What atheism gets you

Every now and then I like to take a look at what things are like on the other side of the worldview fence. It helps keep one sharp to know what one’s opponents are saying, and one of the ways I try to do this is by reading the literature coming out of the “New Atheist” camp.

Recently, I picked up Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.” I will say two things for Rosenberg’s “Guide:” First, it is fairly easy to read. Rosenberg writes at a popular level, and even someone as untrained in the sciences as I am is able to follow his argument. Second, Rosenberg’s conclusions are remarkably silly. ((Edit: Please note that I do not say that his arguments are poorly reasoned, or that his conclusions do not follow logically given his worldview presuppositions.)) Over the course of the book, Rosenberg informs his readers that it is an undeniable conclusion that if God does not exist, then morality does not exist, thought (at least as we perceive thought) does not exist, language cannot convey statements that are “about” anything (when asked why he wrote a book if language is meaningless, Rosenberg replies: “Well, I have to use the only tools available to me.”), and to top it all off, you (at least as you perceive yourself) do not exist.

Now, rather than take a look at what he just wrote and say to himself, “My goodness…these ideas seem a bit absurd and would render my position self-contradictory on multiple levels…” Rosenberg presses forward and assures us that even if these conclusions seem impossible, they are unquestionably true given atheism, and since atheism is true, we must do our best to accept them. Rosenberg is remarkably candid about where atheism leads, and it was interesting to note that his conclusions on the matter mirror those of many Christian apologists. This is why I recently tweeted out:

“Alex Rosenberg’s new book is the best book for Christian apologists so far this year.”

I’m very thankful for atheists like Rosenberg. There aren’t too many people out there who are willing to hold fast and carry their presuppositions out to the logical conclusions, especially once they see the cliff of absurdity looming dead ahead. But Rosenberg not only jumped headlong over the edge, he believes everyone else must as well.

I thought I’d finish out today with a brief bit of Q&A from the beginning of the book. It lays out exactly where the book is going in just a few short paragraphs. Read it, and see if you think atheism provides a worldview worth believing.

Quoting from chapter 1:

Here is a list of questions and their short answers. The rest of this book explains the answers in more detail. Given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious. The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable they are, provided you place your confidence in science to provide the answers.

Is there a God? (No)

What is the nature of reality? (What physics says it is.)

What is the purpose of the universe? (There is none.)

What is the meaning of life? (Ditto.)

Why am I here? (Just dumb luck.)

Does prayer work? (Of course not.)

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? (Are you kidding?)

Is there free will? (Not a chance!)

What happens when we die? (Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.)

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? (There is no moral difference between them.)

Why should I be moral? (Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.)

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible or sometimes obligatory? (Anything goes.)

What is love, and how can I find it? (Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.)

Does history have any meaning or purpose? (It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.)

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? (Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.)

12 Comments

  1. Cuttlefish says:

    Worth believing in? That rather depends on the evidential support behind it. I am knowledgeable enough in my own field to know the evidence behind a good many of his “short answers”, and while you’d still want to have the full chapters to lay out the actual evidence, his brief conclusions are quite accurate for the areas I know well (and I know them well because they are covered by the science I hold my Ph. D. in). Is the truth worth believing in, whether it conforms to your wishes or not?

    I see that you don’t provide any reason (other than incredulity or dislike) for dismissing his brief answers. Fair enough; as presented, you have only given his initial assertions, and without the supporting evidence they may as well be opinions, equal to your own. But, in theory, you actually read his book. You know where there is support, or where there may not be. And yet you do not offer anything more than, as I said, incredulity and dislike. This is a hallmark of what persuasion researchers call “inoculation”–presenting a weak version of an opponent’s view, so as to easily tear it down. (Also commonly known as fighting a straw man of your own making.)

    Forgive me if I do not trust you to portray my atheist world view accurately. The claims there, while overly simplistic (understandable in an opening chapter), are accurate and supportable (and supported, I should add). I would answer some of them differently (my academic background is different from his), but you wouldn’t like my answers any better.

    So, is a comforting lie “a worldview worth believing”?

    I’d rather believe the truth–truth that is supported and evidenced, not “truth” I feel in my heart because I want it to be so.

  2. Sean says:

    Hi and welcome! I’m glad you stopped by our blog. Forgive me for taking so long to respond, but it’s been a busy week around Southway so I haven’t had much time to give to the blog, and I personally don’t get the combox updates.

    It may be helpful if I clarify a few things as I respond. Please note, I didn’t say that Rosenberg’s conclusions in his book were unsupported or poorly reasoned. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoyed reading the book so much was because, unlike many of the more vocal atheists out there today, Rosenberg is completely unashamed of where his worldview logically leads him.

    Personally, I think Rosenberg is absolutely, 100% correct in his assertions. If one holds to what he calls “scientism,” (which which he defines as “treating science as one’s exclusive guide to reality”)and naturalism, then the conclusions he lays out in the book are the only ones available. This is why I titled the post “What Atheism Gets You.”

    I don’t disagree with him. In fact, I plan to reference Rosenberg’s argumentation extensively when I talk to atheists who want to hold that, for example, their moral judgments have any truth value to them.

    But here’s the thing, while both Rosenberg and I agree that what atheism gets you is a world without morality, intentionality, personality, and any purpose whatsoever; he views these conclusions as iron clad truth, while I view them as a fairly effective reductio ad absurdum of scientism and naturalism.

    Let me give an example… You wrote:

    “Is the truth worth believing in, whether it conforms to your wishes or not?”

    An interesting question, given Rosenberg’s denial of intentionality in an atheistic world. Rosenberg states that our thoughts and our words do not possess intentionality. They aren’t “about” anything. Since everything is physical stuff, and since one blob of physical stuff can’t posses the property of being “about” any other blob of physical stuff, then the concept of intentionality is utterly devoid of connection with reality.

    Elsewhere Rosenberg has written:

    “Whatever the brain does, it doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations, insofar as these are supposed to be states that “contain” sentences, and are “about” things, facts, events that are outside of the mind…If there literally are no beliefs and desires, because the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences, then there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning either…Consequently, there is no point asking for the real, the true, the actual meaning of a work of art, or the meaning of an agent’s act, still less the meaning of a historical event or epoch. The demand of the interpretive disciplines, that we account for ideas and artifacts, actions and events, in terms of their meanings, is part of the insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunits that human kind have insisted on since natural selection made us into conspiracy-theorists a half a million years ago or so.”

    But this leads me to ask: “If there is no intentionality, if our thoughts, words, and any propositions we might think they express aren’t actually “about” anything, then how could we judge them to be true or false?”

    In other words, if Rosenberg is right, then “truth” is a concept without meaning. Truth presupposes intentionality. If I were to say that the proposition: “Rosenberg has some good ideas.” is true, then I must presuppose that my thoughts and words are “about” something, namely Rosenberg and his ideas. If my thoughts and words lack intentionality, then “Rosenberg has some good ideas,” isn’t true or false… It’s utterly meaningless. I might as well have said: “fkjsdfj roiwio mdsnfiov.” Both sentences are equally as meaningful (or meaningless) if Rosenberg is correct.

    I can understand why many who share Rosenberg’s worldview shy away from his conclusions. They seem utterly incoherent and self-contradictory. And they are. But I believe Rosenberg is right, incoherent as they are, these are the only conclusions available to the proponent of scientism/naturalism.

    You said you would rather believe the truth. To that, I can give a hearty “Amen!” And in all honesty, this is one of the many reasons I am a Christian. Christianity gives us a worldview that can sustain a belief in “truth.” We serve a God of truth, and– to paraphrase something you wrote– working in my field (ministry) I have seen the evidence and support for Christianity’s truth claims time and time again.

  3. Cuttlefish says:

    You are conflating different meanings of “meaning”. Something need not have some intrinsic, Platonic “meaning” in order to be a useful concept. “Meaning” based solely on agreement by members of a language community is perfectly adequate, without the added baggage of some external ideal.

    Rosenberg is quite right; the best available evidence supports a view in which intentionality is an illusion brought on by a history of shaping by environmental contingencies, in the same sense that the seeming intentionality of design in nature is actually the result of a history of selection. Looking at the current state of affairs in behavior or biology, there is the appearance of intention, but looking at the history of either, that appearance is explained, without the need for exceptions to the observed laws of physics, chemistry, biology or behavioral science.

    Of course, the lack of intrinsic meaning (or intrinsic worth, for that matter) does not mean that things are meaningless (only that they are “ultimately” meaningless, which is an entirely different thing). Take the example of money. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about a 100 dollar bill; it is a piece of paper (well, technically, fabric) with ink and embedded plastic. Designs on it differentiate it from other bills, but you can’t eat it. It won’t keep you warm. Its worth comes entirely from social agreement. (Even when bills were backed by gold or silver, the real worth of the metals was in social agreement, not in the metal itself.) $100 bills are intrinsically worthless. And yet, you can feed a family for a week on the social agreement represented by that bill. We have given that piece of paper meaning.

    And we have given words meaning, and philosophies and metaphors and beliefs. Social agreement has created this meaning; it is not “ultimate” in any sense. But our agreement that, say, helping others is good, has been useful enough to our cultures that organizations have formed to support that meaning. You are part of one. There have been thousands of others over the centuries, whose views of “ultimate meaning” have differed from yours and from one another.

    One of the things Rosenberg will have noticed is that science converges on an answer from many different paths. We find eventual agreement (note, we don’t need to say that something is “true”; we are well aware that a good explanation today could be supplanted by a better one tomorrow), and converge on an understanding of a phenomenon, an understanding that is always subject to change if additional evidence is found. “Ultimate” truths don’t have that luxury; when data come in that don’t agree with the truth, we get apologetics, and arguments like yours here.

    Rosenberg’s conclusions are not at all incoherent or self-contradictory. The good news is, they are also not incompatible with a meaningful and joyous life. Our world has the meaning we give it; we value what we do because we give things value. And no, we do not do so freely, but rather as a part of the natural world which shapes us. But if you think for a moment that, if there were not a God to imbue her with “ultimate” meaning, my daughter’s life would be meaningless, then it is you who has the bleak view of the real world.

  4. Sean says:

    Forgive me, I’m having to pop in and out, so my responses may be sporadic, but I’m not sure we’re addressing the same issue here.

    Sure, we might have a social agreement on the value of a dollar, or gold, or whatever. But I’m not sure how this addresses the question of truthfulness when it comes to my thoughts or propositions in a world without intentionality.

    Let me try phrasing what I said earlier in the form of a question:

    You asked me if I believed the truth was worth believing, whether it conformed to my beliefs or not. I think this is a worthy question. Leaving aside the concept of “belief” and “believing,” could you define what you mean by “the truth,” if we were to accept Rosenberg’s conclusions that propositions, the words we use to express them, and even our thoughts lack the quality of being about anything?

  5. Cuttlefish says:

    Truth, in Rosenberg’s (and my) world, is never “ultimate” truth. A statement said to be true is one about which there is a consensus, an agreement. Clearly, then, truth is dependent on the available information (that which we thought was true may be found to be untrue), and it is far more useful to be able to call something “untrue”–not in agreement with observations.

    Your representational view of language is little changed from Plato’s thoughts on the subject; I suspect that Rosenberg would be more of the “meaning is usage” functionalist school. Meaning is defined quite differently in each; your conclusions about Rosenberg are (rather ironically, considering the topic) dependent on your philosophical stance. From a representational perspective, there is something missing in the functional view; from the functional view, representation is a fictional add-on that adds nothing.

    • Sean says:

      You write:

      “A statement said to be true is one about which there is a consensus, an agreement. ”

      Hmm…I believe we may be getting closer to answering your question about whether I think the truth is worth believing if it conflicts with my own personally held views and beliefs.

      I would personally hold to a correspondence view of truth. Namely, that a proposition bears truth value if it corresponds to the reality of a situation and describes things as they actually are. However, this view of truth seems incoherent in a world where propositions and the thoughts they express aren’t actually “about” anything.

      Now then, you seem to be saying that truth is based on consensus. I wish you had teased this idea out a bit more, because I want to be sure about what viewpoint you’re advocating before I answer. After all, “consensus” and “agreement” are pretty variable terms. Whose consensus are we talking about? How many have to agree before we assign truth value to a claim? Is the consensus about a proposition’s truthfulness based on whether or not we believe the given proposition corresponds to reality?

      I’d like to know more about where you’re coming from before I give an answer to your initial question.

  6. Dave X says:

    Atheism gets you an answer to the problem of evil.

    I grew up around children dying of birth defects, and I’ve never found any meaning in it.

    • Sean says:

      Hi Dave, I’m glad you stopped in.

      You write:

      “Atheism gets you an answer to the problem of evil.”

      I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. If Rosenberg is correct about what atheism entails with regard to morality, then the atheist doesn’t have an answer to the problem of evil. In fact, according to Rosenberg, if one adopts the atheistic worldview, there isn’t even a coherent concept of evil from which we might begin to develop an awareness of the problem.

      Far from giving a satisfying answer to the problem of evil, atheism (at least according to Rosenberg) must deny the existence of evil (and good for that matter) to begin with. Personally, I tend to think that our awareness of evil in the world, and our unshakable belief that it is, in fact, evil are at the very least experiential evidence in favor of questioning Rosenberg’s worldview.

      • Dave X says:

        “Evil” is a bit of a loaded word.

        I don’t see why an atheist must deny the existence of unnecessary pain and suffering, whether or not it is inflicted by a mind or a mindless process. This atheist thinks the obvious answer is that there isn’t any purpose to it.

        On the other hand, If you posit a purpose to everything, then an important part of that positing is that there is a purpose to unnecessary pain and suffering.

        One can parse and define evil as some concept compatible with one’s chosen deity, but that sidesteps the problem.

        Does your coherent concept of evil exclude birth defects and diseases that kill children before they can make moral decisions?

        Did the kids themselves deserve their fates? Were their suffering and deaths being used as a means to influence others?

        The God of Moses apparently used a plague on the firstborn of Egypt as a means to free the Israelites. Personally, I think that seems more evil than a mere plague of impotence, especially so if he had generations to work with.

        • Sean says:

          Hi Dave, I’m sorry for the late reply.

          You wrote:

          ““Evil” is a bit of a loaded word.
          I don’t see why an atheist must deny the existence of unnecessary pain and suffering, whether or not it is inflicted by a mind or a mindless process.”

          I have a few things I wanted to point out here:

          First, if you find evil to be a loaded concept given naturalistic worldview assumptions, you may find some difficulty using the term “unnecessary” as well. I say this because terms like “necessary” and “unnecessary” imply a concept of purposefulness. An instance of suffering would be deemed necessary if it was needed to achieve some specific purpose, and unnecessary if it was not. But, as Rosenberg points out, there are no purposes to begin with given naturalism, either cosmic or personal. He writes:

          “Among the seemingly unquestionable truths science makes us deny is the idea that we have any purposes at all, that we ever make plans-for today, tomorrow, or next year. Science must even deny the basic notion that we ever really think about the past and the future or even that our conscious thoughts ever give any meaning to the actions that express them.”

          So really, it seems that if we’re operating on a naturalistic worldview we wouldn’t be able to speak of suffering in terms of “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “evil,” “necessary” or “unnecessary.” Suffering just is, given a belief in naturalism.

          That tells me that the “problem of evil/suffering” isn’t an objection that can be mounted on naturalistic assumptions. In order for the problem to work, it has to be used as an internal critique of the Christian worldview. It’s only as one steps inside the Christian system and suffering begins to take on value judgments like “evil” or “bad” that we can begin to ask how suffering can logically co-exist with what we believe to be our good God.

          Somewhat problematically for our current discussion, since the problem of evil/suffering only works as an internal critique of the Christian system, any answers a Christian gives to the problem will, by necessity, be based on biblical principles and definitions. Now, while those answers might turn aside the force of the internal critique, I don’t for a moment think they will even begin to satisfy someone who rejects the Christian worldview.

          However, this leads me the last thing I wanted to say. I truly do believe that there is such a thing as evil, and I believe that I can look at the suffering present in the world around me and assign it a value judgment of “bad” and speak about the way things “ought” to be. And I believe that the awareness of evil and the wrongness of suffering is an unshakable aspect of human experience. We can’t help but realize that this isn’t the way things should be.

          But given naturalism, these value judgments are just illusions, they don’t correspond to anything in reality. To my mind however, the “evilness” of evil is more readily apparent than the support for naturalism. Given the choice between the two propositions, I would have to say that: “There are things that are really evil” is more likely to be true than: “Naturalism is the best explanation of the nature of reality.”

          • Dave X says:

            I find ‘evil’ to be a bit of a loaded word, in that it means different things to different people. You seem to be telling me I cannot name what I perceive as unnecessary suffering as an evil to be striven against because I am an atheist/naturalist/materialist.

            The philosophical “problem of evil” has wider applicability than mere Christianity, it would apply to any system of thought which posits a omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. You can pare down the definition of “evil’ to turn aside the force of the critique in your own philosophy, but at that point you are preaching to the choir.

            As a Christian with a proper sense of true evil, would you find the use of the deaths of children as a means to an end be evil? Was God’s tenth plague of Egypt good? Is the suffering of children due to deadly, painful birth defects of some godly use in making the non-afflicted make better moral choices?

            Is every single bit of suffering in this world (and the next) ultimately necessary? Does unnecessary suffering exist? Tell me why it is better that Baby P. didn’t die of SIDS.

            As an ex-Catholic, what atheism gets you, in respect to the classical “problem of evil”, is that there isn’t some powerful being just watching children suffer.

  7. Sean says:

    Let me see if I can clarify what I’m driving at…

    You write:

    “You seem to be telling me I cannot name what I perceive as unnecessary suffering as an evil to be striven against because I am an atheist/naturalist/materialist.”

    Well, in all fairness, most of what I’ve been saying has been drawn from the arguments of the author cited in the original post. According to Rosenberg, the naturalist doesn’t have any justification for assuming that their moral value judgments actually correspond to reality. In fact, he’s fairly explicit about this. He argues (successfully I believe) that naturalistic atheism inevitably leads us to moral nihilism. He spells out what this means for moral value judgments like “naming something evil”:

    “Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.”

    So, I guess you could call something evil. But my question would be what you meant by the word. Obviously, it wouldn’t be that something is evil because it violates a moral law, some set of binding norms that everyone and everything is obliged to follow. After all, given naturalism, no such moral law exists. As Rosenberg himself argues:

    “There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon.”

    Nor would I imagine that you mean that something is evil if it doesn’t match up to the “way things ought to be.” Again, given naturalism, there is no “way things ought to be.” There are no plans, no purposes, no standards that the current configuration of the universe fails to match up to. Things just are the way they are.

    Neither would I think you were arguing that something “just is” evil. That certain actions or events bear some intrinsic quality of “evilness” that we could point to and condemn. As Rosenberg points out in the book, these sorts of intrinsic moral values are out of bounds for the naturalist. They just don’t fit within his worldview.

    I guess you could equate “evil” with what you personally find distasteful, but I’m not sure that such a definition would bear the force you’re intending the word “evil” to convey.

    You also write:

    “The philosophical “problem of evil” has wider applicability than mere Christianity, it would apply to any system of thought which posits a omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being.”

    Agreed, but what I was trying to point out was that, in the context of our current discussion, the problem of evil only emerges as we step inside the Christian worldview, and start discussing things in Christian terms. The “problem” functions as an internal critique of whatever theistic system is in question. My point was that the naturalist doesn’t have an answer to the problem of evil available within their own worldview, since, as discussed above, they lack the grounding to form a coherent judgment of evil to begin with. It seems from what Rosenberg argues that to be a naturalist is not to find some satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. Rather, the naturalist ends up denying the existence of evil altogether, at least as most people understand the concept.

    That leads me to what you wrote next:

    “You can pare down the definition of “evil’ to turn aside the force of the critique in your own philosophy, but at that point you are preaching to the choir.”

    You’ve said something like this more than once, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if you’re objecting to the Christian discussing the problem of evil in Christian terms. If this is the case, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. As I said, the problem of evil only functions as an internal critique of a worldview. It tries to show that there is some sort of logical incompatibility within the Christian system of faith. To do that, you would, by necessity, have to speak from “within” the worldview. You wouldn’t be able to import a foreign definition of evil into the Christian system and then assert that a logical contradiction exists. That just won’t do.

    Also, you have asked in this and a previous post how I view certain actions taken by God in the bible. I have so far set these questions aside in favor of the discussion that I felt was more in line with the original topic of the post, namely your comments on the problem of evil, and the atheist’s ability to call things evil.

    I do have to ask though, what is it you’re looking for in these questions? Do you actually want an account of how Christians view these events given the Christian doctrines of God’s holiness, His ultimately good purposes, and the guilt of original sin? Or were these questions intended to be more rhetorical in nature, expressing your disagreement with the Christian conclusions?