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Good - but with serious shortcomings
on 31 March 2012
This book wants to go beyond restating the arguments against God's existence. The author accepts there is no God, and argues for a worldview based on the premise that `physics fixes the facts'. He unashamedly calls this `scientism', the only defensible view of reality there is, which provides nothing less than `the whole truth about reality' (p.20). As I reviewer I am in complete sympathy. But this book, despite being thought provoking and very well written, is a flawed contribution to understanding reality in materialistic terms. I set out my reasons below.
To begin, what does this Rosenberg mean by `scientism'? Well, some of the arguments deployed in the first half of the book are already familiar ones. The laws of physics and Darwinian natural selection together eliminate any need or point for a deity. The universe has no intrinsic purpose and neither does life in general.
Given this, there is no right or wrong. For believers, morality is rooted in God's commands. But are God's commands right because he tells us so, or has he chosen the right things to command us to do? But if there is no God, this question is redundant There is no way we can show that killing is wrong - or right, for that matter. But this is not a problem. Evolution has granted us `a core morality', (p.95) which allows us to agree on the content of essentials, across cultures, without having to root this in a divine command. This is what he calls `nice nihilism'. (p.144)
But Rosenberg wants to take us further. Consciousness is itself cannot be relied on. It is not even a reliable real-time window to the world, merely the historical product of evolutionary selection that improved the survival advantage of our ancestors. Consciousness is framed by what the world used to be, not what it is. `We drive through life with both eyes fixed on a rear-view mirror', the author says (p.155). Thought and introspection are likewise illusions. Why? Well, atomic particles - of which your neurons consist - do not have thoughts. What is it then? It isn't anything. He gives (on p171) the example of your thinking about Paris. You think you are thinking about Paris but you aren't. Just neurons with an electrical current running through them - neurons cannot be `about' anything. Remember, physics fixes the facts.
From this he deduces that self and free will - stuff of thought - are an illusion. Can science illuminate social sciences and the humanities? Alas, no. History is blind and social science is myopic. The former details with the illusory confabulations of consciousness and the latter, if it detects regularities in human affairs at all, merely picks up `temporary equilibria, periods of calm or stasis between arms races' (p.261). Examples of arms races abound in human affairs. A company dominates the market only to be felled by some upstart in a basement somewhere. Think how the big airlines struggle against budget airlines and Facebook sunk Friends Reunited.
As for Rosenberg is concerned, all appearances of design and purpose are just useful illusions that scientism obliges us to give up.
This is all bracing stuff and I would say that I would agree with much of it. There is no purpose in the universe. But this doesn't mean we have to turn into monsters or kill ourselves. We can be decent to each other and we can get out of bed in the morning to get on with our lives, without God commanding us to do either.
However the second half of the book, in which he attempts to dispel the illusory nature of thought, introspection and the self, fails to convince. We are not offered any reasons why we should write off consciousness as an illusion. It is true that we have a theory of other people's minds, and this can often be flawed. We are frequently mistaken about the intentions of others. But to believe that there are no other minds whatsoever would not get us very far in this world - and I doubt it would have got Rosenberg very far either, if he really believed that consciousness is a merely a `rear-view mirror'.
But perhaps least convincing of all is his writing off of thought and introspection, based on an argument that atomic particles do not equal thought. Our brains are agglomerations of atomic particles, which make neurons, `but piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can't turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world (p.184).
But this is a Reductio ad absurdum- Atomic particles make nothing of themselves, in the same way that grains of sand alone do not make bricks that make houses. Lots of thought is junk and isn't about anything. But to say that NO thought represents ANYTHING out there in the real world is just plain daft. The author anticipates these objections. What about his book - is it about nothing? He brusquely replies: `Look ... treat the illusion [of thought] like ... optical illusions ... this book isn't conveying statements. It's rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information.' (p.193)
Here the author is simply chasing his own tail. For one thing, his statement presupposes the existence of thoughts in readers' minds objecting to the thoughts he has set out in his book.
Rosenberg is right to note that thought can deceive. One can fall prey to optical illusions. One can have thoughts about fairies, ghosts and UFOS, things that don't exist. But correcting these illusions requires having thoughts about what the world is, and what it is not. And saying that thoughts are just electrical currents in neurons presupposes of course that things like electrical currents and neurons exist. If Rosenberg's observation is true, there is no way that science can be done.
This is not to say that I believe an alternative, non-material theory of mind is any more convincing. The mind is the brain, and when our brains die, so do we, and all the elusive constituents of consciousness like the self and personal identity vanish with it. But I do I take strong objection to trying to deal with the problem of other minds by using a linguistic sleight of hand. Among his concluding remarks, the author states: `We can organise our lives in the absence of real purpose and planning. We do so by reorganizing the neural circuitry that produces these very illusions of design and forethought.' (p.313) The first sentence I can agree with; the second simply begs the question. Who or what is doing the reorganising?
Because the book overstates, it overshoots. The basic arguments for atheism are sound. But if the job is to be finished, then the remaining problems confronting a purely materialistic explanation of the universe need to be apprehended and seen for what they are. To do away with them by an intellectual sleight of hand won't do. Remember also that this book is supposed to offer positive reasons to embrace the reality Rosenberg portrays. It is not supposed to be some smart-Alec intellectual parlour game. Therefore there should be good reasons to give up these illusions up. They are not offered here.
More thinking needs to be done, to understand what reality is, and is not, about. This book claims the job is already done. It isn't.