Nonfiction Notes: Alex Rosenberg’s THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY

Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Delusions (2001, Norton)

Here’s another book I’ve had since it was published but only got around to reading this past year.

This is a book about taking reality at face value, and not imbuing it with magical thinking or illusions.

And this is a book, I’ll mention upfront, that I don’t agree with on all its points. It seems to me that Rosenberg makes the error of reductionism that other writers, like Sean Carroll and Frank Wilczek, avoid.

The title is a tad aggressive because most people react to the word atheist with distaste, if not disapproval. It’s also a problematic word because it’s defining one’s philosophical position with a negative, like saying one is not a stamp collector by calling oneself an a-stamp-collector. Still, there really isn’t a better word. Agnostic is milder and perhaps more honest, yet is a tad wishy-washy. After all, if the philosophical position here is about whether God or gods exist, can one know for certain, any more than (to use an example cited by Richard Dawkins that goes back to Bertrand Russell) we can be certain there is not a celestial teapot in orbit about Mars. So should we then carefully describe ourselves as teapot-agnostics? And similarly agnostic about every other possible outlandish claim? Or is it reasonable to conclude, based everything we’ve observed about the world around us, everything we know about the history of the human race, and so on, that the odds of there being a teapot in orbit around Mars is so vanishingly small as to be not worth considering? This is roughly how the atheist, or agnostic, thinks about the existence of gods.

Believers think they’re certain about the matter, yet fall back on “faith” when they can produce no evidence of any god or gods. Certainly the universe looks exactly like there is no one micromanaging it from the sky. Other words suggest themselves: rationalist, secular, humanist, freethinker, godless, skeptic. But each of these has a specific meaning distinct from any belief about god. A cute suggestion coined in 2003 and discussed in Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book BREAKING THE SPELL was “bright,” in analogy to the word “gay” for homosexual. But it never caught on, in part because of the negative connotation of the opposite, the implication that believers are “dim.” (More at this link: )

So this book uses the term atheist unapologetically. The book is about 330 pages of text, and the author is a philosophy professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

The notes I took while reading are 6400 words long, so here I’ll condense, allowing expansion a bit for the conclusions at the end.

  • The book takes the nonexistence of God, of souls, of immortality, etc., as a given. It’s not about arguing the reader out of belief. It’s explaining to people who already understand that these things don’t exist, how to think about what we know about reality.
  • The author adopts the word “scientism” for the philosophical stance that the methods of science are the only way to know the world. [[ This is problematic because some critics (of Steven Pinker, EO Wilson, et al) use the word to accuse science of overreaching its domain. ]]
  • The reason science is difficult is due to the very evolutionary process that theism rejects. [[ An excellent, ironic, point. ]] It’s because of how humans like their information ‘packaged’. We like a good story. Religion loves stories; scientific explanations rarely come in that form. Thus Mother Nature wired us to see plots everywhere: conspiracy theories. Reasons for everything, human and in nature. Thus to remember anything, it’s better to make a story out of it. Otherwise, we’re not satisfied.
  • The physical facts explain the nature of reality: matter and fields of force. Physics isn’t finished, but the part that explains us is finished, and has been for a century or so. Physics doesn’t deal with purpose or design; they’re not needed. Why is there something rather than nothing? No reason at all. At subatomic levels events are random, not deterministic; so too perhaps the Big Bang.
  • Nature’s apparent designed is explained by natural selection, in which replication isn’t always perfect; variation is the rule throughout biology; and characteristics are inherited. Biological evolution has three distinctive features: quick and dirty solutions get locked in; the emergence of complexity and diversity; cooperative adaptations and competing adaptations. [[ A couple Richard Dawkins books explain how natural selection leads to apparent design. ]]
  • Adaptations, powered by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, are expensive and inefficient. 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct (which is inconsistent with the idea of a designer).
  • Where does that leave human morality? It’s not true that without God, people are immoral. Nihilism is true: the understanding that nothing is good or bad in itself. No morality is scientifically justifiable, e.g. Plato’s argument in Euthyphro. Yet all cultures endorse most of the same moral principles, principles which have consequences for humans’ biological fitness; variations in moral principles arise when people appeal to different factual beliefs. The norms, humans’ “core morality,” evolved through natural selection and environmental filtration to enhance the survival of the species. That’s it. A consequence: just because something has evolved doesn’t make it “right,” as for example the various false beliefs wired into us—the perception of stories everywhere, racism and female subordination, for example. Once we understand why those norms evolved, we can step away from them.
  • We’ve come to understand over the past 50 years how core morality evolved, e.g. why cooperation and justice exist contrary to the priorities of individual fitness. The key is that cooperation was required to expand the group; tribes who evolved cooperation, and particular game theory strategies (e.g. tit for tat), did better than tribes that did not. Certain emotions evolved to overcome selfishness: love, jealousy, vengefulness, shame, guilt, etc. There is always variations in heritable traits, which is why some people are monsters like Hitler and serial killers. Moral improvement comes with acquiring real beliefs about the world through science.
  • Never let your conscious be your guide. Be suspicious of introspection; its answers are often wrong. Examples: blindsight; free will. The latter is suspect because experiments show the brain makes decisions before the mind is consciously aware of them. And our sight is frequently fooled by differences in brightness and darkness, by circumstances of the environment.
  • Science trumps common sense, even when its conclusions are bizarre. Science is common sense that keeps improving itself, replacing parts and continually rebuilding itself. The brain thinks, but not “about” things. The brain is just activity between neurons, not thinking “about” things. Thoughts are just rearrangements of neurons.
  • So there is no purpose-driven life. Sensory experiences to the brain aren’t “about” anything, they’re just input/ output circuits; there are no “thoughts,” so plans and designs in the mind are illusory. So the quick-and-dirty solution of evolution for getting us to cooperate is to assign purpose to everything, overshooting and projecting our thoughts onto Mother Nature: stories, conspiracies, religion. History explained in terms of purposes, plans, designs.
  • [[ I think he’s jumping the shark here, claiming that since thought and concepts can be explained as changes in patterns of neurons, they don’t “mean” anything. More on this at the end. ]]
  • There’s also the illusion that someone inside you has thoughts about stuff. The mind is the brain; otherwise there would be something not fixed by physics.
  • And so there is no planning of history, it is not predictable; at best history tells us stories about the past. There are no patterns or cycles detected in history, as some have thought. There are no lessons. Any progress in history is local; progress due to science and technology could be wiped out by an asteroid or a plague. It used to be thought people were rational players; recently cognitive science has shown they are not; heuristics are easier and faster to use, even if often wrong. [[ Author wrote an entire later book called How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. ]]
  • Living with scientism: We’ve ruled out God; we can rule out certain scientific possibilities, like perpetual motion. Still, science can answer most of the big questions, even if many people won’t be satisfied by them. E.g., concerning abortion. There are no immortal souls, no such things as natural rights. When all the facts are in, the result will likely provide arguments that permit some abortions and prohibit others, depending on circumstances. In other matters, the rate of technological advance keeps raising new ethical problems. Many such debates don’t rely on factual differences, but on church dogma that rejects facts. We shouldn’t dismiss such people as evil, just benighted people wrong about the facts. And we ourselves should keep in mind that our facts may not be certain.
  • When you combine our core morality with scientism, you get a fairly left-wing agenda. That’s why most scientists are Democrats. Scientism is committed to determinism. Core morality tells us wealth, or punishment should be earned. Yet there is no free will. This gives us reason to rethink criminal law generally. Crime should be attacked like disease. Similarly, inequalities are morally permissible when these inequalities are earned. Yet: nothing is earned, or deserved. We didn’t ‘earn’ our abilities. The result is a closet egalitarianism. Free markets? Reducing inequality makes the free market more efficient. So scientism leads to morality that is redistributionist and egalitarian.
  • C.P. Snow wanted the sciences and humanities to understand each other. We’ve seen this can’t be done. Humanities can’t compete; we can’t take their views of science seriously. Snow noted that many humanists were proudly illiterate of science. They are trapped in the worldview of our Neolithic ancestors. They didn’t notice the threat from science until Darwin, and then argued science couldn’t succeed doing the things science was actually accomplishing. Humanists could tell stories, but science proved more powerful via technology.
  • Humanists struck back to attacking science’s claim to knowledge, and also by making themselves look more like the sciences. They did the first by suggesting that advances in the sciences undermined all scientific claims. They appealed to Kuhn, concluding that science was more political or religious faith. But these arguments couldn’t explain away the actual technological miracles that resulted from scientific advances. They did the second by turning the humanities into sciences of interpretation—e.g. making Freud into a science, what was really just folk psychology. Later interpretive theories of human affairs included the New Criticism from Leavis to Lacan and Derrida—semiotics, existentialism, etc. All of these rely on narratives, plots, conspiracies.
  • By the 1980s the two cultures became ‘science wars.’ Science was declared to be subjective; humanities another way of knowing. Scientism admits to the idea that only one of the two cultures is free from illusions and qualified to tell us about reality. But it can also explain why humanities are a source of satisfaction and happiness. The humanities will always be with us. They don’t provide real understanding, but they provide psychological satisfaction.
  • The Moral of the Story, p308. Scientism isn’t fatalism. It’s determinism, which is different. The only thing fated is the heat death of the universe. Everything that happens in your life is determined. Don’t take narratives too seriously. Beware politicians selling you a story. Or a religion. Beware stories to understand the past. The really scientistic person cultivates an Epicurean detachment. Epicurus was as close to being right as any of the ancient Greeks.
  • And the book ends with 15 pages of narrative bibliography, describing significant books that address the major themes of each paragraph.

Key take-aways:

    • This is an interesting enough book, but rather long-winded; its points could be boiled down to something very succinct.
    • I did not warm to his use of the word scientism.
    • A handful of interesting points or perspectives:
      • The 2008 financial crisis was due to an arms race between traditional heuristic decisions, and new high-speed computer calculations.
      • I like his terminology of ‘environmental filtration’ as a substation for natural selection; the former is passive, a more suitable term, since there is nothing conscious about it, as the word selection suggests.
      • I like his idea that moral progress comes when people abandon incorrect facts about the world.
      • I like his term ‘core morality’ for evolutionary derived moral sense, and his discussion of why it would have come into being. The subject in general is that of many books by EO Wilson and others, of course.
  • My biggest problem with the book is that he considers cognition at the lowest level possible and then declares concepts like plans or meaning null and void. This argument has always struck me as analogous to declaring books — all books, including the Bible and A Remembrance of Things Past —  to be mere arrangements of 26 letters, and so no higher meaning (in the arrangement of those letters) is possible.
  • Better would be to adopt the concept of levels of meaning or different levels of complexity, as mentioned above Surely there must be room to discuss things like plans, at the level where those concepts are used.
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