Tag Archives: Alex Rosenberg

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

[Originally published February  2012]

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.

[August 2017: Further resources – I’ve added yet more links in the first two comments below. But may as well give the highlights here. ‘The mad dog naturalist’- Alex Rosenberg interviewed by Richard Marshall  for 3am magazine [longer read with the latter showing how interviews can be better done].  Alex in conversation with Ard Louis and David Malone for the ‘Why Are We Here?’ documentary series (43 minute video plus transcript and other resources at the same site). And, for the more ambitious, a difficult academic paper by Alex aiming to show why eliminative materialism, isn’t as many suggest, self defeating – “Eliminativism without Tears” . Daresay that may do well for now. Oh, and Alex, who is also a novelist, now has his own website here. You’ll even find this very interview over there looking rather flashier and much more nicely presented (must not think its not that bad then) obviously this particular piece of information might have been a tad more useful some 2,750 words ago but , if its any small consolation, some of the better links I originally provided need fixed over there].

 

Is nice nihilism enough?

In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg suggests that norms like the following constitute a universal human morality:

Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby, especially your own.

Protect your children

If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can.

Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way.

On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off.

Beyond a certain point, self-interest becomes selfishness.

If you earn something, you have a right to it.

It’s permissible to restrict complete strangers’ access to your personal possessions.

It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong.

It’s wrong to punish the innocent.

Rosenberg does not, however, think that any of these are morally binding or (insofar as they are truth-apt) actually true. Nor, apparently, does he think they reduce to something deeper (such as utilitarianism). Rather, they are more-or-less separate behavioural norms that have become universal among human beings because conforming to them has tended to maximise reproductive fitness.

Although he is a metaethical nihilist, Rosenberg reassures us that we needn’t worry – most people are inclined to conform to these norms whether or not they regard them as true or objectively binding. Those individuals who fail to conform do so out of psychological peculiarity, or perhaps from having false beliefs about factual matters, rather than because of any recondite metaethical views such as moral error theory (or, presumably, relativism, non-cognitivism, or something else that might loosely be considered anti-realist).

You might ask whether Rosenberg is correct about this last point. My own suspicion, though it would take a lot of arguing to be confident, is that he’s probably right: metaethical nihilists are (I suspect) no more likely than the average person to steal the family silver.

But there’s a problem, at least a possible one, and I’ll get to it.

First, though, the norms that I’ve listed might have contributed to reproductive fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. It’s possible that they did so, in part, by contributing to the viability of small bands of hunter-gatherers, and this might have been linked closely to the flourishing of individual members of the group. The individual’s success was the group’s success, and vice versa – and both contributed to the replicative “success” of the relevant strands of DNA. Mybe.

It doesn’t seem too much of stretch that the health, longevity, and happiness of the individual, the individual’s (inclusive) reproductive fitness, and the viability of the hunter-gatherer band as a collective might all have tended to reinforce each other. Some behaviours could contribute to all this simultaneously. We could have certain behavioral norms genetically hardwired into us, as a result. In principle, they might continue to contribute to individual flourishing (in some basic sense such as health, longevity, and happiness), reproductive fitness, and the viability of modern societies. How far they do so will depend, in part, on how far modern environments resemble evolutionary ones in relevant respects.

Perhaps a more plausible picture is that these norms are not actually hardwired (and we can always question what that even means, given that genes can be expressed in different ways in different environments). Nonetheless, under a wide variety of environmental circumstances, societies tend to converge on norms like these and to teach them to children, and perhaps children tend to be primed to learn them. That could be because norms much like these fit in well with whatever more minimalist universal human psychology exists (perhaps this includes certain kinds of responsiveness and sympathy that actually are pretty much hardwired). This might be more the sort of picture that Rosenberg is thinking of – I’m not sure of that.

Either way, let’s take it that psychologically usual people are likely to internalise these sorts of listed norms, and are unlikely to be shaken from them by any kind of meta-ethical anti-realism about moral norms and judgments. Fine so far. There still seems to be a question as to whether, under current circumstances, a hodgepodge of norms like this is really adequate for whatever it is we might want from a system of moral norms. It might help us to get by, and even flourish, when interacting within small groups of people, but is it enough to help us meet our larger goals in a highly complex social world?

Consider an issue like climate change. Assuming that we should, or actually do, care about the conditions under which future generations of human beings, and perhaps other creatures, will live on this strained planet. If so, we should seek to minimise the current process of anthropogenic global warming. Do the norms that Rosenberg lists, which he thinks (perhaps rightly) come easily to us, help us with that? A couple of the very vague norms that he lists might give some guidance, but presumably not a lot. The sorts of political decisions needed to address an issue such as climate change might not come “naturally” or easily to us at all.

Perhaps that’s not news. Perhaps any credible moral theory will predict that the sorts of political changes we need to accomplish various large goals will be counter-intuitive to most people. Still, the counter-intuitiveness can be accounted for on Rosenberg’s view of the world, which may be a point in favour of his view. Furthermore, metaethical nihilists may have no more difficulty than anyone else buying into whatever political initiatives are required to deal with an issue such as climate change. So none of this should count against Rosenberg’s metaethical nihilism.

All the same, I don’t think we can be confident that the morality that comes easily to us is good (i.e. effective) enough, these days, for what we probably want a moral system (viewed as social technology) to deliver. If that is right, Rosenberg appears too complacent. It may be that no moral system is true or objectively binding, but some moral norms might come to us easily and might still do the job that we (most of us) want on small scales. But they won’t necessarily scale up. That’s where I think we have a problem.

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Rosenberg on moral nihilism

One of the positions that Alex Rosenberg argues for in The Atheists’ Guide to Reality is what he calls “nihilism”, by which he means a form of moral error theory or moral scepticism. He actually reserves the term “moral scepticism” for a different position: that there are moral truths, but we are poorly situated to discover what they are. The use of “nihilism” for his position is reasonably standard in metaethics, though the word can also have other connotations, so I prefer other expressions. However, nothing turns on that.

I’m sympathetic toward moral error theory – in fact, I think it’s about the closest approximation to the truth that we’ll find in the standard metaethical theories on offer. It interprets familiar first-order moral claims (or at least a large and important class of them) as truth-apt, but it also interprets them in such a way as to render them all false.

Thus, a moral claim such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong” is commonly interpreted by moral error theorists as that torturing babies is absolutely prohibited, or that torturing babies is prohibited by a standard that transcends all desires and institutions, or that torturing babies is prohibited by a standard that is binding as a matter of reason, or inescapably binding on all rational creatures, or that is part of the world in a similar way to physical objects and their physical properties, or some such thing.

The idea is that what ordinary people mean by a phrase such as “morally wrong”, or just “wrong” (implicitly in a moral sense) is, perhaps, somewhat inchoate, but is something along the above lines; that ordinary people will not be satisfied with anything less as an understanding of what is meant; and that, indeed, something along these lines just is the ordinary meaning of “morally wrong” – yet the phrase fails to refer to anything in the real world. I.e., no action actually is absolutely prohibited in the required sense, or prohibited by a standard that transcends all desires and institutions, or that is binding as a matter of reason … or whatever the best formulation of the idea might be.

According to moral error theory, something like this applies, mutatis mutandis, to “morally obligatory”, “morally permitted/permissible”, and perhaps a long list of other, similar, expressions used in first-order moral language.

It’s not my intention to defend such a metaethical view here. To debate it, we’d need to get into difficult questions of moral semantics, and we’d need to consider whether our interpretations of these moral expressions – whatever we might think the best interpretations actually are, after much inquiry – do or do not present them as the kinds of expressions that can or do refer to anything in the real world. That’s all very difficult…

Furthermore, even if the argument goes through in a whole range of important cases, it might leave difficulties. What do we say about, for example, “Torturing babies is cruel“? What do we say about, “Adolf Hitler was evil“? Or what about, “X is of bad character“? There is much conceptual work to do here, and it may be that many such claims will turn out, on their most plausible interpretations, to be true, even if a thin expression such as “morally wrong” is most accurately interpreted in such a way that it doesn’t refer to anything in the real world.

Rosenberg takes a rather different approach, although it is by no means entirely unfamiliar (cue Michael Ruse, for one, and Richard Joyce, for another, who have argued on what I take to be related lines). His argument seems to be something like this, and interestingly enough it does not rely on moral semantics:

P1. The core morality that human beings share almost universally is a biological adaptation.
P2. If the core morality that human beings share almost universally is a biological adaptation, then it would be a bizarre coincidence if its claims were true.
P3. It would be a bizarre coincidence if the claims of the core morality that human beings share almost universally were true. (From P1. and P2.)
C. Most likely, the claims of the core morality that human beings share almost universally are not true. (From P3.)

I take it that there is no huge problem here with the inference from P3. to C. The step from P1. and P2. to P3. is deductively valid (some minor, pedantic tidying up would be needed to make this totally clear, but it would not be difficult). However, I’m not at all sure that Rosenberg has done enough to persuade us to accept either P1. or P2., let alone both at once.

On page 104 of his book, he offers a list of universal norms that constitute the universal core morality that he’s talking about:

Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby, especially your own.

Protect your children

If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can.

Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way.

On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off.

Beyond a certain point, self-interest becomes selfishness.

If you earn something, you have a right to it.

It’s permissible to restrict complete strangers’ access to your personal possessions.

It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong.

It’s wrong to punish the innocent.

This is a slightly odd list to the extent that some of the norms , e.g. “Protect your children”, are expressed as commands, and so cannot be either true or false, while others look like truth-apt propositions, e.g. “It’s [morally] wrong to punish the innocent”. However, I think they could all be rewritten in a way that appears truth-apt. E.g.: “It is morally obligatory to protect your children.” In principle, then, they could all turn out to be false.

Rosenberg also concedes, I think correctly, that any such list will contain items that are somewhat vague. Perhaps we could talk about that, but I don’t see why vague beliefs along these lines could not, nonetheless, have been sufficiently helpful to our ancestors to add to their reproductive fitness. Nor do I see why they could not have evolved vague beliefs such as these through natural selection. As long as the beliefs were clear enough to provide some guidance of behaviour (and actually led to behaviours that assisted in, say, survival and reproduction, and the survival and reproduction of genetically similar organisms) that would be sufficient.

So, again, if P1. and P2. are true Rosenberg seems to have a good argument for what he calls nihilism. The question that we might explore – and I’m not going to take it a lot further at this stage – is whether he really has a good basis for believing both of these things at once. The more I think about the argument, the more elusive it becomes. It does seem as if a lot of work is required to support P1. You’d need, for a start, to establish (presumably using evidence from anthropology and cross-cultural psychological studies) that something like this moral core really does exist universally (or at least that any deviations from it could be accounted for in a way that is consistent with some kind of genetic propensity being expressed differently in different environments). You’d then need a good argument as to why just this set of beliefs would have contributed to the inclusive fitness of our ancestors. And there might be quite a lot more before the basis for P1. was truly convincing.

However, P2. seems more philosophically interesting. Is it really true that a set of moral beliefs such as we’re contemplating could not be both fitness-enhancing and true – without a bizarre coincidence? There’s something unusual about this claim. If a gazelle is hardwired with something like a belief that lions are dangerous to it, as well as with a desire to avoid dangerous things, surely that will be fitness enhancing. And it will be fitness enhancing precisely because lions really are dangerous to gazelles. Generally speaking, we tend to think that true beliefs about the world enhance an organism’s chances of survival, reproduction, etc. Likewise, sufficient cognitive abilities to draw true conclusions and to learn stuff about the world will tend to enhance fitness.

There can be exceptions – sometimes it might be better, from the viewpoint of reproductive fitness, for an organism to follow certain simple heuristics, or to lean in the direction of avoiding certain kinds of false negatives. But over all, it looks as if having the perceptual and cognitive capacities to discover and learn things tends to be biologically adaptive.

Are moral beliefs different? Why should having true moral beliefs contribute to my survival? Is it really like having true beliefs about, say, which animals are dangerous to me? I’m going to end here, except to say that we seem to be back to moral semantics. Might the answers not depend on just what a moral belief actually is? If a moral belief that, “It is morally obligatory to protect your children” translates as “Protecting your children is required by a transcendent standard”, perhaps this gets us nowhere in the evolutionary stakes. It’s not clear why conforming to some transcendent standard is going to enhance my reproductive fitness, so perhaps it would be bizarrely coincidental if the actions that do one correlate tightly with the actions that do the other.

But what if the idea of moral obligation translates in some other way, such as “Protecting your children is very effective for giving you certain experiences that are necessary for your own flourishing” or “Protecting your children is an effective way of contributing to the survival of your tribe”? Presumably a moral naturalist might give meanings to familiar moral expressions, such that there actually is a rather tight correlation between having correct moral beliefs and enhancing your reproductive fitness.

I don’t find moral naturalism very persuasive, but maybe there are other strategies for denying P2. In any event, I don’t think Rosenberg does enough getting his fingers dirty with moral semantics to give adequate support to his premises. Somewhere along the line, I think, we need to sort out what the various moral expressions actually mean in our ordinary language. Only then do we have much chance of knowing whether they refer to properties in the real world.

It’s just as well we have sex

As you might expect, anyone – i.e. me – who has a blog called (Metamagician – we’ll worry about that bit later – and) the Hellfire Club is likely to take something of a pro-sex line, to argue for the deproblematisation of the erotic, etc., etc.

I’ve gotta, say, though, that I hadn’t thought of this (wait a minute) argument in favour of sex. I’ve just started reading Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality . It looks very interesting, and I expect to have a bit to say about it over the next few days. I’ll probably find some things to disagree with, but I do like its opening paragraph, after a brief preface. Rosenberg starts by saying the following – it’s a great punchline:

Everyone seems to know what life’s persistent questions are. Almost all of us have been interested in answering them at one time or another, starting back sometime in our childhood when the lights were turned out and we found ourselves staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. As time goes on, thinking about sex increasingly pushes these thoughts out of adolescent minds. This is fortunate. Otherwise there would be an even greater oversupply of philosophy and divinity students than there is of English majors. But the questions keep coming back, all too often right after sex.

Discuss. Bear in mind that I have PhDs in both English and philosophy, so I’m not out to snark at majors in either discipline.

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