The Atheistic Reliability Problem

In preparing for the upcoming launch of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (March 1), I’ve been reading and re-reading the work of many New Atheists. It is a bit tiresome, after a while, to only read attacks against religion instead of a positive, evidence-based case for atheism. So I’ve shifted gears and started into Dr. Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to RealityDr. Rosenberg is a philosophy professor at Duke University. And, to his credit, he wrote his book with a positive purpose: “its aim is to sketch out what we atheists really should believe about reality and our place in it” (KL 88). Overall, I very much appreciate the intention of Dr. Rosenberg in straight-forwardly explaining the nature and implications of an atheistic worldview (which he often refers to as ‘scientism’). He’s a great writer and it’s an interesting book to read.

Still, Rosenberg’s book faces many logical and rational challenges. For instance, very early on he writes that one of the most basic mistakes you can make is “to think that there is any more to reality than the laws of nature that science discovers” (KL 139), but he then very perplexingly goes on to say a lot of things that are very plainly not the laws of nature. Or if we are to understand his book as the deterministic outcome of the laws of nature, then we can no longer understand his words as an argument; rather, the letters on the page are the inevitable outcome of an a-rational process. With this statement, we have either self-contradiction or the abandonment of reason itself.

However, there’s a more fundamental contradiction at the heart of his book, and it’s worthy of a post dedicated to this topic. One question Dr. Rosenberg returns to, time and time again, is this: how reliably can we gain information about ourselves and the world? Here’s what he has to say (the italics are my own):

  • First, there is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones. Natural selection shaped our brain to seek stories with plots. The result was, as we have been arguing since Chapter 1, the greatest impediment to finding the truth about reality. The difficulty that even atheists have understanding and accepting the right answers to the persistent questions shows how pervasively natural selection has obstructed true beliefs about reality (110).
  • Scientism requires that we give up almost everything introspection tells us about the mind (147).
  • Science reveals that introspection—thinking about what is going on in consciousness— is completely untrustworthy as a source of information about the mind and how it works. Cognitive neuroscience has already established that many of the most obvious things introspection tells you about your mind are illusions. If the most obvious things consciousness tells us are just plain wrong, we can’t trust it to tell us anything about ourselves. We certainly can’t trust it to answer our unavoidable questions about the mind or the self or what makes us the persons we are. (147-148).
  • …introspection is highly unreliable as a source of knowledge about the way our minds work (151)
  • At the point we have reached in our tour, science tells us that what everyday experience teaches is quite mistaken and that conscious introspection is unreliable (166).
  • When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong (172).
  • The answer shows how completely wrong consciousness is when it comes to how the brain works. Indeed, it shows how wrong consciousness is when it comes to how consciousness works (180).
  • In the next couple of chapters, we’ll see how deeply wrong consciousness is when it comes to the self, free will, human purpose, and the meanings of our actions, our lives, and our creations (193).

Despite these blanket condemnations of introspection and consciousness, Dr. Rosenberg still feels quite confident in his conclusions. As he puts it, “Scientism can be confident about the right answers to these questions. First, its answers follow immediately and directly from the physical and biological facts. Second, the only arguments against its answers start by taking introspection seriously, something the empirical evidence shows we should never do” (148). He further argues that science has demonstrated great technological success, is a self-correcting methodology, and is simply “common sense continually improving itself, rebuilding itself, correcting itself, until it is no longer recognizable as common sense” (167).

There are two very different currents of thought going on here. On the one hand, we have advocacy for a generally reliable process (that of science) continually correcting and improving itself. There’s no self-contradiction with the idea of a generally reliable process becoming gradually more adept at producing good results.

It might surprise Dr. Rosenberg to hear that I (and many other Christians) agree, to a considerable extent, that the scientific method is a powerful and wonderful means of increasing human knowledge and capacity. As a Christian, this is coherent: a rational, all-knowing God created the Creation (our world) as an orderly, habitable environment for human flourishing, creating men and women in His image, with the purposeful design that we might imitate our Creator as we “think God’s thoughts after him” (to quote the famous scientist and Christian, Johann Kepler). A Christian has  every reason to think that her perception of the world, though marred by sin and various human limitations, is generally trustworthy and good.

But Dr. Rosenberg finds himself in quite a bind. He faces a different, and far more difficult challenge: to marry the beauty and rigor of science with the implications of atheism. As a naturalist, he consistently concludes that “the physical facts fix all the facts” (18). And so he finds himself interpreting a few limited results of scientific research as implying such sweeping claims as “conscious introspection is unreliable.” This raises some challenging questions. For instance:

  • Does Dr. Rosenberg know that he wrote The Atheist’s Guide to Reality?
  • Does Dr. Rosenberg know that he agrees with the statements inside of this book?
  • Can Dr. Rosenberg have thoughts about the book that he supposedly wrote?
  • Is Dr. Rosenberg’s consciousness “deeply wrong” when it reaches conclusions about Dr. Rosenberg’s own self and free will?
  • Is Dr. Rosenberg able to ‘see’ what a scientific result concludes about reality?

Extrapolate these problems to all of the scientists who do all of the scientific research upon which Dr. Rosenberg’s book is supposedly based. Can they be consciously aware of their own research? Agree with it? Think about it? Is their conscious awareness of their own intellectual endeavors “deeply wrong”?  And now take these problems a step further and apply it to all the readers of Dr. Rosenberg’s book.

If Dr. Rosenberg happens to be correct about the fundamental deceit of natural selection, consciousness, and introspection, then we would all be unable to pursue the scientific enterprise in a reliable manner. If we are really unable to know anything, we would, of course, not be able to know that! But in fact, there is ample evidence that we do know many things about reality – as the scientific process, among other methods (art, religion, introspection, and so on), continues to reveal both important and minor truths about the world around us. On the basis of this diverse and constant experience of really knowing various things about reality, is is entirely reasonable to conclude that we do have knowledge about the world. And this is good reason to reject the hyper-skeptical theses of Dr. Rosenberg’s book.

As a positive case for atheism, Dr. Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide To Reality unfortunately suffers from at least one consistent thread of self-contradiction. As True Reason points out, this is a serious problem for a worldview that so ardently professes its love for reason. Dr. Rosenberg says on the first page of his preface that:

People who believe in religion are particularly adept at avoiding the answers. This is not a book for them. This is a book for those who want to face up to the real answers to these questions. It’s a book for people who are comfortable with the truth about reality. This is a book for atheists (KL 50).

So to my atheist friends and readers, if you are comfortable with finding the truth about reality, then you need to find a worldview that does not so quickly self-implode. Seeking answers with the aid of reason is an excellent and virtuous enterprise. Given the abundant self-contradiction within The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, it simply cannot be a satisfactory stopping point to your intellectual search. A genuine love for reason will demand that our answers to the most perplexing questions of our lives at least be minimally coherent.

(Astute readers will notice in this post my appreciation for the work of Dr. Alvin Plantinga in his critiques of naturalistic epistemology).