No chunk of matter (lines and squiggles) can just by itself be about another chunk of matter (bricks and mortar, arranged house-wise), without a mind to interpret the first chunk of matter as being about the second chunk. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 43)
That is to say that the words we use have meanings only because we assign them meanings. This is uncontroversial. But, so long as one takes naturalism to be true, this same reasoning threatens our thoughts themselves:
Consciousness is just another physical process. So, it has as much trouble producing aboutness as any other physical process. (ibid, pp. 192-193)
If all that exists is the physical, then there can’t be anything going on in the mind except brain states. And no one has ever been able to give a reason why brain states can be about something any more than ink squiggles on paper.
That is the short version of his argument, at least. Much ink has been spilled showing that there is no reason why neurons (or their chemistry, arrangement, or interaction) could ever be about anything outside of the brain. And it leads Rosenberg to conclude that our thoughts aren’t about things (apparently, they only seem to be).
Of course, you may be tempted to think that this has broken down into utter nonsense, and you’d be right. After all, even the illusion that thoughts are about things is still a thought about something. But Rosenberg is simply too committed to the completely false idea that there is nothing going on in reality other than the scientific. Apparently, he’s willing to reject anything at all that contradicts that sentiment.
But insisting that atheism is more obviously true than the claim that we can actually think about things is about as desperate a fideism as one could imagine. Certainly, believing such a thing undercuts any trust Rosenberg should place in science–or anything else.
Of course, Rosenberg insists that science led him to this idea. He seems completely unable to appreciate that it is not science, but his naturalism, that is the problem.
And, if one is going to get out of this mess, there are two options: either offer a reason why the mind could have this quality (which will lead one, step by step, to reject naturalism), or bite the bullet and insist that it is simply a brute fact that we have these inexplicable things called minds.
Obviously, one can’t argue with the second position, as it represents the abandonment of rational thought altogether. But the former is simply a longer path to the same place, unless one is willing to accept that there is more to the human mind than what naturalism accepts.
For all the strangeness of his conclusions, Rosenberg is right to assert that the consistent naturalist must believe that our thoughts can’t be about things. I’ll discuss an even more basic reason why in tomorrow’s post.