Review of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”

Jerry Coyne often demands encomiums for reading theological works. Given that, I demand many strong encomiums for reading the book he recommended, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by Alex Rosenburg. This is because, unlike the books that Coyne cites, this book is, in actual fact, really, really bad. Now, I didn’t say that about Grayling’s book. Or Coyne’s book. Or pretty much any other atheist book that I’ve read. The harshest I’ve been overall is probably to Kaufmann’s book, which isn’t all that harsh at all. So when I say that the book is really bad, you have a bit of a reference point. So let me outline some of the general problems with it, and then address a number of specific concerns. Again, I’m not quoting and am running mostly on memory, so there may be some inaccuracies, but I think that overall my claims will be accurate and descriptive.

The book was incredibly frustrating to read, mostly because it never really made arguments. Instead, it asserted points with great vigour and then attempted to bludgeon the reader with those asserted points over and over again, often in lieu of actually showing how the new argument really links to the asserted points. He makes great hay over “the physical facts are fixed” even in the face of phenomena that might challenge that idea, and often tries to make those challenges go away by, again, simply saying “The physical facts are fixed!” as if that resolves the problem. There were a number of cases where I was screaming “Get to the point!” when he was going on and on and on about how the thing he was arguing was the case was the case … without showing how, indeed, we knew that. His grasp of philosophy and even of science is weak, his argument unconvincing, his prose more like a propaganda tract than an actual argument … which, given that he seems to believe that argument — as it appeals to consciousness — is, like psychotherapy, useless, might well be the point.

But to see this, let me go through some of the more problematic “arguments” he makes (roughly one per chapter) to see how they fail miserably.

From the start, he tries to set up what will be a major theme of the book: humans are conditioned to prefer stories to things that have real “meaning” (I have to put that in quotes, at least once, since Rosenberg at least arguably doesn’t really believe in meaning), but science can only be expressed in things that aren’t stories, like mathematical equations. The equations have real meaning, he says, but the stories don’t, and yet we are primed by nature to prefer the stories, not the equations. Except that he misses the point of what the “stories” that we prefer are. They are descriptions of how the phenomena impacts our every day lives, the things we go through every day and, in fact, the very world we live in. To anyone who doesn’t already know what the equation means, tossing the equation at them is useless. The scientists already know or can derive what the equation means, meaning what impact it has on a relevant domain — their other equations, their theories, their other experiments — but of course the average, every day person can’t. So they want to know what it means to them. And to its credit, science has very often been able to provide that, which is responsible for science’s great successes. Rosenberg wants to get rid of all that … for some reason. Well, it seems, for the reason that stories rely on our own experiences and he definitely distrusts our own experiences … despite the fact that you can’t even do science without, at some point, relying on your own experiences.

The big scientific principle that Rosenburg uses to underlie his ideas is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything he talks about comes back to that law. And I do mean everything. This, of course, rather quickly gets ridiculous, because he tries to force things into a literal link with the Second Law, instead of using it either as an underlying principle or as an associative descriptive metaphor. This comes to the fore early when he tries to use it to “explain” evolution. He spends a lot of time waxing eloquently about how things like crystals form and how that strictly follows the Second Law, and then seems to argue that evolutionary interactions are molecular interactions and molecular interactions work the same way, which is fair enough, but then seems to conclude that therefore the evolutionary process is therefore the exact same process. And I don’t mean in the sense that Dawkins concluded that multiverses would be a case of natural selection — as roughly the same kind of explanatory process, but obviously not the same kind of process — and not in the sense that evolutionary processes are therefore bound by the Second Law and cannot violate it — which no one would deny — but instead that you can, somehow, literally talk about evolutionary processes in the exact same way as you talk about crystal formation, citing the Second Law, and not getting away at all from “atoms joining together” and it will make sense. At least, that’s how I took it … and it’s ridiculous to think of it that way. While you can compare them at a broad level — that structures form at random and the stable ones “survive” to move on and grow larger and larger — with evolution you end up with interactions that can only be understood at the organism level, and the interactions with the environment go far beyond “heat it up and things react faster”. But those interactions are all he talks about in that chapter, and pretty much all he says about evolution, which is not going to help him when he tries to show that those sort of Second Law dynamics are the only way we can get life.

The big thrust of that argument is that the Second Law moves us from order to disorder, and life is ordered. But we can get order, even without an external force intervening — he repeats the explanation for why we can have evolved order on Earth of “we use the energy input of the Sun to do it” earlier — but it’s just improbable. Perhaps wildly so. But if it happens, then we get life, and then we get all that comes with that. So the only way that we can get that naturally is by a random “lucking out”. Well, sure, except that he has to concede that an external force could do it. So, he’s left with it’s either complete blind random chance … or God. Sure, he claims that no intelligent external force would do it that way because it’s so “inefficient”, but all that means is that it’s hard and takes a lot of energy and effort … and if a God wanted people to know that He created them without telling them, doing something very, very hard would be the way to go.

On morality, Rosenberg’s claims for why there can be no such thing as morality are very, very weak. He completely misses the idea of normativity that is inherent to morality and for the most part simply dismisses morality completely without any real argument. When he does try to argue for it, he ends up appealing to the Nihilism that he thinks is entailed by Scientism that he thinks is entailed by science instead of something that someone who think that, say, morality is a conceptual truth could find in any way convincing. He tries to sidestep the idea that being moral nihilists means accepting that anything goes by pointing out that we all have a core morality built into us by evolution that gives us strong moral reactions and emotions, reactions and emotions that we pretty much have to follow, so we’ll generally act reasonably anyway … except for all the people who don’t, of course. The problem is that this argument is pretty much based on the idea that these things are so strongly wired into at least most people that we just naturally will follow them, at all times, and will never and never be able to change or even eliminate them. Except that we know that we can do just that. He uses an example of intense jealousy as an evolved moral emotion … ignoring that most people who feel it are, in fact, able to suppress of even eliminate that emotion, and most people think that we ought to. Rage to the point of violence when someone offends you is also a natural emotion, but we’ve both developed ways to control it and insisted that one ought only engage in it on very rare occasions. Given that we can control our emotions — which includes our moral ones — then it is a reasonable question to ask which of those I ought to keep and which I ought to eliminate. Which means that if it makes sense for me to eliminate the emotion against hurting children, then I ought to do that. So, even given Rosenberg’s “core morality”, there is still good reason to examine morality, see what it is for, and then align my core morality with what best suits that purpose. In short, normative concerns. Only if I cannot change my emotions does this fail, and all of our experience suggests that we can do just that.

Of course, Rosenberg denies that we can do that, by denying that our experiences are telling us anything at all useful, particularly ones that deal with introspection on our mental processes and states. One has to wonder at what point he considers sense impressions accurate, since they are conscious impressions and so, at least to him, can’t actually drive our behaviour, which ought to be embarrassing for him since they are our only access to an external world at all. Anyway, he uses the Libet experiments and blindsight experiment to show that our introspections about the mind works are just plain wrong. The interesting thing here is that there’s an actual interesting challenge brought up by these experiments, but you wouldn’t know it by reading what Rosenburg says, as he expresses the argument here incredibly badly. Anyway, the interesting argument is this: we tend to think that our conscious experiences are causing certain behaviours, but the experiments are showing that in at least some we can get the same behaviours without, it seems, them being caused by the conscious experience (this is the important point in the blindsight experiments). But if this is the case, how do we know that our conscious experiences ever cause any behaviour? Rosenburg focuses in on the neurological side and showing that tweaking things in the brain can predict or cause things, but never really, as far as I can tell, pushes that line. Now, the short reply to this is that none of the experiments address things that are, in fact, paradigmatically conscious. Facial recognition is known to be an automatic process, and pointing to an object of a certain colour is something that we, for example, never really “think” about, and randomly choosing when to press a button seems to be something that you’d leave to a random number generator, like a sleep(random 10) command in a computer program. I’ll talk more about this problem in another post, but suffice it to say that the interesting parts of the argument are not in Rosenburg, and Rosenburg’s arguments are not interesting.

Rosenburg’s attempts to deal with meaning and aboutness are muddled and self-contradicting. He focuses in on the brain, and insists that there can be no actual link between things in the brain to things in the world, so no aboutness, so no meaning. At this point, he’s conceded the big point that non-materialists want conceded: that the physical brain can’t capture aboutness, but then simply tries to argue that since, of course, that’s all it is, that therefore aboutness can’t happen, there’s no such thing as meaning, and ultimately ends up having to adopt a very strong Skinnerian behaviourism to explain how we go about our daily lives, which then makes it ironic that he cites Chomsky’s theory of language in defense of this since Chomsky’s theory is widely held to have refuted Skinner since language can’t be formed that way. Oops. But Rosenburg gives us no other way to go than this view that is generally considered to be totally false. Oops again. He ends up accepting the argument that most of his fellow materialists rightly think is a bad thing to accept if one wants materialism to be true, is left with no way to argue against the anti-materialist arguments and claimed consequences other than by simply asserting that there is no such thing — he even argues at one point that some of the issues around identity and the like are problems for science, but not for Scientism, which is like saying that it’s a problem for the underlying theory, but not for the things that depend on their truth on that underlying theory being true — and then walks himself into absurdities trying to show what it means to accept those things as not existing. In short, he tries to take the things that people say would demonstrate that we need something non-physical to support them and eliminate them, and when he can’t simply asserts that everything is physical and we’ll figure it all out someday. That’s hardly an argument that anyone should support.

Ultimately, Rosenburg has to dismiss any attempts to interpret the internal mental states of people and predict their behaviour on the basis of that, because of the rather ridiculous claim that there are no such things (or, at least, that they aren’t causally efficacious). This means that he has to deride folk psychology, psychotherapy and history as being absolutely useless and mostly wrong. But folk psychology is, in fact, the most effective method we have for predicting the actions of other people in our every day lives. We use it many, many times a day, every day, and it generally works, and when it doesn’t work it is quick to point out that, hey, something’s wrong here and so you’d better go figure out more about the other person. It boggles my mind that Rosenburg could seriously express the idea that folk psychology is just terrible at figuring out psychology at that level because not only is it wildly successful, it’s also not going to be replaced by “look inside the brain and see what’s happening”. When it comes to history, Rosenburg seems to be insisting that it is pointless because there aren’t enough patterns in human behaviour to allow it to say anything useful … while insisting earlier that we all have evolved traits that are roughly common even between cultures that produce a “core morality”, and that clashes tend to be over facts, not over core moral claims. So … wouldn’t that be a pattern? But the attack on psychotherapy is the worst. He insists that the only way to fix mental problems is going to be various drugs, because if I recall correctly psychotherapy, at best, identifies and treats the symptoms, not the cause (which to him is the brain state). Except that since our only access to the outside world is through seeing and hearing and the like, even if his theory is true we would generally develop those mental problems by what we “see” and “hear”, which means that the cause of those neural patterns is, in fact, the external forces that impinge on our “minds”. So, if you take a drug to simply reset the neurons and then go back out and have those same “experiences” again … your neurons will revert back to the problem state. You will, ironically, have treated the symptoms and not the cause. Psychotherapy, then, both accepts that talking and experiencing is what caused the problem in the first place, and tries to fix the problem by trying to change how one reacts to those things, which addresses the cause and not merely the symptoms. In short, if you can get into it by experiences, you can get out of it by experiences. The only reason for Rosenburg to hold this is to hold his view that internal experiences do nothing, but the whole rest of the work is forced to deny that, so his argument fails.

It is, as I said, a very bad book. The philosophy is weak and inconsistent, the arguments generally poor, and the writing style more that of a propaganda piece than of a philosophical argument, which I suppose is consistent given his views of their efficacy. Out of all of the books I’ve read so far, this is the only one that I recommend everyone stay far, far away from.

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2 Responses to “Review of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality””

  1. Awareness, Consciousness, Qualia, and Blindsight | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as mentioned in my review of Rosenburg’s book, I want to talk a bit about the cases of blindsight that he discussed, because I think that […]

  2. Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by […]

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