“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”
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 usnothing 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.
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