Tag Archives: Rosenberg

Why Think When You Already ‘Know’?

little-girl-wearing-big-round-glasses-14230209Quite a few of the objections I hear to theism are based in a particular understanding of theology. It amazes me how many of them come from people who insist ardently that we shouldn’t engage in theology. Alex Rosenberg is a good example; after arguing that all knowledge is scientific (and, consequently, that theology should be ignored as a source of knowledge), he writes this:

A version of theism worth believing must at a minimum attribute to God the intention to produce us and not just some intelligent creature or other (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 88)

I have no idea how, without undertaking some theology, Rosenberg can reasonably claim to know this. Is it really crucial the teaching of every religion, and even the concept of God, that God meant to produce humans specifically? Is it completely unbelievable that he’d be willing to create (or even did create) different species elsewhere in the universe? Whether one answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one has gotten into theology.

This is a common problem. In fact, it is not unlike the oft-heard complaints about the idea that God would have created the whole universe “just for us”. It wasn’t until I heard this complaint that I’d ever even considered the idea that humans are God’s only reason for creating the universe. I’d always assumed that there were many things about creation which God intended. Again, we’re discussing theology whether or not I’m correct.

It is also worth mention that, even if we accept Rosenberg’s position, this is no discredit to theism. He goes on to claim that God couldn’t have seriously intended create us because our coming into being was so improbable. Of course, one would think that doing the improbable would be within the capacity of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

But Rosenberg doesn’t stop to consider such an objection. Doing so would be to partake of the forbidden fruit of studying theology. Never mind that his own position is every bit as theological–the only difference is that it is terrible theology.

This is the reason why so many have argued that an understanding of theology is needed in order to refute God’s existence. It is the only way to know whether or not God, as he is actually defined, is even being addressed by one’s argument.

Science Proves: Humans Can’t Think?

brainlessAtheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg handily demonstrates why his naturalism undermines itself. He begins with a very simple observation:

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.

Naturalism at the Cost of Reason

book_burnPhilosopher Alex Rosenberg, in defending his atheism, gives us a long list of very good reasons to reject it. We only need to think a bit on some of his statements:

The mistake, as Hume showed so powerfully, was to think that there is any more to reality than the laws of nature that science discovers. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. vi)

Ever since physics hit its stride with Newton, it has excluded purposes, goals, ends, or designs in nature. It firmly bans all explanations that are teleological (from the Greek telos, meaning “end” or “goal” or “purpose” that some process aims at or is good at achieving). (ibid, p. 40)

Putting these two thoughts together leads him to a set of blatant absurdities in his book, and it is hard to see how the modern atheist can avoid them. If one believes that the only things which exist are the kinds of things science studies, one must reject most everything one knows, as Rosenberg spends much time and ink explaining. By the end of the book, he’s concluded that any trust of history, personal perception, language, moral conviction, the principle of causation, or your own thoughts is irrational.

But, in spite of his claims, neither science nor Hume’s philosophy have remotely shown this. Hume, I think, would be shocked to read that line, as he himself didn’t take the position that he “showed so powerfully”. Rather we are being asked to believe that these things don’t exist simply because science “firmly bans” thinking about any alternative to its methods.

Personally, I find this astonishing. While it is scientific to stick to the subject when doing science, many atheists have come to take this stipulation as some sort of unquestionable decree that we reject all other subjects in all areas of life.

Some are even calling this position “the scientific mind”.

Lovers of science should definitely react to the idea that arbitrarily limiting one’s thought is being called “scientific”. But, really, all these atheists have done is point out the basis of naturalism: the idea that we should distrust or ignore any part of our minds that can reach conclusions not covered by science.

Their mistake is failing to see that this is absurd.

Rosenberg makes it makes it here, and it leads him to a host of strange and contradictory statements (which I’ll address in turn). In the end, he’s left rejecting any basis he might have had for trusting science in the first place. But, still, he perseveres–for he understands clearly that to reject the idea that the physical is all that exists is to reject the intellectual foundation of modern atheism.

If You Don’t Think, You Can’t be Wrong

ignorance_of_faculty_answer_2_xlargeAtheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg is confident that the multiverse exists. I suspect this is partially because he realizes that a failure to believe in the multiverse is a failure to engage rationally with theists.

Unfortunately, he’s willing to fudge the facts in order to help make his readers as confident as he is:

Where did the big bang come from? The best current theory suggests that our universe is just one universe in a “multiverse”…

One remarkable thing about this best current cosmological theory is the degree to which physicists have been able to subject it to many empirical tests, including tests of its claims about things that happened even before the big bang (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 36-37)

Yes, it can now be said that the multiverse has been tested (though the test failed to turn up any evidence whatsoever). But, unless the scientific method has been seriously altered since I’ve last checked, there is a difference between one test and “many”, and between being inconclusively tested and deserving the confidence Rosenberg exudes.

This is relevant because, given the state of cosmology, the multiverse is the only viable option to the idea of a designer of the universe, and there is no empirical evidence to support it. This leaves atheists at something of a crossroads: either accept the multiverse at the cost of admitting that some things can be accepted without evidence, or reject it at the cost of admitting that there is at least one large hole in one’s philosophy.

Personally, I find the former view easier to respect. There are, after all, quite a few things in life that we believe without empirical verification. Adding the multiverse to this list is an issue, but isn’t nearly so much of a sacrifice as failing to offer an alternative to theism on such a fundamental question.

This might run counter to what many assume. Certainly it runs counter to what the New Atheists seem to assume. But, in a world full of uncertainties, we need to chose the most reasonable option available. And simply claiming “I don’t like this question” isn’t an answer.

That is to say, any argument can be countered by saying “I don’t know, but I’m sure there must be some idea out there that is more reasonable than your answer”, but this is closer to an appeal to magic than logical discourse.

Refusing to answer such a basic question about the nature of reality is rather like taking the fifth amendment in court. It adds up to grounds that may incriminate one’s philosophy– that it lacks answers to the questions that theists have always claimed non-theistic views can’t answer. This doesn’t show that any particular theistic answer is correct, of course, but it does mean that the atheist’s position hasn’t even made it into the pool of live options.

But, as Rosenberg sees, none of this applies to the atheist who accepts the multiverse. I’ll have some things to say about that position in a future post.

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.)