Reddit: Alex Rosenberg, the Thinking Christian, and why both are mistaken.

I’ve delved into reddit a handful of times, and found a pretty decent article entitled “If you believe atheism is true, atheism is false”. In it, Thinking Christian discusses Alex Rosenberg’s thoughts regarding thinking, that is, that it is in some way illusory.

I will admit now that I don’t know much at all about Alex Rosenberg, or his book Atheist’s Guide to Morality. From what reviews I’ve perused I will tentatively say I disagree with what he has to offer. The reviews themselves are interesting; it’s rare to have a book that is more than just divisive, but truly invokes the entire spectrum of positive to negative appraisal. As a result of my lack of exposure, I’ll try to discuss what Thinking Christian takes out from Rosenberg’s work (which for all I know may or may not be taken out of context).

To begin with, the concept of scientism is almost spot on, but not quite, and creates “physicalism” (which shares similarities with positivist science) which Thinking Christian discusses. I found it difficult to accept Rosenberg’s position on the importance of science. To start with:

“…what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today…”

This is dangerous. While it may well indeed be that science in the future will discover that our present established scientific knowledge is fundamentally correct, it has the possibility of that not being the case. Proponents of science should never be adverse to that possibility; especially considering how often vastly different theories have produced similar results in the past (such as Newtonian versus Einsteinian physics) and how long good, responsible scientists had “backed the wrong horse” as it were. It is a core value of science that it be open to change, and that rigour demands intense scrutiny.

In regards to an attempt to show the power of science, you could see my admonition as a “weaker” position than what Rosenberg claims. After all, saying that science is pretty much where it will be for the rest of history makes current day science standards “stronger” than saying that science may change radically in the future. But the former abandons the heart of scientific inquiry and is unnecessary all the same. Science still offers the overwhelmingly probabilistically better alternatives to looking at reality compared to any other discipline. To put it another way, science’s potential to determine what is reality is by far the best we have, only superseded by future scientific advancement. As a result, we can have our cake and eat it too; science is the most powerful method of looking at reality, and a core facet of science, its falsifiability (the ability and attempt to show that we may make incorrect hypotheses), is what makes it strong.

My second disagreement with Rosenberg is his adoption of physicalism. Physicalism described by Thinking Christian gets a bit fuzzy, and I was even more perturbed when quotes from Rosenberg spoke of “truth” as opposed to say, fact, or probability (as is the method of science). To begin with, Rosenberg through Thinking Christian seems to say that thanks to the purely physical nature of everything, the concept of mental states, of biology, of everything in the physical world is “fixed” by its grounding in that physical world, hence mental states are really physical states. This where myself, Thinking Christian, and Rosenberg diverge. Rosenberg states that physical things cannot be about other physical things; our neurons cannot be thinking about other material; that it is an illusion of sorts; as a result, thinking is about nothing. Thinking Christian retorts that that necessitates atheism (being that it is “thought” about) is untrue.  Being that Thinking Christian is a Christian,they would probably state that physicalism is not true, that the mental states of thought have at least some “existence” outside of the physical realm and so his own beliefs (if true) avoid the supposed paradox Rosenberg has created.

Me? I sort of believe physicalism, and I agree that mental states are physical states, but I disagree that thoughts are meaningless. I’ve delved into the concept of emergence before, and a much better explanation can be found in David Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality. I will briefly state that while everything is grounded in the physical, properties emerge from the physical that are better explained, analysed, appreciated in a non-physics realm. So for instance, we may talk about how the mating rituals of Australian tree frogs is derived from the evolution of the species, its dependence on damp habitat etc., and that this explanation offers, at least, far more relevant understanding (scientifically assessed understanding) than discussing the odd behavior of quarks vibrating in a particular way; not just because it would be supremely impossible to describe the precise behavior of so many quarks, but that it doesn’t offer any explanatory power.

The same for mental states. Thoughts can be conceptualized in a framework of psychology and neuroscience, and there is no reason to consider them illusory. What I fear has happened is that both Thinking Christian and Rosenberg have fallen into the old Cartesian Dualism trap (the inconsistent tetrad), which is especially easy when we consider that consciousness and the brain are two separate emergent faculties. (note: focus on Noë’s metaphor of the dancer, I’m not sure I’m a hundred percent on board with other things he talks about).

This is where I believe the mistake lies, if Rosenberg is being portrayed accurately by Thinking Christian. For what it’s worth, Thinking Christian is not really logically consistent with what Rosenberg states. If matter is incapable of discerning truth, that doesn’t mean what it discerns is false, it simply means that it has no capacity to decide either way. As a result, the best Thinking Christian can hope for is to say that Rosenberg’s brand of scientism/atheism eventuates into saying that it is impossible to discern truth about things, including itself.

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~ by freeze43 on February 28, 2013.

3 Responses to “Reddit: Alex Rosenberg, the Thinking Christian, and why both are mistaken.”

  1. Freeze you old rattlesnake, how be ye Lad? Still working at the Ol Factory? The last time we crossed words was a year ago. I trust you are well.

    Affectionately Yours
    Mrs. N.

    • Hello Mrs. Neutron.
      Yeah not so bad. Actually started my PhD today at the ‘factory. Hope you are well also.

      • That’s exciting news Freeze. I imagine your nose will be to the grindstone from now on, so to speak.

        I smelled a pear the other day. My mind was flooded with memories of being about 10 years old and walking past the neighbors pear trees in september/october when the pears were on the ground rotting. We would throw the soft ones at other kids. I hadn’t thought of that scene in 50 years.

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