Curate’s Egg: Alex Rosenberg and the Meaning of Life


The Monkey Painter, Alexandre Gabriel Ducamps, 1833

by Michael Ruse

I understand that a contributor to the New Republic has deemed Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, the worst book of 2011. This reaction is understandable. There is an irritating jauntiness about the work, coming across as something altogether too satisfied for its own good. Rather as though the work had been penned by an overly bright but somewhat ignorant fifteen-year old. Sweeping statements are made that too readily invite instant critical response, for instance about the fact that natural selection cares only about reproductive success and not the truth, in which case why should we care about a word that Rosenberg has written? In the same mode, matters of fact are claimed that are simply not true. For instance it is said that, other than a late addition to the sixth edition of the Origin, Darwin never mentions God in that work. In fact, there are lots of references to the Creator in the Origin, and while one might query how many of these hint that Darwin himself endorsed His existence, one reference at least in all of the editions suggests just that:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.

I should say that, certainly in the early years, this fits in with what we know from other sources (the letters especially) on Darwin’s beliefs.

Having said all of this, I think the totally negative judgment on Rosenberg’s book is altogether too harsh. Clearly the New Republic contributor has not read Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science Religion, and Naturalism, also published in 2011. In fact, the works of Rosenberg and Plantinga share some features, namely a kind of absolutism about their own views and disdain for the views of others. But at least Rosenberg is on the side of the angels in trying to take science seriously — some would say, altogether too seriously — whereas Plantinga takes every opportunity to opt for superstition and ignorance and bad argument. Being an enthusiast for Intelligent Design Theory is the least of his sins.

The trouble is that Rosenberg has been seduced into thinking that he can write a popular book, a trade book. Now some academics are very good at this. One thinks at once of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Others are less gifted, their attempts at trade books veering between the leaden and the louche. I regret to say, because I could use the money, that Michael Ruse’s attempts at this genre fall into the unsuccessful category. The same can be said of Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. A cocky self-satisfaction is simply not a recipe for good writing for the popular domain. The public needs to be spoken to, not spoken down to.

All of this seems a preamble to saying that I think the book is not completely without merit. I certainly don’t want to praise it to the heavens, but I would not go the other way either. It is, as the curate said to the bishop when asked about his breakfast egg: “Good in parts.” This seems like faint praise and perhaps it is, but I do want to say that I think parts are good and some parts are very good indeed. Although the material on morality is presented in a way (I think needlessly) intended to shock and disturb — there isn’t any morality and you cannot condemn Hitler and that sort of stuff — in fact Rosenberg brings Darwinian evolutionary biology to bear on morality in a fruitful and enlightening way. He shows that you don’t need the will of God and those sorts of factors to get the proper norms of conduct and that, on the other side, the struggle for existence doesn’t lead straight to the kind of crude Social Darwinism embraced today very regrettably by the Republican Party of the United States of America. Moreover, I am even more glad to say that Rosenberg shows we don’t need any guff about group selection and other faux teleological mechanisms to get decent behavior and thoughts about it. Good, old-fashioned natural selection, working for the benefit of the individual, can do the job.

Rosenberg has a good eye for bad arguments (by others!) and has an enviable ability to skewer the inadequate and inept. He spots that a major (I would say, the major) problem for the theist, especially the Christian, when faced with Darwinian evolutionary biology is the essential randomness, the non-guidedness, of the latter. For the Christian, humans have to exist. But me no buts; we are not a contingent option. We may not be the exclusive focus of God’s care, but we are an essential focus of such care. However, Darwinism seems not to deliver. Mutations are random, in the sense of not appearing to order or need, and selection favors success not necessarily big brains and bipedalism. These may be nice things to have, but they are not the predetermined goal of the evolutionary process. In the memorable words of the late Jack Sepkoski, one of his era’s leading paleontologists: “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.”

I am pretty sure that most of the solutions offered out there in the literature don’t work. Physicist-theologian Robert J. Russell thinks God puts in direction from down at the unobservable quantum level. This, it seems to me, is simply a tarted-up version of theistic evolution that Darwin himself found so unacceptable in the thinking of his American friend Asa Gray. Non-believer Richard Dawkins thinks that arms races, competition between evolving lines, will eventually lead to beings with massive on-board computers. But even if arms races work, and not everyone thinks that they do, I don’t see that humans will necessarily evolve. Believer Simon Conway Morris (incidentally following non-believer Stephen Jay Gould) thinks that ecological niches exist objectively, that there is such a niche for culture, and that even if we had not found our way into it, some organism at some point would have done so. But apart from anything else, there is good reason to think that organisms create niches as much as they find them. So I am not sure that that solution works either. I myself am inclined to think that multiverses might do the trick. Given enough attempts, like the monkeys and Shakespeare, humans would come into being eventually. But I am not here pushing my own view — for which, incidentally, among believers and non-believers I have found absolutely no takers. I am simply congratulating Rosenberg for taking a lot more seriously a problem that too many think they can easily gloss over.

So, why then am I not more positively charged up about Rosenberg’s book? It is perhaps not surprising, as one who thinks of himself as much a historian of science as a philosophy of science, that my complaint starts with history. In this book, Rosenberg expresses contempt for history to a degree that (outside the American automobile business, and look at the state of that) I don’t think I have ever encountered elsewhere. (This is not something new. I remember Rosenberg saying something similar about thirty years ago.) “History is helpless to teach us much about the present.” Continuing: “When it comes to understanding the future, history is bunk.” I won’t comment on the irony of this coming from an ardent evolutionist, but simply suggest that his attitude leads him badly astray. Even as he opens by suggesting that science leads to non-belief, using the atheistic members of the US National Academy of Sciences as evidence, we can see that there is something wrong. Without knowing their histories, how can we be sure that science led to non-belief rather than non-believers turning to scientific inquiry early and fiercely and succeeded? What one can say is that the autobiographies of nineteenth-century non-believers almost always stress that they came to non-belief on theological and philosophical grounds and then embraced things like evolution. In Darwin’s own case, his non-belief came primarily from his detestation of the idea that non-believers like his father and brother were, purely on the grounds of their non-belief, destined to eternal damnation.

But let me dig a bit more. Rosenberg thinks that science basically wipes out the claims of religion, either showing them false or explicable purely in scientific terms. He proudly proclaims himself committed to “scientism”: “the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.” In large part I agree with Rosenberg. Obviously you cannot hold to Noah’s Flood and at the same time to modern paleontology, let alone to plate tectonics.  As obviously, a literal Adam and Eve are entirely negated by modern paleoanthropology. They did not and could not have existed. I am not that keen on burning bushes or partings of water either. I hope also that my agreement with Rosenberg about morality shows that I think that we don’t need a lot of God talk to get ethical thinking and behavior. And that Darwinian evolutionary biology shows that the call for foundations is mistaken and unnecessary.

What about some of the basic issues for theism, for instance the very existence of anything at all (what Heidegger calls the fundamental problem of metaphysics) or at the other end of the scale the meaning of existence? Like other theists, the Christian has answers to these and related questions. Existence itself (that is, the universe and everything within, including us humans) is the product of a good creative God. Meaning is also related to God, and for humans in particular life here on earth is in some sense a time or trial or testing, preparing the way for the possibility of eternal bliss with the Creator, whatever that might mean.

As it happens, I am no more accepting of these answers than is Rosenberg. I would describe myself as an agnostic or skeptic rather than an atheist, but essentially I am pretty atheistic about the Christian answers. If there is more to life than meets the eye, as it were, I very much doubt it is something within my present comprehension. The question however is whether science as such negates these answers that the theist would give, and perhaps even more fundamentally whether science makes the very asking of these questions in some sense otiose or inappropriate. This I think is Rosenberg’s position and here I part company with him. In line with Charles Darwin, I reject theism on theism’s grounds rather than because of science.

As I see it, Rosenberg simply says that modern science has no place for these sorts of questions, or if it does it answers them adequately — along the lines that the Big Bang speaks to origins — and that is that. In the old days, before the Scientific Revolution four hundred years ago, the Aristotelian science of the day may well have allowed such questions, but now we have moved on from an incorrect science to a more correct science, end of story. And it is here that I would say that the refusal to look at history leads to misunderstandings. If we look at the Scientific Revolution and ask exactly what it meant, we find it was not so much a simple matter of moving from falsity to truth — although I do accept that the new science has many virtues that the old science did not have — but rather a change of metaphors. The old science saw the world in an organic mode — things were living in a sense — and that is why, for instance, it was appropriate to ask about final causes and meanings. The new science sees the world in a machine mode — the mechanistic philosophy — and that, among other things, is why it is inappropriate to ask about final causes and meanings and so forth.

Notice however what using metaphors entails. As Thomas Kuhn taught us — and remember how he identified his paradigms with metaphors in some wise — metaphors are powerful tools for focusing on nature and giving us ways of understanding it. But they come at a cost, namely that they are limited and do not (and do not pretend to) answer all questions. To use a metaphor to talk about metaphors, metaphors are like the blinkers you put on race horses to make them focus on the track and not be distracted by the spectators. So, for instance, if I describe my love as a rose, I am presumably talking about her freshness and beauty — perhaps I am joking about her being a bit prickly — but I am not talking about her religious affiliation or her mathematical abilities. I am not saying she is not religious or cannot do mathematics, I am just not talking about those sorts of things.

Look now at the basic metaphor of modern science, the machine metaphor. It is very powerful, but there are some things it simply doesn’t speak to. Origins is one such issue and meaning is another. You take your materials as given and build your machine; you set it in motion and that is that. You might complain that machines do have meaning: an automobile is for travel. But as historians of the Scientific Revolution have stressed, very quickly the metaphor of a machine was truncated to simply the sense of something working according to law, nothing further. The world goes through the motions, as it were. Of course the early workers in the new mode did think there were meanings — meanings given by God. But very quickly they dropped these from their science as of no value qua science. In the words of one of the great historians of the Revolution (Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis), God became “a retired engineer.”

So here I do part company with Rosenberg. I think his insensitivity to history blinds him to the fact that science does not ask certain questions and so it is no surprise that it does not give answers — at least, not answers of a form that the theist finds adequate. As I have said, I am not at all sure that the theist’s own answers are correct, but they are not shown incorrect or inappropriate by modern science. Science is limited in scope and since, even if in the future you get rid of the metaphors of today’s science, you will have to find other metaphors to replace them, I would argue that science by its very nature is destined forever to be limited. History shows that!

I have tried to make these comments constructive. Obviously in a major way I find Rosenberg’s book intensely irritating. But I want to go beyond that because in some respects — and this applies to other parts of the book I have not really touched — I think his ideas and arguments are insightful and often correct. And where I differ from him, I find his positions stimulate me to provide alternatives that I think are better. So perhaps in the end, like the unfortunate curate, I find myself with an egg that is not entirely wholesome, but probably the good parts outweigh the bad parts.

Piece originally published at Rationally Speaking | License

About the Author:

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University and Director of History and Philosophy of Science Program at Bristol University. His most recent book is The Philosophy of Human Evolution, Cambridge University Press.