On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

…we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  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, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.


B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

…anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

…everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.


Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

“Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

…when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

7 thoughts on “On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg”

  1. I’ll express some gratitude that you’ve saved me from the having to read this- I was actually planning to work my way through it. Speaking as someone whose moral emotions and “whims” are doubtless what you would consider to be “leftist” I can’t see any flaws in your critique – the factual howlers should really speak for themselves, but I broadly agree with your analysis of the somewhat… strained logic he’s employing regarding moral reasoning.

    If you’re planning on basing any future blog posts on reading recommendations, can I recommend instead http://quillette.com as a source of material – in particular you may find the current headline article- http://quillette.com/2017/02/23/on-meaning-identity-politics-and-bias-in-the-academy-an-interview-with-clay-routledge/ of interest.

  2. @Daniel

    I stop by Quillette occasionally to see if Claire Lehman has posted something new. She’s always worth reading, but I haven’t found anything particularly inspiring in the stuff written by the other authors. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

  3. You can still have objective morality. You just have to take into account the distinction between anthropocentric facts and non-anthropocentric facts.

  4. ” I hardly agree that it is the only method”

    What other methods “of knowing ” do you think are capable of challenging science?

  5. I don’t think any other method of knowing can “challenge” science. They can, however, reveal useful information. Examples that come to mind include philosophy, literature and poetry.

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