There are no ethics. No free will. No purpose to life. Your introspective conscious awareness is largely unreliable. And, you never think about anything. Such are the controversial conclusions of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
I think most of us in the atheist community agree with Rosenberg’s starting points: we believe science is the best method for getting the truth, there’s no god, and that physical reality is all there is. The conclusions he draws from this are correct (but misstated).
Let’s begin with his assertion that “there is no morality.” In chapters 5 and 6, Rosenberg says that it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that a “core morality” exists (a core morality being a set of behavioral rules observed by all or nearly all societies across time). Is this a contradiction? Yes, but I think I know what he means. When he says, “there is no morality” what he likely means is that there are no dictates given by a god that we must follow, or any platonic timeless truths that dictate what we must do. For sake of consistency, we’ll call what I just described “spooky ethics.” Throwing off spooky ethics doesn’t mean that we no longer have a set of moral oughts to follow for the sake of other people. People do, as Rosenberg says, have a common code they follow. And following that code is important for any human being in any society. It’s something you would naturally want to do and do consistently, because doing otherwise probably will have disastrous consequences for you, among other things. If we think of the word “ought” (in it’s general form, like “I ought to go to store tomorrow”) to mean “must do in order to best satisfy desires” we can see easily that we ought to follow the common core ethic, for the reason just given. And once we’ve adopted the core ethic, most of our old “moral oughts,” after seeming to vanish in the death of spooky morality, appear once again.
Rosenberg’s comments about free will, that his choices are “not really up to him” are very disconcerting. I worry that this conception could lead all kinds of nasty places and to all sorts of absurdities were it really believed by anyone. More to the point though, this isn’t really a correct way to think about the issue under metaphysical naturalism. You see, “you” are your body under the naturalistic viewpoint, your knowledge and desires are aspects of your brain. To say your choices are not dependent upon you is an absurdity, because the outcome of every interaction you are in is intimately dependent upon your desires/knoweldge/etc. It is intimately dependent on you. Not only is there room for choice-making and “free will” under metaphysical naturalism, but naturalism is the only philosophy that makes good sense of it.
Is there a purpose to life? There’s no pre-ordained purpose or a purpose coming from outside the universe. But there are friends, chocolate cake, sex, baseball games, and nights staring at the stars. If that’s not a purpose, then it’s damn close enough to one for me to be willing to live with it.
I should mention that there are a number of potential issues with Rosenberg’s philosophy that he never addresses (at least not adequately) and so I want to draw some attention to some material that would make good supplemental reading with it. There’s the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which Rosenberg is particularly vulnerable to since he champions the view that the human mind is largely unreliable, at least in understand its own internal workings. However, there’s also a blog post that provides just what the doctor ordered for this problem. There’s the issue of whether the “scientism” as Rosenberg calls it, is a valid epistemology. I hold a somewhat scientistic view of knowledge myself, and have shown it self-consistent here. I was also bothered by the fact that Rosenberg seems to brush off the hard problem of consciousness. I think it’s a big deal, and on that one I recommend the Gary Drescher book that I linked in the end note below and offer a few comments of my own about the problem in “Philosophical Zombies are Coming to Eat Your Brains!!”
This book has a number of good, original suggestions. One of his suggestions is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is better described as “Environmental Filtration.” I wholeheartedly agree, that phrase takes out the nasty teleology implied by the use of the word”selection” and is overall a more accurate name.
Rosenberg’s book is smart without being dense. It’s packed with interesting facts about human psychology. It’s generally on the right track in the theses it presents. Read it!