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The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions
by Alex Rosenberg
W. W. Norton, 368 pages, $25.95

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is refreshingly and ruthlessly consistent. It is also utterly incoherent, and precisely because it is so consistent. In drawing out its absurd consequences, Alex Rosenberg, an atheist professor of philosophy at Duke University, has written a compelling refutation of modern atheism. That is not what he planned to do. In fact, he didn’t plan to do anything, since there are in his view no plans, designs, or purposes of any sort at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself, or I would be if there were “selves” to get ahead of, Rosenberg assures us that there are none of those either.

Rosenberg doesn’t provide much in the way of argument for atheism, for he thinks the truth of atheism is obvious from modern science, or at least, that it is obvious to anyone who shares his commitment to scientism , the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge of reality. His project is rather to show his fellow unbelievers that the conclusions following from the scientism that typically underlies their atheism are far more subversive of received opinion, and indeed far more bizarre, than even they realize.

In arguing that these conclusions really follow from scientism, he is largely successful. What he fails to do is to provide any good reason to think either that his scientistic premises are true or that the preposterous conclusions he draws from them are anything other than the decisive reductio ad absurdum they appear to be.

The fundamental principle of Rosenberg’s scientism, repeated like a mantra throughout the book, is that “the physical facts fix all the facts.” What ultimately exist are just fermions and bosons and the physical laws that describe the way these particles and that of the larger objects made up of them behave. These laws make no reference to purposes, designs, final causes, or teleology of any sort. Hence anything that is real is really just fermions and bosons behaving in the purposeless, meaningless ways described by physics. Chemistry, biology, and neuroscience tell us about reality because what they tell us is entirely reducible to physics. Anything not so reducible tells us nothing at all about reality.

And that brings us to Rosenberg’s conclusions. Naturally, it follows from his scientism that there is no God and that neither the universe as a whole nor human life in particular has any meaning, point, or purpose. Nor is there free will, life after death, or any objective difference between right and wrong. Secular humanist morality is no less illusory than any other kind, and the consistent atheist ought to be a nihilist, though a “nice” one. This much is familiar enough atheist boilerplate, even if there are atheists who resist some of it.

But Rosenberg is just getting started. Since what is real is only what is reducible to physics, there are no meanings, purposes, designs, or plans of any sort, not even at the level of the human mind. Our thoughts only seem to be “about” things. And if they have no meaning, we cannot really have any plans and purposes at all. Indeed, the self that appears to think meaningful thoughts, to form plans, and to persist through the continual rewiring of the neural circuitry of the brain is also an illusion.

Since history, literature, and the other humanities purport to describe this illusory world of selves, meanings, and purposes, they are not true sources of knowledge. They are mere entertainments, providing no understanding whatsoever of the human condition. Only physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience reveal the true causes of all human behavior.

Many philosophers similarly inclined toward scientism will resist Rosenberg’s more extreme conclusions. But as he points out, their attempts to accommodate the meaningfulness of our thoughts and other aspects of the human mind to a materialist conception of reality face notoriously intractable difficulties. He makes a plausible case that if scientism is true, then there is no way to stop short of an across-the-board eliminative materialism: the view that what cannot be reduced to the categories of physical science simply does not exist and must be eliminated entirely from our picture of the world. Rosenberg freely admits that the consequences seem too fantastic to believe, but if we accept scientism, believe them we must.

But why should anyone accept scientism in the first place? Rosenberg gives a single brazen non sequitur in its defense. The predictive power, explanatory range, and technological successes of physics, he says, far outstrip those of other purported sources of knowledge. And this, he concludes, shows that what physics tells us is real is all that is real. But this is like arguing that since metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins in more places than any other method, metal detectors show that only coins exist.

Physics studies those aspects of the natural world that are susceptible to the mathematical modeling that make prediction and technological application possible. It simply doesn’t follow that there are no other aspects of the natural world. Indeed, as Bertrand Russell, who was also a foe of religion and a great admirer of science, emphasized, precisely because of its mathematical methods, physics gives us only a description of the abstract structure of the natural world, and tells us nothing about the inner nature of the things that flesh out that structure. Far from giving us an exhaustive picture of reality, physics is in fact unintelligible unless there is more to reality than it tells us.

The fallaciousness of Rosenberg’s case for scientism is nothing compared to the incoherence of its implications. The notion of “illusion” is his key weapon, deployed again and again to deal with all the obvious counterevidence to his claims. Yet in what sense can any claim be illusory, mistaken, or false given Rosenberg’s picture of reality? For illusion , mistake , falsehood , and the like are all normative concepts; they presuppose a meaning that has failed to represent things correctly or a purpose that something has failed to realize.

Yet we are repeatedly assured by Rosenberg that there are no purposes or meanings of any sort whatsoever. But then, how can there be illusions and falsehoods? For that matter, how can there be truth or correctness, including the truth and correctness he would ascribe to science alone? For these concepts too are normative, as they presuppose the realization of a purpose and the accuracy of a meaning or representation.

Logic itself is normative insofar as inferences aim at truth and insofar as the logical relationships between beliefs and statements derive from their meanings. Hence if there are no meanings or purposes, there is no truth or logic either. And thus there is no science, at least if science is supposed to give us something true or rational. Rosenberg’s scientism makes of all statements, scientific statements no less than moral or theological ones, mere meaningless strings of ink marks or noises, no more true or false, rational or irrational than bosons and fermions are.

Though Rosenberg happily owns the label nihilist , he assures us that we needn’t fear the consequences of nihilism because the illusion of morality, like many of the other aspects of common sense he regards as fictions, has been programmed into us by evolution. Still, given that we lack free will, we must in his view abandon that part of morality that presupposes moral responsibility and the rewards and punishments that go along with it.

Leave aside the sheer naivete of supposing that morality could have the same hold over us once we are convinced it is an illusion. Leave aside the question of whether morality even remains intelligible when the notion of moral responsibility is detached from it. Why exactly does Rosenberg think we can and should tolerate the illusion of morality though we cannot or should not tolerate the illusions of free will and responsibility, the self, meaning and purpose, or indeed God and the soul? He never tells us.

Rosenberg has a habit of accusing those who disagree with him of bad faith and wishful thinking; only he and those of like mind, he supposes, are rational, clear-headed, and willing to follow an argument to its logical conclusion. Evidently there is at least one illusion he cannot live without.

Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College and author of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld) and The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustine Press).

Image by Annatsach via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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