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Does Science Lead to Atheism?

Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen.

Alex Rosenberg
Source: Alex Rosenberg

This is the fourth in a new series of posts on Science and Philosophy, featuring interviews with influential scientists and philosophers of science. Previous interviews featured Bas van Fraassen, Cailin O'Connor, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University (with secondary appointments in the biology and political science departments). Alex has been a visiting professor at universities including Oxford and, more recently, the Philosophy Department at the Research School of Social Science of the Australian National University and the University of Bristol. In 1993 Alex received the Lakatos Award in the philosophy of science, the most prestigious prize in the field. He's the author of more than a dozen academic books and a couple of hundred papers.

Walter Veit: Alex, why did you become a philosopher?

Alex Rosenberg: I was a physics student but I made a conceptual mistake, thinking that physical explanations had to show why the actual was necessary and intelligible. It took reading David Hume to see my mistake, but by that time it was too late to go back to physics.

Walter Veit: You say that moving into philosophy was a "conceptual mistake." What, then, is the relation between philosophy and science? Do we still need philosophy when science starts to answer old philosophical questions? In an earlier interview, Bas van Fraassen said that he has "no admiration for either naturalism or scientism in general, let alone for the Alex Rosenberg variety." Where does your disagreement lie?

Alex Rosenberg: I believe that all of the major, serious, questions raised by philosophy (they’re all old, and almost all to be found in Plato) can be answered by the sciences. Philosophy is the discipline that preserves and clarifies these questions until they are finally answered by science. Bas does not hold out such a hope for science. And he is a believer.

Walter Veit: In your book The Atheist's Guide to Reality, you argue that there is not much reason to provide arguments against God's existence. Nevertheless, you don't shy away from debating creationists. Did you regret your discussion with William Lane Craig? I imagine that you might have received a lot of reactions from committed theists. Did you get any positive reactions or were you able to convince anyone of a naturalist worldview?

Alex Rosenberg: I said I didn’t need to provide arguments against god’s existence because there were already so many good ones, and lots of evidence against god’s existence too. The aim of the book was to sketch out what else we atheists should endorse, if we endorse atheism owing to scientific considerations. I debated Craig for the money and the chance to plug my book. I only wish I had taken a more mocking tone and had a lighter touch. There were some non-theists in the crowd, and I think I did move one or two people who reached me afterwards by email.

Walter Veit: Have you always been an atheist?

Alex Rosenberg: I think so. Can’t recall having sincere religious belief, even as a young child. Maybe, like most people, I hoped something theistic was true.

Part 2 of the interview.

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Rosenberg, A. (2011). The atheist's guide to reality: Enjoying life without illusions. WW Norton & Company.