05 January 2012

Alex Rosenberg's "The Atheists Guide" reviewed

Richard Marshall reviews Alex Rosenberg's The Atheists Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. A book worth contemplating; money passages:

Dan Dennett we might suppose is less sanguine than Critchley and his beard signals a different kind of hip from the Critchley angst. He’s a hard-nosed naturalist philosopher guy who loads up evolutionary theory to dispel the Cartesian idea of mind body dualism, sharing platforms with Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the evangelical wing of the Darwinists. It’s the brain, stupid, is what his slogan could be. Consciousness is just what our brains produce and he explains the mechanism in terms of what he calls an intentional stance. But after making the case that the brain works in terms of matter and purely causal laws he makes a move not unlike Critchley’s and in the last three chapters of his masterpiece Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains that we are not brains. Person talk, he says, isn’t affected by brain talk, and the evolutionary acid that erodes meaning at brain state level doesn’t go further into the ontological realm of persons. As with Critchley, if there’s a nihilism on offer, it’s a pretty comfortable one, a tame and domesticated dog that is trained to bark only at targets its master doesn’t like. It kind of leaves everything where the atheist hoped it would be: evolution underwrites the rationalism of being an atheist but doesn’t corrode our human image.

Rosenberg, as I said at the start, is having none of this. His position is a mad-dog scientism. ‘Scientism’, in the past used as a term of abuse, he reclaims as a term of honour. What he argues is for a naturalism of reductive physicalism. Reductive physicalism claims that everything is just bosons and fermions. Physics explains these. They are without purpose, without meaning, are blind, law governed entities that have no encoded propositional or intentional scripts. So the problem is how we can understand ourselves as having intentionality, free-will and purpose if this is the case.
And then this...
But then, if there are no categorical imperatives (except linguistically) don’t abhorrent values become equal with decent ones? If there’s nothing in the naturalistic worldview to underwrite goodness then Hitler is equal to Gandhi. Rosenberg accepts this but says we shouldn’t worry. Rosenberg says we are all just hard-wired to be nice. Morals are for him a type of norm expressivism. There are facts paired to norms that form a core system that’s universal, shared as a kind of species bedrock. As a species we’ve evolved the same values. There are other facts then that these pairings interact with, local ones including eco systems. So Rosenberg argues that as a species we share the same values and and that all moral disagreement is about factual matters if it persists beyond clearing up background cultural things.