The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality

This is a précis of an argument that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding. This is a vast agenda and it’s presumptuous to address it even in a format 30 times longer than this one. My excuse is that I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more hopeful version of naturalism than this one.

1.  Why Leave Life’s Persistent Questions to Guy Noir?

We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science. Attempts to do so will be accused of “scientism”—the unwarranted and exaggerated respect for science. I plead guilty to the charge, while taking exception to the ‘unwarranted’ and ‘exaggerated’ part. In the book here summarized I take a page out of the PR of the gay and lesbian community and (mis)appropriate the word ‘scientistic’ the way they did to ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic. In fact, most scientists aren’t. Why not?

Most scientists are reluctant to admit science’s answers to the persistent questions are obvious. There are more than enough reasons they are reluctant to do so. The best reason is that the answers to the persistent questions are not what people want to hear, and the bad news may lead them to kill the messenger—scientific research. It’s people who pay for  science through their support of the NIH, the NSF, and the universities where most  research happens. So, scientists have an incentive to cover up. They have a couple of other reasons too: science is fallible and scientists are taught never to be definitive even about their own conclusions; the persistent questions are so broad that no scientist’s research program addresses them directly, and few are prepared to stick their necks out beyond their specialty when they don’t have to.  For scientists staying mum about science’s real answers to the persistent questions is overdetermined.

Even if scientists came clean however, most people wouldn’t accept the answers science gives to the persistent questions because they can’t understand the answers. The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots. What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.”

Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

2.  The Nature Of Reality? Just Ask Physics

What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones. In effect, scientism’s metaphysics is, to more than a first approximation, given by what physics tell us about the universe. The reason we trust physics to be scientism’s metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application. If what physics says about reality doesn’t go, that track record would be a totally inexplicable mystery or coincidence. Neither science nor scientism stands still for coincidence.

Physics is by no means finished, and it may hold out even more surprises for common sense than it already has provided. In addition it faces several problems—the nature of dark matter and dark energy, superstring theory v. quantum loop gravity or even some other way of unifying the standard model of particle physics and general relativity. Finally, there is the problem of attaching a coherent interpretation to quantum mechanics’ basic notion of a superposition. Scientism needs to grasp just enough about these problems to show that no matter how things turn out in physics, they won’t make any difference for science’s answers to the persistent questions. All scientism needs for that job is the 2d law of thermodynamics and the repudiation of future causes, current purposes, or past designs. And these were purged from science by the Newtonian revolution in the late 17th century.

3: The Purpose Of The Universe And Other Easy Questions

Ever since Newton physics has ruled out purposes in the physical realm. If the physical facts fix all the facts, however, then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes. Showing how it could do so was a tall order. Until Darwin came along things looked pretty good for Kant’s pithy observation that there never would be a Newton for the blade of grass—that physics could not explain living things, human or otherwise, because it couldn’t  invoke purpose. But the process that Darwin discovered–random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration–does all the work of explaining the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us. What Darwin showed was that all of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of fit between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose. Of course, that is no surprise to scientism; if physics fixes all the facts, it could not have turned out any other way. In fact, the mechanism Darwin discovered for building adaptations is the only game in town. Any explanation of the very existence of even the slightest adaptation must be Darwinian.  All you need to see this is the 2d law of thermodynamics.

4.  Blind Variation And Natural Selection: What A Waste Of Energy!

It is not difficult to show that the process Darwin discovered—the appearance of adaptation through blind variation and environmental filtration—is the inevitable result of the operation of the 2d law of thermodynamics in a universe like ours, filled with numberless atoms and molecules bonding to each other or not in accordance with the laws of chemistry. What is more, it can also be shown that given the 2d law, the only possible source of adaptations in the universe that was originally bereft of them is the process Darwin discovered. When it comes to life, natural selection, it turns out, is the only game in town. There are several reasons for this.

Scientism, and for that matter science too, needs an explanation of adaptation in general that starts from the complete absence of any. Otherwise, we have not explained how even the simplest, most minimal sliver of adaptation could have emerged in a world with zero adaptation. Since the process of adaptational evolution is, unlike the basic processes in physics, a one-way past to future process, it can only be driven by the 2d law of thermodynamics, since that is the source of all irreversible processes in the universe. In a deterministic world, or one asymptotically close to it, ticking over in accordance with laws like Newton’s or their quantum successors, the only way the first, slightest sliver of an adaptation could have emerged is completely randomly—through the good offices of the 2d law (or much, much, much more improbably, some quantum event percolating up to the molecular level). Therefore, the process that produces adaptations had to be energetically expensive, wasteful, inefficient, full of imperfections and useless improvements. The initial adaptation had to be random, and subsequent adaptations built on it had to be wasteful, had to lock-in prior steps, and as they enhanced local order, had to pay for it by moving in directions that accelerated the waste of energy. Only the process of blind and mainly wasteful variation (on this planet mostly produced by wasteful sexual recombination), together with accelerating changes in the environment that does the filtering, could meet these demands. But that process is the one Darwin discovered. Ergo, it’s the only game in town.

5.  Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News

If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.

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. So, if scientism is to ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, it’s going to face a serious explanatory problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection on alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population. If our universally shared moral core were both the one selected for and also the right moral core, then the correlation of being right and being selected for couldn’t be a coincidence. Scientism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. Either our core morality is an adaptation because it is the right core morality or it’s the right core morality because it’s an adaptation, or it’s not right, but only feels right to us.  It’s easy to show that neither of the first two alternatives is right.  Just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right. Think of the adaptational benefits of racist, xenophobic or patriarchal norms. You can’t justify morality by showing its Darwinian pedigree. That way lies the moral disaster of Social Spencerism (better but wrongly known as Social Darwinism). The other alternative—that our moral core was selected for because it was true, correct or right–is an equally far fetched idea.  And in part for the same reasons. The process of natural selection is not in general good at filtering for true beliefs, only for ones hitherto convenient for our lines of descent. Think of folk physics, folk biology, and most of all folk psychology. Since natural selection has no foresight, we have no idea whether the moral core we now endorse will hold up, be selected for, over the long-term future of our species, if any.

This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbearers in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans has not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.

6. Descartes’ Cave

Understanding our own psychological make-up and our thought processes are among the most daunting of problems facing science. That’s why less progress has been made understanding the mind than understanding the rest of the universe. On the other hand, because we have immediate introspective access to our minds, most people think they really understand their minds better than anything else. Descartes got sucked into this delusion 500 years ago and made introspective certainty the foundation of knowledge instead of the most tempting distraction from it.

Neuroscience will eventually enable us to understand the mind by showing us how the brain works. But we already know enough about it to take nothing introspection tells us about the mind on trust. The phenomenon of blindsight—people who don’t have any conscious color experiences can tell the color of a thing—is enough to give us pause about the most apparently certain conclusion introspection insists on: that when you see a color you have a color experience. Then there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them! (As for determinism and the denial of real free will, that is a conclusion which, so to speak, goes without saying for scientism.) We have to add to these illusions of the will and sensory experience, robust experimental results which reveal that we actually navigate the world looking through the rear-view mirror! We don’t even see what is in front of our eyes, but continually make guesses about it based on what has worked out in our individual and evolutionary past. Discovering the illusion that we are looking through the windshield in stead of the rear view mirror, along with so much more that neuroscience is uncovering about the brain,  reveals that the mind is no more a purpose-driven system than anything else in nature. This is just what scientism leads us to expect. There are no purposes in nature; physics has ruled them out, and Darwin has explained them away.

Perhaps the most profound illusion introspection foists on us is the notion that our thoughts are actually recorded anywhere in the brain at all in the form introspection reports. This has to be the profoundest illusion of all, because neuroscience has been able to show that networks of human brain cells are no more capable of representing facts about the world the way conscious introspection reports than are the neural ganglia of sea slugs! The real challenge for neuroscience is to explain how the brain stores information when it can’t do so in anything like the way introspection tells us it does—in sentences made up in a language of thought.

7.  Never Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide

The interior monologue that introspection carries on is a sub-vocal version of the play (the tokening) of noise, ink-marks and pixels that passes for public communication. Like public speech and writing, our introspective stream of consciousness doesn’t record or report what the brain is actually doing, because the brain can’t store or manipulate information in words and sentences of any language, including mentalese. Conscious introspection is not just wrong about sensory experience, it’s no guide to cognition either. 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.  That the brain no more has original intentionality than anything else does is the hardest illusion to give up, and we probably won’t be able completely to do so till neuroscience really understands the brain. Meanwhile, knowing what is not on the cards, is still enough to put in proper perspective the humanities’ endless absorption with meaning, and the persistent demands for interpretative understanding made in the human sciences.

If linguistic meaning is anything at all it has got to be something like what the philosopher of language Paul Grice discovered about it: at bottom it’s a nested set of beliefs and desires that speakers have about their listeners and themselves. Grice’s own set of conditions necessary and sufficient for linguistic meaning might need to be fine- tuned. But he showed at least to a first approximation what linguistic meaning consists in. Scientism must treat this conclusion as devastating to any attempt to take semantic meaning seriously as a fact about reality. 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. It’s just a useful heuristic device, one with only a highly imperfect grip on what is going on in thought. 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. That is a taste it will be too hard to shake in everyday life. The fiction best-seller list will always be with us. But we need to move most of the works now on  the non-fiction list to their rightful places among the magic realist romances, the historical and biographical novels, and the literary confessions.

Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us. This self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time. There seems to be only oneway we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time and over bodily change. This way is by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. Since physics has excluded the existence of anything concrete but nonspatial, and since physics fixes all the facts, we have to give up this last illusion consciousness foists on us. But of course Scientism can explain away the illusion of an enduring self as one that natural selection imposed on our introspections, along with an accompanying penchant for stories. After all it is pretty clear that they solve a couple of major design problems for anything that has to hang around long enough to leave copies of its genes and protect them while they are growing up.

8. History Is Bunk

Having come this far, scientism has the resources to explain the frustrations and the failure of the social sciences and history, and it provides a firm basis on which to establish reasonable expectations about the prospects for the human sciences, qua sciences.

The nature of meaning and its at-best merely instrumental grasp on real events in our brains and in the world gives scientism manifold reasons not to expect history and the historical versions of the social sciences to provide anything more than diverting stories, post hoc explanations and very short term expectations about the human future. But there is a much deeper reason to be pessimistic about the uses of history: reason enough to conclude that Santayana’s or Churchill’s reasons for taking history seriously—to know the future–will never be borne out.

The process that appears to give history its meanings by making almost everything in human affairs an adaptation for some thing or person or other, is the same as the one that gives so much of biology its appearance of purpose to us. Human history, like natural history is composed of a sequence of events, states, processes and individuals, all of which are adaptations of various sorts. In the human case a few have been contrived by human design (or so introspection misleadingly tells us).  But most have arisen through the same process of blind variation and environmental filtration that produces adaptations in the biological realm. Of course the mechanism in the human case rarely involves genetic transmission; what it requires and in fact utilizes is cultural transmission. In human cultural evolution, the relevant selective environment is ever-increasingly other people, other families, other groups, other cultures, societies, their mores, norms, institutions, technologies, etc. Since the environment in which humans operate is largely one created by humans, it changes with accelerating rapidity over time, and almost from the beginning of social history it is driven by arms races.

It’s arms races between people, groups, their institutions and the social practices that parasitize them, that make history bunk as a guide to the future. It does so first of all by making the human target of cultural adaptation a moving one.  It is also changing the target all the time, in ways to which the target-tracking adaptations are blind, and to which even the target-bearing subjects are blind. Human history is not the blind leading the blind. It’s the blind wrestling with the blind. It’s a fight in which neither side can see the other side’s current moves clearly, nor reliably predict their next move or its outcome. Human history is a nested series of arms races that never attain more than a temporary and unstable equilibrium.

The obstacle to useful knowledge from history that is posed by the arms race character of human affairs is not avoidable by social science, no matter how scientistic (in the old pejorative sense) it aims to be.

The easy way to see this is to recognize that in all the social sciences we face exactly the same explanatory problem that Darwin faced in biology. Since, as science can show, Darwin’s solution is the only one possible in biology, it must be the only one possible in social science. Almost everything in human affairs has a function—either for everybody, or for some favored class of people, or for a group, an institution that people participate in; or else it is something like religions, which survive by “creating” and adaptation to niches composed of people and their beliefs. If almost everything of interest that has come about in human history and human life has functions or components with functions, then it would be yet another coincidence if this feature–in which everything human shares–was not systematically related to the mechanisms that brought it about and/or keeps it in business. Once purposes are ruled out of nature—biological, social, psychological–there is only one way that something’s functions can bring it about or maintain it, or explain its changes over time: the process that Darwin discovered–blind variation and environmental filtration. And that is a process in which arms races, and the reflexive, nested instability they entrain, makes human sciences only a little less myopic than the history that has been familiar to us since Thucydides.

So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.

©Alex Rosenberg, 2009. No quotation without express permission, please.

22 comments to The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality

  • What is “the book here summarized”? I’m interested in reading further about this nihilistic reductionism.

  • Two caveats up front: (1) I have considerable sympathy with Alex’s remarks here, even on the topic I’m about to criticize. (2) I’ve defended a similar position with Alex in a 2003 paper when I was his graduate student. So this comment is also directed against my former (and sometimes current) self.

    The question of whether science reveals morality to be an illusion and sham depends on what we take morality to be in the first place. If we think morality is essentially an objective, reason-giving thing—“a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon,” then Darwinism has nihilistic implications. If we have a more modest conception of what morality is, then the issue is less clear.

    Let me give an analogy. I adore my daughter. Teaching her to ride a bike, watching Charlie Chaplin movies with her, I feel like I’m in heaven. Now imagine a ‘love nihilist’ comes along and says:

    “Your feelings of ‘love’ are really just a bunch of neurons firing—these feelings have been naturally selected for so that parents would care for offspring long enough for them to pass along their genes. Your ‘love’ is actually kin selection in disguise.”

    Would this undermine my belief that I love Eliza in any way? No! I know all about kin selection. I’m a naturalist. I never presumed that love wouldn’t have this type of evolutionary/explanation. Kin selection may in part explain my feelings of love, but it doesn’t debunk them. It doesn’t make it false that I love my daughter.

    So how does this analogy translate to morality? Well, if we see morality as something that emerges out of core feelings of empathy, anger, love, resentment, gratitude, feelings that are ultimately the result of a biological and cultural evolutionary process, then mechanistic explanations would be just that, explanations. They would not debunk our belief in morality or show it to be an illusion. Does this option amounts to “moral disaster of Social Spencerism”? I don’t think so. We are naturally capable of evaluating our core values and revising them in light of new information—information that has nothing to do with passing on our DNA. (Rosenberg does this himself by referring to Spencerism as a “moral disaster.”) Perhaps morality consists in all-things-considered judgments which take into account non-moral facts and our moral intuitions and feelings and tries to find the best fit. These judgments are not a guide to independent, free floating facts about morality. They constitute facts about morality, just as my feelings of love for Eliza constitute the fact that I love her.

    True, this outcome does leave open the possibility of moral relativism or subjectivism. Kant and Plato would not be pleased. But I take that as a good sign.

    (For more on evolutionary accounts of morality, see my new book of interviews A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain ( esp. the interviews with Josh Greene and Liane Young, Frans de Waal, Michael Ruse, Stephen Stich, Joe Henrich, and Jon Haidt.)

  • Michael Allen Gillespie

    Backgammon Anyone?

    When I first read Alex Rosenberg’s Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality, I was at a loss to know what to say. After all, it is difficult to respond to an essay that by its own assertion could not have the meaning I attributed to it, was not produced for any purpose, and was not guided by any authorial intention. My initial impression was that the essay was in fact an entertaining and quite brilliant performative contradiction. But when I reflected on this thought, it occurred to me that this could not be the case since the essay also seemed to suggest that rules like the principle of non-contradiction, as mere ideas, had no actual relevance in the real world Alex’s scientism described. This thought I must admit perplexed me and left me depressed. Then I dined, I conversed, and was merry with some friends; and after three or four hours’ amusement, returned to these speculations. On reading the essay again, I noticed a few things I had passed over before, and particularly Alex’s assertion that we should never let consciousness be our guide. After all, what was this essay other than “the play (the tokening) of noise, ink-marks and pixels that passes for public communication?” Like all “public speech and writing,” it couldn’t “record or report what the brain is actually doing, because the brain can’t store or manipulate information in words and sentences of any language.” What if I considered the essay from that perspective? Not in terms of what it seemed to say but in terms of what it did. Following this thought, I recognized some subtle clues that had previously escaped me, for example, the wonderfully parodic, Rortyesque claim that morality is bunk but that we shouldn’t worry too much about it since our evolutionary past selected for niceness. This from a native New Yorker—could he be serious? What was Alex actually up to? I remembered then Alex’s claim that all human behavior is “a nested series of arms races that never attain more than a temporary and unstable equilibrium.” Here finally I began to grasp what was going on—this was not an essay but a clever move in an esoteric game, a wrestling match in which, as Alex grippingly portrayed it, the blind are wrestling the blind. His words were not meant to persuade but part of a champion grappler’s strategy to pin his opponent before he even knows he’s involved in a match! What I had taken to be a discussion of science was in fact a Wrestlemania extravaganza! and without even knowing it I was about to be bashed on the head with a metal folding chair. A blindingly clever move!
    But what wrestler would not want to get as good as he gave? Such a wonderful strategy clearly deserves a response, however unworthy it might be. Let me then try a few moves.
    An attempt at a Heideggerian take down. Scientism, as Alex presents it, seems to entail that science presents us with a true, useful, or workable picture of the world or what Alex calls reality. Where, however, does this world exist other than in consciousness? I do not mean by this that it is only in our head or ensconced somehow in our neural network, but I do want to suggest that it only comes to be as it is for us in and through our thinking, speaking, writing, or portraying it in some way or other. Moreover, in order for us to think it, we must be able to conceive of a whole and parts, of necessity and possibility, and a variety of other categories (including all of those that are essential to the mathematical physics which Alex asks us to trust). And yet, to take just one example, is it possible for us to derive the idea of the whole from anything in our experience? I don’t see how it is. Modern science in this case seems to rest on the indemonstrable assumption that being is one (to paraphrase Parmenides) or that it is united by some commonality, such as Newton and Leibniz imagined God provided for his creation. But how do we know this? Can science know this scientifically? How do we know, for example, that the “world” is uniform and whole, and not an unworld, a post-modernist disunity, held together by nominalistically by mere words, or what Nietzsche called dream bridges among things that remain eternally apart. I don’t see how Alex’s scientism can do without some notion of the whole and at the same time I don’t see how such a notion is possible on the basis of what he says.
    A Tayloresque half-nelson. Alex assumes that human behavior is not the result of the intentional pursuit of purposes. If this is correct, then it would seem that science must be something like a random event. But on scientific grounds it seems highly unlikely that we stumbled onto the correct path to the truth by accident. We just have not been around long enough for that to be likely. There are simply too many false paths for any random walk to have brought us to the one true path in such a short period of time. Science seems rather to be the outgrowth of our ability not merely to adapt through random variation to circumstances but to recognize and change the circumstances themselves, in part as a result of the fact that we don’t just live in an environment but in a world that we can imagine being other than it is.
    Now Alex may want to call this random variation but it is hard to see how it differs from what we ordinarily call purposive behavior. Indeed, Alex himself must believe something like this since as he remarks at the beginning of the essay, he occasionally lies “awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love.” All of these questions presume some conception of the world as a whole and the notion of purpose.
    A quasi-Aristotelian category error leg lock. I don’t believe that science can give us an answer to the questions that Alex announces at the beginning of his essay. We cannot “read off” any answers to these questions from science, as Alex suggests, because these questions require a different sort of answer than science can provide. Science does not tell us about the meaning of our lives, who we are or what we should do, but how things work. In this way it gives us immense power but it does not tell us how to use it. It thus may help us improve our lives and help us to achieve our immediate (and to Alex’s mind illusory) purposes, but in the long run our dabbling may be as disastrous to our species as it already has been for many other species. Still, at the moment it would be hard to argue that we don’t dominate our environment.
    A Humean pin attempt. Alex assumes throughout his account that survival of the individual and the species is a good thing. This, of course, is not something science or scientism can demonstrate and yet it is something that science assumes. Why should we not conclude with the words Silenus gives in response to Midas’s question about what is best: “Best is not to have been born. Second best, to die soon.” Or to put it another way, why isn’t the best long-term care policy a Colt 45 automatic? How can one come away from Alex’s disenchanting essay without being troubled by such thoughts, and if so how can Alex’s essay be of any evolutionary value to any member of the species other than perhaps Alex himself?
    But here again I begin to stray into those gloomy thoughts that troubled me upon first reading the essay, asking myself were I am, or what? From what causes I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Despite Alex’s efforts, I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. It must be time to bring this match to an end, or at least to have something else to eat.
    Backgammon anyone?

  • Way to go, Alex. But also marvelous critics to date.

    Let me say something to Tamler: I would go so far as to say that morality does not exist (a la what Alex calls “real free will,” which he thinks is unreal, of course). Your reply (which Tom Clark also masterfully defends at his website on naturalism): Why not redefine or reanalyze morality as something less metaphysically autocratic? There seems to be something eminently useful in human affairs that could go by that name. My response (argued at booklength, currently seeking a publisher) is that names often carry a lot of unwanted baggage, and “morality” is surely the mother of all overloaded names (well, maybe second place to “God,” as argued by Mitchell Silver in his excellent book, A Plausible God). I just don’t think we can retain moral language and expect a new world order that is more to our liking to emerge.

    Some random comments for Alex:

    This one is actually along the lines of Tamler’s remark, and I suppose Michael’s too: You argue that the world revealed by physics contains no purpose, ergo human affairs don’t either. But compare: The motion of the Sun that we see on a daily basis is in fact (due to) the Earth’s rotation (and revolution). But is it not also a fact that the Sun moves across the sky, where the sky is itself a “visual field” in which such events can occur? Just so: “human affairs” – granted, not themselves fermions or bosons, and in that sense not even existing perhaps; but insofar as they exist (i.e., you refer to them as something in the world), then other things or phenomena similarly exist in that context. Not exactly fiction, like Sherlock’s pipe; they seem to have more purchase on reality than that. Or put it this way: You say “There are no purposes in nature.” Fine, but on your (and probably my) view, we are not in nature. So if there is to be any talking about us, it will likely be about other “non-natural” things as well. The option remains not to talk about the things we do not believe exist (and perhaps to “speak” ultimate Truth is simply to shut up: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”) … or devise a way of saying everything that we want to say in the language of fermions and bosons. Not likely? Then interesting to explain why not.

    An observation: So not only is “objective meaning” being ruled out, but also “subjective meaning.” For subjectivity has its own sort of objectivity, which I think is your more immediate target in this piece. Thus, for example: not only no “absolute” moral right or wrong independent of human judgment or belief, but also no belief that something is right or wrong. Just fermions and bosons.

    But yes, as Michael points out, you would seem to have some fairly blatant counterexamples to your claim that it’s fermions or bosons or nothing, in logic, math, and so on. I assume you have something to say on that score.

    Finally, Mr. Natural put your claim succinctly:

    “My Natural! What does it all mean??”

    “Don’t mean sheeit…”

    (from the cover of Mr. Natural comic book, no. 2, by R. Crumb – and of your next book?)

  • Michael McKenna

    What an exciting, provocative essay! How to respond? As a compatibilist about free will and moral responsibility, I am one of those naturalists Professor Rosenberg describes as enchanted. He claims to be standing on the shoulders of giants in dismissing meaning in life, morality, consciousness, and free will. Their vain albeit heroic attempts to avoid skeptical conclusions, he explains, only confirm his disenchanted contentions. I too stand on the shoulders of giants. But I see morality, justice, meaning in life, meanings, intentions, consciousness, self-consciousness, and free will, where he sees only fermions and bosons. He would say that I am enchanted or bewitched—that what I believe I see is an illusion. I say that he is partially blinded—that he sees some of what there is, but not all of it. With little space I can only gesture at two sources of resistance to his conclusions.

    First, consider this. I have a car made of many different parts. None of them can “go fast”; they’re just parts. Does it follow that my car cannot go fast? Obviously not. Thinking otherwise involves a simple fallacy of composition. Professor Rosenberg, in my estimation, is committing a similar fallacy, not a simple and obvious one, but a fallacy all the same. The core thought is that if the rudiments of our physical nature and our causal history do not have purpose, then no purpose can arise. From ingredients entirely lacking in purpose, nothing can emerge that has purpose. But that seems plainly false. As a naturalist, I agree, I am wholly constituted of fermions and bosons—entities lacking in purpose. But I do things intentionally. So do all of you.

    Second, some philosophers, such as Galen Strawson, have drawn skeptical conclusions about the reality of free will by starting with a conception of it that is impossible to satisfy, being a self-cause. Not finding anything in reality that could answer to that, they conclude there must not be free will at all. But the problem is where they started. There is a credible, naturalist-friendly way to distinguish persons who are able to control their conduct in sophisticated ways as in contrast with persons who cannot. Build a theory of free will by starting there, I say. In my estimation, a similar naturalist treatment is available for a considerable range of the phenomena Professor Rosenberg dismisses.

    A final note in closing: Professor Rosenberg credits Libet with proving that your actions are determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them. Libet has fallen far short of proving any such thing. For a convincing refutation of Libet’s conclusions, see Alfred Mele’s recent Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will.

  • I’m glad to find that my response to Rosenberg echoes the sentiments of most of the previous commentators, who rightly remain un-disenchanted.

    Scientism as Rosenberg describes it isn’t equivalent to or implied by naturalism, a worldview that takes science as its guide to reality. He says “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.” But science alone isn’t in a position to be nihilistic. Science arguably provides the best answers to factual questions about what exists, but doesn’t itself have the resources or competence to answer (in the negative, as Rosenberg would have it) the “persistent questions” of human meaning, purpose and morality. To suppose science alone can answer such questions is indeed to be scientistic in the original and rightly pejorative sense. After all, when considering the big questions, we ordinarily avail ourselves of all the philosophical and practical resources outside science, such as ethical and political theory, religious and secular traditions, maxims, rules of thumb, and other sources of wisdom on how best to live and find meaning.

    It isn’t surprising that Rosenberg’s hyper-reductive scientism ends up in nihilism, since of course we don’t find values or purpose or meaning at the level of what he thinks science shows to be the only reality: fermions and bosons. But such austere physicalism isn’t forced on the naturalist, who can countenance higher-level ontologies, including mental states, so long as they play useful roles in our best (most predictive, transparent and unifying) explanations and theories. So far as science can tell, human beings (physical organisms) and their projects (their behavior) are just as real as their sub-atomic constituents, which after all are not directly observed but theoretical posits par excellence. Naturalism still leaves plenty of room for purpose, meaning and morality so long as these are understood as what they actually are under naturalism: human, creaturely concerns that need no cosmic or sub-atomic backup. To see this is to naturalize purpose, meaning and morality, to relativize them to naturally occurring needs and interests; it isn’t to annihilate them.

    Rosenberg underestimates the extent to which scientific explanations can be understood and found inspirational by non-scientists, for instance the grand stories of cosmic and biological evolution. To discover ourselves full participants in nature, historically and in the present moment, need not be demoralizing as Carl Sagan so wonderfully demonstrated. Crucially, scientific explanations don’t entail that human existential and ethical concerns are unreal or unfulfillable, only that they are situated in a natural world that, logically enough, has no capacity to validate them. Only the assumption that addressing such concerns requires an appeal to supernatural or extra-human standards would lead us to suppose that naturalized meaning and morality aren’t the real thing. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption.

    Rosenberg says that “If the physical facts fix all the facts…then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes.” But the physical level of description doesn’t compete with, or supplant, higher level descriptions of human behavior involving purposes and other intentional states, conscious and unconscious. There’s no making sense of behavior at our level without them. True, science reveals no purpose in evolution or nature, but that doesn’t show that our purposes are illusions, that we don’t really believe, desire, plan, etc. Purposes and intentional states are real-ized in physical organisms such as ourselves.

    He makes the same sort of claim about morality: “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.” Agreed: for the naturalist norms aren’t free floating, but are rooted in our evolved needs and desires for flourishing in community with others (hence ethical norms of fairness and reciprocity) and for making accurate predictions about the world (hence cognitive norms of rationality, evidence and inference). But even though we don’t find anything intrinsically normative in nature taken as a whole, or at the level of physical facts about fermions and bosons, these norms are just as real as the human beings that depend on them for getting by in the world. From a naturalistic standpoint, the normative force attached to our moral core – our judgment that it’s correct – can only be a function of the fact that it serves basic human needs as shaped by evolution: if you want to get along with others (and you likely do) then you should in general behave morally. That this explanation shows our moral core to be an adaptation, along with much else about us, doesn’t debunk normativity as unreal, only naturalizes it.

    Rosenberg’s reductive stripping away of higher level human perspectives continues down the line, for meaning, history, consciousness, the self, free will, and even knowledge (a perilously self-undermining tack to take, as Michael Allen Gillespie points out). But the mistake in all this is to suppose that physicalist, mechanistic, sub-personal and selectivist explanations leave no room in naturalism for the higher level ontologies and explanations that comprise the need-driven normative realms of cognition, meaning and morality. That the brain doesn’t traffic in propositions, and that consciousness isn’t a direct mirroring of the world, doesn’t mean that language-using persons don’t have propositional knowledge or entertain accurate beliefs. That semantic meaning isn’t a “fact about reality” considered at the sub-atomic level doesn’t render unreal our linguistic referential capacities, or our ability to tell truthful and instructive stories about historical events. No original intentionality is needed, only the constructed intentionality made possible by being creatures whose brains instantiate mental models that track the world. Seeing that the consciously experienced self is naturalistically not a soul, but a neurally realized pattern (a “real pattern” Dennett would say) is to explain selves and self-concern, not to explain them away. That we aren’t contra-causally free doesn’t mean we cease being moral agents responsive to the prospect of rewards and sanctions, although it might entail that we rethink some of our more punitive responsibility practices.

    The processes of naturalization spurred by science may indeed upset some cherished supernatural and theistic conceptions of the self, freedom, consciousness, morality, meaning and knowledge, which may in turn prompt changes in mainstream concepts and practices. But naturalism does not entail the scientistic elimination and debunking of all that matters to human beings; it simply places this mattering within nature as a set of creaturely concerns that other sentient beings might conceivably share with us. That nature, taken as a whole, or understood sub-atomically, does not validate our naturally occurring concerns and capacities isn’t a reason to give up on them, and indeed we’re pretty much constitutionally unable to do so. So naturalists need not be, shouldn’t be, and in the end can’t be, scientistic eliminativists or nihilists.

  • Alex Rosenberg says that “there are no purposes in nature”. As a naturalist, Rosenberg must equate nature with everything that exists (otherwise, he would countenance the existence of non-natural or, horror of horrors, supernatural purposes). But if he means to say that nothing is purposive, this is clearly false.

    When Rosenberg wrote his engaging essay, his behavior was purposive. If there are no non-natural phenomena, the writing of the essay was a natural phenomenon—it was “in nature”, and it was also purposive.
    Perhaps his claim that “there are no purposes in nature” should be read as “there are no things in nature (i.e., no things at all) that are purposes”. Admitting the purposive character of some phenomena is compatible with rejecting the existence of things that are purposes, just as the claim that there is an equator is compatible with rejecting the claim that there is a thing that is the equator.

    If this is what he is saying, then I agree with him. A philosophical naturalist ought to dispense with reified purposes—purposes that supposedly exist alongside bosons, fermions, and all the things constituted by them. But in doing this he need not dispense with purposiveness as such. To say that an eye, a lung, a mating display, or a neural activation vector in Alex Rosenberg’s brain is purposive is to abbreviate an immensely complex account — an account which, if we were in a position to give it, would be framed in the language of evolutionary biology and, ultimately, of physics. But surely this underwrites the naturalistic bona fides of purpose rather than ruling it out or explaining it away, as Rosenberg suggests.

    Of course, some will say that these are not real purposes. To them one can reply, echoing Quine, that biological purposes are purposes enough.

  • H. M. Ravven

    Professor Rosenberg has reminded us in his essay and perhaps given us new reasons to acknowledge that there is no God and that in the end all of us, and perhaps the universe itself, die. We knew that, but perhaps we don’t think about it enough and rarely come to terms with its implications. All is Vanity. But there is still the interim and that’s the place we live our lives. In our world not only physics but biology, psychology, and even culture and history have sway. In the end there may be only physics but in the interim, physics cannot fully explain all kinds of phenomena we encounter, including ourselves, on a daily basis. In our world, physics does not, as Professor Rosenberg claims, ‘fix all the facts’.

    For getting down to the smallest particle and to the most broadly obtaining physical forces cannot offer us adequate explanations of the kinds of systems, from biological to psychological to sociological to cultural that inform and drive our worlds—and even our bodies and psyches. Parts need to be explained within systems and within systems of systems and their relations and dynamic functions identified on the gestalt level and not just at the micro one and at the inorganic one. Even in evolution there is not only random variation but also the competitive striving of organisms to survive. That’s an organic system’s competitive systemic urge to maintain its homeodynamic stability and reproductive success. If there were no striving to maintain the integrity of the organism as an internally self-ordering system from disintegration (death) and reproductive failure (the end of the line), the survival of living beings would look like the mere luck of rocks to be washed up on the shore rather than worn to nothing by the waves of the ocean. Now that is perhaps merely entropy doing its thing. But my colleague, philosopher Marianne Janack points out, that it’s not even clear that the randomness to which physics refers is the same as the randomness obtaining in the genetic variations that contribute to evolution.

    In order to make the claim about the sole reality of physics we need to have made a prior commitment to narrow what we regard as truly ‘real’, what Professor Rosenberg regards as counting as a ‘fact about reality’. What is the justification for the elimination from the getgo as worthy of being considered real and hence worthy of explanation on its own terms of most of the phenomena we see around us? To go the way of Professor Rosenberg we need also to have narrowed what we regard as explanation. Yet even if sciences other than physics do not give us as reliable a grasp of the relevant phenomena as physics does of its, that does not mean they offer us no grasp. To have an ‘imperfect grip on reality’ is not to have no grip at all. The various sciences other than physics increase our understanding of the ways our interim world works, approximately, provisionally, fallibly, but not meaninglessly. And what’s wrong with that?

    Professor Rosenberg proposes that we humans have an “insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunits,” and that these lead us astray from the hard ‘fixed’ facts of physics that actually rule our lives. But what is his claim about and can this claim about human nature itself be explained by physics (as Marianne Janack asks)? Moreover, what is a narrative anyway but the search for causal explanations. Yet the job of science, and not just of story, is the ascription of causes. So the claim that humans are story-telling animals is true of science as well—although the stories differ and the methods that give rise to them differ. And that raises the question of the status of causal explanation itself. Are we going to be Kantians about the subjectivity of ascribing scientific causes? And hence we’re story tellers and we’ve got to stop that irrationality. But that would include physics as well, and not just myths and history. Or are we to embrace the recent evidence (for example, Susan Hurley’s rethinking of human agency) suggesting that the ascription of causes is a joint process of the world working upon us as well as our projections upon it? Yet Hurley’s work saving causal explanation from Kantian subjectivity does not rely on conclusions drawn from physics but rather is based on recent discoveries in the neurosciences.

    And what about the self? Indeed, selves are not the things or substances that Descartes claimed they were, nor are they open to much self-transparency, as Professor Rosenberg points out and recent research has exposed. Antonio Damasio, the eminent affective neuroscientist, has proposed that the ‘self’ is an outgrowth of the organic systems and homeodynamic processes that keep our component organic systems operating within parameters, like thermostats, that maintain life. He has called the available internal experience of many of these homeodynamic processes, our ‘feeling of what happens’. Some of these systems are affectively charged and motivational—we eat when we’re hungry, sleep when we’re tired, we escape the oncoming threat to our organism as a whole, of lion or semitrailer headed straight for us because of the fear we feel. These read-out feelings, Damasio says, are the origin of our sense of self and they arise from layers of neural maps that map in ongoing ways the various states of our component systems and processes and of our overall condition. I often think of these as like the little car icon on my dashboard that tells me if I’ve left a door or the trunk open.

    Yet the neural maps not only give present readouts of the state of our organic component systems as they encounter the impingements of the environment, but they capture an (ongoing) past as well. This is because neural pathways encode memories—and the affective charges of those memories—, memories which are largely procedural but some are contentful. The procedural memories are unconscious –hence Libet’s famous finding about decision-making
    FN [There is new research that is calling into question Libet’s findings about the unconscious nature of decision-making. Marianne Janack pointed me to the following article in the The New Scientist 13:52 23 September 2009 by Anil Ananthaswamy: But the jury is still out. New finding about procedural versus contentful memory would seem to support Libet’s findings.],
    that our conscious awareness of decisions is ex post facto—yet procedural memories are not without motivational meaning and force; that’s purpose. Hence the memories, even unconscious procedural ones, are not just physically encoded but encode experiences that are meaningful, and culturally and contextually nuanced in the ways that they are written into our brains as pathways for meaning and future action.

    The mapping of personal and cultural memories, both procedural and contentful, onto our basic neural maps of our inner component systems and processes that give rise to the feeling tone of our systems, Damasio has proposed, create our Extended Selves. These are our cultural and biographical selves. And they are purposeful in the sense of having motivational power to shape our actions. (I am thankful to Marianne Janack for pointing out the relationship between motivation and purpose here.) The Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Gerald Edelman, has remarked of our human neuroplasticity, that:

    The human cortex alone has 30 billion neurons and is capable of making 1 million billion synaptic connections. Edelman writes, ‘If we considered the number of possible neural circuits, we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeros, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe.)’ These staggering numbers explain why the human brain can be described as the most complex known object in the universe, and why it is capable of ongoing, massive microstructural change, and capable of performing so many different mental functions and behaviors, including our different cultural activities.

    This finding makes the restriction of science to physics indeed seem odd, unfounded, and dated.

    Our vast neuroplasticity indicates that awareness contributes to behavior. It does so both within conscious awareness and also beneath explicit awareness but within implicit awareness. In both cases our actions are both meaningful and purposefully motivated, even when we’re not consciously aware of those motivations or purposes. So it cannot be physics that offers an adequate explanation of behavior. That the cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has proposed that 98% of our cognition is unconscious, which is to say beneath conscious awareness, does not mean that it is unmeaningful and without purpose. Rather it means that our neuroplasticity operates mostly as procedural knowledge rather than as consciously available beliefs and thoughts. Nevertheless meaningful and motivational procedural memories or pathways can often be retrieved or refigured in conscious beliefs and thoughts. They are not the result of forces explained by physics alone. Pace Alex Rosenberg, not all worldly phenomena, not all human experience and behavior, are blind. While the universe as a whole may have no meaning and purpose our actions clearly do.

    H. M. Ravven, Ph.D.
    Professor of the Philosophy of Religion
    Hamilton College

  • Having followed this enlightening conversation I think I can now state my earlier thoughts in a more unified and succinct fashion. While, as I indicated, I am all for the elimination of certain phenomena of folk psychology, such as free will and even morality, my basis for this is still grounded in a world that contains intentional phenomena. (I would argue that our considered desires would be better satisfied if we dispensed with talk of moral right and wrong.) Alex’s project of course goes much further in wanting to eliminate all intentional phenomena from the realm of the real. I offer the following refutation:

    If Alex’s metaphysics is true, then we cannot know that, since knowledge is justified true belief; but according to his ontology there are no beliefs (in the full-blooded, intentional sense). Hence the premise of his argument that we know the universe to be materialist in the way he pictures that is moot. Ergo his whole line of argument amounts to the snake swallowing its own tail.

    (I might add that part of Alex’s story (pardon) is also false belief – “illusion” – but here again, sans belief, sans false belief too.)

  • Catherine Driscoll

    Looking over the comments so far I think Alex has been misinterpreted. Some commenters seem to be taking Alex to be arguing that a realist view of moral properties, purposes and so forth is impossible on a naturalist worldview. But as far as I can tell he is not arguing such views are impossible, but that they are awkward and/or have highly anti-commonsensical results; anti realism doesn’t have such results, and therefore is more likely to be true. I think that Alex is right that realism+naturalism faces serious difficulties, especially in the case of moral properties. The surface structure of moral judgments suggests that they involve attributing properties such as “wrongness” to actions such as stealing in the same way that empirical judgments involve attributing properties like “greenness” to objects like trees. Obviously any naturalistic view can’t have properties like “wrongness” free floating – they are not part of physics. The alternative is to have moral properties depend in some way on physical properties; but if we want to show that genuinely moral properties (like “wrongness”) depend on physical properties we have an enormously difficult (maybe impossible) task ahead of us.

    The solution a number of commenters have taken is a standard one in the philosophy literature – reinterpret moral judgments to mean something other than that actions have these weird moral properties. For example, “wrongness” means “fails to serve human needs as shaped by natural selection” or “undermines the functioning of a society”; other popular moves are to interpret “is wrong” as meaning “is something of which I [or my society] don’t approve”. The problem with these reinterpretations is that, in truth, these claims have become empirical judgments (judgments about the results of certain actions or the opinions of certain people about those actions), and as such their only prescriptive force comes when combined with the desires or motivations of the individual concerned. “Stealing undermines society” only has prescriptive force for me if I care about society – if I do so care, THEN I should not steal. But some people do not so care – or care about other things more. In such cases, such so-called moral judgments have no force for them. But moral judgments are supposed in ordinary common sense to have near universal prescriptive force – for almost everyone it’s wrong to steal even those who don’t care about society – and indeed, we think the prescriptive force of moral judgments is there precisely to motivate those who don’t care. So these don’t look like reasonable reinterpretations of moral judgments. But if the only correct interpretation of moral judgments is as postulating genuinely moral properties, then a naturalist does have to be an anti-realist and Alex is right.

  • Grayson Halstead

    In section 6, Alex Rosenberg comments on how many people believe they are “experts” of sorts when it comes to their own minds because we have what he calls “immediate introspective access to our minds.” I personally felt the same way for most of my life, but recently I completed a group project for my philosophy class which made me realize how very little I know about my own brain and what it does. The project I completed was based upon the idea that the illusion of free will is necessary for society to exist. My group and I did a lot of research concerning our topic and we eventually ran across the experiments conducted by Libet which are also mentioned by Rosenberg in section 6 of his essay.

    After reading about Libet’s experiments and his findings regarding how there is evidence suggesting that the brain decides how the body will act completely independently of a person’s conscious rocked my world. Up until a few weeks ago, I was totally convinced that when I made a decision, I was completely in control of my body and my thought process. After familiarizing myself with Libet’s work, I still feel like I am in control but not completely. I do not mean to say that I feel like my brain is some rogue force controlling my brain independently of my conscious, but recently I have found myself questioning how my brain may be choosing my course of action in any given situation without me acknowledging it. I say “may be choosing my course of action” instead of “choosing” because I have a very hard time believing that I am not totally in conscious control of my body and actions.

    My point is that I agree with Rosenberg when he says not to trust completely what introspection tells us. I am a prime example-I trusted my own introspection about my mind only to find evidence contradicting what I believed. I would also like to say that while methods like introspection can be useful and enlightening, they are not always definite in what they tell us.

  • Nihilism?

    If he is to be consistent throughout, shouldn’t Alex Rosenberg say not that “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality” but that “Science should be agnostic about, or indifferent to, or irrelevant for, ethics and morality”?

    He admits that evolutionary accounts of some particular moral code have no bearing on which moral code is “right” (a claim that seems to credit the question with having a point) and concedes that for all science can say about the matter there might conceivably be adaptive advantages at some point in racist, xenophobic or patriarchal norms. So what does our scientistic scientist have to say about what we should do with the question of “rightness”?

    Rosenberg offers a consolation that suggests an answer: the evolutionary process has selected for the adaptive advantage (for our genes) of what he calls “niceness” and he suggests that this is the extent of the meaning of our “moral core.” (Actually what he says is confusing: that “we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning” than the evolutionary explanation provides, and that “There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.” my emphasis.)

    But where does that leave us? It would certainly not follow that we should infer that we had better be altruistic and cooperative so as to continue to secure adaptive advantages for our future gene pool. That would ignore how random and blind the process is and we would face the odd question of why we should care about our genetic progeny. Rosenberg also suggests that it might be the case that the human environment has now changed so much that niceness will be selected against. Since such adaptive success is the only meaning, the explanation of such norm’s success, would this mean that from the scientistic viewpoint there is no basis whatsoever for an objection against a racist regime? That any attempt to provide reasons against such a regime is delusional?

    That, at least, would be robust nihilism of the kind advertised. And if Rosenberg believes that “science teaches us” that there is no, can be no, rationally defensible reason to prefer egalitarianism to patriarchy or racism, let him say so and we will know what we are dealing with.

    Of course there are bad or unsupportable appeals to moral reasons. I agree with him that ethical naturalism is not a good option, and this for reasons that go beyond what we now know about nature. But that is no reason for inferring that there are no other sorts of critical and justificatory appeals; the history of philosophy has been full of such alternatives for a couple hundred years now. And this is all not to mention that agents who must decide on what basis to allocate resources, whether to lie in some situation, whether to return a deposit when not doing so will go undetected and so forth must decide what to do. I myself don’t think that Libet demonstrated anything of importance in that experiment, but even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. I cannot wait for my neurons to fire. Nothing Rosenberg has said is of any help in understanding the practical exigencies of such decision making.

    The same considerations would apply in all that “endless absorption with meaning” we humanists have been wasting our time fretting over. Showing that theories of meaning in the Frege-Fodor line might have trouble explaining the possibility of the material instantiation of their semantics doesn’t simply mean that Grice was right and we should quit worrying about what King Lear was all about. For one thing, there are a lot of pragmatic and inferentialist theories of meaning around not committed to “the language of thought” and for another it’s the same old practical issue: what are we to do when we ask ourselves what King Lear was all about, or what my friend meant in saying that to me then, or why someone acted contrary to what they knew was their best interest or why Wagner sounds so different than Mozart?

    This is all a lot of baby to throw out for such a small amount of bathwater.

  • I remain an enchanted naturalist, so I wrote a response to Rosenberg’s article entitled “The Enchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.”

  • The Recipe for Re-enchantment

    I have an image imprinted in my mind (or what I thought was my mind, until I read Rosenberg’s essay) that formed when I was nine years old: a cover of Newsweek with the words “Fusion in a Bottle” printed across the top. This was a report on the infamous claim of physicists Fleischmann and Pons to have produced nuclear fusion at room temperature – “cold fusion.” But the idea of cold fusion was so radically counter-intuitive that the overwhelming majority of scienists were resolute in their opinion that whatever beliefs lead Fleischmann and Pons to infer the occurrence of cold fusion would have to be mistaken. That was good thinking.

    Let modus tollens be the recipe for re-enchantment. Rosenberg has presented us with the highly counter-intuitive claims that there is nothing in reality corresponding to our notion of a self, nor to our notion of morality, with the assurance that the truth of these dim propositions are ensured by the best scientific research. It seems, however, that we’re epistemically entitled to view these claims as probably false, which in turn presents us with (1) the view that science has not shown them to be true, and (2) the job of explaining how cherished entities like selves and morality are unscathed by some current lines of research. Given what Rosenberg as defended, (2) may require significant reconceptualizations of those entities, some of which have been suggested in the replies already posted.

    Is this simply a childish refusal to accept the conclusions of science? I would urge against this position, since a large part of science itself involves refusing to accept the claims of scientists. One reason is that these claims are often mutually inconsistent; we can’t rationally accept all of them. There is the sort of reason that got cold fusion in hot water – when claims are highly counter-intuitive given our current commitments. Yet another is what a wise old philosopher once called “vaulting ambition”: an explanatory framework is often extended leagues beyond its evidentiary purview. Each reason by itself is sufficient to warrant skepticism. A combination of two or more is more than sufficient.

    So, go punch a baby if you must, but don’t blame science (or philosophy).

  • Dr. Richard Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness without God here. I agree with almost everything Alex said as to facts, but disagree as to almost every conclusion. So I will simply remark now on where we disagree, since it is there that we can still make the most, and most important, progress. I’ll post individual points separately. I originally posted the primary material here, but was asked to move it elsewhere (it is now on my own blog as Rosenberg on Naturalism and Rosenberg on History). What follows is a summary of my nine objections, which are elaborated there.

    Please be aware that it is on my blog that I present the evidence and arguments demonstrating all that I claim here (and in even more detail, with biographies, in my book). Here I merely state the results.

    (Objection 1) I disagree that there are no meanings or purposes. Human brains evolved to be meaning and purpose generators. And as a result, we have generated many significant meanings and purposes, even a meaning of life and a purpose for living. These just aren’t “cosmic” meanings and purposes. They’re just the meanings and purposes we evolved (largely by accident) to want. But we still want them, and enjoy fulfilling them. It doesn’t matter how we came to be that way. And when we are sane and rational, we all agree the most desirable purpose of life, the “meaning” of life, is to live it, live it well, and pass it on to the next guy, preferably in better shape than you found it. Alex concludes his essay by claiming “purposes are ruled out of nature–biological, social, psychological,” but he never proves the latter, nor can he appeal to any science that has done so. Social purposes are simply a collection of psychological purposes. And psychological purposes are simply aims and goals, which are the consequence of motives, which are the consequence of desires, which science has actually confirmed are real and do exist, and actually have the effects we believe they do. More on that to come. But in short, to claim I have no motive for taking time out to write this, no purpose in mind in doing it, is simply retarded.

    (Objection 2) I disagree that science “has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.” Science factually demonstrates the truth of “ought” statements all the time (in medicine, surgery, engineering, car repair, what have you). Thus it is not a fallacy to derive an ought from an is. It’s a fallacy to think you can’t derive an ought from an is–or to think you can get an ought any other way. Obviously if we can derive an ought from an is in every other sphere of human life, we can do it in morality. And several scientists are doing exactly that. More and more we are accumulating evidence that living by the Golden Rule is essential to our happiness. Once we realize that “is” we derive the consequent “ought”: if we want to be the happiest we can be in the circumstances we are actually in, we ought to live by the Golden Rule. It could have been otherwise, had we evolved differently. But if we want to discover the best way to live, we have to attend to the way things actually are. If we can apply science to progress in the best way to cure disease, we can apply science to progress in the best way to live. And we ought. Because there is nothing we all want more than to know the best way to live.

    (Objection 3) I disagree that morality is just “a convenience for our genes.” It is a convenience also for our memes, and our cognitive experience of life itself. Thus, we have been molding our morality memetically (not genetically) the past few thousand years as a tool for enhancing human happiness. Alex confuses evolved moral sentiments, with morality itself. Our capacity for compassion and integrity and reasonableness are genetically evolved traits that, like pain or laughter, had their uses in improving the differential reproductive success of human populations. But that doesn’t tell us how we ought to behave. Merely knowing that our bodies are susceptible to disease does not tell us how to minimize the risk of infection. What a surgeon ought to do, took a long time to figure out, even though the evolved facts had never changed. So, too, morality. Merely knowing we have certain dispositions (which includes, by the way, lust and bloodlust, and a strong sense of vengeance and an ability to be dispassionate when we need to be, which are also useful and have thus served to improve our differential reproductive success) does not tell us how to optimize our personal happiness within the social environment we inevitably must live in. Thus, just as we had to figure out the best way to combat disease, so we have to figure out the best way to live. Our evolved dispositions constitute the toolkit we have at hand for doing that, but like any toolkit, we have to learn how to rationally use it, using the right tools at the right times, and not using the wrong tools at the wrong times. It is figuring out the latter that leads us to the moral ought.

    (Objection 4) When it comes to cognitive science (as some have noted here already) Alex succumbs to a common error: trusting scientists to be good philosophers. Alex mistakenly follows the error of Libet in confusing our perception of ourselves, with our actual selves. Just because it takes your brain about a fifth of a second to generate a model of what you just did (and thus represent it as a coherent conscious experience), doesn’t mean it wasn’t you who just made that decision. Once you abandon the fallacy of conflating the two, Alex’s conclusions from Libet’s experiment no longer follow. Philosophers long ago settled this issue: even if determinism prevails, free will exists in the compatibilist sense, which is the only kind of free will anyone would ever really want. Science has never proved otherwise.

    (Objection 5) Alex commits a similar fallacy when he says blindsight suggests we might have to reject the conclusion “that when you see a color you have a color experience.” To cut right to the chase: since neither he nor any scientist has ever had a conversation with the part of the brain cut off from the cerebral cortex in blindsight cases, neither he nor any scientist can claim to know whether that part of the brain does or does not experience color qualia. The evidence of split-brain patients, however, should lead us to predict that it does. Which puts Alex’s inference to the contrary back into the circular file. Nevertheless, apart from this objection and the last, all Alex says about the errors of folk psychology is quite correct. The actual facts are quite different in cognitive science (such folk notions often being as wrong as the facts have turned out to be in cosmology and biology and everything else we’ve thought about for the last few thousand years). He just draws the wrong conclusions from those facts.

    (Objection 6) Alex does this again when concluding that because folk notions of belief and sensation and desires are incorrect (which is a fact), therefore our brain “doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations” (which is a non sequitur). Once you define those terms with the correct cognitive science, the conclusion becomes false. I say a great deal more about this in my Critique of Victor Reppert’s Argument from Reason, particularly in respect to the Churchlands and Eliminativism (I recommend skipping directly to the latter). But the bottom line is, Alex is like someone who discovers the moon is actually made of iron instead of rock, and then runs around insisting that therefore the moon doesn’t exist. Just because beliefs and desires are in actual physical fact different things than some folk conceptions imagine them, doesn’t warrant the conclusion that they don’t exist. They obviously do. We just have to understand them correctly.

    (Objection 7) Similarly, Alex errs in claiming “there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us” based solely on the premise (and this much is entirely true) “this self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time.” Because what is essentially a person is the pattern of arrangement of the brain that causes us to exist and be as we are, and that pattern can persist even as its underlying material is constantly replaced, it follows that persons do endure as first-person agents. And, in point of fact, they are located behind their eyes and in between their ears. Their memories and personalities and skills and perceptual apparatus certainly doesn’t reside in their toes or their spleen. Destroy the brain, and you destroy the person. Sustain the brain, and you sustain the person. This brain, consisting of real data (real desires, memories, beliefs, personality traits, skills and reasoning abilities, etc.), generates a real model of that data (conscious experience), but the model is not us (for example, we don’t cease to exist when we sleep, all that data remains physically intact, we just stop building models of it for a while). The “subject of the first-person pronoun” is that arrangement of data in the brain. Thus, Alex is wrong to claim no such subject exists. He is also wrong to claim the brain doesn’t track what this arrangement does over time. And though we do change as persons, we share a causal history, and memories and other persisting features, with our past selves, and it is in that sense that we are the same person as before, not in the sense of being exactly identical (which you don’t have to be a naturalist to see is obviously never the case). Science has not undermined any of these conclusions. To the contrary, it continues to reinforce them.

    (Objection 8 ) Ironically, Alex then errs the other way around, coming to the correct conclusion (”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”) from an incorrect premise: “there literally are no beliefs and desires, because the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences” so “there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning.” In my external commentary I note several fallacies here, but the most insidious is his inexplicable, and quite unjustified equation of “beliefs and desires” with “sentences.” On the one hand, Already Alex is wrong to say “the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences.” Were that true, we could never memorize speeches, nor retain understanding of the meaning of the words we then recited. Obviously the brain can encode information in the form of sentences. It does it all the time. But worse is the mistake of thinking that beliefs and desires are sentences. Sentences are just ways of communicating what beliefs and desires are. They are not the beliefs and desires themselves. A desire is a feeling of discontent alleviated by the effects desired, and the feeling and its cause (and the cause of its abatement) are all physical facts of the brain. We can speak or write sentences about those physical facts, even sum them up with the word “desire,” but let’s not confuse the thing itself with the means of its description. Likewise, a belief is a feeling of confidence in a predictive model of the world (or, just as often, of ourselves). Varying degrees of confidence can be felt, hence beliefs exist in varying strengths. But the feeling, and the model causing that feeling, are physical facts of the brain. We can put into words what that model is, and how confident we are in it, but again, let’s not confuse the thing itself with the means of its description. It is thus simply false to say, as Alex did, that “there literally are no beliefs and desires.”

    (Objection 9) As a historian myself, I find Alex’s view of history simply bizarre. It’s self-contradictory. He purports to defend the view that history is fiction, by referring to historical facts as demonstration, thus covertly assuming history is not fiction in the very effort to prove that it is, a nice bit of circular logic that has the rest of us scratching our heads. And it’s self-defeating. He elevates science as the source of all true facts, and reduces history to mere fiction, yet doesn’t seem to realize that doing science is doing history: all data is historical. All past proofs and observations and experiments confirming all past theories, are matters of history. So you have to take history seriously to be a scientist–you have to not only believe that Einstein’s theory of relativity was proved long ago by certain specific historical observations, but your belief in that fact has to be correct. There is no place for fiction here. If history is fiction, then so is science. Alex seems to err in assuming that the human innate tendency to make stories of everything (an entirely apt and correct observation) means there are no actual stories, just the ones we make up. That’s certainly untrue. We have evolved the drive to find the story in everything precisely because there often is a story, and it benefits us to know what it is. The only question is: how much can we know, and how?

  • Thanks to Alex Rosenberg for a bracing polemic that throws down a gauntlet to anti-naturalists and naturalists alike. I applaud especially Alex’s effort to rescue “scientism” from its pejorative connotations. Taking science too seriously can hardly be the charge leveled against an era in Anglophone philosophy when armchair metaphysics is all the rage, when Kantian moral psychology with its fictional picture of agency constitutes a leading program of philosophical research, and when make-it-up-as-you-go “naturalists” like McDowell and Thompson want to fix the facts about what is natural not by reference to any empirical body of knowledge but by antecedent philosophical and moral prejudices.

    But just as Quine tended to be a bad Quinean—letting the behaviorism of the 1930s dictate far too much of his theorizing about meaning and knowledge, and thus ignoring the actual developments in emipircal science which destroyed the behaviorist program, thereby betraying his methodological naturalism—I fear that Rosenberg isn’t wholly loyal to his professed scientism, and that he smuggles in too much controversial metaphysics and other assumptions that have no standing in successful scientific research. Let me present these worries as a series of questions that invite clarification:

    1. We are repeatedly told that “the physical facts fix all the facts” and that the physical facts are the deliverances of physics. But what is packed into the metaphor of “fix all the facts”? Perhaps all facts are token-identifcal with physical facts—that is not too controversial these days—but that would not suffice for the arguments Alex makes, since the nomic regularities discovered by physics about the physical facts are notoriously useless with respect to the characteristics of all the other facts that supervene on them. More ambitiously, Alex might mean that all the non-physical facts are type-identical, i.e., reducible, to physical facts. Alas, as Alex well knows, there is no scientific evidence for that proposition. To borrow a page from Jerry Fodor, we may note that the primary thrust of scientific research over the past half-century has not been the reduction of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, but rather the proliferation of special sciences which generate their own well-confirmed nomic regularities without worrying about how these look from the standpoint of physics. (And what if some of these nomic regularities include beliefs and desires?) Since Alex wants to let in evolution by natural selection, neuroscience, and even Gricean intentions (!) into his explanatory framework, one must wonder how all this squares with the talk about physical facts fixing all the other facts.

    2. Any proponent of scientism opens himself to the charge of holding a position that is self-referentially defeating. As Alex says, the reason to take physics seriously with respect to ontology “is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application.” But the norms of successful explanation, for example, are not themselves deliverances of physics, so what is their status? If I understand him rightly, Alex endorses Richard Boyd’s old argument for realism based on the need to explain its success as something other than “mystery or coincidence.” But what then is the status of the norm disfavoring “mystery or coincidence”? I know the standard responses to these worries, but I would like to hear Alex’s preferred version.

    3. In section 5, Alex appears to assume that adaptationist explanations of human behaviors that we ordinarily deem moral (e.g., altruism) are well-confirmed, but he surely knows that, beyond Hamilton’s kin-selectionism, they are all extremely controversial hypotheses. Am I wrong? And if I’m right, does it matter for the argument?

    4. I was surprised by the invocation of Grice in section 7. “Intentions” are mental states with semantic content, so how can Alex’s kind of austere naturalist countenance these?

    To conclude, I’m with Alex Rosenberg and Friedrich Nietzsche that, “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it” (The Gay Science, sec. 301). What I do not see is any objection to giving up the values so projected. To be sure, they involve an error insofar as they purport to be referential. But only a different value—namely, that falsity is an objection to embracing the value of something—could pose an objection here. I’d encourage Alex to take his Nietzscheanism one step further: from the correct observation that most of what we believe is false, to the conclusion that we ought, for that reason, stop believing it.

  • A neglected but very relevant article: “Determinism’s Dilemma” by James N. Jordan, Review of Metaphysics, V.23#1, 1969. Above comments by Carrier (objection 9) and Leiter (2) hint at this article’s main and interestingly argued point: if all events (including “mental” ones) have sufficient causal conditions, such as natural selection or physics, then any warrantable acceptance of arguments as valid is impossible, and there can be no justifiable argument for any thesis, including the thesis of determinism. Along the way Jordan quotes A.E.Taylor: Each of us, if we are to push the ‘determinist’ theory to its logical conclusion, thinks what he does think, and that is all there is to be said on the matter; which of us thinks truly is a question which, even if it has an intelligible meaning, is, and eternally must remain, without an answer.

    My gloss on Jordan’s article: If our thoughts are all predetermined by scientism (physics and biology), then we cannot have justifiable reasons for believing that our thoughts are thus predetermined. But we do have at least pretty good justification for such a belief. Therefore our thoughts are NOT all predetermined, i.e. that belief is false.

  • Permit me a revision of my last paragraph, which didn’t come out quite right:

    To conclude, I’m with Alex Rosenberg and Friedrich Nietzsche that, “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it” (The Gay Science, sec. 301). What I do not see is any objection to embracing the values so projected. To be sure, they involve an error insofar as they purport to be referential. But only a different value—namely, that falsity is an objection to embracing the value of something—could pose an objection here. I’d encourage Alex to take his Nietzscheanism one step further: from the correct observation that most of what we believe is false, to the conclusion that since such beliefs are essential for life, we should not give them up.

  • Larry Laudan

    It was, as always, a delight reading Alex Rosenberg’s essay. It has the usual Rosenberg characteristics: trenchant, clear-headed and unafraid in its dismissal of various influential idols of the tribe. I have scarcely more use than he does for folk psychology or folk religion (although I think he might have shown a slightly more nuanced grasp of Sellars’ distinction between the ‘scientific image’ and the ‘manifest image’, rather than arguing for the wholesale repudiation of the latter).

    What puzzles me about the piece is that Rosenberg grounds his scientism on what can only be regarded as a traditional thesis of ‘folk epistemology’. He is, unabashedly, a scientific realist. That realism rests on the quaint belief that, because scientific theories –at least the best of them– predict and explain a staggering range of phenomena, we do and should suppose that they are true. None of the principal arguments of his essay goes anywhere without this version of Putnam’s so-called miracles argument. Rosenberg makes his core epistemic thesis very explicit: “The reason we trust physics to be scientisms’ metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application.” Can there be anyone (Rosenberg included) who believes that this core assumption is unproblematic?

    Among the many troubles with the thesis that “science works so well that it must be true” is that working well, even working very well, is no guarantee that one has managed to cut the world at its joints or that these currently well-working beliefs won’t become casualties of the next scientific revolution. The history of science is a minefield littered with the remains of theories that once worked very well indeed (yes, even to the point of making surprising, precise predictions successfully) but eventually came unstuck, as they encountered one anomaly after another. Ptolemy’s astronomy, Newton’s physics, stable-continent geology, and classical chemical atomism are only a few examples of empirically theories that were strikingly successful until they eventually stumbled over grave anomalies.

    Scientism tends to ignore this inconvenient historical fact. That is scarcely surprising since the success of false theories has to be rather unnerving for any project that is founded on the inference rule “X works so X must be true.” Worse, this particular piece of abductive inference is a prime example of precisely the sort of folk epistemology that a hard-headed skeptic like Rosenberg would ordinarily be scathing about. While he is (properly) keen on stressing how empirical research has established that one premise after another of folk psychology, folk psychology and folk biology is ill-founded, he acts as if our folk beliefs about empirical support (and let there be no mistake that the inference from apparent success to prima facie truth is deeply rooted in human doxastic practices) can be taken as largely if not wholly unproblematic.

    There would thus appear to be a disconnect between the skepticism Rosenberg brings to most folk practices and his readiness to ground truth claims for science on what boils down to the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

    So, Alex, cheer up; the situation looks as glum as you describe it only because you have made yourself hostage to a highly implausible and incorrigibly folk account of what it takes to establish the truth of a theory.

  • Edward Feser

    I think naturalism has precisely the implications Prof. Rosenberg says it does. But he has inadvertently given us a reductio ad absurdum of naturalism, since the resulting position is (I would argue) incoherent. I summarize some of the reasons for thinking so here (in a response cross-posted at two blogs, take your pick):

  • Alex Rosenberg

    Disenchanted naturalism: How stupid of me to have thought of it!

    “The disenchanted naturalist’s guide to reality” is the précis of a book, and even that book is a much cut down version of my side of an argument with a tradition that has been trying to reconcile science and the manifest image, as Wilfred Sellers called it, at least since John Dewey. No précis, not even of the length of mine, could recapitulate that debate. But I tried to signal that I was at least familiar with most of the moves in the debate when I wrote, “I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more hopeful version of naturalism than this one.”

    In general, my commentators did not give me any credit for being acquainted with those moves. They certainly felt no need to provide anything new by way of argument to show that their more hopeful version of naturalism is not just a combination of attempts to cushion the blow, change the subjects or define the problems away. Kant had a term of abuse for this strategy the first time a naturalist (David Hume) tried it—he called it a “shameless dodge.”

    Here is an example of the sort of objection that used to come so easily to opponents of eliminative materialism, and which more than one of my critics helped themselves to, as if I had never heard of the ploy and would be stopped dead in my tracks by it: “If Alex’s metaphysics is true, then we cannot know that, since knowledge is justified true belief; but according to his ontology there are no beliefs (in the full-blooded, intentional sense). Hence the premise of his argument that we know the universe to be materialist in the way he pictures that is moot. Ergo his whole line of argument amounts to the snake swallowing its own tail.”

    In brief, “So, you don’t believe that there are any beliefs? Reductio ad absurdum, QED, no more need be said.” Like Dr Johnson, refuting Bishop Berkeley by kicking a stone. If only philosophy were so easy.

    Actually, you won’t find the locution “I believe that….”any where in my précis (or for that matter the whole book), just to avoid such puerile objections. More important, careful reading of the précis will find the statement that the brain receives, stores, and conveys information—some of it adaptive, some neutral, and some even maladaptive. It also receives, stores and conveys a good deal of misinformation—much of it adaptive, some of it maladaptive, and most of it neutral. But it does not store this information in the form of propositions or statements, or sentences of any language, including mentalese. It is of course obvious that introspection strongly suggests that the brain does store information propositionally, and that therefore it has beliefs and desire with “aboutness” or intentionality. A thoroughgoing naturalism must deny this, I allege. If beliefs are anything they are brain states—physical configurations of matter. But one configuration of matter cannot, in virtue just of its structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way original intentionality requires (because it cant pass the referential opacity test). So, there are no beliefs.

    One of my commentators writes, “That the brain doesn’t traffic in propositions, and that consciousness isn’t a direct mirroring of the world, doesn’t mean that language-using persons don’t have propositional knowledge or entertain accurate beliefs.” No? How do we do it then, if not with our brains?

    This question is not just rhetorical. There is a real problem here for neuroscience and naturalist philosophy. Naturalism—whether disenchanted or not—recognizes the agenda of paradoxes, dilemmas, puzzles and impossibility proofs that clever philosophers have erected for science ever since Zeno. But it treats them as items on the research agenda of science. Today’s budget of clever objections, mainly to naturalism about the mind—what its like to be a bat, why cognition can’t be following a program, where am I?, the hard problem of consciousness—are problems for neuroscience, problems to solve or to dissolve, the way science has dealt with the impossibility of motion, the inconsistency of gravitation with the physics’ denial of action at a distance, or Pasteur’s “spontaneous generation” argument for vitalism.

    It is an important item on the research agenda of neuroscience to identify the way in which the brain does store information and to identify the nature of those neural states most closely approximated by terms like ‘belief,’ ‘desire’ and the rest of the intentional apparatus of folk psychology. Don’t ask the philosopher to do this. But don’t suppose you can refute eliminative materialism by so trivial a ploy as the accusation of pragmatic inconsistency. And let’s understand all the rest of the intentional locutions in what follows as approximations for what is really going on when we think, write, talk and behave (i.e. “act”) with apparent purposiveness.

    The model here is of course Darwin’s expulsion of purpose from nature.

    Kant announced resolutely that there could be no Newton for the blade of grass: beyond the domain of physics, purposes were real and ineliminable. Darwin showed that Kant was wrong: they were all merely apparent, none were real, and he identified the process that produces and maintains the appearance of purpose. Some people—including several of my commentators–think that what Darwin did was “naturalize” purposes, make them safe for a world of purely efficient causation. I am with Huxley here, and there is an obvious reason why he insisted that that Darwin had not legitimated them but expunged them. Random, blind variation, and the purely passive, uncreative environmental filtration in which natural selection consists cant possibly be mistaken for purpose. Of course the impersonation of purpose that adaptation contrives is so uncanny, that it is the greatest hurdle to the acceptance of Darwinian theory. But purpose was ruled out by physics in the 17th century, and explained away by Darwin in the 19th.

    Larry Laudan asks, “Why trust the latest version of physics? After all, a pessimistic induction provides evidence that it will not survive much longer.” True enough, but the only two parts of physics that naturalism—disenchanted or otherwise—leans on have been secure since the 17th and the 19th century: Newton’s banishment of purpose, design, teleology—immanent or otherwise, final causes, and future causation from physical nature, and Kelvin’s discovery of the 2d law of thermodynamics—suitably probabilified by Gibbs and Boltzmann.

    As for the disenchanted naturalist’s take on ethics, it certainly has no interest in undermining Tamler Sommers’ love for his daughter, Eliza. It’s no part of the disenchanted naturalists agenda to explain away the reality of love or any other emotion. Indeed, emotions are essential to the disenchanted explanation of how norms motivate us.

    The problem for naturalism is to explain why a process of blind variation and natural selection landed us with what naturalists think just happens to be the right core morality of mankind. There are two ways to do this, neither of which are satisfactory. There is one way to explain the correlation away, which is perfectly satisfactory. The trouble is it produces nihilism about ethics.

    The two unsatisfactory ways: Either, natural selection is so smart (to use a Fodor-like trope) that it was able to filter for the right morality among all the other wrong moralities, the way it was able to filter for the best hereditary system (using DNA) among all the other less reliable ones. Or, by filtering for the one core morality we share most widely around the world, natural selection made that morality the right one. The first alternative is unsatisfactory because the process of natural selection is notoriously unable to deliver true beliefs, only ones that enhance the survival of our genes (and memes, if there are any) in the local environment. The second alternative is unsatisfactory, since a set of norms’ wining the genetic or memetic fitness-race is no reason for it to be certified to be true, right, or correct.

    The way to deal with the correlation of putative correctness of our moral core and its winning the Darwinian struggle for survival, is simply to deny it is correct, right, or true. Since we don’t think any of core morality’s incompatible alternatives is true, right or correct, we naturalists are committed to nihilism. Ways to escape nihilism: deny that there is a universal moral core, reject the view that our moral core has far reaching consequences for survival and reproduction, give up naturalism about morality. These alternatives are so implausible, I’d rather be a nihilist—a nice one, since nature has selected for it. Catherine Driscoll seems to me to have got it right, and the other commentators missed the point.

    One of my commentators speaks for others when he writes, “There is a credible, naturalist-friendly way to distinguish persons who are able to control their conduct in sophisticated ways as in contrast with persons who cannot. Build a theory of free will by starting there, I say. In my estimation, a similar naturalist treatment is available for a considerable range of the phenomena Professor Rosenberg dismisses.” I dismiss no phenomenon, I dismiss attempts to reconcile naturalism with intentionality, human agency, free will and finally the enduring self. Attempts do so all too often just change the subject. Whether it’s Hume’s shameless compatibilist dodge, or teleosemantics’ inability to account for the opacity of beliefs and desires, or the attempt to substitute for the self some sets, sequences or stages of physical things that do not satisfy Leibniz’ law of numerical identity, they all just define the problem away.

    As for Libet, the aim of my appeal to his experiment, and to its vast number of replications, was to undermine our confidence in introspection as a source of reliable information about the mind, or anything else for that matter. I credit Libet with the conclusion that the consciousness of willing is no reason to suppose that willing is a conscious act of the mind. If my précis seemed to say more, that was overhasty of me. The point is when it comes to the nature of the mind and will, “never let your conscious be your guide.”

    Scientism is physicalist—the physical facts fix all the facts. But it is not eliminativist about higher-level ontologies, provided that they are compatible with physics and supported by reliable empirical evidence. That means it must be eliminativist about free-floating designs and purposes, original intentionality and ethical values. It accepts higher level ontologies, so long as they play roles in our best (most predictive, transparent and unifying) explanations and theories. If some higher level ontology is incompatible with physics, then it cant do any of these things, since all the evidence for physical theory is evidence against them. Naturalists unwilling to eliminate so much must dispense with physics. And with it, they lose their most compelling argument for the hegemony of the higher-level process they really need—the one Darwin discovered.

    Pippin has great rhetoric on his side, and he knows how to hurt a guy: …if Rosenberg believes that “science teaches us” that there is no, can be no, rationally defensible reason to prefer egalitarianism to patriarchy or racism, let him say so and we will know what we are dealing with.” But of course it’s not as though I think there are rationally defensible reasons that support inequalities, gender subordination or apartheid. In fact in the book I argue that natural and cultural selection, plus empirical evidence, does lead to all three of the norms that I share with Pippin. I just think that it’s vain to seek the sort of justification for them that moral philosophers and almost every one else in our civilization has sought since Plato. At least since Dewey naturalists have been insisting that a “rationally defensible reason” for the values we hold doesn’t have to meet that standard. Maybe not, but to be a naturalistic one it will still have to infer an ought from an is—and for us naturalists that “is” will have to be the process of blind variation and natural selection. I don’t think we can do it.

    Actually, Pippin agrees with me about the limits to naturalism. He doesn’t think it can provide these “rationally defensible reasons” for the values we cherish either. But he is a little disingenuous. He doesn’t tell us that he has written a Humanitist’s repudiation of the whole project of naturalism, aiming to “mark out the limits (the limits in principle, not limits based on temporary empirical ignorance) of modern scientific understanding in contributing to human self-knowledge, and so to insist on an unusual sort of necessary independence and privileged importance of moral and normative matters. [Daedelus, summer, 2009].

    Brian Leiter had almost the last word among the commentators, and they are almost the right ones, except for some minor matters of technical philosophy which it might be worth clarifying.

    On the alleged autonomy of the rest of science from physics: Jerry Fodor’s bluster may have convinced lots of people that the proprietary regularities of the “special sciences” are laws despite their gaps, their untestability, their predictive weakness, and their short lives. But I know a lot of philosophers of biology who have not signed on. So far as we are concerned, calling Gresham’s law a “law” is just another case of solving a problem by redefining terms—a sort of vest pocket version of Hume’s shameless dodge.

    On my invocation of Gricean speaker meanings: the point was to show that since the brain cannot harbor beliefs and desires, the noises and inscriptions it causes the bodies to produce literally do lack literal meaning. It was my intention to “disallow meaning,” So, it can hardly be an objection to my view that I do so, except on the Dr Johnson model of how to do philosophy.

    I grew up philosophically having no time for Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that led me to think I had been overhasty for 40 years or so. Now I am prepared to embrace the passage Brian offers us: “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it” (The Gay Science, sec. 301).” I’ll buy into this view so long as it’s understood that what we have given and bestowed is, like that great prize they give in international cricket, The Ashes, something that doesn’t exist.

    Alex Rosenberg

  • OTH Forum conversations remain open for approximately ten days. This one is closed, but you may see it continue in, among other places, Tim Williamson’s Sept 4, 2011 The Stone post, “What Is Naturalism?,” Rosenberg’s Sept.l 17, 2011 reply, “Why I Am a Naturalist,” and Williamson’s response of Sept. 28, 2011, “On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism.”

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