Interview with Professor Alex Rosenberg – R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy, Duke University

by | April 2, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. Here we talk about his life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Professor Alex Rosenberg: I was born after the Second World War in Austria, my parents were refugees from Poland. We emigrated the US in 1949 and I lived in several rural locations before moving New York City at the age of 9.

My father was a physician and my mother became a social worker in the US, eventually teaching at Columbia U. I have a fraternal twin brother. Our upbringing was secular and non-religious. 

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Rosenberg: My formal education continued and still continues long after my PhD at the age of 23. Being an academic means you are continually educating yourself. Is it informal? Perhaps.

No courses exams and grades, but you have to meet academic standards in what you write and argue for. That’s formal. I spend a few years after becoming a full professor going back to grad school, studying, molecular biology. Made a huge difference to my understanding.

Jacobsen: Within your extensive academic and literary career, what do you see as your most enduring contributions to Academia and to the written canon of nonbelievers?

Rosenberg: I suspect that “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” and “How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories” will outlast my other academic writing.

But I fear both will be long forgotten before people stop reading my novels. The first of them, “The Girl from Krakow” is atheistic in its tenor.

Jacobsen: What arguments best support the atheist position?

Rosenberg: The strongest positive support for atheism is science, physics and biology. “The Atheist’s Guide” sketches the science that strongly supports atheism. In it I hope to show what else atheist’s need to believe about reality, and why it all so strongly supports atheism.

The strongest negative support is the argument from evil against theism. For me that argument has been more of a motivation to search for positive arguments that support atheism.

Jacobsen: What arguments best respond to the or counter the strongest arguments for the theist position?

Rosenberg: As I said, the argument from evil. It is psychologically the most effective argument and the epistemic version is philosophically the most cogent one.

Jacobsen: For those who do not know, what best defines Darwinian Reductionism? How does this provide an explanatory framework for our innate and culturally developed ethics in addition to our cognitive capacities as primates?

Rosenberg: Darwinian reductionism is just my label for the way molecular biology relates to the rest of biology. It’s a label for an academic thesis.

The label for my explanatory claims about our cognitive capacities, ethical doctrines and social structures is more broadly “disenchanted naturalism” and more narrowly “nice nihilism”—the doctrine that our ethical values constrain us to be largely civilized to one another, nice, but don’t have a firm or any foundation.

Jacobsen: Most views of atheism come in the form of negation or denial of the existence of gods or a singular God.

If we take the stance of atheism given within the affirmative arguments presented in the earlier responses, what ethics are more likely to follow or be implied by an atheistic view of the cosmos?

Rosenberg: No ethical view follows from atheism… that’s too limited a basis for any conclusions beyond the nonexistence of god. It’s the (scientific) premises of arguments against God’s existence that have such implications.

Generally, they resign us to the emptiness of arguments for the objectivity of the core morality we all share—atheists and theists, while reassuring us that mostly we are cooperative, altruistic, sociable creatures who get along with one another pretty well… under conditions of moderate scarcity.

Jacobsen: Why does our innate predisposition for narrative, for oral stories, bias our comprehension of history, when presented as narrative? How can we alleviate the misrepresentations of this narrative bias to better gain access to the truth of the past?

Rosenberg: We’re the result of a Darwinian process that selected for storytellers as a solution to the design problem of collaboration and cooperation on the African savanna in the Pleistocene.

Neuroscience shows that this adaptation was a quick and dirty but quite crude solution to the problem and that now we are living with its consequences for human institutions that are often harmful.

If we want to get a grip on our past, we need to surrender the demand for story telling and substitute scientific modeling. That’s what “How History Gets Things Wrong” is all about.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Rosenberg: I don’t know how they can do that, but doing it is rewarding psychologically…we were shaped to be nice, and that means sharing enlightenment with others.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Rosenberg: It’s easier to be a Canadian atheist than an American one. I wish I had not forgone my chance to be a Canadian atheist when I left Nova Scotia almost 44 years ago!

Despite the weather, you should enjoy your nations’ moral superiority to America.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Alex.

Rosenberg: It’s my great pleasure, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Stephen Berling on Unsplash

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