The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: An Interview with Alex Rosenberg

Reality, notes philosopher Alex Rosenberg, is “completely different from what most people think… stranger than even many atheists recognize.”   And having spent some 40 years trying to work out “exactly how advances in biology, neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, fit together with what physical science has long told us” Professor Rosenberg seems well placed to judge. Thinking seriously and unsentimentally about the nature of reality and life’s ‘persistent questions’ has led the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University to some striking, disconcerting and far-reaching conclusions.  In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Rosenberg aims to stretch out just what the atheist’s attachment to science really commits him to.

The author of some 14 books and an eminent philosopher of science, Professor Rosenberg has been kind enough to answer some questions from Talking Philosophy about his controversial and challenging work.  The questions posed, and Professor’s Rosenberg’s replies to them have been posted in full ‘as is’. Readers will, I hope, find something in the following to stimulate both thought and discussion

Your book is aimed squarely at atheists, but it’s not a book about atheism as such, rather it’s a book about what atheists should believe.  What are the most important things that the atheist needs to know about reality? And can he really enjoy life without illusions?

The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality. We need always to be on our scientific guard against its meretricious temptations. Treating the illusions that rise to consciousness as symptoms, instead of guides to meaning and value, is crucial to enjoying life. It’s not easy, but taking science seriously is the first step, despite the difficulty consciousness puts in the way of understanding it.


You note early on that “the effort to argue most people out of religious belief was doomed by the very Darwinian forces that the most fervent of Christians deny.”  Does evolution select for superstition and conspiracy theories? And how can they be dispelled?

Getting us from the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah to the top required mother nature (a.k.a. natural selection) to solve several design problems. Its quick and dirty solutions included ones that exaggerated our tendency to see conspiracies—plots in which there is a motive behind every event in nature. That’s what made religious belief unavoidable. It’s why religion is almost universal. Can these false beliefs be dispelled? Probably not completely, and probably not at all for people who have trouble understanding science.

Are introspection and common sense the greatest obstacles to understanding and accepting reality?

Introspection? Yes. Common sense, no.  For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes. Add to that the fact that scientific theories of human behaviour (and everything else) are much harder to understand just because they don’t involve narratives and plots, and the obstacles to understanding erected by conscious thought become obvious.

Common sense is another matter, however. Science is just the result of 400 years of common sense recursively reconstructing itself, weeding out false hypotheses and introducing better ones. The result of course is quantum mechanics, Darwinian theory, neuroscience—common sense reshaped into something that most people can’t understand because they don’t have the patience and mathematical ability to work their way through the details.

What is your conception of ‘scientism’ and why have you ‘reclaimed’ the term?

My conception of scientism is almost the same as that of those who use it as a term of abuse. They use the term to name the exaggerated and unwarranted confidence that science and its methods can answer all meaningful questions. I agree with that definition except for the ‘exaggerated’ and ‘unwarranted’ part.


You seem strongly committed to a form of physicalist reductionism – not eliminativism – perhaps you could say a little more about that and some of the misconceptions surrounding it?

To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness. The eliminativist thesis I just expressed will sound abstract and inconsequential to many people, and completely incoherent to many philosophers. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality I explain why it’s true and what its huge upshot for theism and mystery mongering is. But I don’t deal with the philosophers charge that the denial we think in statements about the world is incoherent. That’s a task for an academic paper. Suffice it to say that neuroscience forces us to be eliminativist about some things consciousness foists on us, but it does not deny the reality of sensations, emotions or for that matter cognition—properly understood. It’s scientism that mandates the reductive explanation of all three, and that neuroscience is well on its way to providing.


You are strongly committed to the view that “the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything”? What would you say to those who would suggest that the methods of science can give us no knowledge about mathematics and what it is like to see red?

What I say in response to such sophisticated philosophical challenges is first, like all the other metaphysical and epistemological alternatives, scientism does not yet have a satisfactory account of mathematics or our understanding of it; second, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness—what its like to have a qualitative experience—is a sign post along the research program of neuroscience. It will eventually have to dissolve this problem, just as physics eventually had to dissolve Zeno’s paradox of motion. Meanwhile, if I have to weigh the achievements of science in the balance against the problems of the philosophy of mathematics and the first person point of view, I’ll choose science. 400 years of ever-increasing depth and breadth in explanation and prediction carries a lot more weight with me than a handful of philosophical conundrums and Platonism about mathematics.


You assert 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.” Perhaps you could say something about those fundamentals, why you think they are unassailable and how much can be derived from them?

I argue in The Atheist’s Guide that all the science we need to answer the “persistent questions” that keep most thoughtful people up at night, are physics’ rejection of final causes, entelechies, prior designs in nature, along with the 2d law of thermodynamics. Those two are enough to give us natural selection, and together with them it is enough to solve all the other problems most people have about reality, the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, free will, ethics and the trajectory of human history.

But these established parts of science are of course not enough to answer all the scientific questions about these matters. To answer the questions of science (quite different from the limited questions of philosophy that people commonly ask themselves and their religious “advisers”) requires all the rest of science, including the parts that are still subject to development, change, revision, and even in a few cases, revolution. But nothing at the frontiers of any science is going to overturn the 2d law of thermodynamics, natural selection or the basic molecular biology of the neuron.

Is the fallibility of science a weakness in your argument or one of its strengths?

Science is common sense recursively reconstructing itself.  The reconstruction reflects the fallibility of common sense. Insistence by science on the tentativeness of its results at its ever-shifting research frontier, is what gives us confidence that after repeated test the parts most distant from that frontier are unlikely to be called into question.

The recurring dictum of your book is that ‘the physical facts fix all the facts’, what do you mean by that and how hard is it to persuade people of it?

Nothing more than this: take a time slice of any chunk of the universe—say, our planet, or solar system, or galaxy. Now produce a perfect—fermion for fermion, boson for boson—physical duplicate of that chunk at that moment. Then, everything that is true about what is going on in that first chunk, including all of the biological, psychological, sociological, political, economic, and cultural facts about it, will be true at the second, duplicate chunk.

I don’t know how hard it is to persuade people of this. It’s probably impossible to persuade many people once they realize it deprives their worlds of physically irreducible features.

Many of your readers may be amenable, in principle, to your contention that there is “no chance” of freewill. But few it seems can fully come to terms with the fact. Is freewill an illusion that is here to stay? Do you think that accepting that it is an illusion could change our behaviour and would you want it to?

Realizing there is no free will is unlikely to change our day-to-day behaviour, especially not our penchant for blaming people, and praising dogs for that matter. But it could change our politics a bit. In The Atheist’s Guide I argued that the core morality mother nature imposed on us together with the denial of free will is bound to make the consistent thinker sympathetic to a left-wing, egalitarian agenda about the treatment of criminals and of billionaires.


You assert that “scientism dictates a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans and of our evolution—biological and cultural” and that this means that “when it comes to ethics, morality, and value, we have to embrace an unpopular position that will strike many people as immoral as well as impious.” Just how bad is the news about morality? And why do you think “new atheists” like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett can’t accept it?  

Second question first. Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter. Answer to first question immediately below.

What‘s the ‘good news’ about nihilism? Does evolution select for niceness?

The good news is that natural selection has shaped almost all of us to be nice enough to make human social life possible. It had to. Without such shaping of social life, human life on the African savannah, and since then for that matter, would have been impossible. We are too puny to survive otherwise (even given our monstrously big brains).

Do you think accepting ‘nilhism’ will change how we act?  Can ‘nilhism’ be ‘reclaimed’ or do you think we will need a new way of talking about ‘morality’?

No. The correct philosophical theory has almost no capacity to overwhelm two million years or more of natural selection. Insofar as we pursue human sciences, nihilism is inevitable, but the label has too many disturbing connotations to stick.

Understandably you take there to be no purpose to the universe. But it seems you want to make a much stronger and more radical claim – that there are no purposes in the universe. Could you say something about just how wrong we are about cognition and consciousness?

The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.

In your book you make the striking claim that “Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds.” As you admit this seems an absurd claim. Whilst, your detailed arguments for this position form a difficult and lengthy part of your book, could you give some small sketch of your grounds for making such a claim?

I started on that task in my answer to the last question. The best I can do in a few lines to answer the question further is to note that if intentionality, content, ‘aboutness,’ is impossible, given the way the brain works, it’s also impossible in consciousness—since that’s just more brain process. So, we need an explanation of the illusion that our conscious thoughts have sentential meaning and propositional content. Neuroscience explains why there is no original intentionality, along with no derived intentionality, in the brain. I show that adding consciousness doesn’t help in any way to create original intentionality. The argument is pretty simple once you grant that non-conscious brain states lack original intentionality because they can’t carry around information in the form of sentences.


Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities?   And what would it mean for philosophy? 

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives. As for philosophy, done right it’s just very abstract and very general science.

Those interested in finding out more about Professor Rosenberg’s position are pointed towards this piece as written for the New York Times in response to an article by Oxford’s Timothy Williamson who in turn replies critically to Rosenberg here. A further final exchange between the two can be found here. Professor Rosenberg also published a detailed précis of his book that can be found here at the ‘On The Human’ project – it is followed by critical responses from a number of noted philosophers (including Brian Leiter) to whom Rosenberg in turn replies. More recently, Rosenberg published a further piece at the same site titled ‘Final Thoughts of a Disenchanted Naturalist‘.

Update: Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher at the City University of New York, has reviewed ‘The Atheist’s Guide’  for TPM , Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has reviewed it for the New York Times and Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University, has written a critical commentary on the book published over at Rationally Speaking.



  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The title is a bit pretentious.

    I for one am not in the market for a one volume
    guide to reality.

    The title reminds me of other one volume guides to reality: the Bible, the Koran, the little red book of Mao Tse Tung, etc.

  2. I welcome Alex Rosenberg’s book and your interview. I think it is essential reading for the Atheist, as the conclusions and analysis is I think probably correct for that worldview’s underpinnings. But before I go further, let me confess, I come to bury this point of view not to praise it.

    From my perspective the worldview’s a priorisitic and axiomatic CHOICES that it depends on are not real propositions, they are anti-real ones, we cannot resolve them as true/false by discursive/dianoetic reasoning (let me call that form of reason “rationality”) or empiricism alone. It’s worth quoting Goldfarb on Wittgenstein:

    “…for Wittgenstein scientism is just as misguidedly metaphysical as traditional, more transparently a prioristic, approaches.” ( Goldfarb, Warren. “Wittgenstein on Understanding”. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XVII. 1992. pp. 112)

    Physical Reductionism will lead to a deterministic view of the hard problem of consciousness and free-will. Hyperbolic doubt of reason (or mathematics) having an absolute form will lead to Relativism and Nihilism in their varied forms. But these positions are not unassailable and self-evident.

    Once you can doubt your unreasonable doubts you have room for a more reasonable faith (in this context an unreasobable doubt is one that is either an irrational doubt, in that it does not follow logically by means of discursive/dianoetic reason, or that those means of rationality don’t apply, i.e., it cannot be resolved true/false by rationality. Doubting such unreasonable doubts allows intuition and subjective reasons to be considered as the basis for a more reasonable choice.)

    I reject Rosenberg’s “reality”, not because it is an irrational choice, I think it is a valid option amongst other options. The reason I reject the thesis is for the same reasons I reject a Fundamentalist Religious perspective that thinks itself true and real and not a choice –- it is essentially a self-limiting DOGMA. If one asserts as true and real the anti-real propositions and axioms of Rosenberg then Atheism is valid by definition — it cannot be falsified — it is not a science, it is a faith. We can call it a kind of Objective Materialism/Atheism, Physical Reductionist/Nihilist/Atheism or a Scientisitic/Atheism, dependent on the exact form of the arational anti-real axioms (or forms of mythos) taken to be rational real axioms (the motes of logos). Such thoughts are a poison chalice to the philosopher, they lead to a misosophy, a rejection of others choices in wisdom for no reason other than personal preference.

    Once we realize this then we can (if we choose) open up the possibility of other explanatory theories and use the means of abduction/inference to the best explanation. Including ones, in Wittgenstein terms, that are based on traditional faith articles.

    Individuals may make different Kierkegaardian “leaps of faith” – they should not be necessarily mocked, criticised or accused as being clearly irrational when in actual fact they may (dependent on what specific faith choices they make) be no more arational than those “throwing stones from their glass houses”.

  3. Allow me to quote a perspective of worldview choice, derived from C S Lewis Narnian books, it’s a bit long but makes my case in a less formal way, a way of allegory …

    The last of (C S Lewis) seven (Narnian) books is appropriately entitled, The Last Battle. In this chronicle, the evil characters are Narnian dwarfs. They are dark and gloomy folk, with sneering grins, who distrust the whole world. The basic issue is that they have chosen to live in darkness, refusing to see the good around them, refusing to believe that Aslan can bring God’s light into their lives and world. So, they live in misery, squalor, and self-imposed darkness.

    Near the end of the story, some of the children who follow Aslan go out into a field where the dwarfs live. They want to make friends; they want to help them see the light and the beauty of the world which surrounds them.

    When they arrived, they noticed that the dwarfs have a very odd look and were huddled together in a circle facing inward, paying attention to nothing. As the children drew near, they were aware that the dwarfs couldn’t see them. “Where are you ?” asks one of the children. “We’re in here you bone-head,” said Diggle the dwarf, “in this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”

    “Are you blind?” asks another child. “No,” respond the dwarfs, “we’re here in the dark where no one can see.”

    “But it isn’t dark, you poor dwarfs,” says Lucy, “look up, look round, can’t you see the sky and flowers – can’t you see me?” Then Lucy bends over, picks some wild violets, and says, “perhaps you can smell these.” But the dwarf jumps back into his darkness and yells, “How dare you shove that filthy stable litter in my face.” He cannot even smell the beauty which surrounds him.

    Suddenly the earth trembles. The sweet air of the field grows sweeter and a brightness flashes behind them. The children turn and see that Aslan, the great lion himself, has appeared. They greet him warmly and then Lucy, through her tears, asks, “Aslan, can you do something for these poor dwarfs?”

    Aslan approaches the dwarfs who are huddled in their darkness and he growls. They think it is someone in the stables trying to frighten them. Then Aslan shakes his mane and sets before the dwarfs a magnificent feast of food. The dwarfs grab the food in the darkness, greedily consuming it, but they cannot taste its goodness. One thinks he is eating hay, another an old rotten turnip. In a moment, they are fighting and quarreling among themselves as usual. Aslan turns and leaves them in their misery.

    The children are dismayed. Even the great Aslan cannot bring them out of their self-imposed darkness. “They will not let us help them,” says Aslan. Their prison is only in their minds and they are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. “But come now children,” says Aslan, “we have other work to do,” and they leave the dwarfs alone in their miserable world.

    These chronicles of Narnia reflect an ancient way of presenting truth through stories – using allegory. Allegorical stories help us see, through ordinary events, another higher level of truth. In this tale, the earthly lion, Aslan, represents the heavenly resurrected Christ who brings hope and life and light into the world.

    What the children of Narnia discover, to their dismay, is that everyone has a choice… to see and respond to that light or to sit in self-imposed darkness unwilling to see the beauty which surrounds them, to smell the violets held under their nose or eat of delights of God’s table set before them.”


  4. On this topic I found that Cambridge Professor Tim Crane had some really intelligent things to say whether a more tolerant, pluralistic intellectual order is possible in a post-Darwinian world:

  5. “I don’t know how hard it is to persuade people of this. It’s probably impossible to persuade many people once they realize it deprives their worlds of physically irreducible features.” – Rosenberg

    The statement that the physical facts fix all the facts is a supervenience thesis. But even though reduction and reducibility entail supervenience, supervenience alone doesn’t entail reduction or reducibility, because it means nothing more than necessary covariance.

  6. How about a one sentence guide: “life is pain, but sometimes there is cake.” 🙂

  7. “The best I can do in a few lines to answer the question further is to note that if intentionality, content, ‘aboutness,’ is impossible, given the way the brain works, it’s also impossible in consciousness—since that’s just more brain process.” – A. Rosenberg

    One can argue against Rosenberg that mental intentionality is possible because it is derived from a basic form of physical intentionality:

    “There is a theory, due to Franz Brentano (and Scholastic predecessors), according to which intentionality is both necessary and sufficient for the psychological, and, conversely, non-intentionality is necessary and sufficient for the non-psychological. Intentionality provides the demarcation between the psychic and the physical. The theory, known as ‘the Brentano Thesis’, has become widely accepted in contemporary philosophy of mind.
    Mental states and the physical powers that determine the behaviour of their bearers share a number of traits that suggest intentionality. It is arguable that their similarity is sufficiently strong, in respect of the central criteria of intentionality, to create a case for physical intentionality as a concept that is in fundamental respects analogous to mental intentionality. I think the Brentano Thesis is basically mistaken. Thinkers who wished to deny the intentionality of certain types of mental states have said this before, of course, but my intention is to subvert the Brentano Thesis from the other direction, as it were. I accept the intentionality of the mental, and go on to argue that something very much like intentionality is a pervasive and ineliminable feature of the physical world.”

    (Molnar, George. Powers: A Study in Metaphysics. Edited by Stephen Mumford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 61)

  8. Thanks for the interview.

    While I attempt to be as sceptical and scientific as possible in my approach to philosophical questions, I don’t come to all the same conclusions as Alex Rosenberg. I’m a moral error theorist, and so an eliminativist about moral properties. I’m also an eliminativist about “free will”, in the sense that I think the term plays no useful part in our best explanations or descriptions of reality.

    I’m not, however, an eliminativist about propositional attitudes, since those play a very useful role in our explanations. To say, for example, that “He did X because he believed Y” is a useful and meaningful type of explanation of an observed phenomenon. The usefulness of such an explanation does not depend on my making any assumption about the way that beliefs are held in the brain, and so is not undermined by the fact that they are not stored “in the form of sentences, statements or propositions”.

    I’ll take the liberty of quoting something I wrote here recently:

    Suppose I explain Napoleon’s behaviour as follows: “Napoleon ordered the attack because he believed Wellington was retreating.” It seems to me that I’m attributing to Napoleon a mental state of the sort that would dispose him both to order an attack and to say “Wellington is retreating”. He may not actually have said “Wellington is retreating”. He may have said it in different words or not at all. But whatever caused him to order the attack is also the sort of thing which we would expect to cause him to utter something like “Wellington is retreating” under the right (possibly counterfactual) circumstances, such as circumstances where he felt like explaining his order to his subordinates. Though he may not actually have said it, truthfully uttering the proposition “Wellington is retreating” is the clearest way that he could have expressed his relevant mental state to other people (or to himself). So, if I want to refer to this mental state, the clearest way I can do it is to attribute that proposition to him, as a belief. I think that’s what makes propositional attitudes so useful.

    My sentence works as an explanation because the two behaviours to which Napoleon is disposed have a common cause, which I’m calling a “belief” or “mental state”. It may be that when they use the word “belief” the folk are inclined to have some misguided idea about what this common cause is. Perhaps some people think it’s supernatural. Perhaps some people think the words “Wellington is retreating” are written in the brain somehow. But explanation in terms of belief remains just as useful when we drop any such misguided notions, and that’s why I think there’s no good reason to be an eliminativist about it.

  9. Mike,

    I like your cake-centred view on life.

    If it wasn’t for the pain endured chasing after cakes we’d hang ourselves from boredom (as Schopenhauer sort of said in a less explictly cake-focused way).

  10. Your book is aimed squarely at atheists, but it’s not a book about atheism as such, rather it’s a book about what atheists should believe.

    If Rosenberg is correct it’s surely hard to say that “should” has anything to do with it!

  11. Ems, thank you for the link. Professor Crane also wrote a related piece that’s available here:

  12. Bensix,

    Of course, if Rosenberg is correct it’s hard to say “believe” has anything to do with it either. (I’m pleasantly surprised nobody has come out with: “Rosenberg believes there are no beliefs” and thought it a devastating reductio.)

    Rosenberg himself uses locutions like this: “Scientism is my label for what anyone who takes science seriously should believe.” I think they are pretty hard to avoid whatever your position on freewill and eliminative materialism. Rosenberg’s claims have fairly radical implications for sentences too – “since the brain cannot harbor beliefs and desires, the noises and inscriptions it causes the bodies to produce literally do lack literal meaning.”

  13. Myron

    “One can argue against Rosenberg that mental intentionality is possible because it is derived from a basic form of physical intentionality”

    Please feel free to do so.

  14. With regards to unbelief and reality…

    The uncertainty principle of Heisenberg leads to the uncertainty that reality is real — since reality is no longer that which when you are not looking stays the same. Only the ideal remains constant.

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ~ Philip K. Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later

    But what if I believe in the Unobserved Observer Ideal that does not go away, being a Universal Form — that holds reality in existence — is that the real real? And if I stopped believing in it, would that mean it, and the universe, would collapse out of existence — if not who is doing the observation then?

    If it is the unbeliever taking over the responsibility to do the observing, is not his “real world” something centered on himself and his non-ideal perceptions. A risky choice given the psyche of man and his will to power and pleasure when the will to (absolute) meaning is denied.


  15. Hi Richard,

    I can’t imagine Rosenberg denies that folk psychology talk is useful – indeed essential – for day to day living. Presumably he must agree some ascriptions of propositional attitudes are at least more useful than others and that there’s no immediate prospect of such ascriptions disappearing from ordinary talk. I can’t imagine the Churchlands think very differently either. There must, I think, be neural states that in some way approximate terms like ‘belief’ and ‘desire.’ It’s not quite like ‘moral facts’ or ‘freewill’ which we take to be complete fictions (though the strength of such illusions gives one pause to think about else we might be radically wrong about).

    Rosenberg says: that “whatever the brain does, it doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations, insofar as these are supposed to be states that “contain” sentence and are “about” things, facts, events that are outside of the mind”.

    You’d agree with him on the ‘sentences’ part but what about the complete denial of ‘aboutness’?

    Would you agree with him that “if beliefs are anything they are brain states—physical configurations of matter”?

    And what do you make of his contention that: “one configuration of matter cannot, in virtue just of its structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way original intentionality requires (because it can’t pass the referential opacity test).“

    I don’t pretend to have a clear view or understanding of these matters(perhaps I ought to try and interview Patricia Churchland?).

  16. Hi Jim,

    I’m not sure I can usefully comment further, without having read Rosenberg’s book. I just don’t understand, for example, what it means to say that aboutness (or intentionality) is impossible. I don’t really even understand what it means to be an eliminativist, if one continues using the concepts in question in just the way that a non-eliminativist does. I can’t help feeling that there’s little substantive difference between Rosenberg and me, and that it’s just his way of expressing himself that separates us.

  17. Jim,

    Cake does tend to have a universal appeal. I’ve considered starting a religion called Cakism, That way my cakes would be tax exempt and “no food” signs could be ignored on religious grounds.

  18. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Cakism sounds great.

    Maybe you could add something to drink for us thirsty folks.

    Wine is already being marketed by the competition.

    How about cake and cold beer?

  19. Hi Richard,

    It’s all a bit above my pay grade too.

    It is possible, in principle, to separate eliminativism – the claim about an area of discourse –from the ontological claims that may motivate it. One could contend, I suppose, that we are (typically) Realists about ‘intentional objects’ like beliefs, that physicalism does not allow us that option, but still grant that ‘folk psychology’ talk can be saved.

    In any case, the eliminativist aspect of the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism is predictive – the claim being that advances in neuroscience will lead to the elimination of ‘folk psychology discourse’ in favour of a scientifically preferable way of talking (not than that we could or should immediately stop talking in terms of beliefs and desires).

    What seems commonly thought is that an intentional vocabulary can’t be reduced to a non-intentional vocabulary. Quine thought as much and suggested we had a dilemma: either we accept that intentional idioms are indispensable, have ‘an autonomous science of intention’ and reject physicalism or we reject the idioms and accept physicalism. Rosenberg seems to accept this is the dilemma but to be untroubled by the horn.

    As I say though, above my pay grade…

  20. Amos,

    The House of Mike will have many cakes.

    Should we not have a double espresso with chocolate cake? Is champagne not the fitting accompaniment to cakes made with coconut?

    We must trust in Mike to reveal the answers to these questions in the fullness of time.

  21. Richard,

    My quick take on the “aboutness” point; aligning, I hope, with Rosenberg, since I took it from him.

    We have the famous Jeopardy showdown between (robot) Watson and Ken.

    We intuitevely, since we are pretty sure Watson is not conscious, realize that all the physical processing that Watson has of, say, “Paris” is not really “about” Paris, but instead is only about arranging a certain correct behavioral response to the elicited sounds of Alex Trebek’s voice or the letters on the prompter. That is, Watson’s thoughts of Paris are not really thoughts “about” the city, but instead they are information and structures that give correct responses in the language games and the tv shows of humans, and how information is related within those discourses. Watson’s use of language and information may correspond to Paris and the actual qualities of that city in some way, but it is wholly unnecessary for “Paris” to have any of those qualities at all. Watson’s “thoughts” or information processes are never really “about” the Eifel Tower, even if it has a picture of it.

    What is important is the behavioral and functional response in the language game of humans. As long as Watson does those functions well, he has facts about the world, at least as much as Ken has facts about the world.

    Ken, for all his usefulness, is doing things in much of the same way. He has in addition conscious processes and whatever those add to the situation, including internal thoughts such as “I am thinking about Paris.” But the structures of what Ken is doing when he is thinking and cogitating about Paris are no less thoughts “about” Paris than are Watson’s “thinking” about Paris. Conscious thoughts are not going to hook up and be “about” Paris in any more direct way than Watson’s informational processes are. The fact that perhaps Ken physically saw the Eifel tower, and had the actual light of the Eifel Tower impressing upon his brain, does not now mean that Ken’s thoughts and brain are somehow representing the Eifel tower in a more direct way than Watson is.

    Another note, whatever consciousness is granting Ken in thinking about the world and using language, it is of little functional importance in achieving mastery in these skills as it regards Jeopardy. Watson, as far as this understanding and reproduction of knowledge is concerned, has as much information “about” the world as Ken does. For the time being Ken has additional information about the nature of robots, that Watson is not quite tuned into. But we are quickly finding that whatever abilities and qualities that we thought consciousness, the “hard problem,” was granting human beings, we now find that those qualities are capable of being produced without consciousness. Consciousness may be making us unique and “hard” to understand, but it is probably not making us functionally special in any significant way.

    Here is an old paper by Dennett that I found useful and that fits into Rosenberg’s message:

  22. Hi Lyndon,

    Thanks very much for the link to Dennett’s article, which clarified some of the issues and terminology for me. I’m in agreement with Dennett on this, as far as I understand his views. I would reject “original intentionality” but not reject intentionality altogether. That still leaves the question of just what it is that Rosenberg is doing when he rejects intentionality altogether.

    I’m sorry to say that your discussion of Ken and Watson left me little the wiser. You seemed mainly to be arguing that there is no fundamental distinction between Ken and Watson with regard to intentionality, i.e. that “consciousness” isn’t significant in this respect. I agree, as apparently would Dennett. But Dennett and I would say that both Ken and Watson have intentionality, while Rosenberg denies that either has intentionality.

    Insofar as you made any argument as to why Watson has no intentionality, you seemed to be appealing to the intuition that Watson’s physical processing relating to Paris is not “about” Paris. I can’t say I share that intuition. And are we to rely on such intuitions anyway?

    In the interview Rosenberg said this:

    The argument is pretty simple once you grant that non-conscious brain states lack original intentionality because they can’t carry around information in the form of sentences.

    He implies that he has a simple argument from the absence of original intentionality to the absence of any intentionality. I very much doubt you can get from one to the other as easily as he seems to think, but I’d like to hear his argument.

    Also, while I agree with his rejection of “original intentionality”, I don’t think this conclusion follows from the fact that brains can’t carry information in the form of sentences. I’m not even sure it’s true that brains never carry information in the form of sentences, and surely we could in principle create an AI that carried some information in the form of sentences. Does Rosenberg think that such an AI could have intentionality (or even original intentionality)? I doubt it. The issue of storage as sentences seems like a red herring to me.

    Re-reading Rosenberg’s reply to critics at the link provided by Jim, I found this interesting passage:

    It is an important item on the research agenda of neuroscience to identify the way in which the brain does store information and to identify the nature of those neural states most closely approximated by terms like ‘belief,’ ‘desire’ and the rest of the intentional apparatus of folk psychology. Don’t ask the philosopher to do this. But don’t suppose you can refute eliminative materialism by so trivial a ploy as the accusation of pragmatic inconsistency. And let’s understand all the rest of the intentional locutions in what follows as approximations for what is really going on when we think, write, talk and behave (i.e. “act”) with apparent purposiveness.

    I have no problem with the idea that the intentional locutions are approximations, and if that’s all Rosenberg is saying then there’s little difference between us. But I see most (if not all) of our locutions as being approximate (or fuzzy) to some degree, and that doesn’t lead me to deny the existence of their objects, or call myself an “eliminativist” about them.

  23. Hi Jim,

    In any case, the eliminativist aspect of the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism is predictive – the claim being that advances in neuroscience will lead to the elimination of ‘folk psychology discourse’ in favour of a scientifically preferable way of talking (not than that we could or should immediately stop talking in terms of beliefs and desires).

    So we should be eliminativists, but not yet. 😉

  24. Richard,

    I do not have a firm grasp here, but a couple of my own ideas.

    I think one of things being highlighted is that what it feels and seems like our conscious thoughts are doing, that is, say if we are conscious of a line of our thoughts that goes through a sequential order, a sequential order that is logically coherent, such as a simple math problem; the “seeming” and the phenomological perception is going to be far different than how those thoughts are proceeding. I would think much of the folk psychological concepts (such as beliefs) have been created and are rife with only the “seemings” of the minds, and will not attach or align with how those concepts and behaviors are actually being produced and processed. The intentionality of our thoughts that is apparent to our conscious self is far from how the brain is actually processing and structuring (inentionalizing?) this information.

    In other words, from our conscious perception it feels like our brain is constantly coding our understanding in sentence form, which is probably far from the truth. I certainly think that we manipulate and carry information that relates to sentences; that is, we are good at responding to elements of sentences and propositions, because of the relational structure of those sentences; how exactly our brain stores and manipulates those propositions and parts of those sentences and reproduces them I would think is rarely in the straight-forward way it seems in our subjective viewpoints. What of “intentionality,” conceptually speaking, still remains is above my understanding.

    What seems obvious to me, is that there are relational parallels, say between the actual distance between the Eifel Tower and the river and how our our brains take in that information of distance, sorts it into useful structures, creates beliefs and conceptions about it, and then uses that information to act. Our brains are useful like any machine-like or sorting property (such as a sifter) is useful, it allows our self to manipulate the world in useful ways. Our brain through genetics and interaction with the environment, creates brain structures that “sifts” information in fabulous ways, including in ways that takes advantage of the logical necessities and relations in the world. And I do not know how that attaches to intentionality in the way you or others are using it.

    I also think some of the “why” of the brain processing, some of the logical necessitations, may be both apparent to our consciousness and be parallel to why our brain is actually processing that information in that manner. When we consciously recognize and are aware of simple propositional rules, the brain may not have worked through the problem in the way it seems to the conscious mind, but the propositional and logical structure that we are consious of will be parallel to why our brains have come to sort that information in that way.

  25. we should be eliminativists, but not yet…

    Hi Richard,

    That did raise a smile.

    I think at one point when mention was made of ‘eliminativism’ one would automatically think of eliminative materialism. But ‘eliminativism’ is indeed usefully employed outside the philosophy of mind.

    To be an eliminativist it does not seem enough to claim that a particular term fails to refer to anything ‘real’. I might hold that there is no such thing as ‘free will’ or indeed ‘the will’ but that, of itself, does not seem enough to make me an eliminativist. It seems one has to reject a whole network of terms on the grounds that no progress in understanding can be made whilst we retain the terms that define an area of discourse.

    In the case of say, theology or prescriptive ‘moral talk’ one might hold that there simply are no truths to had whilst we talk in that way because there simply is nothing real for these areas of discourse to be about. And thus one might want to immediately jettison whole areas of discourse and feel they need not be replaced by anything bar an error theory.

    This seems slightly different from the case at hand – there seems to be ‘something’ real that we are trying to talk about. However useless current ways of talking may allegedly be for progress in neuroscience and philosophy, we cannot completely do without ‘folk psychology’ talk for day to day purposes until a better way of talking is found. And indeed perhaps folk psychology talk will remain the way we talk in day to day terms.

    But I don’t think any of this of this weakens the basic contention that there can be no philosophical or scientific progress in understanding ourselves whilst we retain the terms that seem to define ‘folk psychology’ and indeed the philosophy of mind. These terms include the propositional attitudes, of course, but some also want to see the back of ‘qualia’, ‘self’ and indeed ‘mind’ itself – the whole caboodle that leads to the mind-body problem that some want dissolved rather than solved.

    Some assert that neuroscience will turn out to have no use for most of the terms we currently use, and that therefore philosophy won’t either. The ‘therefore’ can be questioned. And some might reasonably respond that the science isn’t in yet and suggest those terms may be retained but better understood. But some seem to think most of our ‘folk psychology’ terms are so burdened with confusion they will be better eliminated than redefined. And there is, it seems, a deeper and older concern: that there simply is no place for ‘aboutness’ in a world of purely physical things. Some suppose that physicalism simply does not allow that any claims made in traditional folk psychology terms could possibly be true due to the intentionality that ‘infects’ it. And it seems to follow that if there is no original intentionality in brains there can be no ‘aboutness’ in writings or utterances either. Some see this as a reductio of physicalism. More commonly it is at least recognised as a deep challenge that needs to be met: how can intentionality arise in a purely physical world?

    I’m simply no longer able to do the reading and philosophising that mght once have allowed me say more that it useful. But I think there is more to all this than the fuzziness of concepts and I don’t think the usefulness of certain ways of talking in day to day life settles anything very much.

  26. Massimo Pigliucci’s review should be, er, provocative…

    He says the new book by Alex Rosenberg “feels a lot like Dawkins on steroids” and that he is “sick of the smug attitudes that Rosenberg, Coyne, Harris and others derive from their acceptance of determinism — obviously without having looked much into the issue.”

  27. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Thanks, Jim.

  28. You’re welcome Amos, may your days be cakeful.

  29. …@ Richard Wein…


    “Though he may not actually have said it, truthfully uttering the proposition “Wellington is retreating” is the clearest way that he could have expressed his relevant mental state to other people (or to himself). So, if I want to refer to this mental state, the clearest way I can do it is to attribute that proposition to him, as a belief. I think that’s what makes propositional attitudes so useful.”…


    …saying that “…is the clearest way that he could have expressed his relevant mental state”…and…”I think that’s what makes propositional attitudes so useful”…is in a very strong contradiction with your intention to be “as sceptical and scientific as possible in my approach to philosophical question”…the usefulness of propositional attitudes does not come from its intrinsic correctness…but from our personal interpretations of phenomenons around us…
    …I hope we are in an agreement that “being scientific” does not mean an absence of quantum flavor in getting ” relevant mental state expressed”…

  30. It is certainly not the least charm of a theory that it is refutable; it is precisely thereby that it attracts subtler minds. It seems the hundred-times-refuted theory of a “free will” owes its persistence to this charm alone; again and again someone comes along who feels he is strong enough to refute it. – Friedrich Nietzsche

  31. Hi Lyndon,

    It seems to me that your latest comment is mainly about thoughts, not beliefs. In my view, thoughts are less problematic than beliefs.

    The utterances of thought are much like those of speech, except they’re not spoken out loud–the vocal apparatus is not fully activated. But I often find my lips and tongue moving a bit when I’m thinking, and sometimes I may actually make sounds. I suspect that silent thinking evolved from speech by means of inhibiting the vocal apparatus, but this inhibition is incomplete.

    As I see it, whether I’m speaking out loud or thinking silently, my brain is not producing an internal representation of any sound waves. Nor is it employing any hidden “language of thought”. So in that sense it isn’t internally “coding” its sentences. I would agree with you to that extent. But I would say that my brain is composing sentences, whether I speak them out loud or not.

    Dennett talks about the illusion of a “cartesian theatre”, where all our mental images and sounds are apparently projected. That would include the apparent sounds of my internal monologue. And I would agree that the cartesian theatre is in some sense an illusion. So as far as I’m concerned, if there’s something illusory here it’s the feeling that we are hearing (or seeing) things in our minds. The feeling that we are composing sentences is not illusory.

    Surely no one denies that our spoken sentences are about anything. And, if that’s the case, it seems to me pointless to deny that our unvocalised sentences are about anything. I think the “problem” of intentionality is more often raised in connection with beliefs than with verbal thoughts, because the relationship of beliefs to sentences is much less clear than the relationship of verbal thoughts to sentences.

    And I do not know how that attaches to intentionality in the way you or others are using it.

    I’m not sure I understand what’s meant by “intentionality”. I’m only using the word because Rosenberg does. But if we stick to the familiar word “about”, I would say that it can ultimately be explained in terms of causal relations. Think of a simple system (organism or robot) which acculumates information about an object in its environment and then uses that information to manipulate that object to its advantage (or to meet its programmed objective). The system’s interaction with the object causes it to accumulate the information. And the information causes the system to successfully interact with the object. This is the sort of causal relationship that leads us to say that the system has information “about” the object.

    The chain of causation can become far more complex when we’re dealing with systems capable of using language. But I think the basic principle remains the same.

  32. Okay, I’m not a professional philosopher, just read a lot and studied a little, but it strikes me that those like Rosenberg (based on this article) who use determinism to negate free will are taking dualist positions. They seem to argue that because the actions of the brain are determined then I do not have free will. Surely if various of my brain processes make some choice between alternatives in a given situation then the end result is that I (my brain and my body) have made a decision, and if I can make a decision then I am acting of my own free will. The only non-choice is free will itself, we cannot abdicate from it since there is no alternative. Likewise, our morality is something we can and should choose.

  33. Richard,

    Only the first paragraph of my above post was about “thought,” and the rest was supposed to include any brain event, including the use of “propostitions” and our “beliefs,” in whatever form they take. I also hinted at the end that I think some of the “propositional” forms that help the brain manipulate information usefully is known to conscious “thought,” but that is a more confusing question.

    For me, propositions are just a useful sorting of informational structures, an ability to form structural regularities and see necessities in the world, and you describe that at the end of your post similar to how I was thinking of the situation.

    Yesterday, from my post I began thinking of the analogy of the brain as “sifter” (I think Hofstadter makes some similar analogies). An ordinary sifter, with a certain mesh, is used to take a pile of rocks and sort out information from that pile. Pragmatically, we use that sifter for a certain activity that it is good at, but that sifter is never about a certain use and never about a certain pile of rocks, even though we may say something like, “that sifter is doing a magnificent job at sorting this pile, it is perfect for this pile.” Now, it may be true that that sifter was built and designed for that job, but that does not mean that there is a direct “aboutness” between the sifter and the pile or the information within that pile.

    Our brains “sift” the world similarly, and they come to be magnificent users of certain propositions that help us respond very usefully (that is for survival) in certain situations or for using certain objects. The configuration or design of our brain to use certain propositions to sort information useful to a specific situation is brought about through genes and environment (trial and error, e.g.), but just because our brains have “information sifters,” including the use of propositional and belief structures, it never makes our brains “about” the activity that we are doing, just as the sifter is never directly about a pile of rocks (even if it perfectly fits that purpose).

    Having come to a door, which you “desire” to open, that requires you to read the instructions and solve a simple “proposition” to open it, you proceed with the activity and “solve” the simple proposition. Nowhere in that process did you have a direct “aboutness” between the state of your brain, the configuration of its information sifting properties, and what the world was (the propositional problem on the door); instead being pushed by certain internal drives you sorted the information of the world (this door) through the past structuring that made your brain, your self, one cool sifter. Even if your brain was the only one in the world that could open this door, it does not mean that your brain is about this door, it only means that your “meshing” lines up well with that pile, but that meshing could be used for many other puposes or interactions.

    It gets a little confusing for me when someone is staring at an object and says I believe that this object will do this. But I think that got swallowed up in the example of the proximal location between the sifter and rocks above; just because an object is physically manipulating another at that time does not mean that it has a direct aboutness of that object, it is only the interaction between one object that is doing something to another in a way “useful” for the more “complex” thing.

  34. I read this description of a joyless, humorless, passionless “Guide to Reality” – discussing the merits of being a “nice nihilist” – and am left completely cold.

    I can understand that atheists come to their lack of belief from many directions, but what would be the point of pursuing this absolutist reductive one? Is it really wise to go headlong and blinkered into this pursuit of order and to relegate anything resembling a story or narrative to a second order experience? We can construct narratives around relationships and experiences not to explain the universe, but to give some gravity to our perception of it. I don’t see the point in scientism dismissing the value of this so completely. It strikes me as being every bit as rigid and pretentious in its nihilism as ever a religion could be in its magical thinking.

    Honestly, am I missing the point for the tone, or is this just dogma for invisible-friend-averse misanthropes? If it’s not, and it is actually an ironically titled thought experiment, then the joke is on me. Either way, I look forward to seeing “The Atheists Guide to Reality” harpooned on South Park. Then there will be some humor from it, finally.

  35. Lyndon,

    I don’t know what you mean by “aboutness”. Suppose we have a simple robotic vacuum cleaner that records the locations of objects it bumps into, so it can avoid bumping into them again. I would say that this system is recording information about those objects. Don’t you think that’s a reasonable thing to say? But, if so, then how is this not a case of “aboutness”? What do you mean by “aboutness”, if you’re not using it in a way that corresponds to our usual usage of the word “about”?

    If you want an example of a sentence, then suppose I say, “The Earth is round”. Surely that is a sentence about the Earth. And if I speak or think that sentence, I am saying or thinking something about the Earth.

    I see no point either in denying such familiar usages or in invoking some new sense of the word “about”.

  36. SEP: “Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. The puzzles of intentionality lie at the interface between the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. The word itself, which is of medieval Scholastic origin, was rehabilitated by the philosopher Franz Brentano towards the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s word. It derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing.”

    The SEP has an extended entry on ‘intentionality’ and the many philosophical issues associated with it, but the section on “Can intentionality be naturalized?” may be particularly helpful.

  37. Max L,

    There is humour in Rosenberg’s Guide, even if it is not the ‘Dawkins buggering a bald transvestite’ type of humour that you may enjoy in South Park.

    As the title of his précis – “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” – may suggest his argument is “that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality” (one he thinks “most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions.”) He does not pretend that reality isn’t rough – he spells out the conclusions he thinks the science and philosophy lead to. The point of pursuing his ‘absolutist reductive’ approach is that he thinks it leads to the truth.

    There may be flaws in his reasoning or scientific understanding that wiser souls than you or I can identify. But his method seems preferable to ‘working backwards’ from what we wish to be the case and seeking to justify it – that being, after all, what atheists are so quick to condemn in those who seek to defend the “magical thinking” of religion. The atheist, like the theist, wants to ’construct narratives’ to give some ‘gravity’ to his perception of the universe. Rosenberg not only recognises this but seeks to explain it and that he recognises this seems no reason for him not to call it as he sees it. People may indeed need their stories – but some would contend that stories are not what is needed in science or philosophy.

    I find no cause to call him a misanthrope. He has concerns for human well-being as we all do – it’s just that he does not assert that his concerns are objectively justified by some queer fact or implausible theory. And he does try to draw out what consolations he thinks there are to be had in ‘nice nihilism’ – that humans, in the absence of fear and false beliefs, generally are inclined to be socially co-operative and altruistic as a result of natural selection (and, to some extent, cultural influences).

    If he discourages Dawkinites from referring to themselves as “Brights” and helps show new atheists that they have plenty of delusions of their own he will have done humanity a great service.

  38. Hi Richard,

    You have put me into deep water with that simple question. Sorry for the long post.

    Vacuum cleaners, record the information “do not move further than this direction, you hit something beyond this point,” or however crudely they “think” it. In that, they create a simple algorithm to stop them from having bad consequences, repeatedly bumping into the vase. But, no, they never have an idea “about” the object; they just have a functional structure that says “do not cross that line”. They may have something like “object there,” but athat thought is no more about the vase as the similarly structured thought on the other side of the room is about the table. Humans reading the thoughts of our vacuum cleaner may make some claim of intentionality within the cleaner, such as the vacuum cleaner does not want to bump into the vase; which is of course nothing of what the “thoughts” of the vacuum cleaner are.

    If the processes of the vacuum cleaner are about objects, then that is no more interesting than the innocuous claim that a molecule O2 is about the H that they have just combined with; or that earth’s gravitational pull is about the asteroid that it has pulled in. Which of course there is no “aboutness” there but is instead just properties and processes being played out.

    Taking the frog example, the frog is not having mental states/representational states “about” flies, but instead about “small, moving black specks” or “flies” or flies. Even if a talking frog said about a “fly” she missed, “that fly was quick,” if you did not see the fly/speck, it would be impossible for you to say of the frog’s statement, “that fly was quick,” what exactly it was about (for instance an actual fly); except you could deduce that, if you trust this frog, it was about either a fly or a quick moving speck.

    Essentially, all of our propositional statements are going to bottom out in the same ambiguity in their “aboutness.” Because our representational states and our language can never directly represent or re-produce the intended object.

    “The earth is round” gets into more indirect and intra-brain representational ideas, creating more internal behavioral and thought structures, but it never connects or is “about” the object in a direct fashion. Your brain’s belief and statements, and societal and written statements, about “the earth” are no different, structurally speaking, than the frog’s beliefs are about “fly/specks,” with that “aboutness” being fuzzy and pragmatic; but with that fuzziness being obscured in our linguistic uses and in our own belief structures. It takes a little effort to tease apart what the trustworthy but naive frog says when he talks about his beliefs, “We are talking about flies, I am talking about flies, what else would I be talking about; Man! Did you just see that big fly?”

    I think, as a realist so to speak, that science and intrapersonal discussion helps us overcome the disparity in our perceptions and the objects they are “about,” but there is always a gap, because our theories and ideas are always only representational and never directly reproduce those objects. Instead they get refined into “brain structures” that functionally respond in ways that increasingly add to our survival and powers to manipulate the world. I think that is the idea.

    I quit (just kidding) . . . Rosenberg talks about this on pages 170-200, or thereabouts . . . I am going to go re-read that section, I have been meaning to do that anyway. Not that that is definitive, there is plenty of other literature out there as well, including a great number of philosophers who disagree with Rosenberg.

    Enjoyed the discussion,

  39. s. wallerstein (amos)


    My dislike of Rosenberg has nothing to do with the content of his message: when you explain it as in your 1:47 pm comment, I swallow it easily.

    His “Dawkins on steroids” tone puts me off.

    I understand that some people are turned on by Rosenberg and the New Atheists, but I’m allergic to all of them, Sam Harris being the one I find hardest to take.

    However, it’s not so much what they say, as who they are.

    I think that I must have had problems with all of them in a previous life-time.

    Here’s another interview with Rosenberg.

  40. Jim Houston,

    That is a very measured reply, and well taken. Much of what you are saying I didn’t grok from this interview piece, but it certainly makes sense.

    I agree that story and narrative, and the human compulsion for inventing names and seeing patterns, lead to magical, mystical thinking After considering your reply, perhaps it is better said that a consciousness without a story comes unstitched. A narrative works as glue to hold together our memories and construct our conscious self. I am not comfortable dismissing all narratives as some distant second order of understanding. I do dismiss relying on a story to explain the math and map of the world, but I don’t hesitate to use one as glue to create a right sized space for myself within it. It seems dogmatic to me to devalue all narrative because some narrative has been used to explain badly what science can explain well.

    Thanks again for your reply, Mr Rosenberg sounds much more palatable when coming from you.

  41. Hi Amos & Max
    I’m only recently familiar with Alex Rosenberg but during my correspondence with him I found him both amiable and good-humoured. And personally, I very much appreciate him taking the time to write for the site at my request. I do rather feel as if he were here as my guest if you see what I mean. And there is, I think, only so much that can be revealed about a man and his work in the responses he gives to a list of emailed questions. Unlike a number of reviewers I won’t pretend to have read the whole book but, as I say, I have found some humour in what I have read and, more importantly, some interesting and challenging philosophical ideas. I don’t think Rosenberg’s arguments can be judged on the basis of what’s on offer here – at best the interview is a ‘good teaser’ of his book. And it seems to me that even if one disliked the man or his tone or the movement some might associate him with that his arguments merit our attention. Even if one is drawn to think that Rosenberg’s ‘scientism’ goes awry and that there is something deeply wrong about where it leads in the extreme, it does seem to me that what he is arguing for captures something about the spirit of the times that can’t be ignored.

    There’s a further part to the Williamson/Rosenberg exchange I should have linked to here:

    Amos, I hope you caught Rosenberg’s response on Massimo’s post it’s here:

    Max, your specific comments merit a response that I’ll try to give directly. I appeciate the spirit in which your comment was made.

  42. Max,
    There seems truth to me in the claim “that a consciousness without a story comes unstitched. A narrative works as glue to hold together our memories and construct our conscious self.” I don’t know that Rosenberg denies that or that he thinks any philosophical theory would cause us to become ‘unstitched’. As for being uncomfortable with “dismissing all narratives as some distant second order of understanding” I think discomfort is exactly what one is expected to feel. That we are radically wrong about ourselves and can gain no real knowledge from introspection or speculating about our motives is not an idea one is, I think, expected to like. Whether Rosenberg’s arguments stand or fall doesn’t depend on whether we like the idea or whether our lives go better by believing them. It’s not a ‘self-help’ way of looking at the world he is trying to offer up. I don’t think Rosenberg is devaluing ‘all narrative because some narrative [religion] has been used to explain badly what science can explain well’. I think he is looking at how our brains work and concluding that our narratives are simply fictions.

    I should like to hear what can be said in epistemic defence of introspection and the humanities and to hear contrasting views about what philosophy is when it’s ‘done right’.

  43. s. wallerstein (amos)



    I read Rosenberg’s reply to Massimo.

    Some people, including the New Atheists, seem to awaken my inner demons.

    My inner demons are not a good argument against anything.

    I will note that the New Atheists seem to awaken the inner demons of many otherwise reasonable people.

    And it’s not because they’re the first people to denounce religion and to argue for a thorough-going naturalism.

    In the article I linked to the author compares Rosenberg’s hardline naturalism with that of Nietzsche, and I wonder why Nietzsche charms me, and Rosenberg does not.

    In any case, Rosenberg has no obligation to charm me and I know that I have many strong prejudices.

    For example, I watched a video in which Dawkins interviews Peter Singer and I realize that my judgements about them (favorable for Singer, negative for Dawkins) were based on such factors as their tone of voice and when/how they made eye contact.

  44. From the discussion section on ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.

    Brian Leiter: I’m with Alex Rosenberg and Friedrich Nietzsche that, “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it” (The Gay Science, sec. 301). What I do not see is any objection to embracing the values so projected. To be sure, they involve an error insofar as they purport to be referential. But only a different value—namely, that falsity is an objection to embracing the value of something—could pose an objection here. I’d encourage Alex to take his Nietzscheanism one step further: from the correct observation that most of what we believe is false, to the conclusion that since such beliefs are essential for life, we should not give them up.

    Alex Rosenberg: I grew up philosophically having no time for Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that led me to think I had been overhasty for 40 years or so. Now I am prepared to embrace the passage Brian offers us: “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it” (The Gay Science, sec. 301).” I’ll buy into this view so long as it’s understood that what we have given and bestowed is, like that great prize they give in international cricket, The Ashes, something that doesn’t exist.

  45. …to:s. wallerstein (amos)…

    …couldn’t agree more…
    …allow me…
    …not only “the title…”

  46. While I agree with Alex Rosenberg on most things, I do not agree with him on this, which is fallacious, contrary to most of what he writes, and contrary to observation:

    Treating the illusions that rise to consciousness as symptoms, instead of guides to meaning and value, is crucial to enjoying life.

    Really, Alex should know better to make such a ridiculous claim in a world full of people who enjoy life despite ignorance and foolishness of all sorts. If he needs a rationalization of scientism then he should find a better one — one that has something to do with being right, not happy.

    On Massimo Pigliucci: he’s a pompous hypocrite jerk; when it comes to smugness, none surpass him. And his specific charges against Rosenberg are simply wrong, as the latter points out in his reply.

    On Richard Wein’s

    surely we could in principle create an AI that carried some information in the form of sentences.

    Not surely; in fact not so. Consider a chessplaying computer that carried sentences like “isolated pawns are weak”. How would it use them to play chess? It couldn’t … it would have to translate them into data structures and calculations. Human chessplayers do the same — they recognize patterns on the board and evaluate them. The sentence is an expression in natural language of a principle that often applies to chess positions, but having such a sentence represented in the brain does not itself effectuate chess play … the sentence must be broken down internally into elements of a semantic net that represents pawns (which are abstractions with many different physical representations), chess rules, chess boards, files, presence of pawns on a file, pawn chains and blocked pawns (pawns can be effectively isolated), etc. Sentences by themselves are just sequences of tokens that can be acted upon by cognitive processes but are not themselves procedural.

  47. Hi mk,

    The sentence is an expression in natural language of a principle that often applies to chess positions, but having such a sentence represented in the brain does not itself effectuate chess play … the sentence must be broken down internally into elements of a semantic net that represents pawns (which are abstractions with many different physical representations), chess rules, chess boards, files, presence of pawns on a file, pawn chains and blocked pawns (pawns can be effectively isolated), etc.

    Sure, but a sufficiently advanced AI could do those things. I’m not suggesting that the AI would be nothing but a set of sentences!

    Imagine a human chess novice who learns that isolated pawns are weak and jots down the sentence “isolated pawns are weak” as a memory aid. Let’s say he subsequently forgets what he’s learnt. He can relearn this principle by reading the sentence from his notepad. He has stored some information in the form of a sentence.

    Now consider an AI which is advanced enough to understand English. It can do the same thing as the human, but can store the sentence in a memory location instead of on a notepad. Suppose we wiped all the AI’s knowledge of chess, except for that sentence. When it comes to learn chess again, it could take a shortcut by recalling that sentence from memory, interpreting it, and acting on it. That’s the sort of thing I meant by an AI carrying some information in the form of sentences.

    There’s no fundamental difference between a sentence stored on a notepad and a sentence stored in the memory of an AI, if the AI happens to work that way. In a sense, brains store information in the form of sentences too. They just don’t do it inside themselves. They use notepads and books as extensions of their memory.

  48. Richard, I do not think that anybody denies that information is coded in sentences, hopefully no one does, and computers can read and be “appropriately” structured by sentences in the same way that the brain is, see Watson from Jeopardy for instance. The question is, instead, how and in what form that it is coded within those sentences.

    This may be wrong, but the issue here parallels the Searle Chinese Room thought experiment. Searle used that to show that information passing is not really “understanding” or “thinking,” but the counter-argument is that the processes that were happening in the Chinese Room is the only way that “understanding” and knowledge and information essentially works. The kind of “understanding” or “intentionality” that Searle was defending was a mis-reading of what it consciously felt like to have a thought or to understand something, at least that is mine and other materialists arguments.

    I am fine with the fact that brains use sentences, and I may be willing to go even beyond your last point, it seems to me that the sentence “the movie starts at 7” is as robust in a sentence-like form in my brain/head in the form of “verbal” thoughts as it is written on paper.

    What is at issue is the presentation of knowledge of that sentence to one’s self and how it is we decipher and understand that sentence. The gymnastics that the brain does to organize, to understand, and use a sentence, including using its propositional and relational structures, is different than how the sentence is presented to the conscious self and how it is we seem to grasp the information. Though I do think that some of the propositional structures may be aligned.

    Something funny happens when we stare at a sentence, “The movie starts at 7,” and say, “yea, I understand that.” There is an endless glossing from the brain’s structuring, to simple verbal reports, to the other information that makes the sentence understandable, to the contrast between what the conscious self “knows” and what the brain “knows”, . . . to the claim that I and the computer “understand” that sentence in itself.

    The materialist worry is what do we mean by saying something like “brains store information in the form of sentences;” do we have a good grasp of what “sentences” and “storing” are, or is it more like the claims of Searle about human “understanding.” (assuming Searle is wrong and problematic in his claims)

  49. I cant help believing in free will,. Determinism forces it upon me.

  50. Exactly so Leo. Glad to see you around, hope you’re well.


  51. alex rosenberg

    I am reading, enjoying, and reacting to all this discussion, even though I am not posting. I have had my 15 minutes of Worhalian celebrity and its time for every one else to chip in.


  52. Go get a coin. (Do it.) …ready? Look at it. Attempt to see both sides at the same time. Oops, you can’t. Why is that? Your eyes are not capable of this this feat, that’s why.

    Now, go outside. (Do it.) …ready? Look at reality. Attempt to see God. Oops, you can’t. Why is that? Your senses are dependent upon the physical world, that’s why.

    Now,I will ask you a question: Could it be possible that just as you could not see both sides of the coin at the same time, so you cannot see a two-sided reality simultaneously?

    In other words, could it be possible, and actually a logical consequence because of the definitions of both, that the physical world hides the spiritual world from us limited beings?

    Much has been made of recent scientific discoveries moving the modern thinker away from any need to consider the existence of a supreme intellect and infinite power behind “reality”.

    Really? Which scientific discoveries are those?

    It seems to me that the deeper scientists go into the makeup of reality, the more limitations they face and the more mysteries they uncover.

    For example:

    Reconciling the differences between biological life and physical matter is becoming ever more difficult the deeper scientists look.

    Materialists would disagree, and make claims that because scientists are closing in on when and where life began on our planet, they are also closing in on the much more difficult problem of how life began. Hell, materialists already think this problem has been solved, and they have theories of “ancient proteins” and a Martian meteorite to prove it.


    Philosophy is not dead because Hawking said it is.

    God is not dead because modern thinkers say HE is.

    Reality is two-sided with much hidden from the likes of us–beings who look into the night sky and see objects from the past and at matter and are blind to its atomic stucture.

    And, science is not “our” science, but a reflection of a supreme intellect, therefore completely compatable with the concept of God.

    In other words, and more simply put:

    All science is God’s science.

  53. Faith and the Value of History « The Itinerant Mind - pingback on March 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm
  54. “In The Atheist’s Guide I argued that the core morality mother nature imposed on us together with the denial of free will is bound to make the consistent thinker sympathetic to a left-wing, egalitarian agenda about the treatment of criminals and of billionaires.”

    I guess I’ll have to borrow the book to find out what this really means. It sounds almost as if we are being promised an argument regarding what should be.

    But on the other hand since that can’t be, maybe all that Alex is suggesting is that once you know certain others can’t help themselves, they will somehow become less obnoxious. In the same way that once you know what a sack of rocks really is, carrying it around all day won’t be so burdensome; it will weight less, and will cease interfering with your own purposes … which are not real anyway.

    Might as well devote some of your life to their purposelessness.

  55. joemello, I am not a philosopher, but I want to comment on your last post. You speak of possibilities of hidden facts – there is no end to possible hidden facts – whatever we can claim to imagine we can claim is true if we claim we can know what is true without evidence. But there is literally no basis for claiming that we have knowledge of anything that is hidden, we must have evidence first. Without evidence there is no basis for claiming knowledge – no basis for separating fiction from non-fiction. So there is no point to such talk about hidden possibilities, absent any evidence it is idle talk.

  56. Mathew, I agree with you about evidence being needed in making claims of “truth”. But, being a philosopher, I most likely disagree with you on what constitutes “evidence”. As a philosopher, metaphysical imagination gives me a lot of “rational evidence” for something to be true. It has taught me, for example, that no combination of lesser things can be combined to create a greater thing, unless something even greater than this greater thing is combined to these lesser things. I then apply this “rational evidence” to the beginning of life on our planet. I hold the position that life, a greater thing, could not have began out of a combination of the elements, lesser things, unless something even greater than life was present at that moment. So I hold the position that the “evidence” points to the existence of something greater than life itself when we are faced with explaining how life began on a lifeless planet. Furthermore, I decided long ago to not take any single person’s or group of people’s word for what is “true”. So I went on a long search for “personal evidence” for a basis for claiming knowledge. This search brought me into contact with things that cannot be spoken about without seeming rather self-serving. Suffice it to say, a person with “experience” of something has the best “evidence” of this something. Whether or not such a person can share this evidence is separate from the evidence itself, for the acceptance of evidence as evidence is often dependent upon the recipient more than the giver of the evidence. For example, if I claim that God exists and I know it because I spent a mystical three years in very close communication with God and had a half-dozen or so “miraculous” encounters with God, some people will smile brightly and give praise to God, while others will tilt their heads sideways like a dog and give a yelp. Anyway, stay open, my friend. And, one day, you may become the most interesting man in the world.

  57. La física y Alex Rosenberg « El demonio de Laplace - pingback on September 15, 2012 at 3:25 pm
  58. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Rosenberg has to define his use of the word “reality” to make any sense at all: Is it that we are often taken in by lies for a slew of different reasons or that we are delusional unless we take in string theory in everyday life decisions? To say human beings are not rational makes no sense: to what is that opposed? Who or what is rational in comparison? Does he mean that while we have the capacity to be rational we often aren’t, again for a slew of reasons. He grossly misreads and misuses the work of Willard Van Orman Quine whose theory of “indeterminacy of translation” had to do with difficulties of interpretation of foregin words or phrases out of context and the same is true of one’s native language. So what? Unless bad faith is involved we generally understand one another.
    The idea of “Paris” may have different associations for different people but we all know we are talking about the capital of France, its place on the map and at least one or two facts “about” it. Rosenberg’s arguments are so illogical they amount to a case for deism or theism. He can be assailed at almost every page of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

  59. Atheism: reality or illusion …. or both? - pingback on December 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm
  60. The atheist’s guide to reality – - pingback on January 13, 2015 at 3:22 am