Tag Archives: atheism

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].


My forthcoming appearances in London

For any London-based readers who might be interested – or people who will be visiting London in November – I have a couple of appearances there later in the year. On 9 November, I’ll be at Birkbeck College speaking to the London Futurists on “Secularism, Liberalism, and the Human Future”. The talk is blurbed as follows:

Emerging and proposed technologies such as human cloning and genetic engineering have drawn a chorus of objections from politicians, pundits, and scholars. In this talk, Russell Blackford eschews the heated rhetoric that surrounds these technological developments and examines them in the context of secular and liberal thought.

Some perceive emerging technologies as challenging the values of liberal democracy. Dr Blackford argues that the challenge is not, as commonly supposed, the urgent need for strict regulatory action. Rather, the challenge is that fear of these technologies has created an atmosphere in which liberal tolerance itself is threatened. He argues that some controversial technologies would be genuinely beneficial, and that liberal democracies would demonstrate their liberal values by tolerating and accepting emerging technologies that offer prospects of human enhancement.

The next day, 10 November, I’ll be speaking at Conway Hall for the Conway Hall Ethical Society on “Science and the Rise of Atheism”. The blurb for the talk reads:

In his new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, Australian philosopher Russell Blackford examines myths, misconceptions, and misleading half-truths about atheism and atheists, giving each myth as fair a run as possible to see whether it might contain any grain of merit.

The book carries enthusiastic endorsements from Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Polly Toynbee, and other high-profile thinkers and authors. In his Conway Hall presentation, Dr Blackford will focus on the much-debated connection between the rise of modern science and the rise of modern atheist thought. Although it is often claimed that religion and science are compatible, this is, at best, seriously misleading. In fact, science has contributed significantly to the historical erosion of religious belief. The more we develop a worldview based on reason, and particularly on scientific investigation, the less plausible religion becomes. The history and the specific findings of science support the conclusion that atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

Obviously these are quite different topics, with the Conway Hall talk much more closely related to 50 Great Myths About Atheism, while the Futurist Society talk will foreshadow my forthcoming book from MIT Press, Humanity Enhanced. There’s nothing to stop you attending both, and I do hope to meet some of the Talking Philosophy readers.

50 Great Myths About Atheism on its way

Blackford rev 5Today is the 6th of August, so it is only a month until my new book, co-authored with Udo Schuklenk, can be purchased in the UK. It will be available elsewhere soon after, but Amazon UK is advertising a 6 September release date.

50 Great Myths About Atheism responds to many prejudices, libels, misconceptions, and half-truths relating to atheism and atheists. Udo Schuklenk and I give the “myths” as good a run as we can, identifying anything plausible, or any grain of truth, that we can find, while setting the record straight. In a long final chapter, we offer a history of atheist thought and explain why we think atheism is now the most reasonable answer to the God question.

The book carries impressive endorsements – more readable on the US Amazon site (the UK site presents endorsements in a confusing way):

“It has been my lot to have encountered all but three of the 50 Great Myths about Atheism listed by Blackford and Schüklenk, most of them many times. It is useful to have them all listed in one book – and so readably and authoritatively refuted. The long final chapter treats theological arguments with more respect than I would have bothered with, but the refutation is all the more convincing for that. The whole book builds inexorably to its conclusion: the Reasonableness of Atheism.”

—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion

“With humor, wisdom and sound philosophy, Blackford and Schüklenk dismantle 50 important myths about atheism. In doing so, they have done atheists and religious believers a great service, for putting aside the myths enables us to see where real differences remain.”

—Peter Singer, Princeton University

“Atheists are routinely called ‘aggressive,’ but their strong values include a tolerance rarely shown them by the religious. This book’s calm ripostes defend atheists everywhere against unreasoned assaults from the dwindling faithful. ”

—Polly Toynbee, The Guardian

“Busted! Fifty times over! So say Blackford and Schüklenk — the New Mythbusters—with reason, conviction and style. I enjoyed this book immensely.”

—Graham Oppy, Monash University

“A brilliantly wide-ranging exploration of misconceptions about atheism and their relationship to our ideas about minds, human nature, morality – for pretty much everything we care about.”

—Ophelia Benson, co-author of Does God Hate Women?

“This is a book that’s as enjoyable to read as it is informative. Sharp, clever, and witty, it systematically dismantles misconceptions about atheism. Even God could learn something from it!”

—Ronald A. Lindsay, President, Center for Inquiry

Please consider, as we say.

Edit (August 19): The Amazon and Amazon UK sites are now selling the Kindle edition.

[My Amazon author site.]

Why Metamagician and the Hellfire Club was never an “atheist blog”

Over on my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I’ve made a statement that’s been forming in my mind for a long time now. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the timing, though part of it is simply that Metamagician and the Hellfire Club is winding down to an extent, as I find myself doing most of my “serious” blogging here at Talking Philosophy. I was reaching the end of another month, and another months’ statistics, and this seemed like a good time to say something about the history and character of the blog. Another reason is that I was asked yesterday to take part in a survey on closely related issues.

Do have a look if you’re interested. I explain why I never considered Metamagician and the Hellfire Club to be an “atheist blog”, and never decorated it with any appropriate images for that purpose.

As I explain, that is not, at least in my mind, inconsistent with a degree of atheist activism that I’ve been invoved in (with more to come…). But the blog always had more dimensions to it than that, and actual atheists tend to have more to them than atheism. At least, I hope so!

Atheists, Morality and Distant Others

In this post, I noted some rather curious data thrown up by Morality Play, an interactive activity I developed for Philosophy Experiments. It shows that 32% of atheists respond that they are not morally obliged to help somebody in severe need in India, even though to do so wouldn’t cost them much, compared to only 22% of Christians who respond the same way (a difference that is easily statistically significant). In other words, the data shows that people who self-identify as Christians are considerably more likely to think there is a moral obligation to help somebody in severe need (in India) than people who self-identify as atheists.

I got to thinking about this again partly because of the surprising and disappointing failure of the petition in support of Indonesian (ex-?)atheist, Alexander Aan, which only attracted 8,000 signatures, well short of the 25,000 required to secure a government response. (To put this number into some sort of context, consider that Richard Dawkins alone has more than 430,000 followers on Twitter.) A possible (partial) explanation for this failure, supported by the data noted above, is that many (online) atheists don’t believe they have a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others, or don’t feel the pull of such an obligation even if they believe they have it (or think they believe they have it).

There is some further evidence to support this explanation in the early results from another interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments – Peter Singer and the Drowning Child. This features the following question (amongst others):

Are you morally obliged to make a relatively small donation, perhaps to the value of a new shirt or a night out at a restaurant, to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently)?

To date, a few more than 3500 people have completed the activity. The data shows that only 31% of people who self-identify as atheists respond that they are morally obliged to make such a donation, compared to 36% of people who self-identify as Christian, a difference that is statistically significant at p <.05. Moreover, if we also look at people who also self-identify as Muslim and Jewish (i.e., as adherents of Judaism), then the gap between how atheists and people who self-identify as religious respond widens (31% to  38%).

A few points here.

First, yes, I know, the sample is self-selecting (albeit in a more complex way than with your usual internet poll, because the data collection aspect of these activities is not what motivates people to complete them and is largely hidden), and, therefore, one cannot reliably generalize to any particular population.

Second, it’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people who self-identify as atheist are on average younger than those people who self-identify as religious.

Third, notwithstanding these two points , this general result has now been found across two independent activities, with the question being asked in two different contexts and in two different ways. Amongst those who have completed these activities, people who self-identify as atheists seem less likely to believe they have a moral obligation to distant others than people who self-identify as religious.

Three questions are pertinent here:

a) Does this represent a real difference between atheists and religious people?

b) If so, what is its explanation (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if (online) atheists were disproportionately attracted to ethical egoism, moral individualism, and that like)?

c) Does it matter?

Moral Methods

Thanks to the budget cuts in education, I won’t be teaching this summer. On the plus side, this has encouraged me to write yet another short philosophy book, Moral Methods. As per tradition, I am making it available as a free PDF on this site. It is also available in the Kindle format in the US and the UK for the usual 99 cents (or the UK equivalent in fish and chips).

This concise reference work is intended to provide the reader with the basics of moral argumentation and specific tools that should prove useful in this process. There is no assumption that any specific moral view is correct (or incorrect) and no specific moral agenda is pushed in this work.  Rather, the intention behind this work is to assist people in making better moral arguments.  If a reader disagrees with a specific example, then an interesting exercise would be to consider a counter-argument against the conclusion presented in the example.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a basic discussion of arguing about ethics in the context of moral issues. The second, which is the majority of the book, presents a variety of methods that should prove useful in moral argumentation.  The third part consists of short moral essays that provide additional examples of moral reasoning.

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Straw, Lies & Errors

Straw Man

Straw man is a rather commonly committed fallacy. Interestingly, it is almost as common for people to accuse others of making straw men as it is for people to actually commit said fallacy. Since I am in a phase of holiday laziness, I decided to write a bit about straw men, lies and errors rather than take on a major topic.

Defining the straw man fallacy is easy enough:

The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Obviously enough, it is reasonable to point out when someone is making a straw man and to note that any attack on the straw man will fail to do any damage to the original version. Of course, it is important to be sure that such an accusation actually fits.

Whether a characterization is a straw man or not depends, obviously enough on what is being characterized. Roughly put,  “strawness’ is a relative thing and what might be a straw man characterization of one person’s position could very well be an accurate description of another person’s view. As such, a person can be wrongly accused of presenting a straw man because the accuser is mistaken about which position the accused is actually describing. I have even noticed that people sometimes assume that the writer must be writing about them when, in fact, the writer is not.

So, before crying straw it is a good idea to see what the person is actually characterizing. While it might seem to be distorted or exaggerated it might really be spot on.

While most straw men are distorted versions of specific views, there is also variation of the straw man which involves presenting a position that “no one” actually holds and attacking it. In many cases, these positions are attributed to vaguely identified groups (feminists, liberals, conservatives, etc.)  rather than specific individuals. While it is obviously legitimate to point out when people do this sort of thing, it should be determined whether the person is actually setting up such a generic straw man. As noted above, there are views that are really held that would tend to seem like willful distortions on the part of the person describing them.

There are various other ways to use straw men, but I’ll leave those for people to bring up in comments.

Switching now to lies, I have noticed that when I teach this fallacy my students inevitably ask about the difference between presenting a straw man and lying.

On the face of it, a straw man would be a form of lie. After all, a person knowingly presenting a distortion or exaggeration with an intent to deceive would seem to be engaged in an act that falls nicely within the kingdom of lies. As such, I do not see any significant problem with characterizing intentional straw men as involving a lie (or lies) as a component.  For example, when the health care bill Obama was supporting was characterized as establishing death panels and attacked on those grounds, then that would seem to qualify as both a straw man and a lie.

That said, there is more to a straw man than merely lying. As noted above, the straw man fallacy involves more than just presenting a distortion-it also involves rejecting the original on the basis of an attack on the distorted version. As such, it would probably be best to say that a straw man makes use of a lie (or lies).

The deceptive aspect of the straw man also brings in a moral element on top of the critical thinking element. After all, engaging in poor reasoning need not be immoral. However, the intentional use of deceit is often morally problematic (although, as people will no doubt point out, there are intuitively appealing exceptions). One obvious concern is that if a position is actually bad enough to morally require that deceits be used to attack it, then it would seem to follow that it could be justly criticized “in the flesh” rather than “in the straw.” No doubt there are exceptions to this as well-positions that are wicked or flawed and yet could not be defeated by arguing against them in their actual forms.

While many straw men do involve intentional deceits, there are others that do not. These are cases that involve errors.

One obvious example of straw man by error is when someone tries to honestly characterize a view and simply gets it wrong because the view is rather difficult to understand. For example, I often see such straw men in student papers when they try to summarize the arguments of a philosopher. These

Another example of straw man by error is when someone presents a straw man out of ignorance, sloppiness or some such reason. For example, a person might receive an email that distorts the Republican position on tax cuts and then go on to use that version in his blog. In this case, the person is not engaged in an intentional exaggeration.

To use an analogy, this could be seen as being a bit like counterfeit money. A person who knowingly creates a straw man is like a counterfeiter: she is created a deceitful product that she hopes others will accept as the real thing. Someone who accepts the straw man and unknowingly passes it on to others is like a person who gets counterfeit money and spends it herself, unaware that she is passing on phony money.

As with counterfeit money, the person who passes the straw man along in ignorance is not morally responsible for the deceit-she is acting in good faith and is also a victim. This, obviously enough, assumes that the person passing it on took a reasonable amount of effort to assess what was passed on to her.

Sticking with the money analogy, if I pick up some flawless counterfeit bills in my change at the grocery store and I pass them on to others when I buy things, I would seem to be an innocent victim. After all, the source is supposed to be safe and the bills pass all the tests I could reasonably be expected to use. However, if I am handed bills from a questionable person or the money looks a bit fishy, then I would be culpable (to a degree) for uncritically accepting them and passing them on to others.

If this analogy holds, then a person who passes on a straw man from others might be called to task for this or might merely be an innocent victim. In some cases it might be rather hard to determine which category a person falls into.

As one final point, people sometimes make the mistake of conflating errors and straw men. For example, I might claim that WikLeaks’ leak was a good thing because it revealed important new information to the public, such as the fact that Saudis provide considerable support to terrorist organizations and the fact that Pakistan also lends support to such groups. In response to this someone might say that I made a straw man because it is already well known that the Saudis and Pakistanis are supporters of terrorist groups.

However, there is a difference between merely being in error and making a straw man. To be specific, being in error is merely being wrong and a straw man is, well, what was defined above. In the example just given, I could be completely wrong (some have claimed that almost everything leaked was already available), however it would not be a straw man because there was no attempt to present a distorted or exaggerated version of a position. The main test (which is not perfect) is to ask what position, if any, is being distorted or exaggerated. If there are not plausible grounds for claiming an act of distortion has occurred, then it is more reasonable to claim that the person is wrong about the facts rather than accusing him of creating a straw man. Naturally, there will be gray areas in which it is not clear what is the most plausible explanation.

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Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.


The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.


So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.


Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

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Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4)

This is the final section of an essay in four parts. Here is a recap of the argument so far.

In part 1, with the help of Crispin Wright, I argued:

1. Realism is modesty (the world is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have epistemic access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.
2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.
3. If it turns out that there aren’t any general claims being argued about in the classic debates when it comes to realism about truth or meaning, then we might as well be pessimists about the conversation.

In part 2 and part 3, I began to show how the antecedent in (3) is correct. There aren’t any general claims to argue about in the classic debates. I began this argument:

A. Berkeley is essential to the classic debates.
B. To make sense of Berkeley’s perspective on truth, we have to disentangle the different kinds of knowing subject: the individual, the collective, and the divine.

C. If it turns out that Berkeley is a realist in one sense of (B) but not the others, then it would be trivially true that there are no general claims under dispute in the classic debates.

I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. After rounding out an account of collective knowledge, I will show you that

Berkeley is a realist about the objectivity of meaning.

Before we conclude our examination of collective truth, we have to answer one more nagging question. How do we know that other people exist? Might they just be the products of some dream of mine? In short, what, exactly, is Berkeley’s solution to the problem of other minds, and how does it bear on the prospects of reading him as a collective realist?

Of course, Berkeley had quite a bit to say on the philosophy of mind in general. Berkeley is a particularist about ideas — he insists that the notion of an abstract idea is unintelligible. And he’s a nominalist, since any jumble of ideas might fit with a single, general name. Nothing connects a set of particular ideas with their general heading except the learned association between pain and ideas, and habitual use of the name to govern the ideas.

But Berkeley famously gives no explicit answer to this problem of other minds. His efforts are largely spent on the problem of the external world. So Stack might object: it is very fine to bring up a few scraps from his Notebook, but it isn’t fine to think that Berkeley is a realist about collective truth.

While it is tempting to inquire at length as to what Berkeley could or could not have said in his own defence, I think that his silence is much more interesting. It is best to say that Berkeley simply takes it for granted as a prior assumption that other people exist, and that they too are governed by the laws of associational psychology. He does not require evidence, argument, or proof. For all intents and purposes, we might treat the existence of other minds as a priori true, for Berkeley. (Or, if that terminology does too much violence to his empiricist project, we at least have to admit that the existence of other minds is dogmatically held.) And that is how he is so casual in his offhanded remark in the Notebook concerning a world “independent of Our Mind”. He could not bring himself to doubt the existence of others, or the prospect that their experiences differ radically from each other.


The focus so far has been on objectivity about truth (and more recently on objectivity relative to the collective of human knowers). However, we are also in a position to inquire into the objectivity of meaning. Since the question of meaning is a subject that is intimately related to collective truth, I have left it till last.

In what follows, I will be assuming that meaning can be understood as the assertability-conditions for sentences or utterances. This is cheating, in a way, because assertion-conditional semantics has been a relatively recent research programme. However, my use of this anachronism in assessing Berkeley is indispensable. For it is difficult to imagine any other candidate theory of meaning that is clearly and uniquely concerned with linguistic meaning, as distinct from the contents of a truth-claim or the contents of a judgment (each of which can be discussed in their own sections). (I am using assertion-conditional semantics instead of truth-conditional semantics because technical debates over the concept of “truth” have relapsed into the muddled state that they were in a century ago.)

Objectivity about meaning involves a distinction between the conditions under which an individual believes a sentence can be asserted, and the conditions under which the sentence really can be rationally asserted. The meaning of a sentence “is a real constraint, to which we are bound… by contract”. (Wright, 5) In other words, an individual can be wrong about the meaning of a sentence, and this wrongness may or may not owe to failures of perception or cognition by the individual. Another way of putting the same point is through discussion of the normativity of meaning.

Here, we have to find the grounds for two kinds of languages — private languages, as formed by the individual alone, and collective languages shared amongst a community.

Recall that, for Stack, Berkeley appears to have a difficult time with the notion of collective modesty. For Berkeley (interpreted by Stack), we cannot speak of two people immediately confronting the same objects of experience. We can only mediately perceive that the same objects are being attended to through the constant observations of the divine.

Suppose that Stack were correct when he interpreted Berkeley on the subject of our collective knowledge of objective truth. What would that tell us about the objectivity of meaning? One consequence would be that, as far as Berkeley is concerned, if we did not suppose that God existed then we would be left with no basis for collective modesty at all. Hence we would have no basis for understanding one another. Our grammars would at best be idiolects. There would be no reason to suppose that “we” share any common ground at all, and we surely couldn’t mean the same or even similar things by our sentences.

But the situation might even be worse. All private languages require rules to follow — we have to be able to look at a sentence and say that it is true or false depending on some stable conditions. Arguably, private languages cannot exist, since in a private language there would be no stable distinction between correctness and error. For when the speaker of a private language were confronted with stimuli that refute his or her semantic rules, they could always unconsciously redefine the rules to make themselves a permanent and exclusive arbiter of what is correct. Some would argue that this would be semanticide, or the death of all meaning. It would entail semantic anti-realism for private languages.


Before we make sense of either form of language, we have to recall the salient facts about Berkeley on truth. I have tried to show that Berkeley is a realist about the collective’s stance towards objective truth. His use of the phrase “independent of Our Mind” in the Notebooks (801) is more than merely suggestive — he means it.

But how is it that we know anything? Consider the following passage from the Principles. “Upon the whole, I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author Nature, whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions in order to attain those things that are necessary to the preservation and well-being of our bodies, as also to avoid whatever may be hurtful and destructive of them.” (emphasis mine) There are two things we need to take away from this section. First, that we are aware of the hand of God because our experience teaches us that we have the skills to look after our own well-being and avoid painful stimuli. Second, we have that relationship by recognizing the universal language, or the meaning, of God’s works. “[T]he manner wherein they signify and mark unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment, which do not suggest the things signified by any likeness or identity of nature, but only by an habitual connexion that experience has made us to observe between them.” (61-62)

While these are nice things for us to know about truth, they’re not very helpful when it comes to the question of the objectivity of meaning. After all, we — well, most of us — certainly do not defer to God in order to get insight into what we mean by what we say. And it’s certainly not helpful to refer to Him when the common meaning of the language of nature is the proof of Him in the first place.

But actually, when it comes to individual languages, or idiolects, the solution is not hard to find. The arbiter of the meanings of individual utterances is the force of habit that associates two or more unlike ideas to one another, mixed with behavioristic psychology. The meaning of a sentence is established by the conditions under which the sentence warns me about cold and toothy things, and/or draws me towards warm and fuzzy things. That, at least for the moment, seems enough to make sense of how we can possess private languages for Berkeley.

From this point on, collectivistic meaning is not hard to come by. In order to broach the subject of collectivistic meaning, we would have to solve the problem of other minds, and we have to have an account of how individual languages work. I have suggested that the existence of other minds is supposed a priori, for Berkeley. We have individualistic languages due to the facts of associational psychology. Since we know others exist a priori, and that they roughly have “similar” experiences, react to “similar” things with pain, and so on, we have a common basis for distinguishing true from false sentences. In slogan form: so long as we have collective pains, and names for the pains, we have collective languages.


I have endeavored to look at Berkeley in a fresh light. I’ve tried to demonstrate that his metaphysical idealism straddles the lines between realism and anti-realism. I have examined his doctrines in two ways — with respect to the objectivity of truth, and with respect to the objectivity of meaning.

I have made the case that his metaphysics is systematically ambivalent between realism and anti-realism. Since the terms can only be properly applied when they are explicitly connected to a knowing subject, and since the result is not uniformly realist or anti-realist across all knowing subjects, there are no grounds for thinking he deserves either label. And since his view is supposed to be a canonical example of anti-realism, we are left to wonder whether or not an issue of any general significance is under dispute.

At this point, a critic might claim that Berkeley is a hybrid-theorist, of the sort mentioned with respect to Kant and Descartes. If so, then we could preserve the language of realism and anti-realism to describe his general views.

This would not be a successful argument. For Berkeley does not distinguish between different kinds of access by saying that some are more sensitive to skepticism than others, nor does he distinguish between different kinds of worlds. From the first, Berkeley denies the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, out of fear that allowing these different kinds of access will allow the skeptic to gain credibility. (Granted, however, he does distinguish between mediate and immediate perception, and these can be thought of as distinct kinds of access. But the entire point of his metaphysical idealism is to protect both forms of perception from the scrutiny of the skeptic, so they are not distinct in the sense of being threatened by skepticism.)

To be sure, there is a sense in which God has more “access” than we do – He is omnipotent, we are not – but this hardly has the power to generate a categorical distinction of the kind we see between phenomena and noumena. It is phenomena (ideas) and notions (minds) all the way down. And at no point does he suggest that God inhabits a different world from ours. His entire point, on the side of theology, is to provide evidence of God on the basis of the natural order.

All that is left to consider is the objectivity of judgment, which I do not challenge. There is no inconsistency, or threat of inconsistency, in generally stipulating the kinds of things that one considers to be irremediably real. (Berkeley tells us that spirits and ideas are real, while abstract ideas are not, for instance.) But stipulation is exactly the problem; debates over the objectivity of judgment retain an aura of arbitrariness, of being language-games. If this is the only ground upon which Berkeley can draw a general dividing line between things that are real and things that are not, then we are left with nothing to talk about except our interesting opinions.


…at least, not so long as we are stuck in the classical debates.

I suggested at the end of the last post, that the use of God as a knowing subject is what contributes to Berkeley’s systematic ambivalence. If we treated atheism as the only viable possibility, and if we could construct a viable epistemology for both individual and collective knowers, then we could be realists about all three kinds of objectivity (truth, meaning, judgment). To make a long essay shorter: if they are interested in keeping their realism intact, then epistemologists must be methodological atheists. And if I am right, this is a claim that even metaphysical theists must concede.

Works Cited

  • Berkeley, George. (1985) Philosophical works: including the works on vision. Michael Ayers (ed.) (London: Dent)
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006) “Berkeley’s argument for immaterialism.” The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Ed. Kenneth P. Winkler. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 20 April 2010.
  • Miller, Alexander, “Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • Rosen, G., (1994) “Objectivity and Modern Idealism: What is the Question?”, in M. Michael and J. O’Leary-Hawthorne (eds). Philosophy in Mind: The Place of Philosophy in the Study of Mind. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 277–319.
  • Stack, George J. (1991) Berkeley’s Analysis of Perception. (New York: Peter Lang)
  • Wright, Crispin. (1992) Truth and Objectivity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
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