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Fri Feb 10, 2012, 12:38 PM

Atheist Q&A

A few weeks ago someone posted a link to this book review:


...of a book called, "The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions", by Alex Rosenberg. I haven't read the book myself, but I found myself wondering if the book is really as bad and as shallow as the reviewer makes it out to be. Whether or not the book deserves the review above, I decided I'd like to address some of the questions brought up in the review myself, with a few extra questions of my own as a lead-in, and provide something better than parody, straw-man answers.

Q: Do you think the universe is obligated to provide you with answers which you will find emotionally satisfying, answers which will provide you with a sense of purpose, a sense of deeper meaning, or feelings of comfort?

A: No. Maybe the universe can or does at times, but it's not obligated to do so. The fact that you might not like an evidence-based answer to a question, or might not like the lack of any evidence-based answer at all, doesn't make evidence-free, faith-based answers which satisfy your emotional desires better answers.

Q: Does the way the critic of the reviewed book characterizes the supposed answers from the book strike you as suspicious?

A: What the reviewer says the book says sounds more like the over-simplified straw man versions of atheist positions that belligerent anti-atheists throw around, much more than what I've typically heard directly from atheists themselves.

Q: Is there a god?

A: For the most popular meanings of the word "god", I'd say there's no evidence that such gods exist, that it's not even close to a 50/50 proposition that they exist. Some definitions of god are self-contradictory and can thus be categorically denied. Some definitions of god are so vague that it isn't clear what we'd be discussing the existence of. Some more academic definitions (the Prime Mover God, Spinoza's God), if you strip away unstated cultural baggage that people don't mention (but that I think some theists hope will slip by unoticed) are nothing more than synonyms for the natural universe. Such gods might indeed exist, but only as redundancies stated in overwrought language -- they aren't very "god like" by popular meanings for "god", they aren't personal gods with moral codes and plans for humanity, they aren't the kinds of gods one could expect to listen to or answer prayers.

Q: What is the nature of reality?

A: Who really knows? It's not like even the basic Philosophy 101 questions about reality have ever been solved. You don't move beyond those questions by solving them, you move beyond them by knowing you have to live with some uncertainty, then pick what seems like the most fruitful and practical possibilities to explore. Science has demonstrated itself to be a far more practical and fruitful and accountable way to explore reality than religion or "spirituality" ever has.

There are of course plenty of unanswered questions left, and perhaps one can give religion some credit for asking some of those questions. In my opinion, however, it's better to simply appreciate the occasional good questions raised by religious thinking without adopting any of religion's evidence-free, pre-packaged answers. Unlike the common caricature of atheism as a philosophy that claims science has "all of the answers", I'd say atheism, which is often just one aspect of general skepticism, has a whole lot more to do with becoming comfortable with saying, "I don't know" than claiming anyone or anything has all the answers.

What rankles believers most is that the atheist's "I don't know" isn't simply "I don't know", but also "I see no reason to believe that you know either".

Q: What is the purpose of the universe?

A: I'll first answer that question with another question. Purpose in what context? The idea of "purpose" does not exist without a context for a purpose. Why do you work? So you can, among other things, buy food to eat. Why do you need to buy food? So you can stay alive. Why do you need to stay alive? That's hard to answer -- many people just take it for granted that living is something you "need" to do. You could answer, "In order to work", and make the whole issue circular.

Is there a context in which the universe itself could have a purpose? That question doesn't even make much sense. If you say something like, "The universe is it's own purpose", that's a useless tautology. If there's a context outside of the universe where a universe might be created to serve a purpose, then what you're calling a "universe" isn't really the universe, that larger stage within which "universes" might or might not be created would be the true universe.

So my second answer to this question is this: Not a flat-out "none", but a request to clarify the question until it makes sense. If someone finds an answer like "To serve God's plan" satisfactory, I submit that such a person has simply failed to ask the obvious follow-up question, "What's the purpose of God's plan?"

Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: Whatever you want to make of it. Or 42 if you prefer. I see no evidence for any absolute meaning handed down from On High, or any good reason to suspect that such a meaning is out there for us to go looking for.

Q: Why am I here?

A: To pick up your dry cleaning? Pretty much the same problem with this question as with the "purpose" and "meaning of life" questions.

Q: Is there a soul? Is it immortal?

A: Probably not. We might not know everything about human nature, there are plenty of mysteries of the mind left to solve, but there's nothing so perplexing or damningly insufficient about explaining the human mind as a product of chemistry and evolutionary biology as to demand that some unproven entity called a "soul" must exist to explain the way we are.

Someone like the critic in the review can, of course, twist an answer like mine into something like, "So you think we're nothing but an accidental chemical reaction?!", as if their indignation over me not stroking their desire for greater cosmic importance makes my answer wrong and makes some god-based or "spiritual" answer better.

Q: Is there free will?

A: Free will is something that makes sense only when you don't think about it too much. If the universe is completely deterministic, there can't be anything you'd call "free will" no matter how you define it. Chaos theory tells us, however, that even a deterministic universe isn't predictable. Quantum mechanics seems to indicate some aspects of nature may be purely random. Is the existence of randomness and unpredictability enough to lead to something worthy of calling "free will"? Something that's partly deterministic, that takes occasional unpredictable or random turn? That doesn't sound like a very satisfying concept of "free will" either (not that I consider my own personal satisfaction to be an important a metric for truth).

It seems to me that a satisfying concept of free will is something that's neither deterministic or random, neither completely predictable or entirely unpredictable, but also more than a mere statistical bias toward one type of action or another. Does that leave anything left over for free will to be?

Regardless of whether free will exists, or even makes sense, I'm going to keep acting as if I have real choices in my power to make, and that the concept of "responsibility" applies to those choices. The question of the existence of free will is philosophically interesting, it's worth exploring, but in my day-to-day life, it's also a moot point. I don't have "faith" in free will, but I do act as if such a thing exists.

Q: What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?

A: I don't think the difference is based on the rules of a deity sitting in Ultimate Judgment.

Many people fear that if you don't believe in God-given laws of morality society will break down, suddenly murder and rape and theft and bad table manners will be rampant. I have three responses to that: (1) Even if such beliefs kept crime and other immoral conduct under control, that would only show that those beliefs had efficacious side effects, not that the beliefs were true, just as children's beliefs that cleaning their rooms and doing their homework will convince Santa to bring presents might improve children's behavior, but that improvement doesn't make Santa real. (2) No one can agree what the laws are that God or gods expect us to follow -- people typically choose gods and religions which agree with their own opinions of right and wrong. (3) People do all of the stuff their own religions and other people's religions tell them not to do anyway. Given that there is a higher percentage of believers in prison than in the general population, and a lower percentage of atheists in prison than in the general population, the evidence for religion making people behave better is questionable at best.

(There have to some recent studies suggesting that when people have been recently exposed to religious concepts, or the idea of a God watching over them, there can be some short-term increase in avoidance of dishonest behavior. The prison statistics, however, argue against that effect being a lasting effect.)

I certainly don't believe that "good" and "evil" are things in and of themselves, that they are primal forces or incorporeal essences. They are merely classifications of events and behaviors.

While I don't think the differences between right and wrong and between good and bad are clearly, sharply, and definitively defined, I hardly think that a lack of definitive clarity leaves us with the diametric oppositite where "anything goes". I think many moral principles ultimately go back to our evolution as social creatures. Beyond that, it doesn't seem too difficult to arrive at a rough cultural consensus about some of the improvements we can make by trying to go beyond our biological heritage.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 12:52 PM

1. Mostly agree. I think he short-sold humanistic morality a bit

but his response to the implication of divine deontology was pretty sound.

Otherwise my only quibble would be the missed opportunities to stress Occam's Razor. Re gods and souls nobody can say for certain they don't exist, but there is a reason why it's perfectly rational to operate under the assumption that they do not.

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Response to dmallind (Reply #1)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 12:54 PM

2. So you've read the book?

And/or is your response to my answers, not the book's answers?

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #2)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 01:35 PM

5. Ah - missed the distinction - thought QA was with author. Sorry. nt

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Response to dmallind (Reply #5)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 02:03 PM

7. As for my own answers...

...please keep in mind that I thought I'd gotten a bit long-winded with the OP even as it stands now. I was trying to do a bit better than the ridiculously pat answers in the review, but fully explicating my own thoughts on things like humanistic morality would have taken a lot more verbiage.

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Response to dmallind (Reply #1)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 03:30 PM

8. there is no rational basis for an idea like Occam's Razor


It is an unscientific idea, and is not a very good guide for making a choice between two proposition, either.

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Response to provis99 (Reply #8)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 04:39 PM

9. So


science is not as science does (when scientists apply e.g. Occam's Razor) but exactly as you define it and its boundaries?

And what is this "rational basis" that you mention?

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Response to provis99 (Reply #8)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 04:59 PM

10. But it is very good for deterrmining likely hypotheses to investigate

It's not impossible that we all have 17 parallel universe selves who are responsible for designing our dreams and transmitting them via telepathy - but it's not worth an awful lot of attention as a possibility.

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Response to dmallind (Reply #10)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 10:15 PM

12. it is of zero value when determining likely hypotheses.


It's only "value" is when choosing between two alternatives, neither of which have evidence of being most accurate, you pick the simplest one, because it takes up less space on paper, rather than because it has any redeeming values.

Occam's Razor is an inside joke among scientists, that when you don't have any idea of which model is true, you apply the goofy idea of K.I.S.S (keep it simple, stupid).

The simple fact is, there is no rational reason a simpler model is more likely to be true than a more complicated one.

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Response to provis99 (Reply #12)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 10:21 PM

13. In medicine, there is a similar construct.

When you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.

The difference in medicine is that it is more cost effective to go for the more obvious answer. If you don't find any horses, then you can look for zebras. And if you don't see any zebras, you can look for unicorns.

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Response to provis99 (Reply #12)

Sat Feb 11, 2012, 05:12 AM

14. A) Crap b) why is either ontology or a philosopjy construct a question for scientists?

Ontology has no falsifiable claims, no testable hypotheses and no empirical data. Scientists and their imaginary "inside jokes" have fuck all to do with divine existence.

Somebody's already done the study by the way.....


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Response to provis99 (Reply #12)

Sat Feb 11, 2012, 09:03 AM

15. Hogwash


Everything else being equal, a hypothesis requiring unproven assumptions, each of which has a probability less than 1 of being true, is going to be less likely to be true than a hypothesis requiring no such assumptions.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 01:21 PM

3. Its NATURE!

(Just wanted to share.)

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 01:32 PM

4. You Are Searching For Certain Answers


from questions that can have many different, yet acceptable answers. I am of the opinion that what many "believers" substitute as "god", is nothing more than those innermost moralities that are nothing more than the product of evolution. The human mind is far more complex than say, the mind of mouse. A mouse eats and makes in the same area. A dog, for instance, knows to make in a place where he doesn't eat. Does that mean that a dog listens to words from god? Of course not, he is just more evolved. Morality, right, wrong, and most other deep-seated convictions, come from within, not from what some money-hungry god-pimp says on Sunday mornings. You, and you alone, know when you have done something wrong........you wrestle with it internally, you lose sleep, you question your decisions. Does this make you a bad person? No, just a further example of the ever-evolving existance that we call life.

It takes a person of weak conviction to allow their personal beliefs to be influenced by external sources. For anyone to fly in the face of science and fact, and profess that they are "sure" that there is a higher power, and that this power controls every aspect of life as we know it, is a sure sign of insecurity and openness to succombing to the will of others.........in short, a patsy. I'll take my chances, live my life to the max, not concern myself with eternal bliss, or a bag of magic beans. I will not die wishing that I had done this or that, I will just do it and know that I had the self confidence to do and try things that others were too scared to do or try. If we listened to the church, we would all still believe that the world is flat. I will enjoy life with an open mind rather than an open mouth.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 01:53 PM

6. I can't get to the review that you're referencing.

I can only read the first paragraph of the review without getting a subscription to TNR which I'm not interested in. That paragraph just contains a bunch of ridiculous looking questions. So I found another review of the book, and it looks like those questions and answers are directly from the book:


It’s a seemingly simple notion, and one that many scientists and scientific-minded people would claim already to hew to, but it has surprisingly fraught implications. Rosenberg lays them out very early in Chapter 1, in a series of questions and answers. “Is there a God? No.’’ “What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.’’ “What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.’’ Similarly, there’s no meaning to life; you and I are here because of dumb luck, and there’s no soul.


While Massimo Pigliucci hasn't yet reviewed this book, he has referred to it numerous times. For example:

Lately I hear the word “determinism” being thrown around like a trump card for all sorts of arguments, most obviously the recent discussions of free will that we have had on this blog. Moreover, as I already mentioned in passing, I am reading a new book by Alex Rosenberg that feels a lot like Dawkins on steroids (if you can imagine that), a huge portion of which is based on the assumption — which the author thinks he can derive from established and certainly unchangeable physics — of, you guessed it, determinism!

I got so sick of the smug attitudes that Rosenberg, Coyne, Harris and others derive from their acceptance of determinism — obviously without having looked much into the issue — that I delved into the topic a bit more in depth myself. As a result, I’ve become agnostic about determinism, and I highly recommend the same position to anyone seriously interested in these topics (as opposed to anyone using his bad understanding of physics and philosophy to score rhetorical points).

A good starting point from which to get a grip on the nuances and complexities of discussions concerning determinism is a very nicely written article by Carl Hoefer in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as several of the primary sources cited there, particularly John Earman's Primer on Determinism.


I've seen some good reviews of Rosenberg's book; but most of the reviews I've read have panned it.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #6)

Sun Feb 12, 2012, 02:41 PM

16. massimo's post

Rosenberg replies to Massimo on the same thread here (in case you missed it).


You certain cite all the important recent thinkers about determinism. Most of what you cite from what they say is reliable about the current state of play in the philosophy of science. I am on board with all of it.

There is nothing in "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" that contradicts any of that. In fact, the only matter regarding determinism I take sides on in that book is this brace of claims: First, our universe is indeterministic in its fundamental laws of working (unless we can make empirical sense of superpositions). Second, once you get to macromolecules and anything else of relevance to human affairs, nature is asymptotically deterministic (expect for some mutations).

I think you are reacting to, and objecting to, the book's assumption (and it is indeed an assumption I dont argue much for) that physics is causally complete and causally closed so that it fixes all the facts. That is the assumption I need, not determinism, to get the answers I claim science provides to all the "persistent" questions of philosophy about reality, purpose, meaning, thought, human values and our future as a species.

There is certainly enough in those chapters of "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" to disagree with without dragging in determinism.


Massimo in turn replies:

Alex R.,

thanks for your comments. Indeed, a full discussion of your book needs to be postponed. Still, it seems to me you need both causal completeness and determinism, if you want to avoid, say, two-step models of free will and the like. You also need to argue that the laws of nature are actually laws (instead of statistical generalization), as well as that there are no truly emergent properties in the universe (though I guess the latter would fall under the issue of causal completeness, which you admit you do not argue for), etc. Looking forward to having all those discussions.

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Response to notinavat (Reply #16)

Sun Feb 12, 2012, 03:57 PM

17. Surprising that Rosenberg claims to be on board with all that; then claims the macro world is ...

... asymptotically deterministic.

Yet Hoefer's paper, linked to from Pigliucci's blog, explicitly claims we don't even know if the question of whether or not the universe is deterministic is decidable, yet Rosenberg is claiming that he knows it is asymtotically deterministic at the macro level. And, we are not just talking about quantum events with no large effects in the macro world, it may be impossible to determine whether chaotic system are deterministic or stochastic:


The usual idealizing assumptions are made: no friction, perfectly elastic collisions, no outside influences. The ball's trajectory is determined by its initial position and direction of motion. If we imagine a slightly different initial direction, the trajectory will at first be only slightly different. And collisions with the straight walls will not tend to increase very rapidly the difference between trajectories. But collisions with the convex object will have the effect of amplifying the differences. After several collisions with the convex body or bodies, trajectories that started out very close to one another will have become wildly different—SDIC (sensitive dependence on initial conditions - Jim).

In the example of the billiard table, we know that we are starting out with a Newtonian deterministic system—that is how the idealized example is defined. But chaotic dynamical systems come in a great variety of types: discrete and continuous, 2-dimensional, 3-dimensional and higher, particle-based and fluid-flow-based, and so on. Mathematically, we may suppose all of these systems share SDIC. But generally they will also display properties such as unpredictability, non-computability, Kolmogorov-random behavior, and so on—at least when looked at in the right way, or at the right level of detail. This leads to the following epistemic difficulty: if, in nature, we find a type of system that displays some or all of these latter properties, how can we decide which of the following two hypotheses is true?

1. The system is governed by genuinely stochastic, indeterministic laws (or by no laws at all), i.e., its apparent randomness is in fact real randomness.

2. The system is governed by underlying deterministic laws, but is chaotic.

In other words, once one appreciates the varieties of chaotic dynamical systems that exist, mathematically speaking, it starts to look difficult—maybe impossible—for us to ever decide whether apparently random behavior in nature arises from genuine stochasticity, or rather from deterministic chaos. Patrick Suppes (1993, 1996) argues, on the basis of theorems proven by Ornstein (1974 and later) that “There are processes which can equally well be analyzed as deterministic systems of classical mechanics or as indeterministic semi-Markov processes, no matter how many observations are made.” And he concludes that “Deterministic metaphysicians can comfortably hold to their view knowing they cannot be empirically refuted, but so can indeterministic ones as well.” (Suppes (1993), p. 254)


I don't see how Rosenberg can be on board with this and then claim that nature is asymtotically deterministic.

And, research indicates that animal brains have built-in chaotic subsystems - i.e we can't know whether they are deterministic or not. For instance, this excerpt from Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates - ( http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/12/14/rspb.2010.2325.full| ):


A corresponding conclusion can be drawn from two earlier studies, which independently found that the temporal structure of the variability in spontaneous turning manoeuvres both in tethered and in free-flying fruitflies could not be explained by random system noise [63,64]. Instead, a nonlinear signature was found, suggesting that fly brains operate at criticality, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions (i.e. SDIC - Jim) and amplifying them exponentially [63]. Put differently, fly brains have evolved to generate unpredictable turning manoeuvres. The default state also of flies is to behave variably. Ongoing studies are trying to localize the brain circuits giving rise to this nonlinear signature.

Results from studies in walking flies indicate that at least some component of variability in walking activity is under the control of a circuit in the so-called ellipsoid body, deep in the central brain [65]. The authors tested the temporal structure in spontaneous bouts of activity in flies walking back and forth individually in small tubes and found that the power law in their data disappeared if a subset of neurons in the ellipsoid body was experimentally silenced. Analogous experiments have recently been taken up independently by another group and the results are currently being evaluated [66]. The neurons of the ellipsoid body of the fly also exhibit spontaneous activity in live imaging experiments [67], suggesting a default-mode network also might exist in insects.

Even what is often presented to students as ‘the simplest behaviour’, the spinal stretch reflex in vertebrates, contains adaptive variability. Via the cortico-spinal tract, the motor cortex injects variability into this reflex arc, making it variable enough for operant self-learning [68–72]. Jonathan Wolpaw and colleagues can train mice, rats, monkeys and humans to produce reflex magnitudes either larger or smaller than a previously determined baseline precisely because much of the deviations from this baseline are not noise but variability deliberately injected into the reflex. Thus, while invertebrates lead the way in the biological study of behavioural variability, the principles discovered there can be found in vertebrates as well.

One of the common observations of behavioural variability in all animals seems to be that it is not entirely random, yet unpredictable. The principle thought to underlie this observation is nonlinearity. Nonlinear systems are characterized by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This means such systems can amplify tiny disturbances such that the states of two initially almost identical nonlinear systems can diverge exponentially from each other. Because of this nonlinearity, it does not matter (and it is currently unknown) whether the ‘tiny disturbances’ are objectively random as in quantum randomness or whether they can be attributed to system, or thermal noise. What can be said is that principled, quantum randomness is always some part of the phenomenon, whether it is necessary or not, simply because quantum fluctuations do occur. Other than that it must be a non-zero contribution, there is currently insufficient data to quantify the contribution of such quantum randomness. In effect, such nonlinearity may be imagined as an amplification system in the brain that can either increase or decrease the variability in behaviour by exploiting small, random fluctuations as a source for generating large-scale variability. A general account of such amplification effects had already been formulated as early as in the 1930s [73]. Interestingly, a neuronal amplification process was recently observed directly in the barrel cortex of rodents, opening up the intriguing perspective of a physiological mechanism dedicated to generating neural (and by consequence behavioural) variability [74].


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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Fri Feb 10, 2012, 05:15 PM

11. Pigliucci, Rosenberg etc

Massimo Pigliucci will be reviewing The Atheist's Guide in the next issue of The Philosophy Magazine.

There's an 'accessible' 'teaser interview with Rosenberg here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4209

And a detailed precis by Rosenberg with criticisms from philosophers such as Brian Leiter here and Rosenberg's reply to them here:


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