– Alex Rosenburg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 206
As a passionate materialist-atheist, who lovingly quotes Christopher Hitchens, Rosenberg seems to think that the above sentence is a point in his favor. He is completely right to say, as he does, that neuroscience (like all the sciences) simply set aside purposes from the get-go. What he fails to see, however, is that this undermines his reasons for embracing atheism.
That is, he cites science as the source of his atheism. He argues that it has shown theism to be false, but directly states (in both the quoted line and other places) that science’s job isn’t addressing the question of God–or anything else that involves purposes. Rather, it simply ignores the question in order to focus on material and immediate causation.
That makes science the best tool ever conceived for understanding the patterns of the physical world. What it doesn’t make it is an answer to the question of purposes.
And it isn’t only God; it is any purpose. The reason Rosenberg brings up the point here is to argue that there is no such thing as purpose in the human mind. According to him, we don’t plan for things, we don’t think about things, and we don’t want things. This is because science doesn’t study purpose in the mind or anywhere else and (as far as Rosenberg is concerned) there is nothing other than what science studies.
Rosenberg insists that these are unavoidable conclusions which follow from science. But, for those of us who think it nonsense to say that people don’t actually think, the response is perfectly obvious. This doesn’t follow from science; it follows from the completely arbitrary demand that there is nothing more to reality than that which science studies.
So long as one is open-minded on the subject, it is obvious that neuroscience’s project of describing the brain without purpose, however amazing and useful, does not remotely show that there is no such thing as purpose or intentions in the human mind. In fact, the overwhelming majority of neuroscientific studies depend on trusting test subjects to be accurately reporting on the intentions, purposes, experiences, and desires they feel. If one thinks that neuroscience has (or will) do away with purposes in the mind, then one thinks that it is a self-destructive field of study.
And this is the final problem with all the appeals to science made in support of materialism. Not only do they simply assume that science covers all of reality (which is exactly what the materialist should be trying to prove), but they ultimately contradict science itself.
Simply put, science only functions if there are parts of reality other than the scientific. Claiming that non-scientific forms of inquiry should be rejected is simply a case of cutting off the branch science is sitting on.
And this is the basis of modern atheism.