Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring.

Rosenberg argues — and I entirely agree — that our moral senses are part of our human nature. We have a “core morality” programmed into us by evolution to enable us to interact socially and so exploit a cooperative evolutionary niche. Of course evolution doesn’t care about the morality itself, it only cares (metaphorically “cares” of course) about what leads to us leaving more descendants. It follows that (page 286): “there are no facts of the matter about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad”. But it also follows, since humans are highly similar genetically, that “most people naturally buy into the same core morality that makes us tolerably nice to each other”.

Rosenberg then argues, and again I agree, that the fact that we now understand human morality in such terms does not necessarily alter our moral feelings. Understanding why we have such feelings does not revoke those feelings or negate them. That might seem an obvious point, but many people argue that if there is no objective morality, if it really does come down “merely” to human feelings, then “there is no reason why we shouldn’t commit murder or torture children”. But yes, there is a reason, that reason is human feelings!

Quoting Rosenberg (p292):

Scientism is nihilistic, but we are not. The Darwinian process that got us here included steps that selected for a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce. Knowing that morality is only good for our reproductive fitness, and sometimes not so good for us, can’t make us give it up. We are still committed to being nice.

But then comes the argument where I part company with Rosenberg.

But when you combine core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics. In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.

Rosenberg’s argument is based on determinism. None of us have “free will” in the dualistic, contra-causal sense, we are all products of the past and of our environment. Whether we were born into a rich family or a poor one, whether we are born with genes that make us talented or not, whether we grow up in an environment that helps us prosper, are all things that we could not choose. Whether we are a millionaire at age 30, or whether we are stuck in a minimum-wage job, is thus largely a lottery of birth.

Rosenberg then asserts that “core morality tells us that important advantages in life should be distributed in accordance with desert; inequalities should be deserved”. He argues that “core morality” requires that “deserving” acts must result from “free will” (and so cannot be acts determined by the prior state), and thence, since there is no such thing, there cannot be any “morally deserving” acts. Therefore there cannot be any justification for inequalities, and thus they are immoral. Hence the left-wing agenda requiring a much more even distribution of wealth.

I think that this argument is faulty. I think that it fails to distinguish between actual “core morality” and commentary about core morality. Rosenberg and I are agreed that “core morality” is the set of notions programmed into us by evolution to enable cooperative living. But evolutionarily-programmed morality will be feelings about how people act, because it is actions by other people that affect whether we leave descendants. Evolutionarily-programmed morality cannot be about metaphysical notions such as dualism or contra-casual free will, because evolution has no traction on such notions.

If a band of comrades agree to share the proceeds of a hunt, and then one member betrays the group by taking it all, then we have been programmed to have feelings about that act, because it is that act that affects whether the others can feed their children. It matters not to those feelings whether the act was determined, or whether it resulted from dualistic free will. Indeed, since Rosenberg is correct about determinism and the absence of dualistic free will, evolution will have programmed us to have feelings about the treachery even though that treachery was determined!

That follows from Rosenberg’s own logic. Our evolutionarily-programmed, “core morality” feelings must be about actions in a deterministic universe. We have such feelings about how other people act, even though those acts were determined. We thus cannot just decide: “well, since we now understand that the traitor’s actions were determined by prior circumstances, we don’t blame him and don’t feel at all angry”. We are programmed to feel that way about determined acts whether we like it or not. That’s what “core morality” is — it is about a deterministic universe. And, quoting Rosenberg again, we have evolved to have: “. . . a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce”.

The ideas that we have about dualistic free will and the notion that “moral desert” depends on dualistic free will are then commentaries about human morality, they are interpretations that we have developed based on our previous (and wrong) understanding. They are not core morality itself. If we now understand that there is no such thing as dualistic free will then we change the commentary, but we do not radically change core morality. To do the latter would take genetic engineering.

Of course all of our genetic programming plays out through our development and upbringing, and the end product of our genetic recipe is heavily influenced by that environmental interaction. Thus scientific advances can certainly inform and influence our morals and how we feel. There is nothing “set” about core morality, it can indeed be heavily influenced — and obviously has been, if we think about how societal moral codes have changed over the centuries.

But it is not the case that accepting determinism will automatically lead to the radical changes in how people feel that Rosenberg suggests; people who accept determinism don’t automatically vote far left and ask for radical wealth redistribution. Indeed, compared to religiose America, lots of Europeans have accepted many of these ideas. But they tend to vote centrist or soft-left as much as hard left. People seem to be comfortable with a footballer earning much more than they do, even if they believe that his footballing ability is largely a genetic accident of birth. People don’t begrudge a successful entrepreneur getting rich, even if they think that his personality and ability are not “free will” acts. People are content that a lazy person or a spendthrift has little money, even if they think that his nature is not a “free will choice”, but is how he is. People really are making moral judgements about how people act — just as the evolutionary perspective would suggest — and the commentary about “free will” or whatever is secondary to that.

Rosenberg, I suggest, fails to follow his own logic. He never considers how notions of free will and morality would be interpreted in a deterministic world. He starts, correctly, by insisting that our moral senses and feelings are innate and evolved, and that they evolved in a deterministic universe. But then he leaps to the idea that “moral desert” requires dualistic, contra-causal free will. This is utterly at odds with the preceding sentence! This leads him to write (p294): “once you adopt determinism, you have to rethink the de-meritocracy; you can’t treat lawbreakers as morally bad or worthy of punishment”. But this only follows given a notion of “morally bad” derived from dualistic free will. And that’s a theological notion. To atheists and scientismists such as Rosenberg and myself, moral feelings derive from a deterministic world and so are about a deterministic world and apply to a deterministic world! They don’t change when we accept determinism.

Fundamental ontology: what is the universe actually made of?

In his classic “Feynman lectures on physics”, Richard Feynman starts by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Of course atoms are not the basic unit, they are composed of nuclei surrounded by electrons. The nuclei are then composed of protons and neutrons (and short-lived virtual particles such as pions), and the protons and neutrons are themselves composed of quarks and gluons.

But what is the ultimate level? What, when one goes down to the most fundamental level, are things made of? While there are lots of opinions there is no accepted answer, and mulling it over for myself I realised that none of the options are attractive in the sense of aligning with intuition about what “physical stuff” would be made of. Here are some of the possibilities:

Particles: The concept of a particle is very useful (the above protons, neutrons, electrons are all examples of particles). The composite particles have a definite size, but the most fundamental particles, such as an electron, are conceptualised as being point-like (no spatial extent or internal structure) despite also having properties such as “spin”. That description of something as point-like seems pretty “mathematical” rather than being of a physical “object”.

Wave packets: Of course particles don’t behave as point-like entities, in that their influence has spatial extent. Electrons, for example, cannot get too close to each other, such that the effective “size” of such a particle can be summed up by the de Broglie wavelength. So perhaps we should think of the most basic “things” as being “wave packets”, spatially localised waves that behave, move around and evolve according to the equations of quantum mechanics. But surely the wave packet is a mathematical description of the physical thing, rather than being the physical thing itself?

Strings: One problem with point-like particles is that putting lengths of zero into the maths makes quantum mechanics stop working. For such reasons theorists have speculated that the basic “things” are not points but one-dimensional strings. This also has the advantage that strings naturally support waves,just as a guitar string does, in accordance with the wave-like maths of quantum mechanics. So far, though, string theory remains speculative, since empirical confirmation is beyond current technological capability.

Wave functions: Another option is to declare the quantum wave function itself to be what actually “exists”. But it is made up of complex numbers, not “real” ones, and can an “imaginary” number be physically extant? Also, formally the wave function extends to infinity, and there is only one wave function for the whole universe. So is there only one physical thing, one infinitely large object, in a complete reversal of Feynman’s account? Surely the wavefunction is a calculation tool, something that describes behaviour very well, but is not itself physically real? After all, isn’t the wave function “merely” maths?

Quantum fields: In quantum field theory particles are not seen as fundamental. Rather they are excitations of fields, being ripples and disturbances of a “field”, analogous to the waves caused by throwing a stone into a pond. But what is a “field”? It, again, is a mathematical construct. A classical field is a set of numbers, one number for each location in space. A quantum field is a mathematical operator at each location in space. That makes it a hugely abstract and mathematical concept, rather than something one would intuitively regard as physically real.

Space: So maybe we shouldn’t think of particles as being what ultimately exists, maybe we should think of space as the ultimate “thing”, with particles being ripples in space (the opposite of seeing space as an inert backdrop containing physically existing particles). But then there are proposals that “space” is itself a construct produced by the quantum entanglement of particles. So thinking of particles and space as distinct might be a mistake.

Which of the above should we go for? We already know, given quantum mechanics, that human intuition is a poor guide to reality at the micro level, so choosing based on accordance with our intuition would be unreliable.

The best option is perhaps to regard all of the above as instrumental, being models that work well and allow us to do calculations and make predictions, but not being how reality actually is. Perhaps such instrumental models are the best we can do?

One reason for doubting that any of the above is the final answer is that they are bound up with the nature of space itself, and we do not have a quantum theory of space (since we don’t yet have a theory merging quantum mechanics with gravitation). Thus we have a “known unknown” telling us that our current models are only instrumental approximations.

It does seem that the further we delve down into the most fundamental physics the more our descriptions seem mathematical rather than being about physical objects. Max Tegmark has taken this to the extreme, asserting that everything is ultimately made of mathematics. Our intuitive concept of what “physical stuff” is like may be appropriate only to the scale of our selves and our own senses, a vast number of orders of magnitude larger than the scale of the tiniest things (strings are hypothesized as being 1035 times smaller than a human). So we should surely expect any ultimate ontology to be pretty counter-intuitive. Indeed one could suggest that the fact that the character of the description changes from “physical” to “mathematical” is a sign that we’re approaching the underlying reality of what physical stuff is. Or we may just be approaching the limits of what humans can conceive.

Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer and the free exercise of religion

I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.

In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.

The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches. Continue reading

Tim Farron’s resignation does not reveal secular intolerance

British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.

When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny. Continue reading

The CARM rejection of subjective morality

I’ve been pointed by a reader to a critique of the idea that morality is subjective written by the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. CARM is the website of Matt Slick, a conservative Christian who believes in the infallibility and literal intent of the Bible, and thus, for example, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve.


What struck me about Slick’s arguments against morality being subjective is that he doesn’t really address whether it is true that morality is subjective, he discusses whether he wants it to be the case that morality is subjective. He then sort of assumes that what he wants to be the case must then be the case. Continue reading

The Second Law of Thermodynamics made easy

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the few scientific laws that has attained a status in wider culture, even featuring in rock tracks by Muse. Famously, C.P. Snow cited an understanding of the 2nd Law as something that every educated person should have.

The 2nd Law is often stated in technical language that makes its meaning hard to understand, but the basic principles are actually readily grasped. I was recently challenged to explain the 2nd Law at the level of a bright 13-year-old, and so here is my attempt. Continue reading

Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading