Tag Archives: Alex Rosenberg

Science’s Fortuneteller

4186-1537In defending scientism (the belief that science is the source of all knowledge) Alex Rosenberg insists that he doesn’t actually need to deal with the arguments showing his position to be wrong.

Scientism isn’t required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can’t be physical, so minds can’t be brains. That’s the job of science— neuroscience in particular. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 228)

It’s already been pointed out that this is a category error–that science simply cannot, by definition, explain the mind. In fact, that is precisely what many of the proofs Rosenberg mentions show. So, to say that science will explain it is to assume, without giving a reason, that these proofs are somehow flawed.

But there is more going on here than circular reasoning. Even granting for the sake of argument that science can inquire into metaphysical objects like minds, this is no defense of materialism. This is because Rosenberg has absolutely no reason why, in order to explain the mind, neuroscience won’t need to propose metaphysical properties or substances very much like those believed in by theists.

Of course, one might object that “Of course neuroscientists won’t propose such things; they wouldn’t be doing science if they did that”. And that is exactly the theist’s point. Science doesn’t propose or test for the metaphysical, and so cannot even in principle explain things like mind or experience.

Essentially, we can’t have it both ways. We need either to see that science doesn’t test for the metaphysical, or (falsely) claim that it does. But, if we do the latter, we shouldn’t be making bold predictions that science will never find it.

But there is still the more the more modest view that, while there is no reason (at all) to think that science will show that the mind is physical, there is no reason to think otherwise. This approach is less presumptuous about what science will do, and only suffers from the fact that it is demonstrably false. Science simply doesn’t test for the mind. And, I hasten to add, is no less amazing for that; it has a very different, equally necessary job.

So, in Rosenberg, we run into one of modern culture’s more curious paradoxes. As one of scientist’s most passionate supporters, he seems to know very little about how science actually works–and it is precisely his love affair with science which, like an infatuated teenager, keeps him from seeing the real person through the illusion that he’s found the answer to all of life’s problems.

Rather than make a goddess out of science, however, we need to see it for what it is: an astonishingly useful tool for revealing physical truths, which achieves such power by ignoring (not disproving) the non-physical. Prophesying that science will one day save the materialist from proofs of the non-physical is anything by scientific.

And this is key. Scientism is not merely not science; it is positively anti-science.

Why Should You Believe in Thought?

Molecular ThoughtsAlex Rosenberg, as has been pointed out, rejects the idea that people can think about things.

The basic neural processes going on in conscious thought have to be just the same as the basic neural processes going on when the brain nonconsciously thinks. These processes are the only things neurons and sets of neurons do. Consciousness is just another physical process. So, it has as much trouble producing aboutness as any other physical process. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 192-193)

Of course, this does boil down to a belief that people don’t have beliefs. But what is interesting here is not Rosenberg’s personal eccentricities. Rather, it is the fact that he’s simply following the logic of what is claimed by a great many people.

It is not uncommon for people, in defense of materialism, to insist that tangible evidence is the only factor to be considered in the discussion. To use the now infamous sound byte “that which is presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. I don’t accept this approach myself, but it is not insignificant that those who do should reject the idea that thoughts are about things. Certainly, no one has been able to present physical evidence for the “aboutness” of thoughts.

Of course, I’d say that there is evidence that thoughts are about things–quite a bit, actually. But this would require taking a broader definition of evidence than the typical materialist would allow.

And that would, of course, open the door for all kinds of evidence that runs counter to materialism. This doesn’t show it to be false outright, but it would immediately cost its proponents their central argument (that there is “no evidence” for theism).

So materialists find themselves in a precarious place, wanting to insist that evidence is always physical on the one hand, but not wanting to deny thought on the other. Rosenberg’s sentiments aside, it seems obviously true that there is far more reason to believe in thought than to believe that all evidence is physical.

It is also important to remember that this argument holds even for those who take thought to be a physical process in the brain. For, we are not discussing whether or not the mind is physical (though it is not), but whether there is physical evidence for the idea that we think about things.

And there is not. No amount of physical data about the brain gives us evidence that thoughts are about things. For that, we’ll simply have to take the test subject’s word for it (or, better still, our own experience of thinking).

But, if we’re willing to accept inner experience and/or testimony as evidence, materialism has a number of very difficult challenges facing it. And, personally, I don’t think it can hope to answer these challenges.

Babies aren’t Bathwater

baby-bathwater-755135Once again, Alex Rosenberg almost perfectly enshrines modern prejudices about science and the search for knowledge:

Cognitive neuroscience has already established that many of the most obvious things introspection tells you about your mind are illusions. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 148)

That science has found surprising things is not in dispute; I love reading on these as much as anyone (as my wife can attest). Rosenberg’s mistake, in my view, is to leap from this conclusion to the idea that we should reject introspection completely. He boldly declares:

The notion that thought is about stuff doesn’t even approximate what is going on in the brain. (ibid, p. 208)

This is, of course, both unwarranted and self-contradictory in at least two ways. I’ve already discussed the idea that the thought about the idea that thoughts can’t be about things is incoherent. But it is no more so than the idea that neuroscience can invalidate introspection as a source of knowledge about our minds.

That is to say that neuroscience relies on introspection. It maps brain-states, and correlates them with what test subjects tell the scientists about what they are experiencing internally. In short, introspection is a foundational tool of neuroscience.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that introspection is perfect any more than our sensory perceptions are perfect. But, as with the physical senses, science is a tool to correct our mistakes and sharpen those perceptions, not simply reject them.

This unwarranted jump from “introspection isn’t perfect” to “introspection is completely worthless as a source of knowledge” seems fairly common, and I think we need to be careful about it. Rosenberg himself criticizes others for trying to take an overly simple approach to philosophy, and I think his warning applies here.

It would, after all, be very easy if everything that existed were observable through science. It would give us the comfort of certainty about what life is like, and clear-cut answers to its biggest questions. Part of me suspects that this is the reason why materialism is so appealing to many.

But, whether or not I’m right about that last, it is too simple–too easy to say that we can simply wave off our basic experience of life. We can’t simply reject introspection, as Rosenberg suggests.

Of course, I would argue that refusing to reject introspection means rejecting materialist accounts of the mind. And this is precisely why Rosenberg is so interested in discrediting introspection; he knows it is inconsistent with his materialism.

As much has been said, I’ve still not touched on all the ways in which Rosenberg shows how materialism breaks down into self-contradiction. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that his book has done more to convince me of the falsehood of materialism than anything I’ve read from a theist.

Dumping the Baggage of Logic and Science

img_trashTreasureA fairly common objection to theism is the idea that appeals to God to explain the universe actually explain nothing because (so it is claimed) God himself cannot be explained. This is the core of Richard Dawkins’ famous “Boeing 747 Gambit”, for instance.

Of course, several problems have been pointed out with this: that the concept of God is far better understood by theologians and philosophers than this, and that constantly demanding an explanation of the explanation is not a valid argument, among others.

But atheist Alex Rosenberg inadvertently gives us an even more fundamental reason why modern atheists are in no position to make such complaints. From his view as an atheist:

Why is there something rather than nothing? Physics, especially quantum physics, shows that the correct answer to this question is: No reason, no reason at all. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, p. 38)

For modern atheists, the universe (or multiverse) is simply a “brute fact”. That is, it is something that just exists, which has no apparent explanation. Surely, this is an appeal to magic in all but name. Proponents of it certainly should stop throwing rhetorical bricks.

Nor does trying to appeal to authority help. Rosenberg would have us believe that he wasn’t led into this corner by his atheism, but by science. Of course, this is contradicted by the actual facts.

Quantum mechanics has not remotely shown that anything (let alone everything) comes into existence for “no reason at all”. And this is only one more example of the New Atheists being more in love with science fiction and bad science documentaries than actual science.

I’ve often been frustrated with the New Atheists that, in the name of science, so many of them have been willing to jettison the fields of Sociology and Anthropology in order to cling to the (false) idea that religion causes great evil in people. But I now think it is time to add Quantum Physics to the list of sciences they reject.

That is to say that Rosenberg, like the other New Atheists, is completely willing to horribly distort the findings of Quantum Physics if it will serve their purposes. Every time a field of study opposes their platform, they have no scruples about doubling down and denying or distorting the facts.

One begins to wonder, then, what will be left of science once the New Atheists are done with it.

Now That the Building is Here, We Don’t Need the Foundation

destroyed-beach-mansion-at-rodanthe-beachI think apologists should be grateful for atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, as he (inadvertently) lays out the flaws in modern atheism more clearly than any theist has managed.

[My position] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.
– Rosenberg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 6)

We trust science as the only way to acquire knowledge. That is why we are so confident about atheism. – (ibid, p.20)

Rosenberg sees clearly what many secularists miss completely: that modern atheism stands or falls with the idea that science is the only source of knowledge. That is, that the kinds of things science studies are the only kinds of things that exist. Eager as he is to salvage modern atheism, he bites the bullet and declares that science alone can tell us anything about reality.

The most obvious problem with this is actually Rosenberg’s own discipline of philosophy. It has often been pointed out that this is an attempt to use philosophy to reject philosophy (making it self-contradictory). But, even more clearly problematic is the fact that science itself is not rational without the philosophical basis which supports it.

And this is something of a Catch 22 for him. To demand that science is the only source of knowledge is to undercut the entire enterprise of science. But, if he acknowledges the tools of philosophy as a valid path to knowledge, he is then obliged to answer the formidable philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

Rosenberg choses the former path, while completely ignoring the consequences named above. Still, he can’t manage to completely avoid the fact that he doesn’t have a reason (other than his atheism) for taking this position. He is reduced instead to demanding, rather caustically, that one is somehow hypocritical to trust the validity of both science and other fields of study.

Though he can’t support his conclusion , his passion is completely understandable. This position is both the rhetorical and intellectual core of contemporary atheism.

That it is unsupported, self-contradictory, and undercuts science, however, is devastating for this position.

Trust Past Records, but not if they’re of the Past


“Knowing human history will be useless for anything but telling diverting stories.”

“Physics’ long track record of success is the strongest argument for the exclusion of purpose or design from the account of reality.”

Did you spot the contradiction between these quotations? If so, it might surprise you to learn that they are taken from the same book: Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”.

He spends some time arguing that the history of science is the best reason to trust that it will, in the future, vindicate naturalism (the belief that only the physical is real).

He later spends an entire chapter explaining that history is useless because (he claims) it can’t help us make predictions about the future

Personally, I don’t accept Rosenberg’s apparent assumption that making predictions is the only purpose knowledge can serve. Still, his obsession with science and its ability to predict material events has led him to undercut his own trust of science.

This is a consistent problem with Rosenberg (as I’ll discuss in later posts). He’s much more willing than most atheists to face up to the strange conclusions that follow from naturalism. But he is completely unwilling to see the consequences for science itself.

In one sense, this makes “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” a very useful book for Christian apologists. For, by the final page, Rosenberg has unwittingly argued that modern atheism is both self-contradictory and opposed to science.

(Full disclosure: I’m aware of my own contradiction. I claimed earlier that I’d not be writing about Rosenberg. But I find that he raises too many significant points for me to simply ignore him.)

Fact-checking the Craig/Rosenberg debate

Fact-checking the Craig/Rosenberg debate.

I ran across an interesting response to the Craig/Rosenberg debate. It gives a point for point analysis (which I’m still reading through), and encourages a discussion.

I’ve taken the author up on the offer, as I found the debate interesting myself.