The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: An Interview with Alex Rosenberg

Posted by  on February 6, 2012

From: Talking Philosophy – The Philosophers’ Magazine Blog


Reality, notes philosopher Alex Rosenberg, is “completely different from what most people think… stranger than even many atheists recognize.”   And having spent some 40 years trying to work out “exactly how advances in biology, neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, fit together with what physical science has long told us” Professor Rosenberg seems well placed to judge. Thinking seriously and unsentimentally about the nature of reality and life’s ‘persistent questions’ has led the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University to some striking, disconcerting and far-reaching conclusions.  In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Rosenberg aims to stretch out just what the atheist’s attachment to science really commits him to.

The author of some 14 books and an eminent philosopher of science, Professor Rosenberg has been kind enough to answer some questions from Talking Philosophy about his controversial and challenging work.  The questions posed, and Professor’s Rosenberg’s replies to them have been posted in full ‘as is’. Readers will, I hope, find something in the following to stimulate both thought and discussion

Your book is aimed squarely at atheists, but it’s not a book about atheism as such, rather it’s a book about what atheists should believe.  What are the most important things that the atheist needs to know about reality? And can he really enjoy life without illusions?

The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality. We need always to be on our scientific guard against its meretricious temptations. Treating the illusions that rise to consciousness as symptoms, instead of guides to meaning and value, is crucial to enjoying life. It’s not easy, but taking science seriously is the first step, despite the difficulty consciousness puts in the way of understanding it.


You note early on that “the effort to argue most people out of religious belief was doomed by the very Darwinian forces that the most fervent of Christians deny.”  Does evolution select for superstition and conspiracy theories? And how can they be dispelled?

Getting us from the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah to the top required mother nature (a.k.a. natural selection) to solve several design problems. Its quick and dirty solutions included ones that exaggerated our tendency to see conspiracies—plots in which there is a motive behind every event in nature. That’s what made religious belief unavoidable. It’s why religion is almost universal. Can these false beliefs be dispelled? Probably not completely, and probably not at all for people who have trouble understanding science.

Are introspection and common sense the greatest obstacles to understanding and accepting reality?

Introspection? Yes. Common sense, no.  For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes. Add to that the fact that scientific theories of human behaviour (and everything else) are much harder to understand just because they don’t involve narratives and plots, and the obstacles to understanding erected by conscious thought become obvious.

Common sense is another matter, however. Science is just the result of 400 years of common sense recursively reconstructing itself, weeding out false hypotheses and introducing better ones. The result of course is quantum mechanics, Darwinian theory, neuroscience—common sense reshaped into something that most people can’t understand because they don’t have the patience and mathematical ability to work their way through the details.

What is your conception of ‘scientism’ and why have you ‘reclaimed’ the term?

My conception of scientism is almost the same as that of those who use it as a term of abuse. They use the term to name the exaggerated and unwarranted confidence that science and its methods can answer all meaningful questions. I agree with that definition except for the ‘exaggerated’ and ‘unwarranted’ part.


You seem strongly committed to a form of physicalist reductionism – not eliminativism – perhaps you could say a little more about that and some of the misconceptions surrounding it?

To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness. The eliminativist thesis I just expressed will sound abstract and inconsequential to many people, and completely incoherent to many philosophers. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality I explain why it’s true and what its huge upshot for theism and mystery mongering is. But I don’t deal with the philosophers charge that the denial we think in statements about the world is incoherent. That’s a task for an academic paper. Suffice it to say that neuroscience forces us to be eliminativist about some things consciousness foists on us, but it does not deny the reality of sensations, emotions or for that matter cognition—properly understood. It’s scientism that mandates the reductive explanation of all three, and that neuroscience is well on its way to providing.


You are strongly committed to the view that “the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything”? What would you say to those who would suggest that the methods of science can give us no knowledge about mathematics and what it is like to see red?

What I say in response to such sophisticated philosophical challenges is first, like all the other metaphysical and epistemological alternatives, scientism does not yet have a satisfactory account of mathematics or our understanding of it; second, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness—what its like to have a qualitative experience—is a sign post along the research program of neuroscience. It will eventually have to dissolve this problem, just as physics eventually had to dissolve Zeno’s paradox of motion. Meanwhile, if I have to weigh the achievements of science in the balance against the problems of the philosophy of mathematics and the first person point of view, I’ll choose science. 400 years of ever-increasing depth and breadth in explanation and prediction carries a lot more weight with me than a handful of philosophical conundrums and Platonism about mathematics.


You assert that “science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when ‘complete’ what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.” Perhaps you could say something about those fundamentals, why you think they are unassailable and how much can be derived from them?

I argue in The Atheist’s Guide that all the science we need to answer the “persistent questions” that keep most thoughtful people up at night, are physics’ rejection of final causes, entelechies, prior designs in nature, along with the 2d law of thermodynamics. Those two are enough to give us natural selection, and together with them it is enough to solve all the other problems most people have about reality, the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, free will, ethics and the trajectory of human history.

But these established parts of science are of course not enough to answer all the scientific questions about these matters. To answer the questions of science (quite different from the limited questions of philosophy that people commonly ask themselves and their religious “advisers”) requires all the rest of science, including the parts that are still subject to development, change, revision, and even in a few cases, revolution. But nothing at the frontiers of any science is going to overturn the 2d law of thermodynamics, natural selection or the basic molecular biology of the neuron.

Is the fallibility of science a weakness in your argument or one of its strengths?

Science is common sense recursively reconstructing itself.  The reconstruction reflects the fallibility of common sense. Insistence by science on the tentativeness of its results at its ever-shifting research frontier, is what gives us confidence that after repeated test the parts most distant from that frontier are unlikely to be called into question.

The recurring dictum of your book is that ‘the physical facts fix all the facts’, what do you mean by that and how hard is it to persuade people of it?

Nothing more than this: take a time slice of any chunk of the universe—say, our planet, or solar system, or galaxy. Now produce a perfect—fermion for fermion, boson for boson—physical duplicate of that chunk at that moment. Then, everything that is true about what is going on in that first chunk, including all of the biological, psychological, sociological, political, economic, and cultural facts about it, will be true at the second, duplicate chunk.

I don’t know how hard it is to persuade people of this. It’s probably impossible to persuade many people once they realize it deprives their worlds of physically irreducible features.

Many of your readers may be amenable, in principle, to your contention that there is “no chance” of freewill. But few it seems can fully come to terms with the fact. Is freewill an illusion that is here to stay? Do you think that accepting that it is an illusion could change our behaviour and would you want it to?

Realizing there is no free will is unlikely to change our day-to-day behaviour, especially not our penchant for blaming people, and praising dogs for that matter. But it could change our politics a bit. In The Atheist’s Guide I argued that the core morality mother nature imposed on us together with the denial of free will is bound to make the consistent thinker sympathetic to a left-wing, egalitarian agenda about the treatment of criminals and of billionaires.


You assert that “scientism dictates a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans and of our evolution—biological and cultural” and that this means that “when it comes to ethics, morality, and value, we have to embrace an unpopular position that will strike many people as immoral as well as impious.” Just how bad is the news about morality? And why do you think “new atheists” like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett can’t accept it?  

Second question first. Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter. Answer to first question immediately below.

What‘s the ‘good news’ about nihilism? Does evolution select for niceness?

The good news is that natural selection has shaped almost all of us to be nice enough to make human social life possible. It had to. Without such shaping of social life, human life on the African savannah, and since then for that matter, would have been impossible. We are too puny to survive otherwise (even given our monstrously big brains).

Do you think accepting ‘nilhism’ will change how we act?  Can ‘nilhism’ be ‘reclaimed’ or do you think we will need a new way of talking about ‘morality’?

No. The correct philosophical theory has almost no capacity to overwhelm two million years or more of natural selection. Insofar as we pursue human sciences, nihilism is inevitable, but the label has too many disturbing connotations to stick.

Understandably you take there to be no purpose to the universe. But it seems you want to make a much stronger and more radical claim – that there are no purposes in the universe. Could you say something about just how wrong we are about cognition and consciousness?

The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.

In your book you make the striking claim that “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.” As you admit this seems an absurd claim. Whilst, your detailed arguments for this position form a difficult and lengthy part of your book, could you give some small sketch of your grounds for making such a claim?

I started on that task in my answer to the last question. The best I can do in a few lines to answer the question further is to note that if intentionality, content, ‘aboutness,’ is impossible, given the way the brain works, it’s also impossible in consciousness—since that’s just more brain process. So, we need an explanation of the illusion that our conscious thoughts have sentential meaning and propositional content. Neuroscience explains why there is no original intentionality, along with no derived intentionality, in the brain. I show that adding consciousness doesn’t help in any way to create original intentionality. The argument is pretty simple once you grant that non-conscious brain states lack original intentionality because they can’t carry around information in the form of sentences.


Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities?   And what would it mean for philosophy? 

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives. As for philosophy, done right it’s just very abstract and very general science.


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