Alex Rosenberg, the atheistic philosopher, ended his recent debate with William Lane Craig by admitting he believes that no thoughts are about anything.
He meant exactly that. No thought is about anything.
This may come as rather a shock to some readers. It’s strange. It’s really strange. One consequence of it (if Rosenberg is right) is that if you believe atheism is true, then atheism is false.
(The sort of atheism to which I’m referring here and in the title is Rosenberg’s. If there’s another version for which this is not true, I’ll be glad to know about it.)
Let me explain where this comes from. It starts with scientism, then it goes to physics, then to a view of the brain that demands we believe that way about it.
In his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he defends a form of scientism that he defines this way (p. 17-18, Nook edition):
This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; 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…. Science provides all the significant truths about reality….. Being scientistic just means treating science as our exclusive guide to reality, to nature—both our own nature and everything else’s.
Now obviously there’s nothing wrong with regarding science as a guide to reality, and in its sphere of inquiry, by far the best. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing how superb it is in that domain. But Rosenberg doesn’t stop there. He says (p. 28),
If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality.
He says this is a necessary consequence of thinking scientifically, which it isn’t (and can’t be, as we’ll see below); and he also says it is a necessary consequence of atheism, which it is, at least as today’s “New Atheism” is commonly held. It’s necessary for that just because the New Atheism agrees that the physical world is all there is; and the physical world runs according to inviolable natural laws, a mindless mix of necessity and chance.
Rosenberg goes on to say (p. 28, emphasis added),
All the processes in the universe from physical to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.
Physics explains chemistry, which in turn explains biology; mental processes are purely physical and chemical, and that’s all there is. (This belief is variously called materialism, physicalism, or naturalism, though there are nuances between the meanings of those words, esp. naturalism.) He adds,
Physics is causally closed and causally complete. The only causes in the universe are physical, and everything in the universe that has a cause has a physical cause…. the physical facts fix all the facts.
The Physical Brain and “Aboutness”
Now let’s jump ahead to chapter 8, where he introduces an “illusion” he thinks we should be aware of, specifically, that when we think, we are thinking about things (p. 142):
Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that mater. When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.
The reason is because everything is purely physical and nothing else, as we have seen; thus the brain is physical and nothing but physical, and the same is true of thinking: it is a purely physical event. And it’s impossible to suppose that one physical thing or event can be about another physical thing or event. A paper clip can be around paper, but it can’t be about paper. Or as Rosenberg tells us (p. 144), it’s a mistake to suppose that
The first clump of matter, the bit of wet stuff, the Paris neurons, is about the second chunk of matter, the much greater quantity of diverse kinds of stuff that make up Paris. How can the first clump—the Paris neurons—be about, denote, refer to, name, represent, or otherwise point to the second clump?… How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe…?
No Thoughts About Anything
Are you following this? Does it make sense? If not, Rosenberg would say you’ve fallen victim to the usual illusion, which is to think that when we think, we’re thinking about something. Quite a strong illusion, isn’t it?
Now most thinkers (myself included) would agree that one physical object cannot be about another physical object. But Rosenberg says that science proves our brains and our thoughts are purely physical, and thus we have to give up thinking our thoughts are about anything. And if he’s right about what science “proves” about the brain, then his conclusion must follow: thoughts aren’t about anything.
But there’s a very strange effect that follows from that belief, which I don’t see him grappling with anywhere in the book. It’s most obvious where it’s most conspicuously missing, for example on p. 167 and p. 190:
Since there are no thoughts about things, notions of purpose, plan, or design in the mind are illusory…. Since the brain can’t have thoughts about stuff, it cannot make, have, or act on plans, projects, or purposes that it gives itself.
And now let’s add one more quote (p. 123), and what’s missing should become very clear:
Scientism allows for moral “improvement.” It’s a matter of combining the core morality that evolution has inflicted on us with true beliefs vouched safe for us by science.
Do you see it? It’s all through the book, but it blazes out especially clearly in a statement like that one.
Therefore No True Thoughts About Anything
Rosenberg believes that some things are true and some things are false. But just as physical things cannot be about other things, neither can they be true or false. Can a clump of wet matter be true? How could it be?
It follows that he also believes that thoughts can be true or false; but in order for thoughts to be true or false, they must be true or false about something. And yet if thoughts cannot be about anything, how can they be true or false about anything?
If Atheism Is True, We Cannot Have a True Thought About It
Rosenberg argues vehemently that his scientism must be true; but his scientism means that no beliefs—not even about scientism—could be true. He also insists that his scientism is necessarily linked with atheism; that atheism is best defined by scientism. If so, then no one can believe that atheism is true (or false), because that would require them having some belief about atheism, which Rosenberg’s version of atheism makes impossible.
So if Rosenberg’s scientism is true, then it is absolutely impossible for him or anyone else to think it’s true; for that would require thinking a true thought about scientism when no thought could be about anything at all.
Again: If Rosenberg’s atheism is true, then it is absolutely impossible for him or anyone else to think it’s true; for that would require thinking a true thought about atheism when no thought could be about anything at all.
This may come as a particular shock to atheistic readers. It’s strange. Everything is really strange, if atheism (as Rosenberg understands it) is true.
It’s a very good reason to doubt that atheism is true.
Related Information: Ed Feser’s extended series on Rosenberg, in which among other things he argues that Rosenberg is right about what scientism means, wrong to think that scientism could possibly be true.
Also: an online article by Rosenberg in which he presents similar material in much shorter form.
This article also posted at Thinking Christian