Book Review from the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg. Norton, 2011
A frustration shared by socialists and many scientists is the persistence of belief in a god to explain the world. This is partly because ‘god’ is such a quick and easy answer to so many important questions: How did we get here? Why should I behave morally? Why am I here? While science has provided a comprehensive explanation of how and when we got here, and what we are made of, it is less certain when answering the question, why? Instead, many people have turned to religious or other unfounded explanations. This potentially leaves a gap in the atheist’s belief system. How can the scientifically-minded atheist explain issues like morality and purpose? In The Atheist’s Guide To Reality, Alex Rosenberg aims to prove that science can explain these matters. He argues that a consequence of science – and physics, in particular – is that we should abandon many of our fundamental assumptions.
Science – especially neuroscience – has explained the workings of our brains, and this entails that we abandon the concept of a ‘soul’. Moreover, science requires that we should also jettison related concepts like ‘mind’ and even ‘self’. As our brains are organic machines, they function by responding to learned inputs with predictable behavioural outputs. So, it is wrong to describe the brain as a ‘soul’, ‘mind’ or ‘self’. Self-awareness and even consciousness are just by-products of non-conscious, involuntary functions of the brain. This also means that the thoughts, intentions and meanings we attach to ourselves aren’t really about anything; they’re just mechanical processes. And therefore we lack free will, as well as a mind and a self.
According to Rosenberg, evolution by natural selection has led to our false assumptions about ourselves. Our ancestors survived long enough to reproduce by using the most expedient beliefs and explanatory frameworks, regardless of whether they were correct. Now, science has exposed how wrong these assumptions are, and atheists should adopt a different way of thinking about life.
Rosenberg says that this should lead to ‘nice nihilism’, a stance which combines niceness (which has been evolutionarily advantageous) with no longer believing in moral facts. He doesn’t devote quite enough space to discussing the political implications of his theory. He says that his science-based outlook should encourage “a fairly left-wing agenda” (p.292). But while he says we should act co-operatively and helpfully towards others, he also argues that we shouldn’t believe we have any purpose. This is not only because science doesn’t need non-physical concepts like ‘purpose’, but also because it doesn’t use narratives, like we use to explain how we live. So, history, sociology and politics are based on false premises, and should only be seen as a type of entertainment.
Rosenberg’s fascinating, imaginative theory is argued clearly and convincingly. If he is right, then science requires us to rethink all our beliefs about ourselves. He claims that future scientific developments won’t discredit his argument, as the basics of physics are already known. But if we’ve got the physics right, should we agree with what Rosenberg says? By downplaying the role of politics – and, by extension, economics – in favour of science to explain the world, he ignores how science is itself influenced by economic forces. It is these forces and their impact on our ideologies which shape science and how we view it. Rosenberg’s views are also influenced in this way. So, science is not the objective, all-encompassing explanatory framework he believes it to be. Despite this, his argument remains persuasive and important to all Marxists and atheists. Exercise your free will by reading it for yourself.