I've read a few books by atheists over the past year or so and am starting to think of myself as something of a connoisseur. I'm struck by their immense confidence. They're also becoming more extreme. There's a sense of inhibitions being dumped, as if they're trying to outdo each other with a sort of reverse, more-atheist-than-thou piety.
Since many of them are American, and surrounded by noisy religiosity, that's perhaps to be expected. But I haven't read anything quite as uncompromising as philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality. This is articulate, polemical, no-pansying-around, full-on, in-your-face, fuck-off atheism.
Rosenberg starts with a little list of answers to various propositions.
Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul. Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral. Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don't like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes...
Does the human past have any lessons for our future. Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.
It's pointless trying to persuade people about the non-existence of God, he goes on. Hume said it all, and much of atheist discourse since then has just restated it. Atheists have better things to do, 'like figuring out what we ought to believe about a reality without a god'.
Rosenberg doesn't like the term 'brights', popularised by Dawkins and Dennett, which he thinks is 'precious and self-congratulatory'. However he likes 'scientism'. Yes, it's always used pejoratively, but why shouldn't atheists make it their own? He turns the customary usage on its head - everything that critics find appalling about scientism is precisely what makes it, in his view, so valuable.
[It's] 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. We'll often use the adjective 'scientistic' in referring to the approaches, theories, methods, and descriptions of the nature of reality that all the sciences share. Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about.
The fact that Christian books about life's questions keep being written and bought suggests the pat answers don't really scratch the itch. By contracts, the answers that science provides are not warm and fuzzy, but once you understand them they stick. You are unlikely to give them up, so long as you insist that evidence govern your beliefs.
Rosenberg thinks the 'why is there something than nothing' question is actually a non-question. The concept of mystery is simply unacceptable. The Big Bang is just a quantum event, wholly indeterministic.
Why is there a universe at all? No reason at all. Why is there a multiverse in which universes pop into existence for no reason at all? No reason at all! It's just another quantum event. What science and scientism tell those who hanker for more is 'Get over it!'
(Wasn't it James Randi who complained of quantum theory being the 'refuge of scoundrels'?)
Rosenberg is as much interested in the moral implications of scientism, in the loose, general sense of the kind of behaviour scientism advocates. He rails at secular humanism for trying to fill the religion gap by pretending to be a religion. Even Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the 'delusion' that a substitute for religion is required and available from science. Is science really one of the supreme things that makes life worth living?
[Dawkins] gets misty eyed when he thinks of the general theory of relativity, or the symmetry of the double helix, or how the invisible hand works to make everyone better off. So what? Why should we be like him? More important, does Dawkins have an argument or a reason or a basis to claim that science makes life worth living for everyone, or only for some people, or just for those smitten by science or scientism, or perhaps exclusively for Richard Dawkins?
He finds it hard to see how science itself could provide any argument for the supreme or intrinsic value of science - or anything else for that matter.
In the same way, he thinks existentialist philosophers are silly for insisting that we must create meaning for ourselves. They never saw the 'fatuousness' of trying to create something that nature had ruled out as impossible.
Creating purpose in a world that can't have any is like trying to build a perpetual motion machine after you have discovered that nature has ruled them out. Of course, it takes scientism to see this. Existentialists, like almost all philosophers, would have rejected scientism had anyone offered it to them . . . Luckily for us, mother nature has seen to it that most of us, including the secular humanists, will get up most mornings and go on living, even without anything to make our lives meaningful. The proof is obvious. There is nothing that makes our lives meaningful, and yet here we are, out of pyjamas.
Humans should avoid introspection because it fosters illusions, such as that we need something to make life meaningful in order to keep living. We should treat introspection as a symptom. Since science is all there is, it's pointless even thinking about the other stuff.
Certainly, scientism can't take authenticity seriously. Making heavy weather of what introspection seems to tell us turns out to be a big mistake. It may be responsible for a certain amount of great art, like Finnegans Wake or Waiting for Godot, highly entertaining to those who can sit through them. But taking introspection seriously creates a demand for satisfying narratives or stories, the search for ultimate meanings and cosmic purposes, and the quest for values in a world devoid of them. The quest is deep, heroic and futile.
So what should scientistic folks do when overcome by weltschmerz? Why, take a pill! If it doesn't work . . . take a different one!
Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs like Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. and if one doesn't work, another one probably will.
I must say, I derived a sort of perverse enjoyment from all this - its smiley-face philistinism made me laugh. It's what happens when atheist logic is taken to extremes - it disappears up its own fundament.
But perhaps there's a benefit in seeing the moral and cultural implications of scientism spelled out. For despite everything science tells us about our origins, the human experience remains embedded in a sense of meaning and value. One result of that is the enormous and varied worlds of art, philosophy, music, imaginative literature, and so on - and scientific discovery too, for that matter. Introspection is how we discover about ourselves, about our innermost desires and motivations, and also - crucially - about how other people feel. That sense of meaning that Rosenberg complains of is not a disease to eradicate - it's what enriches us and drives us and makes society function.
What Rosenberg has actually done is demonstrate the profound limitations of scientific thinking when applied to the totality of the human experience. He wants to reduce it to science's knee-high view. But that doesn't mean that he won't attract followers.
When John Gray, a British political philosopher, made nihilist noises in Straw Dogs a few years ago, it attracted a good deal of fascinated attention. Some reviewers seemed to find it refreshing. Gray was vague and didn't go as far as Rosenberg, but it's possible this kind of radical atheism will become more widespread. If it starts to be held as a model of how people should live, then who knows, one day we might wake up and find ourselves living in a scientocracy, yet another bossy-boots political system, where humanity with all its chaotic splendour is beaten into the little space created by narrow minds.
Make no mistake, this is visionary stuff. While the likes of Ray Kurzweil dream of perpetuating the human experience in mechanical form, this is the parallel enterprise of reducing the human psyche to its mechanical essentials. Perhaps at Kurzweil's Singularity, the two strands of thinking will meet: this new, pure human mind - scientifically purged of its illusions - will fit neatly into the robotic form that the boffins have prepared for it.
Actually I don't think it will catch on. For some reason Rosenberg's tract made me think of the Dada movement of the 1920s, with its revolutionary zeal to overthrow conventional ideas about art - tremendous energy and brio, but in hindsight quaint and childishly exaggerated. Humans are what they are, and nothing's going to change that. What Rosenberg calls scientism is not a full understanding of humanity - quite the contrary - but essentially just another attempt to escape from it.