One could be forgiven for having tuned out the clash of believing vs. nonbelieving public intellectuals by now. Books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have pushed atheism to the forefront as a belief worthy of respect and discussion. Their work was not surprisingly followed by a predictable round of rebuttals from believers. The flurry of arguments got hard to follow pretty quickly, but the contentiousness seems to have eased in recent years.
“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions,’’ by Duke University philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg, isn’t quite in the same category as Harris’s and Dawkins’s tomes. While he is certainly disdainful of religious belief in many of the same ways as his more well-known colleagues, Rosenberg goes a bit further than they do, making some rather radical arguments about what it means to be a conscious, living being, and about the nature of existence. Some of his claims are more convincing than others, but all are thought-provoking.
Rosenberg argues for scientism, the idea that “the physical facts fix all the facts.’’ In other words, a basic understanding of physics tells us just about everything we need to know about how the universe works at a fundamental level, and we can extend this on up to chemistry and biology, and then, with an appeal to Darwinian processes to everything else. This provides Rosenberg with a framework to argue that almost everything we think has inherent value or meaning - our morality, our sociological theories, even the idea of a self - does not.
Rosenberg wants us to let go of the many illusions that define our conversations about life and science. We impute purpose to things that lack it. We act as though history and culture can be explained in terms of sweeping, general patterns. Everything can be explained in terms of what we know about physical reality. And there is nothing else.
It’s a seemingly simple notion, and one that many scientists and scientific-minded people would claim already to hew to, but it has surprisingly fraught implications. Rosenberg lays them out very early in Chapter 1, in a series of questions and 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.’’ Similarly, there’s no meaning to life; you and I are here because of dumb luck, and there’s no soul.
Although Rosenberg has a peppy, carefree writing style, the book (as he readily admits) does not lead to particularly cheerful conclusions. For “scientistic folks’’ overcome by world-weariness, his advice is to “[t]ake two of whatever neuropharmacology prescribes. If you don’t feel better in the morning . . . or three weeks from now, switch to another one . . . [I]f one doesn’t work, another one probably will.’’ The book’s subtitle (“enjoying life without illusions’’) notwithstanding, Rosenberg focuses far more on the latter than the former.
Another weakness: Rosenberg tries to cover too much ground. Despite devoting what looks like significant real estate to morality, it comes across as mostly hand-waving - “Most people are nice most of the time. . . . As for moral monsters like Hitler, protecting ourselves against them is made inevitable by the very same evolutionary forces that make niceness unavoidable for most of us.’’ If any part of his argument needed more refinement and less of Rosenberg’s (generally enjoyable) glibness, it was here. Some of the time he spends musing other subjects would have been better spent buttressing the ramifications of his view of morality.
In the end, Rosenberg sees himself as a relentlessly unsentimental truth-seeker, and to his credit he sidesteps easy answers every step of the way. Given the sheer quantity of feel-good books reconciling atheism with feel-good philosophies, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality’’ is a useful counterpoint, a tough test of the intellectual mettle of the armchair atheist and those teetering between faith and committing to life without it.
Jesse Singal can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal.