The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is a hard-nosed and unsentimental answer to “the persistent questions,” the sort of questions that keep one awake at night in a state of wonder or terror. The eminent philosopher of science from Duke University unhesitatingly offers the following answers to these softs of questions:

  1. Is there a God? No.
  2. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
  3. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
  4. What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
  5. Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
  6. Does prayer work? Of course not.
  7. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
  8. Is there free will? Not a chance!
  9. What happens when I die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
  10. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
  11. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
  12. 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.
  13. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and furry, but signifies nothing.
  14. Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.

Through twelve delightfully written chapters, Rosenberg unflinchingly explains why our scientific knowledge–the only kind of knowledge we can trust–ought to lead us (especially those of us who call ourselves ‘atheists’) to these answers. He has little patience for ‘New Atheist’ writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as he thinks there is little point in wresting unbelief out of believers through rational argument. And why should he when he is committed these propositions?

  1. The methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.
  2. The physical facts fix all the facts.
  3. Evolution conditioned us to believe stories rather than the deliverances of science.
  4. There are no objective moral facts–nihilism is the case.
  5. Introspection is an unreliable source of knowledge.
  6. There is no intentionality–one clump of matter cannot be about another.
  7. The mind is identical with the brain and mental states are just brain states.
  8. Hard determinism is true and therefore there is nothing we deserve; meriting praise or blame makes no sense.
  9. Existential despair (and other problems) can, in principle, be cured through taking Prozac and other psychotropic drugs.
  10. All the “soft sciences” like economics, psychology, and sociology are hopelessly unreliable and offer nothing of value to guide us through life.

This unusual embrace of “scientism” sets Rosenberg apart from other atheists that are content to remain “naturalists”–the sort of atheists who try to hang on to things like morality and intentionality. Or so says Rosenberg. His is the path atheists must take to live a life “without illusions,” though, he tacitly admits, he is glad that some of them are still around.(It would be very bad if there weren’t a “core morality” in place to keep us from raping and pillaging each other!)

All this raises the question: is Rosenberg’s book a good guide to reality for the atheist? If it is, then I think it provides some very good reasons to reject atheism. For all his bluster about scientism, there is not a single page that deals with this intuitive argument:

  1. The methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything (premise).
  2. Premise 1 cannot be secured by the methods of science (1 is ranged over by “anything”).
  3. Therefore, the the methods of science are not the only reliable ways to secure knowledge (MT 1, 2).

The closest Rosenberg comes to justifying premise 1 is by appealing to the stunning technological success we have achieved through the physical sciences, but this is an absurdly weak inductive inference for such a strong claim. There simply is no good reason to believe premise 1 is true.

His treatment of morality is more interesting as I largely agree that the Euthyphro dilemma can applied to ethical naturalism. What makes our ‘core morality’ moral? Either it is moral because the Darwinian mechanism selected it, or it is selected because it is moral. If it is the latter, ethical naturalism is false because there would be a set of nonnatural moral facts that stand independent of the physical facts that select them. If it is the former, then morality is arbitrary. Therefore, there is no objective morality, and whatever core morality we have is in place just because it was selected for survival (but things could have been very different).

Well and good, but then what to make of the argument from evil? Rosenberg, like any atheist worth his salt, deploys the problem of evil by noting that the horrors of the 20th century make reality rough enough already without God, and much worse if we add “a moral monster who arranged it all to happen.” But the problem of evil is a problem precisely because evil is a part of reality, yet Rosenberg’s metaphysics (which is just a commitment physics) leaves no room for an objective evil. If there is no objective evil, then there is no problem of evil! If this is not the case, then the following response is available to the theist:

  1. If God did not exist, then objective values would not exist.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore, objective values exist (from the definition of evil)
  4. Therefore, God exists.

In either case the problem of evil is a problem or it is not. If it is, then scientism is false; and if not, then it is not available as an objection to theism.

There is more that could be said about Rosenberg’s elimination of intentionality and the claim that introspection is unreliable, but it will suffice to say that if he is right about these, then it is not clear why science would be a helpful guide to understand reality. Do we not rely on introspection to recall scientific facts and theorems and do we not think about the things we are observing? If it really is the case that no clump of matter thinks about another clump  of matter, then neither does a clump of matter do science about another clump of matter, nor does one clump of matter come to know anything through science about another clump of matter. Certainly atheists can find a more reliable guide to reality than this.

At any rate, Rosenberg’s romp through life’s ultimate questions is as fun as it is infuriating and for that reason alone he should be read widely by anyone who takes no comfort in illusions.

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