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Washington Diarist: The Answers

Is there a god? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it. Does history have any meaning or purpose? “It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.” I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.

Not long ago the prestige of science was nastily contested by American politics, as conservatism’s war on evolution, environmental science, and other forms of empirical research threatened to confound the American sense of reality. It was George W. Bush against Francis Bacon. Against this obscurantism—which has long held sway over significant portions of the American electorate—it was necessary to offer a ferocious defense of the premises, and the blessings, of scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong. Or rather, it is the view that there is no realm of human life in which they do not belong. Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” (I have cited most of them above.) This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” And not just science in general, but physics in particular. “All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.” And: “Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts—the facts about us, our psychology, and our morality.” All that remains is to choose the wine.

In this way science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. Rosenberg does not translate non-scientific facts into scientific facts; he denies that non-scientific facts exist at all. But in what way is, say, The Jewish Bride a scientific fact? It is certainly composed of fermions and bosons, but such knowledge, however true and fundamental, casts no light upon the power of the painting, or the reasons for its appeal. The description of everything in terms of fermions and bosons cannot account for the differences, in meaning and in effect, between particular combinations of fermions and bosons. But Rosenberg’s complacence survives such an objection, since he holds also that “the meanings we think are carried by our thoughts, our words, and our actions are just sand castles we build in the air.” This leads him to a boorish attack on the humanities, which are “nothing we have to take seriously, except as symptoms.” What they symptomize is “the search for motives and meanings in thoughts about things,” which has all been retired by neuroscience; and also our sad need for narrative. (Never mind his bedtime story about the adventures of the hominid in the savanna.) The humanities are “fun,” he avers, but they “are a scientific dead end.” And so they are, which is a big part of their claim upon our reverence. It does not help that Rosenberg cannot spell the well-known name of the ancient Latin poem that he admires; or that he regards F.R. Leavis as the inventor of the New Criticism and “the progenitor of preposterous twentieth-century literary theory”; or that he gives “the Humanities’ greatest hits” as The OdysseyHamletWar and PeaceMiddlemarch, and Sophie’s Choice. I thought that the argument for imagination and interpretation as instruments of human knowledge was settled long ago—when Vico read the ancients, or when Mill read Coleridge, or when Dilthey read Schleiermacher; but here we are, still wrestling with the distinction between explanation and understanding, still enduring the old crap about the hegemony of the natural sciences.

This shabby book is riddled with other notions that typify our time. Rosenberg maintains that atheism entails materialism, as if the integrity of the non-material realms of life can be secured only by the existence of a deity. Reason does not move him, no doubt because of the threat it poses to the physicalist tyranny. He asserts, as would anyone who does not live in Congo, that “most people are nice most of the time,” because “we were selected for niceness,” which is all we need for ethics. He calls this “nice nihilism,” since it promotes moral values without moral beliefs. As for “Hitlers, Stalins, Mao Zedongs, Pol Pots, and Osama bin Ladens”—the people who are not nice most of the time—“biology has the answer”: there are always variations in inherited traits. But the variations cannot be the answer, because they are the question. Moreover, most people are both good and bad, neither devils nor angels. Rosenberg is untroubled by such complications. He is untroubled by everything under the sun. The man’s peace of mind is indecent. “We know the truth,” he declares sacerdotally in his preface. “Some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug. I fear I have to plead guilty to this charge ...” Once upon a time science was the enemy of smugness.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.