Unless the pursuit of dreadfulness results in a tie, each year will possess its own worst book. But identifying the winner in this dubious competition poses difficulties. Surely even a well-read literary editor of The New Republic must wonder whether among all those inevitably unturned pages lurks something even more atrocious than his favorite candidate. How then could Leon Wieseltier select THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Norton, $25.95), by Alex Rosenberg, as the “worst book” of 2011?
Although the award is almost certainly misplaced, what inspired it is readily understood. The book expands the campaign of militant modern atheism, the offensive launched against religion by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Rosenberg’s broadsides attack a wider horizon. Since atheism is thought to be territory already secured, the targets now in view are the Big Questions, questions about morality, purpose and consciousness that puzzle softheaded people who muddle over them. Science brings good news. The answers are now all in. This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism” — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor.
The evangelical scientism of “The Atheist’s Guide” rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.” Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.
The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens.
For all its flaws, though, “The Atheist’s Guide” is the work of a well-informed and imaginative philosopher. Rosenberg’s repeated claim that Science has answered the Big Questions devalues his own original work. The answers are his, not science’s, and they rely on interpretations and synthetic arguments, the more persuasive when he aims at less sweeping conclusions.
To suppose that the sciences, as they have developed so far, answer all the Big Questions is to commit an extreme scientism. Others hold the equally staunch position that some questions are so profound that they must forever lie beyond the scope of natural science. Faith in God, or a conviction that free will exists, or that life has meaning are not subject to revision in the light of empirical evidence. But this is not the only option for those dissatisfied with the book.
It is possible to abandon scientism without confining science. The natural sciences command admiration through the striking successes of the interventions into nature they enable: satellites are sent into space, new tools forged to combat disease. Those achievements rest on the ability to develop rigorous chains of inferences that take us from readily detectable aspects of the world to reliable conclusions about more remote matters. As the conclusions become established, they often yield new methods of detection: a novel theory inspires instruments like microscopes and spectrometers that expand the range of the senses. Recognizing what the last few centuries have achieved, you can reasonably expect that science will go much further. . . .
. . . Or that human inquiry, in all its forms, will go much further. After all, the natural sciences have no monopoly on inferential rigor. Linguists and religious scholars make connections among languages and among sacred texts, employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history. Attending to achievements like these offers many alternatives to scientism. Instead of forcing the present-day natural sciences to supply All the Answers, you might value other forms of investigation — at least until physics, biology and neuroscience have advanced. Or you might be agnostic, wondering whether a future scientific treatment of, say, ethical behavior is possible even in principle. Or you might think the social sciences and humanities can be aided, although never superseded, by insights from natural science. Storytelling might be seen as a cultural universal with biological roots, without indulging Darwinian speculations about a human yearning for tidy plots. Respect for science, and an enthusiasm for learning from it, are fully compatible with rejecting scientism.
Scientism, whether Rosenberg’s today or E. O. Wilson’s a generation ago, is impatient with history (“The Atheist’s Guide” declares it to be “bunk”), with social science generally and with the arts and literature. These benighted investigations cannot generate first-class knowledge, for they provide no predictive laws for human behavior. Yet the success of science in delivering powerful generalizations need not diminish accomplishments that help with decisions great and small. History and ethnography, poetry and fiction all modify the ways in which people see themselves and others, creating intricate webs of associations that pervade our judgments. It may be hyperbolic to declare that Shakespeare teaches us more about being human than all the natural scientists combined, but a real insight underlies the assertion. Similarly, the first sentence of Thomas Kuhn’s masterpiece, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (now half a century old), instantiates a more general piece of wisdom: History can change the images by which we are possessed.
History, for example, can address the Big Questions about the origin and value of ethics by drawing on a wider range of sources than scientism allows. Over tens of thousands of years, members of our species have governed their lives by rules, discussing what precepts should be enforced. The residues of their many conversations appear in the earliest surviving written documents. Primatology, archaeology, anthropology, history, psychology and evolutionary biology (pursued with appreciation for the difficulties of rigorous evolutionary analysis) can all contribute to a vision of what ethics is and how it might progress.
Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive. However worthy the impulse to trumpet urgent news, smugness, arrogance and delight in shattering entrenched beliefs are as apt to alienate as to convert. The challenge is not to decide who has the Most Important Insights, but to comprehend the knowledge we have, finite, fallible and fragmentary as it is. We should make the most of it.
New York Times Philip Kitcher