The Athiest’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg – A big review!


Alex Rosenberg latest book outlines his view of life’s persistent questions on the meaning of life, whether we have free-will, can survive our bodily death, and what we can know about the world. Rosenberg starts from the assumption that the results of science are the only route to knowledge (scientism) and the scientific facts that we are most certain of (the existence of fermions and bosons, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, evolution by natural selection) are taken to fix or determine all the other facts. The only legitimate sciences are the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and if the entities or properties postulated in other disciplines (psychology, sociology, philosophy, maths) do not reduce to the fundamental posits of the hard sciences then they are deemed to be fictions. Rosenberg claims that this means there is no such thing as meaning or meaningful lives, no such things as purposes, no such things as consciousness or mental states distinct from physical states and no free-will, or immaterial gods. He tells us that morality and value also drop out of the picture as non-existent but since evolutionary pressures have selected us to be nice to each other (Rosenberg probably lives in the leafy suburbs) we don’t really need these anyway.  Oh and lest we forget – the meaning of this text is non-existent. As Rosenberg summarises:

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 ever had any to begin with.


The scientific view of the world from physics tells us that for most of the first 13.69 billion years of this universe, there was nothing but fermions, bosons, and the atoms being made out of them inside stars. According to science sentient life has to be composed of complicated arrangements of fermions and bosons and it has to have evolved. This means that physics or cosmology cannot invoke minds (which are really brains) in its explanation of anything until matters have proceeded at least 13.69 billion years after the big bang. If we restrict what we know about the world as being derived from science (the scientific method) then there is an obvious incompatibility of such a world view with the world view of religion. Religion relies on personal testimony for the existence of miracles that violate laws of nature, highly subjective religious experience, and metaphysical assumptions about first causes involving immaterial agents and what they want. Such a view is incompatible with the standard explanations of the world that have been derived from the sciences in particular physics, chemistry, and biology which explains psychological phenomena such as intentionality, purpose, and agency as being derived from physical processes not vice versa.

Rosenberg explains that religious explanations for natural events have a grip on us because humans have inherited a tendency to view both the external world and their own internal world in terms of stories or narratives that make reference to motives and intentions of agents. There is little point in trying to argue religious believers out of their beliefs because “The effort to argue most people out of religious belief was doomed by the very Darwinian evolutionary forces that the most fervent of Christians deny” and it is also what makes understanding and accepting the scientific view so difficult for atheists to accept.

Scientism requires that we be able to see through the superficial charms of narrative, the specious sense of closure provided by happy (or even sad) endings, the feeling of relief from curiosity when dots are connected into a plausible conspiracy. We need to begin to disentangle ourselves from our species’ love affair with stories. That’s the first challenge for scientism.

The aim of the book is geared towards atheists whose rejection of theology stems from the acceptance of the world view that is described by science. Rosenberg seeks to extend what “atheists really should believe about reality and our place in it” by extending the scientific perspective of the non-human world to our own lives.

1.  Scientism

“Scientism” denotes the view that science (taken as the results derived from the scientific method) is the only source of knowledge that we have of the world including ourselves. The traditional criticism is that this view is both too strong – for such critics hold that science does not yield knowledge but only uncertain beliefs about what the world may be like, on the other hand, the view is too weak because it fails to take into account other ways of knowing about the world, in particular what we know about the world and ourselves from direct personal or conscious experience i.e., that we are agents with intentions, that we are subjects of experiences, that we are conscious. The origins of religion being based on revelation of an immaterial deity that created the world are also incompatible with scientism.

Those that deny science yields any knowledge about the world often cite the history of scientific investigation to show that its theories have been shown to be mistaken in the past. Yet, we should remind ourselves that our knowledge of past mistaken world views such as the geo-centric world view, views about the earth being flat, or water being a simple substance, are derived from what we currently know from the scientific method. Hence such examples cannot entail the radical skeptical view that we lack any kind of scientific knowledge, simply put – such a conclusion would undermine the basis for its assertion. The denial that science provides any kind of knowledge of the world looks unwarranted. As Rosenberg says:

The reason we trust physics to be scientism’s metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application. If what physics says about reality doesn’t go, that track record would be a totally inexplicable mystery or coincidence. Neither science nor scientism stands still for coincidence.

The psychological motivation to restrain from making claims about scientific knowledge may be due to the fact that it is always safer to claim not to know something rather than make a positive assertion to avoid being shown to be mistaken at some later date. This is all the more so when such assertions are not one’s own specialized field and science is split into many sub-sections which results in scientists, or philosophers of science like Rosenberg, having to rely on others testimony, when forming a scientific world view. However the psychological motivations for not making knowledge assertions is distinct from whether we are warranted in claiming to know such things as the 2nd law of thermodynamics is true, that evolution by natural selection occurred, or that fermions and bosons constitute our basic physical reality.

Scientism is more difficult to defend when it claims to be the only method for gaining knowledge about the world. For such a view is deeply counter-intuitive – we do not treat ourselves as not knowing whether we are awake or conscious prior to an empirical investigation into the matter – indeed being awake or conscious looks like being a precondition for any kind of scientific enquiry in the first place. There may well be other preconditions for making sense of any kind of scientific enquiry such as that our senses are reliable sources of information about the external world that cannot themselves be verified by science. Scientism may be incoherent and there is little discussion from Rosenberg to say that it is not.

Further Rosenberg is not just going to rest content with Scientism but he is going to assume that the only true sciences are physics, chemistry and biology, and that all the facts that there are fixed or determined by these facts and the facts of these three disciplines ultimately reduce to physics.

The Nature Of Reality? Determinism, Reductionism and Physicalism

What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones.

Whilst physics is by no means finished, and it may hold out even more surprises for common sense (such as questions concerning the nature of dark matter and dark energy, superstring theory v. quantum loop gravity and so forth) these topics do not look like they will make any difference to science’s answers to the persistent questions about life, meaning, value, and free-will. One of the central tenets of the scientific world view is causal determinism  – as stated by Laplace:

We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence. (Laplace 1820)

In simpler terms we can say that an event such as your, raising your hand, or attending philosophy seminars, is determined if there are conditions obtaining earlier (such as antecedent causes plus laws of nature) that are sufficient to bring about the occurrence of the event. Thus determinism entails that there is inevitability about what it is that you are currently thinking or doing that could in principle (even if never in practice) be known prior to their occurrence. Predictability makes vivid what is at stake if determinism is true as it entails that ex hypothesis, a powerful intelligence could in principle predict, and know everything that runs through my mind and the actions that I take prior to their occurrence, from some past state of affairs in the universe. It is not so much that someone could in principle know what we are thinking and doing prior to our doing it that alarms us (although that is no doubt disturbing for many) when we consider the implications for us but that everything that we think and do has an inevitability about it. In other words if determinism is true then given the state of affairs in the universe just prior to your reading this blog post it was inevitable that you are now reading this blog post.

2: The Purpose Of The Universe.

Rosenberg claims the process of evolution that Darwin discovered was the inevitable result of the 2nd law of thermodynamics filled with atoms and molecules binding together in accord with the laws of chemistry. Life could only have got started through a random process or much, much more improbable some quantum event rising up to the molecular level. As Rosenberg puts it:

The initial adaptation had to be random, and subsequent adaptations built on it had to be wasteful, had to lock-in prior steps, and as they enhanced local order, had to pay for it by moving in directions that accelerated the waste of energy. Only the process of blind and mainly wasteful variation (on this planet mostly produced by wasteful sexual recombination), together with accelerating changes in the environment that does the filtering, could meet these demands.

However Rosenberg makes the more controversial claim that there is an incompatibility between explanations of the natural and our common sense psychological explanations of people’s behavior that rely on meaning, purposes and intentions. Whilst it is fairly common to find that physics differs quite radically from our intuitive folk understanding of the physical world, and few would argue that our best grasp of the physical world is through folk physics it is more controversial to take this same scepticism with regard to our intuitive understanding of ourselves. Yet without much argument or discussion this is what Rosenberg does.

He argues that our intuitive view of ourselves as agents capable of forming intentions and plans, having beliefs and desires, is in conflict with the explanation of behavior from a biological viewpoint. All Rosenberg offers in the way of argument is the claim that “blind causal processes” produce in us “the illusion of purpose.” Well that is hardly an argument, it could equally be the case that “blind causal processes” produce the distinctive human abilities that common sense and folk psychology testify to namely that human beings are capable of creating meaning, acting intentionally, carrying out actions on purpose, possessing beliefs and desires, and finding value in the world. It strikes me as more plausible to think that Alex Rosenberg wrote this book for the purpose of making money than it was the result of blind causal processes and the illusion of purpose. I am not even sure what the illusion of purpose would look like, would that not generate a belief that I had done something for a purpose for some end and that belief be false, but if the illusion of purpose requires false beliefs then it requires beliefs i.e., states that exhibit intentionality. So having the illusion of purpose seems to require false beliefs about ourselves but having false beliefs (having any beliefs) is meant to be a similar illusion. If it all sounds very confusing it is because it is.

3.  Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News

So sticking with the puzzling and paradoxical claim that there is no purpose or meaning to life in general because everything is the result of blind causal forces acting on us and within us then the question as to what to make of morality arises. You can guess that this is going to be a debunking chapter on morality. The topic here is core morality that is shared by other human societies and past cultures. Such core morality consists in co-operation, altruism, reciprocity, (perhaps punishing cheaters), at least within one’s own social group. The question then is what is the source of this core morality and does it give us any reason to think that we have hit upon the right, correct or true moral core?

The problem with grounding moral norms in evolved morality and thinking that moral norms are correct because of their adaptational benefit is the familiar complaint that just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right. Think of the adaptational benefits of racist, xenophobic, patriarchal norms , rape, genocide. You can’t justify morality by showing its Darwinian pedigree. That way lies the moral disaster of Social Spencerism.

We could try the other alternative—that our core morality was selected for because it represented what was actually the right morality. Rosenberg thinks this idea faces insurmountable problems because the process of natural selection is not in general good at filtering for true beliefs, only for ones hitherto convenient for our lines of descent. He asks us to think of folk physics, folk biology, and most of all folk psychology. There may be some truths within those domains but there is also a lot of misunderstanding. Since natural selection has no foresight, and does not guarantee truth, we have no idea whether the moral core we now endorse will hold up, or be selected for, over the long-term future of our species.

This criticism like much of Rosenberg’s writing is a bit too hasty for natural selection has selected for some traits that are important for survival like being able to detect when in pain, when others are in pain. To think that folk psychology has some misunderstanding is no argument for the claim that we are blind as to any form of understanding about ourselves or others.

4. Never Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide

Understanding our own psychological make-up and our thought processes are among the most daunting of problems facing science. That’s why less progress has been made understanding the mind than understanding the rest of the universe. On the other hand, because we have immediate introspective access to our minds, most people think they really understand their minds better than anything else. Descartes got sucked into this delusion 500 years ago and made introspective certainty the foundation of knowledge instead of the most tempting distraction from it.

Rosenberg claims that neuroscience will eventually enable us to understand the mind by showing us how the brain works. But we already know enough about it to take nothing introspection tells us about the mind on trust. The phenomenon of blindsight—people who don’t have any conscious color experiences can tell the color of a thing—is enough to give us pause about the most apparently certain conclusion introspection insists on: that when you see a color you have a color experience. Then there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them! (As for determinism and the denial of real free will, that is a conclusion which, so to speak, goes without saying for scientism.) We have to add to these illusions of the will and sensory experience, robust experimental results which reveal that we actually navigate the world looking through the rear-view mirror! We don’t even see what is in front of our eyes, but continually make guesses about it based on what has worked out in our individual and evolutionary past. Discovering the illusion that we are looking through the windshield instead of the rear view mirror, along with so much more that neuroscience is uncovering about the brain, reveals that introspection is not a reliable method of acquiring knowledge of oneself.

inally Rosenberg claims that the most profound illusion introspection foists on us is the notion that our thoughts are actually recorded anywhere in the brain at all in the form introspection reports. This has to be the profoundest illusion of all, because neuroscience has been able to show that networks of human brain cells are no more capable of representing facts about the world the way conscious introspection reports than are the neural ganglia of sea slugs! The real challenge for neuroscience is to explain how the brain stores information when it can’t do so in anything like the way introspection tells us it does—in sentences made up in a language of thought.

Rosenberg claims that not only beliefs and thoughts are stored in the brain is an illusion but reasoning is too. The interior monologue that introspection carries on is a sub-vocal version of the play (the tokening) of noise, ink-marks and pixels that passes for public communication. Like public speech and writing, our introspective stream of consciousness doesn’t record or report what the brain is actually doing, because the brain can’t store or manipulate information in words and sentences of any language, including mentalese. Conscious introspection is not just wrong about sensory experience, it’s no guide to cognition either. Whatever the brain does, it doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations, insofar as these are supposed to be states that “contain” sentences, and are “about” things, facts, events that are outside of the mind.  That the brain no more has original intentionality than anything else does is the hardest illusion to give up, and we probably won’t be able completely to do so till neuroscience really understands the brain. Meanwhile, knowing what is not on the cards, is still enough to put in proper perspective the humanities’ endless absorption with meaning, and the persistent demands for interpretative understanding made in the human sciences.

If there literally are no beliefs and desires, because the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences, then there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning either. It’s just a useful heuristic device, one with only a highly imperfect grip on what is going on in thought. Consequently, there is no point asking for the real, the true, the actual meaning of a work of art, or the meaning of an agent’s act, still less the meaning of a historical event or epoch. The demand of the interpretive disciplines, that we account for ideas and artifacts, actions and events, in terms of their meanings, is part of the insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunits that human kind have insisted on since natural selection made us into conspiracy-theorists a half a million years ago or so. That is a taste it will be too hard to shake in everyday life. The fiction best-seller list will always be with us. But we need to move most of the works now on  the non-fiction list to their rightful places among the magic realist romances, the historical and biographical novels, and the literary confessions.

Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us. This self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time. There seems to be only oneway we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time and over bodily change. This way is by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. Since physics has excluded the existence of anything concrete but nonspatial, and since physics fixes all the facts, we have to give up this last illusion consciousness foists on us. But of course Scientism can explain away the illusion of an enduring self as one that natural selection imposed on our introspections, along with an accompanying penchant for stories. After all it is pretty clear that they solve a couple of major design problems for anything that has to hang around long enough to leave copies of its genes and protect them while they are growing up.

5. History Is Bunk

Having come this far, scientism has the resources to explain the frustrations and the failure of the social sciences and history, and it provides a firm basis on which to establish reasonable expectations about the prospects for the human sciences, qua sciences.

The nature of meaning and its at-best merely instrumental grasp on real events in our brains and in the world gives scientism manifold reasons not to expect history and the historical versions of the social sciences to provide anything more than diverting stories, post hoc explanations and very short term expectations about the human future. But there is a much deeper reason to be pessimistic about the uses of history: reason enough to conclude that Santayana’s or Churchill’s reasons for taking history seriously—to know the future–will never be borne out.

The process that appears to give history its meanings by making almost everything in human affairs an adaptation for some thing or person or other, is the same as the one that gives so much of biology its appearance of purpose to us. Human history, like natural history is composed of a sequence of events, states, processes and individuals, all of which are adaptations of various sorts. In the human case a few have been contrived by human design (or so introspection misleadingly tells us).  But most have arisen through the same process of blind variation and environmental filtration that produces adaptations in the biological realm. Of course the mechanism in the human case rarely involves genetic transmission; what it requires and in fact utilizes is cultural transmission. In human cultural evolution, the relevant selective environment is ever-increasingly other people, other families, other groups, other cultures, societies, their mores, norms, institutions, technologies, etc. Since the environment in which humans operate is largely one created by humans, it changes with accelerating rapidity over time, and almost from the beginning of social history it is driven by arms races.

It’s arms races between people, groups, their institutions and the social practices that parasitize them, that make history bunk as a guide to the future. It does so first of all by making the human target of cultural adaptation a moving one.  It is also changing the target all the time, in ways to which the target-tracking adaptations are blind, and to which even the target-bearing subjects are blind. Human history is not the blind leading the blind. It’s the blind wrestling with the blind. It’s a fight in which neither side can see the other side’s current moves clearly, nor reliably predict their next move or its outcome. Human history is a nested series of arms races that never attain more than a temporary and unstable equilibrium.

The obstacle to useful knowledge from history that is posed by the arms race character of human affairs is not avoidable by social science, no matter how scientistic (in the old pejorative sense) it aims to be.

The easy way to see this is to recognize that in all the social sciences we face exactly the same explanatory problem that Darwin faced in biology. Since, as science can show, Darwin’s solution is the only one possible in biology, it must be the only one possible in social science. Almost everything in human affairs has a function—either for everybody, or for some favored class of people, or for a group, an institution that people participate in; or else it is something like religions, which survive by “creating” and adaptation to niches composed of people and their beliefs. If almost everything of interest that has come about in human history and human life has functions or components with functions, then it would be yet another coincidence if this feature–in which everything human shares–was not systematically related to the mechanisms that brought it about and/or keeps it in business. Once purposes are ruled out of nature—biological, social, psychological–there is only one way that something’s functions can bring it about or maintain it, or explain its changes over time: the process that Darwin discovered–blind variation and environmental filtration. And that is a process in which arms races, and the reflexive, nested instability they entrain, makes human sciences only a little less myopic than the history that has been familiar to us since Thucydides.


The central claim of the book is that science is the only form of knowledge that we have of the world. The only disciplines that count as sciences are those of the hard sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Rosenberg does not distinguish between methodology and the assumptions of the sciences. The methodology of the hard sciences consists in the experimental method. The assumptions of the hard sciences differ from the assumptions of the other sciences that deal with human affairs like psychology, sociology, history, and even philosophy because the subject matter differs.[Oddly mathematics did not get a mention in this book. Mathematics is classes as a science but there is no attempt to claim that mathematics must reduce to physics or be eliminated from our scientific and everyday discourse. This is just as well as Rosenberg might have a problem keeping track of his book sales].

Rosenberg fails to notice that scientism is not a scientific claim but a philosophical one and yet the books author claims that science is the only source of knowledge. So if philosophy is distinguished from science in terms of its methodology then there is an inherent contradiction in the work. If scientism is true then it cannot be known to be true for if it is known to be true there is a source of knowledge (about whether scientism is true or not) that is not derived from science (empirical experimentation) but from philosophy (as conceptual reflection and drawing out logical consequences). The problem here is that if philosophical reflection is torn apart from scientific observation and experimentation then only confusion can result.

The alternative view that Rosenberg’s reductionist scientism is opposed to s is not anti-scientific. It stems from noting that the assumptions of our common sense understanding of ourselves as agents capable of self-motion, self-conscious, and act with future directed goals in mind, capable of communicating their beliefs and desires to other people, have not changed over the centuries. It appears more plausible that these assumptions in outline will remain than the more drastic claim that they will be eradicated or reduced to the central tenets of the hard sciences. I find that the fact that our folk psychology has not changed radically over the centuries need not be treated as reason for scepticism on the basis of very abstract theoretical reasons. Instead it should be treated as the default view that is retained unless there is good experimental evidence from the appropriate sciences for challenging it.


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One Response to The Athiest’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg – A big review!

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