The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

The following is the unabridged version of a review published in the Christian Research Journal 36:3 (2013). Thanks to CRI for permission to post it here.

Christian philosophers have been developing and refining arguments for the existence of God since the earliest times, but it’s not often one comes across a convinced atheist making a powerful philosophical case for the existence of God. Yet that’s precisely what we find—quite contrary to the author’s intent—in Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

The Atheist's Guide to RealityDr. Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He specializes in the philosophy of science (he wrote a widely-used introductory text in that field) and has focused particular attention on the philosophy of biology. He’s also an atheist—and an impressively hard-nosed one too. Although he shares the evolutionary naturalist worldview of Richard Dawkins, the important difference between these two atheists is that Rosenberg is philosophically trained and far better equipped to recognize and spell out the full implications of his worldview. And that’s precisely what the Atheist’s Guide sets out to do. Rosenberg’s book is directed primarily at his fellow atheists and seeks to persuade them that they haven’t done enough intellectual house-cleaning. If they’re to take their worldview seriously they must purge it of every last remnant of theism. Cold hard reality is far stranger than they think. Rosenberg thus sets out valiantly to dispel the lingering superstitions of his unbelieving comrades.

One can only admire the clarity, wit, and intellectual honesty of Rosenberg’s book. He represents a robust and muscular anti-theism, not the limp-wristed pseudo-atheism one so often encounters today. For example, it has become common to redefine ‘atheism’ as merely the absence of belief in God rather than belief in the absence of God. (Aside from its other benefits, this redefinition effortlessly boosts the number of ‘atheists’ in the world, but at the cost of failing to distinguish atheism from agnosticism.) Similarly, many atheists will insist that atheism isn’t a worldview: it’s merely the repudiation of one. But Rosenberg knows how superficial and evasive such claims are. In his view atheism involves not only a positive affirmation of God’s non-existence but also compelling arguments for that affirmation. And while atheism as such may not constitute a worldview, it has wide-ranging implications for one’s worldview, especially when coupled with the scientific theories cherished by modern atheists. As he writes:

There is much more to atheism than its knockdown arguments that there is no God. There is the whole rest of the worldview that comes along with atheism. It’s a demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality, one that has been vindicated beyond reasonable doubt. It’s called science. (p. viii)

Readers who look forward to learning more about these “knockdown arguments” for atheism will be disappointed. But to be fair, refuting theism would be tangential to the purpose of Rosenberg’s book—which, let us recall, isn’t meant to convince anyone of atheism but to get convinced atheists to follow through consistently with their atheism.

So the worldview that goes with atheism is ‘science’. (The less-than-subtle insinuation, of course, is that theism must be anti-science.) Yet as the book progresses it becomes abundantly clear that when Rosenberg refers to ‘science’ he frequently means scientism. Scientism isn’t merely a commitment to the scientific method and the supposed deliverances of science. Scientism is the absolutization of science: the conviction that science alone gives us an accurate understanding of reality. Scientism, in other words, is the view that the only reality is scientific reality. As Rosenberg puts it:

Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about. … Being scientistic just means treating science as our exclusive guide to reality, to nature—both our own nature and everything else’s. (pp. 7-8)

A well-informed atheist, then, will endorse scientism. What’s more, this “scientific worldview”—like any other worldview—offers answers to our Big Questions about life, the universe, and everything. We may not like those answers—we may find them discomfiting, counterintuitive, even downright absurd—but scientism does offer very clear answers to such questions. Indeed, Rosenberg seems to takes an almost perverse delight in driving home those answers. In an entertaining first chapter he lists some of these Big Questions and summarizes the ‘correct’ answers:

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

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.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it had any to begin with.

If nothing else, Rosenberg does us a great service by making plain that modern atheism is a philosophical package deal. No one could take this book seriously and remain indifferent about whether or not God exists.

After setting out the purpose and basic orientation of the book, Rosenberg proceeds in the remaining eleven chapters to explain, as clearly and compellingly as he can, precisely why the answers above must be the correct ones. A review of this length cannot interact with every chapter, but suffice it to say that I found his central arguments to be lucidly expressed and largely cogent. An atheist committed to scientism should indeed answer those Big Questions much as Rosenberg does. The snag, however, is that some of those answers are worse than unappealing and counterintuitive. They’re downright self-defeating. In the end, what Rosenberg serves up is a reductio ad absurdum of modern atheism.

For the purposes of this review we need only focus on what Rosenberg contends about two things we take for granted: morality and mentality. In the early chapters of the book, Rosenberg makes clear what he thinks science tells us about the fundamental nature of reality. In short, everything that exists reduces to physical particles: “The basic things everything is made up of are fermions and bosons. That’s it.” (p. 21) Humans, just like everything else, are purely physical objects in a purely physical universe. Moreover, this physical universe is causally closed: “The only causes in the universe are physical causes, and everything in the universe that has a cause has a physical cause.” (pp. 25-26) The grand conclusion we should draw from this picture is this: “The physical facts fix all the facts.” (p. 26) Scientism thus commits one to physicalism: everything that takes place in the universe, including every aspect of human life, can be explained in terms of purely physical facts. From this it follows that there is no real purpose or design anywhere. Reality is non-teleological from the bottom up. Scientism means that “we have to be nihilists about the purpose of things in general, about the purpose of biological life in particular, and the purpose of life in general.” (p. 92)

The relentless logic continues in chapter 5, where Rosenberg argues that teleological nihilism leads to moral nihilism. When it comes to matters of morality, “Anything goes.” There are simply no correct answers to any moral questions. Rosenberg’s case for moral nihilism is intriguing because it involves a new spin on an old conundrum known as “Euthyphro’s dilemma”. The dilemma, originally posed in one of Plato’s dialogues, is usually wielded against theists. Take any moral law commanded by God (e.g., “You shall not steal”) and ask this question: Is the law right because God commands it or does God command the law because it’s right? Neither option is satisfying for the theist. Apparently unaware of the standard theist solutions to the problem, Rosenberg thinks that Euthyphro’s dilemma torpedoes any God-based morality, but he argues that a parallel dilemma faces any evolutionary account of morality where our moral beliefs are the product of unguided natural selection. Anthropologists tell us that humans have a “core morality”: a set of basic moral principles that are common to all (or nearly all) human cultures. We take for granted that this core morality is basically correct, that the principles we hold are the morally right ones. But now ask this question: Were these principles selected because they’re correct or are they correct because they were selected? Rosenberg argues that neither option makes sense. The only way out of the dilemma is to reject the assumption that our core morality is the correct one. Scientism thus drives us to moral nihilism.

Some of Rosenberg’s readers may be unsettled by his argument that none of our moral beliefs are really true (although he isn’t the first atheist to endorse moral nihilism). Yet this conclusion is tame in comparison to what follows. For in the next few chapters Rosenberg argues, in effect, that we have no true beliefs at all. Rosenberg had earlier remarked (while arguing for moral nihilism) that “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs” and “there is strong evidence that natural selection produces lots of false but useful beliefs” (pp. 110-111). But it turns out that his views are even more radical that these candid statements would suggest. He actually thinks that, strictly speaking, we don’t have beliefs at all—not even false ones.

Chapter 7 softens up the reader by arguing that human introspection (“watching or listening to ourselves think”) is radically misleading. Apparently most of what we think about how we think is wildly mistaken, at least if we take science (i.e., scientism) seriously. In fact, our greatest mistake is thinking that we actually think about anything:

Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds. … Thinking about things is an overwhelmingly powerful illusion. (pp. 162-163)

Rosenberg admits that this sounds absurd, but reckons he has a knockdown argument for it. He takes a whole chapter to set it out, but the basic idea can be stated quite briefly. Introspection tells us that our thoughts are about things. For example, your thought that Paris is the capital of France is about something, namely, Paris. We might say that the thought is directed toward Paris. The technical term for this ‘aboutness’ or ‘directedness’ of our thoughts is intentionality. However, as Rosenberg explains, intentionality can’t be an intrinsic property of physical objects. As he puts it, “one clump of matter can’t be about another clump of matter” (p. 186). Yet scientism says that there is no mind distinct from the brain: thinking is something your brain does. And your brain is just one more clump of matter in the universe. Ergo, if your thoughts are nothing more than physical brain states then your thoughts can’t really be about anything. So your thought that Paris is the capital of France isn’t really about Paris. It can’t be, if Rosenberg’s “scientific worldview” is correct.

Needless to say, this is a very hard pill to swallow. It isn’t just counterintuitive; it seems utterly incoherent. If scientism means that we can’t really have thoughts about anything then we can’t have thoughts about scientism; in which case, one has to wonder what Rosenberg has been doing all this time. Heroically, Rosenberg sees the bullet and bites it hard. By his own confession, his book isn’t really about anything:

This book isn’t conveying statements. It’s rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information. Treat it as correcting maps instead of erasing sentences. (p. 193)

In other words, Rosenberg’s response to the charge of incoherence is a radically revisionist view of our cognitive activities: thinking, writing, reading, speaking, interpreting, reasoning, and any other activities that involve ‘aboutness’.

But this sort of revisionism just won’t fly, for not even Rosenberg can purge all ‘aboutness’ from his discourse. For example, what should we do with all those claims about false moral beliefs in chapter 5? Beliefs can only be true or false if they’re about things: intentionality is a precondition for truth-valuation. And how can we make any sense out of the claim that intentionality is an illusion? The very idea of illusion presupposes intentionality. If we’re misled by introspection, we must be misled about something. We can’t have false beliefs about our brains if we don’t really have beliefs about anything. Intentionality is like that stubborn wrinkle in your carpet: stamp it down in one place and it just pops up somewhere else.

The upshot is that Rosenberg’s uncompromising scientism can only be believed and intelligibly communicated if it is in fact false. One could scarcely find a more self-defeating position than that! It’s not as though Rosenberg is unaware of these problems; he’s all too familiar with the obvious objections. Yet he does little more than give a smug philosophical shrug in response.

Morality and mentality aren’t the only illusions Rosenberg wants to expose. The sum of the book is that scientifically knowledgeable atheists should disbelieve in cosmic purpose and direction, historical progress, meaningful human existence, life after death, moral truths, free will, the directedness of our thoughts, our ability to formulate and execute plans, and the reality of a first-person point-of-view. (Surprisingly, although Rosenberg denies self-consciousness, he won’t go so far as to deny consciousness altogether: a conspicuous holdback for such a hard-nosed physicalist.)

This is hardly an inspiring message, although Rosenberg has a fix for any readers who find this ‘reality’ depressing: take Prozac. (Remember, your feelings are really nothing more than brain chemistry.) Of course, the fact that a worldview is depressing doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. But if scientism conflicts with so many common-sense beliefs, don’t we therefore have excellent reason to reject scientism? Or does Rosenberg have a compelling argument for scientism that trumps all these common-sense beliefs? Hardly. In fact, Rosenberg’s positive argument for scientism is astonishingly feeble. The compelling evidence for his worldview turns out to be (drumroll, please) “500 years of scientific progress” (p. 227). In other words, the amazing success of science demands that we accept scientism. But how could this be? How does the fact that we can now cure tuberculosis and create televisions support the sweeping universal claim that science is “our exclusive guide to reality”? As the philosopher Edward Feser has witheringly observed, one might as well argue that since metal detectors have proven extremely successful at finding metallic objects, everything must be made of metal.

So in the final analysis Rosenberg offers no good reason to accept scientism but many compelling reasons to reject it, namely, its many counterintuitive and self-defeating implications. Let us recall, however, that Rosenberg stated at the outset—and not without justification—that scientism is “the worldview that comes along with atheism.” Insofar as the Atheist’s Guide gives us good reasons to reject scientism, by Rosenberg’s lights it also gives us good reasons to reject atheism. The book is an unintended gift to believers; indeed, it does a more effective job of refuting the modern atheist worldview than many books written by Christians. The next time you come across a copy of the Atheist’s Guide in a bookstore, consider relocating it to the “Christian Apologetics” section.

12 thoughts on “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”

  1. Dr. Anderson,

    I watched a debate between Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig a few months ago and I must admit that I found Rosenberg’s arguments to be absurd. Do you believe that all atheists must adhere to the same naturalistic worldview that Rosenberg sets forth in his book? I’ve seen where a lot of people have criticized Rosenberg’s book and I don’t believe that atheists think Rosenberg is correct. What are the other alternatives for the atheist who accepts scientism?

    1. I listened to most of that debate, and I was disappointed (but not surprised) at how weak and superficial case Rosenberg made for atheism/naturalism. If I recall, he actually said that debates like that are pointless! If I were an atheist I would have felt pretty let down. Clearly he is not au fait with contemporary philosophy of religion.

      I don’t think that atheism entails naturalism. But I do think that most atheists today are strongly inclined to naturalism because (1) they tend to be empiricist and scientistic in their epistemology, (2) they’re committed to a naturalistic evolutionary account of origins (i.e., neo-Darwinism), (3) they’ve bought into the rhetoric of methodological naturalism, and (4) they think that any kind of supernaturalism opens the door to theism. In short, given the veneration with which science is treated in Western culture, it’s natural for an atheist to be a naturalist.

      I’ve also seen atheists who have criticized Rosenberg, mainly because they (like me) think his conclusions are self-defeating. However, I think Rosenberg is right about the implications of naturalism. If you’re going to be a consistent naturalist, you have to be a hard naturalist.

      Other alternatives for atheists would include Platonism, idealism, or panpsychism (as Thomas Nagel has recently suggested). But I don’t think these can account for morality and rationality any more satisfactorily than naturalism.

  2. Ringstraked Calf

    “he lists some of these Big Questions and summarizes the ‘correct’ answers”

    Come on, now. Is this any more ridiculous than your own Westminster Sillier Catechism? What have you got against catechisms?

    “Ergo, if your thoughts are nothing more than physical brain states then your thoughts can’t really be about anything.”

    That’s simpleminded of you. A thought can be “about” something in that it is affected by something external. The same way that a photograph is “about” the object whose reflected photons caused the image that appears on the photograph. Does that mean that one cannot say meaningfully that a photograph is a photograph *of* this or that, or that one cannot say that one has a thought *of* this or that, even though one has a materialistic explanation of thought?

    To use your favorite evasion: I see no reason to think so, it seems absurd on its face, so there is no reason to believe your self serving assertions.

  3. Ringstraked Calf,

    According to Edward Feser’s review of the book, Rosenberg considered the photograph analogy you suggest:

    “Yet if we are to say that a thought is a kind of neural process, we have to say that when we think about Paris (for example) there is a network of neurons that is somehow about Paris…. Rosenberg considers various answers that might be given to this question, including materialist answers, and finds them all wanting. The neurons cannot be about Paris in the way a picture is, because unlike a picture they don’t resemble Paris at all. But neither can they be about Paris in the way that a red octagonal ‘Stop’ sign is about stopping even though it doesn’t resemble that action. For a red octagon, or the word ‘Stop’ for that matter, only mean what they do as a matter of convention, only because we interpret the shapes in question as representing the action of stopping. And when you think about Paris, no one is assigning a conventional interpretation to such-and-such neurons in your brain so as to make them represent Paris.”

    So, yes, there is a sense in which a photograph is “of” an object, but this is, in the estimation of the atheist (Rosenberg) and these two Christian philosophers (Anderson and Feser) not the same as the sense in which a thought is “of” an object.

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  6. James,

    Thanks for the review!

    Is that list of “Big Questions” you quoted the complete list from the book?

    Too bad Rosenberg didn’t add:

    Is there truth? No!
    Is there such a thing as knowledge? No!

    as he has no metaphysical ground for any epistemology.

    Rosenberg’s book reduces to the equivalent of Rosenberg uttering, “I don’t exist.” I’m ever so slightly tempted to buy the book for useful quotes.

    1. Yes, that is the complete list.

      Actually, I think Rosenberg would prefer to say that both “I exist” and “I don’t exist” are strictly meaningless, neither true nor false, since the ‘I’ doesn’t actually refer to anything.

  7. Interesting. So his parry is that he would appeal to intuitionist logic for himself and all of “science.” As an aside, I just did a perusal on Amazon via “Search inside.” Rosenberg does use the word “I” quite a bit !

    1. Yes, it’s hard to avoid the word ‘I’. :) But as he says, his book isn’t “conveying statements” but rather “rearranging neural circuits.”

      1. That I take as his epistemological suicide. So then it would seem to unassailably follow that there is no truth, and no knowledge — since statements (or propositions) are the carriers of truth and thus knowledge. So Rosenberg’s book is meaningless since by his “assertions,” it, nor “science,” convey any truth.

        As you said, his book is a brilliant reductio ad absurdum of atheism. A good use of TAG on himself.

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