Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God”

So, I finished reading “Sense & Goodness Without God” by Richard Carrier, and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by having better arguments. In fact, often he doesn’t really have arguments at all, but instead has small sections where he arrogantly tells us just how right he is, while leaving a long, italicized section at the end to tell us all of the things we ought to read to know how right he is, which is often longer than what he actually says in the section. This doesn’t work for either a popular work or for a detailed philosophical work. For the former, as most people won’t, in fact, read those works either he must be appealing to authority — look at all the people who agree with me, I must be right! — or ask them to take it on faith that the arguments are really there and are really devastating if we read them ourselves. For the latter, philosophers might well be willing to or have already read the works, but then what you’re supposed to do is summarize the important points and show how they directly reinforce your point, and then simply cite the works later. Carrier doesn’t do that, and so his actual words aren’t convincing and few will be willing to dive into the massive additional reading that he recommends. It very much seems like Carrier wants us to do his work for him.

If we could consider Carrier a fair commentator on the work of others, this wouldn’t matter quite so much, but Carrier spends a lot of time refuting points that he never really summarizes, and barely quotes. Despite Carrier often railing against quote-mining, all of his attempts to address others are nothing more than his pulling in short quotes out of context and then trying to refute that as if that was entirely the point. If that was entirely the point, then Carrier’s counter-arguments might work, but we ought to be suspicious that that really is the entire point … and, again, Carrier really gives up no reason to do the extra work to think that he’s right. In general, we’d be far better served by reading someone else than by doing the massive amount of work required to get Carrier’s points.

Many of Carrier’s points proving naturalism/materialism seem to boil down to wordy claims of “If I can find a way that it could be natural, then we ought to consider it such”, which has been said better elsewhere and with more credible natural solutions. Some of his arguments are interesting, but not enough to convince me that his view is worth considering to the level that his arrogant prose suggests we should. Also, the book needs updating, because he is very much convinced of things then that he seems to be not convinced of now, such as how he relies on his love for his now ex-wife to say that he knows what love is and entails, which doesn’t seem to be how he sees it now. Sure, the personal life of the author isn’t relevant to an argument unless he uses his personal beliefs as proof of how he just knows something was true that he doesn’t think is true now. Which carries over into his view of science, as he seems to try to claim that we know that science is reliable because it gets things wrong but corrects for it, which might establish that science overall is reliable, but not in the way he wants so that we should prefer any scientific answer because, it seems, science will eventually get it right, and this might just be the right answer. Yeah, if I find a scientific answer sufficiently counter-intuitive and science cannot answer for why my intuitions are wrong, saying “Well, it might be wrong, but it’ll get it right eventually!” is not going to help.

This is book crying out for fisking, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to it. Suffice it to say that there are better books out there to try to argue for materialism, and that even the prose of this book is annoying and hard to get through. It’s a slog to read and you probably aren’t going to learn anything that you couldn’t find out from far more entertaining works. I cannot recommend this work to anyone, even the people it is aimed at.


4 Responses to “Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God””

  1. Tom Says:

    I have to say this was a bit of a disappointing review, because I was actually looking forward to a through fisking of the book. Sometimes Carrier can be interesting, but I’m fully in agreement with you on his arrogance: I remember rolling my eyes at a particular blog post where he made a remark like ‘that is the function of my writing: it settles all rational debate.’ I mean, Jeezus Pleezus….

    Anyway, I really hope to read more from you on the book since I bought it years ago and would like to hear more of your take.

  2. bb Says:

    “I have to say this was a bit of a disappointing review, because I was actually looking forward to a through fisking of the book.”


    Especially since the review started out so deliciously. (A review of Rosenberg would also be cool).

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I actually have some plans to go through some of Carrier’s more problematic arguments, but mostly starting from his blog posts on the matter and then working in some of the book things if I remember. I just haven’t really had the time and have had other things to talk about instead.

      Did you already read my post reviewing Rosenberg, linked above? I go into those arguments in a lot more detail than I did with Carrier.

  3. bb Says:

    I saw the Rosenberg one later, but for some reason it was not all that entertaining… I guess I have forgotten much of what Rosenberg wrote. In my view all of this stuff simply cuts off the branch the arguer is sitting on since they are forced to allude to all sorts of genuine intentionality and normativity in making their arguments (Rosenberg claims he is not trying to get you to believe his arguments, rather only to “alter your informational structure” or something — but that’s just a fancy way of saying the same thing — as intentional realists like Fodor happily admit, folk psychology can be, and will have to be, somewhat regimented, but it’s still a good first cut at the truth as well as being practically useful).

    I kind of think Rosenberg might be having a bit of a joke, but Carrier is deadly, earnestly, obnoxiously, self-righteously serious, so going after him would be more worthwhile and entertaining.

    I might try to do so also at some point. Two of the biggest things are his account of morality, which is a terribly silly bit of equivocation on “desire” (although along the lines of some serious moral theorists like Michael Smith),and his account of scientific epistemology, with a bogus, procrustean, simplistic attempt to use Bayes’s theorem (“the key to the universe” “lust for glory” barf). One could also google “calling all physicists” for a laugh.

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