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.


3 thoughts on “Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

  1. John Crossett

    A very interesting and clearly articulated commentary, as usual. But even if accepting determinism cannot alter “our feelings” in response to acts that we have evolved to interpret as immoral, accepting determinism can change (and indeed, has changed) how we respond to our feelings collectively, at the level of state policy. Accepting determinism may, for instance, substantially reduce one’s commitment to policies of retribution in criminal sentencing while increasing one’s comfort with policies targeted at reducing recidivism through neurological training and/or treatment — a fairly “left-wing” stance in the current political environment (at least in the U.S.A., where I live):

    May this have been what Rosenberg was getting at? I confess I have not (yet) read his book.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi John, I accept that understanding determinism and thinking through our beliefs can indeed then change how we feel about things. Our beliefs and emotions are highly malleable.

      But Rosenberg was arguing a stronger thesis than that, he was suggesting that our “core morality” married to determinism would inevitably result in a far-left stance, involving substantial redistribution of wealth to produce equality of outcome (thus a far-left agenda by European standards, not just be American standards). Similarly, it would result in a radical change in the justice system in that we’d no longer hold people “morally responsible” for crimes. I suggest that our views will indeed gradually evolve in the direction of treatment and rehabilitation (some European nations are much more like that than the US), but don’t think there would be a wholesale overturning of the justice system.

  2. Heather Hastie

    Good post Coel. I agree with your assessment of his arguments, though I haven’t read the book – I’m just assuming that you’re correct about his arguments.

    Further to what John says above, I think accepting determinism means we should look at how our justice systems work quite differently than many do now. Understanding why people commit crimes should lead us to work on creating a society where people are less likely to commit crimes in the first place and, if they do, concentrate on finding out what went wrong so we can address those factors. That means a greater focus on rehabilitation, which will often need to occur out of mainstream society for a time.


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