturalism, but naturalism is the only philosophy that makes good sense of it.

    Is there a purpose to life? There’s no pre-ordained purpose or a purpose coming from outside the universe. But there are friends, chocolate cake, sex, baseball games, and nights staring at the stars. If that’s not a purpose, then it’s damn close enough to one for me to be willing to live with it.

    I should mention that there are a number of potential issues with Rosenberg’s philosophy that he never addresses (at least not adequately) and so I want to draw some attention to some material that would make good supplemental reading with it. There’s the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which Rosenberg is particularly vulnerable to since he champions the view that the human mind is largely unreliable, at least in understand its own internal workings. However, there’s also a blog post that provides just what the doctor ordered for this problem. There’s the issue of whether the “scientism” as Rosenberg calls it, is a valid epistemology. I hold a somewhat scientistic view of knowledge myself, and have shown it self-consistent here. I was also bothered by the fact that Rosenberg seems to brush off the hard problem of consciousness. I think it’s a big deal, and on that one I recommend the Gary Drescher book that I linked in the end note below and offer a few comments of my own about the problem in “Philosophical Zombies are Coming to Eat Your Brains!!

    This book has a number of good, original suggestions. One of his suggestions is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is better described as “Environmental Filtration.” I wholeheartedly agree, that phrase takes out the nasty teleology implied by the use of the word”selection” and is overall a more accurate name.

    Rosenberg’s book is smart without being dense. It’s packed with interesting facts about human psychology. It’s generally on the right track in the theses it presents. Read it!

    Note: More detailed defenses of non-spooky morality can be found in Richard Carrier’s chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity and Gary Drescher’s Good and Real.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."

    One Pingback/Trackback

    7 comments

    1. I’ve always thought that pointing out the poor reliability of our brains is a strong argument against Plantinga’s argument against naturalism. His argument is founded on the premise that our brains produce reliably true beliefs, and then he claims rather unimpressively that you can’t get there from evolution alone; you need the miracle of Goddidit. But his starting point is flawed; our brains aren’t that reliable. We’re prone to a litany of biases, false memories, delusions, hallucinations, and self-deceptions of all stripes. Why on earth would any God design such a problematic organ?

    2. I liked “The Atheist Guide to Reality” and agreed with many of his points. However, I think the presentation was unnecessarily stark. I also got tired of reading phrases like “your brain doesn’t think about anything”. I understood and agreed with what he was trying to convey, but I found the words to be a poor choice. Using that language, this comment isn’t about anything, it is only images on your computer screen and bytes on a server somewhere. While technically true, it misses the fact that the organization, the arrangement, matters.

      I strongly disagreed with his dismissal of history and the social sciences as “entertainment” based on the fact that these fields can’t make reliable predictions. Every field higher in abstraction than physics, the higher the level of abstraction, loses prediction accuracy. A biologist can’t make a reliable prediction about what a bear will do in a particular situation; there are just too many variables. When you get to history and economics, predictions become very unreliable, but that doesn’t mean these fields don’t provide important insights and solutions to real human concerns.

      1. “I strongly disagreed with his dismissal of history and the social
        sciences as ‘entertainment’ based on the fact that these fields can’t
        make reliable predictions.”

        I think I’d agree with that. History is important, and I think there are some things we can learn from it, as we humans do tend to find ourselves in parallel situations across the history of our species. On the other hand, history can’t be a perfect guide to figuring out what to do, since, as Rosenberg points out, the landscape of society and technology changes so much from time to time and place to place. I do agree with his point about how useless it is to come up with an overarching “meaning” to history, like Marx did (he interpreted all of history as lower classes struggling with the wealthy) because I think it’s implausible that there would be such a meaning or interpretative schema in the first place. The history of our species is really just a bunch of groups and individuals struggling to achieve their desired ends, occasionally failing, occasionally succeeding.

    3. I don’t care if my decisions depend upon me. That’s trivially true. I care whether or not I am responsible for them, and what that can possibly mean in a world where my decisions depend upon “me”, but a part of “me” about which I know nothing and over which I assert no conscious control.

      1. I’m ready to move on to a post free will world. It’s actually quite reassuring to me that I’m not free to do other than what I most want to do in any given moment. Seems to me that belief in such a freedom is a bedrock for the haunting illusions of self-alienation and self-betrayal.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *