Why Alex Rosenberg is wrong just about everything

1 (4)Philosophy is my second academic career. My first one was in science, evolutionary biology, to be specific. Depending on how you look at it, this makes me either unusually competent in two normally widely distinct areas of academic scholarship, or barely making the passing grade in both. Be that as it may, I have made a personal hobby to observe my new profession from the outside, as much as it is possible, sort of like an anthropologist looking into a different yet sufficient familiar culture.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that philosophers are unusually critical of their own field, with a number of prominent ones, both now and historically, actually arguing that it should be dismantled, usually in favor of science (or linguistics). I will not get into that debate here, as I’ve covered in detail before.

Another frequent observation is that of a high frequency of colleagues who are fascinating for being very smart, well regarded in the field, and yet – in my admittedly non humble opinion – completely wrong. Perhaps the quintessential example is David Chalmers, he of “philosophical zombies,” “hard problem of consciousness,” “singularity,” “mind uploading,” “panpsychism,” and similar inane notions. But this post isn’t about David.

It’s about Alex Rosenberg. Alex is on the faculty at the prestigious Duke University in North Carolina, and someone I think should get a medal (together with Chalmers, of course) for the highest number of wrongheaded papers in a philosophical career. I met him a few years ago during a two-day conference on “Moving naturalism forward,” organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. The conference was fun, but Alex kept trying to convince us of a notion that he called “happy nihilism,” according to which the universe is devoid of meaning (of course it is, meaning is a human construct), free will doesn’t exist (of course it doesn’t, if one uses the term in the contra-causal sense), and yet, somehow, we can still decide to take all of this on board and be happy.

Setting aside the devastating criticism Alex got at the conference from Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Terrence Deacon, and others, this is also the same bleak picture of the world he presented in his dismal The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, which I reviewed for The Philosophers’ Magazine. Here is a taste of my thinking at the time:

“As a former scientist and now philosopher, I have chastised some of my colleagues for their scientistic attitude. … Thanks to [Rosenberg], I can no longer be accused of fighting a straw man. Rosenberg’s attempt is valiant and will give people much to think about. Except, of course, that according to Rosenberg we cannot really think such things because scientism ‘says’ that chunks of matter cannot possibly produce insights about anything at all, on penalty of violating physicalism.”

Nevermind that such statements are obviously self-contradictory. What was I doing while reading Alex’s book if not thinking about what he wrote? And what was he doing while writing the book? These are all illusions, claims Alex, apparently using the word “illusion” in a novel and profound way that the rest of us are unaware of. I continued my review:

“Take Rosenberg’s denial of the existence of conscious decision-making. Consciousness for him is an epiphenomenon of the brain’s activity. … His major piece of evidence? Benjamin Libet’s experiments in cognitive science. … We are informed [that] ‘consciousness is probably too big a deal not to have been organized by natural selection to solve some design problem or other, perhaps several. Exactly what its functions are, what design problem it solves, neuroscience has not yet figured out.’”

Seriously? Let us set aside that Alex completely misinterprets the implications of Libet’s famous experiments, even contradicting Libet’s own interpretation. He admits that natural selection must have evolved consciousness – which depends on brain structures that are exceedingly metabolically costly – for some reason, but he can’t think of one. Hmm, let’s see, how about the ability to reflect on our actions, make deliberate decisions, plan things ahead? Oh right, those are all illusions. Naturally. Me again:

“For Rosenberg there is no free will, morality, meaning, aboutness and so on because, you see, ‘the physical facts fix all the facts.’ We are never told exactly what this slogan actually means. Well, I’m a big fan of physics, but last time I checked, it didn’t, for instance, ‘fix’ the fact that 2+2=4.”

Nor does physic fix anything at all in the rest of mathematics. And in logic. Continuing the review:

“Rosenberg thinks that economics, the social sciences (not to mention literature, the arts, and his own field of philosophy) are all ‘stories’ that may entertain us, but that should by no means be taken seriously. He doesn’t seem to realize that science – not to mention his very book – also tells stories … because that is the way human beings communicate knowledge and achieve understanding. Science is the right type of story if you want to know about cosmology, but not if you want to learn logic.”

Or history. Or art. I concluded:

“Rosenberg’s scientistic nihilism is analogous to radical skepticism about reality. … It’s thought provoking, there is no scientific evidence that can possibly rule in its favor or against it, and it is best promptly forgotten so that you can get back to thinking about the things that really matter to you.”

Alex, impervious to criticism (well, “he” is only a bunch of subatomic particles without will or aboutness, so – to be fair – how could he change his mind, especially given that the latter is an illusion?), has continued along the same vein in recent years. Just in the last few weeks I’ve read two more articles by him that finally prompted me to write this essay.

The first one, published in The Verge, is actually an interview conducted by Angela Chen, in which Alex “explains” how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history. The interview is about (but wait, nothing is about anything!) his book How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories.” First problem: whenever I hear the words “the neuroscience of…” I instinctively reach for my gun (fortunately, I’m a quasi-pacifist, and I don’t own guns). That’s because nowadays a lot of nonsense is written in the name of neuroscience, unfortunately.

The main trust of Alex’s argument is that neuroscience undermines what is often referred to as our “theory of mind,” the ability to guess other people’s thoughts and motivations. Since historians deploy – without realizing it – a theory of mind whenever they talk about this or that historical figure’s motivations for acting one way or another, their theorizing is made hopelessly obsolete by the modern science of the brain.

Except that Alex is making an astounding mistake here, very similar to the one made, for instance, by fellow atheist Sam Harris in his The Moral Landscape (see my review here). He is confusing a mechanistic explanation of X for the explanation of X, apparently forgetting (or simply outright denying) that explanations – which are human constructs, let us not forget – can be given at different levels, and using different language, depending on how useful they are to the target recipients, i.e., other human beings.

Let me give you an analogous example to show just how bizarre Alex’s claim that neuroscience does away with historical explanations really is. Imagine we were interested in the “neural correlates,” as cognitive scientists call them, of mathematical problem solving. We can stick someone – even a mathematician – into an fMRI machine and find out which areas of her brain lit up when she is involved in simple or complex mathematical thinking, from solving a basic equation to demonstrating Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Now, we will surely find some such neural correlates. We have to, since everything we do, and certainly any kind of higher, conscious thinking, has to be done by way of engaging one part or another of our brains. Otherwise, it would be magic.

But now imagine that our neuroscientist completes his experiment, gets the mathematician out of the fMRI machine, and gingerly informs her that mathematicians are no longer needed, because neuroscience has discovered which areas of the brain they use to solve mathematical problems. Crazy, right? Well, it’s no different from Alex’s reasoning for getting rid of historians, or Harris’ “argument” (I’m using the word charitably) for concluding that science, and neuroscience (which just happens to be his own field) in particular, can now answer moral questions. Ethicists can go play golf.

A few weeks later, Alex did it again! This time in an article he penned himself for 3:AM Magazine, entitled “Is neuroscience a bigger threat than artificial intelligence?” Oh boy. It’s the same basic idea that he has been peddling since The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, though – as in The Verge article – this time it isn’t physics that “fixes all the facts,” it is neuroscience that answers all the questions.

After acknowledging the (alleged, and I think way overblown) threat posed by future advanced AI to humanity (you know, the Singularity, again, Terminator and that sort of things), Alex informs us that the real existential downfall of humanity comes from the research of four Nobel-winning neuroscientists: Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe, Edvard [sic], and May-Britt Moser. What have they done?

“Between them they have shown that the human brain doesn’t work the way conscious experience suggests at all. Instead it operates to deliver human achievements in the way IBM’s Watson does. Thoughts with meaning have no more role in the human brain than in artificial intelligence.”

By now you have surely guessed that this is, again, about the alleged failure of the theory of mind, and that, once again, Alex is simply confusing different levels of explanation, an elementary mistake that you would think a trained philosopher simply wouldn’t make.

The fascinating thing is that Alex actually acknowledges that there is quite a bit of evidence for the theory of mind:

“Several sources of evidence suggest that we have an innate mind-reading ability more powerful than other primates. It’s an ability to track other people’s actions that is triggered soon after birth. Child psychologists have established its operation in pre-linguistic toddlers, while primatologists have shown its absence in other primates even when they exceed infants in other forms of reasoning. Social psychologists have established deficiencies in its deployment among children on the Autism spectrum. fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation studies have localized a brain region that delivers this mind-reading ability. Evolutionary anthropology, game theory and experimental economics have established the indispensability of powerful mind reading for the cooperation and collaboration that resulted in Hominin genus’s rapid ascent of the African savanna’s food chain.”

None of this matters, because neuroscience has (allegedly) “revealed” to us that the theory of mind is “quite as much of a dead end as Ptolemaic astronomy.” Why? Because Kandel and colleagues have shown that if you look into the brain you won’t find beliefs, desires, or reasons, but only specific, dynamic neural pathways.

No kidding, Sherlock. That’s because what we call beliefs, desires and reasons are instantiated in the brain by way of specific neural pathways. The neurobiological level is more basic – but, crucially, no more true – than the psychological one. They provide complementary, not competing, explanations of the same phenomenon. One explanation is more useful to biologists and neuroscientists, another one to psychologists, historians, and art critics, among others.

It’s like the much abused and misunderstood example of the chair in which you may be sitting at this particular time. Physics tells us that said chair is “really” just a collection of quarks, interacting in the way prescribed by the fundamental laws of nature. This is certainly the case, but by a long shot not the whole picture. Your chair is also “solid” at the level of analysis pertinent to human beings who wish to sit down in order to read a blog post, not to mention those other human beings that designed and built the chair itself. The chair is most definitely not an illusion, just because it can be (usefully, depending on the context) be described in different ways. Explanatory complementarity, not competition.

A side note, as a biologist, on Kandel et al.’s indubitably scientifically fascinating work: it was done on rats, because the pertinent experiments are too invasive and unethical to be conducted on human beings. With his usual braggadocio, Alex informs us that this doesn’t matter at all:

“Of course you could argue that what Nobel Prize winning research shows about rats is irrelevant to humans. But you’d be flying in the face of clinical evidence about human deficits and disorders, anatomical and physiological identities between the structure of rat and human brains, and the detailed molecular biology of learning and information transmission in the neuronal circuitry of both us and Rattus rattus, the very reasons neuroscientists interested in human brains have invested so much time and effort in learning how rat brains work. And won Nobel Prizes for doing it.”

I got news for Alex: while, again, Kandel et al.’s research is most certainly important, enough to win the Nobel, translating things from rats to humans is definitely not that obvious or straightforward. It is simply false that rat and human brains have a large number of anatomical and physiological identities, as the perusal of any introductory book on mammalian anatomy will readily confirm. Heck, our brains are substantially different from those of higher primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, which is a major reason we need to be careful when we extrapolate from the latter (let alone rats) to humans. For instance, we have little to go by, in terms of comparative brain anatomy and physiology, to explain exquisite and crucially human traits like language (not just communication) and iterative cultural evolution. Take a look at this book by my colleague Kevin Laland to appreciate just how carefully biologists (as distinct from some philosophers) are when it comes to interspecies comparisons.

Don’t get me wrong. Alex Rosenberg is a really smart guy, and his misguided writings are necessary in order to sharpen our thinking about all sorts of matters. After all, the British Royal Society awarded physicist Fred Hoyle (the author of the steady state theory in cosmology, which for a while rivaled the big bang theory) a medal for the highest number of wrong ideas proposed in a scientific career. This was not an example of British sarcasm, they meant it in all seriousness, as Hoyle’s theories have arguably played an important role in advancing cosmology. Perhaps we should establish a similar prize in philosophy. I have a couple of candidates in mind…