The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions Kindle Edition
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- Lawrence Krauss A Universe From Nothing
“For those of us who have pondered what David Hume might have said, were he to have had the benefit of all the scientific knowledge that succeeded his death, Alex Rosenberg’s wonderful new book perfectly satisfies.”
- Rebecca Goldstein 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
“...The Atheist’s Guide is the work of a well-informed and imaginative philosopher.”
- Philip Kitcher, New York Times Book Review --This text refers to the paperback edition.
About the Author
- Publication Date : October 3, 2011
- File Size : 1601 KB
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company (October 3, 2011)
- Word Wise : Enabled
- ASIN : B005LW5JTY
- Print Length : 369 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN : 0393080234
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
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- Language: : English
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- Best Sellers Rank: #344,580 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Top reviews from the United States
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If there is anything to commend about this argument, it is Rosenberg's stubborn insistence on accepting the implications of his scientistic commitments, however absurd. Most people, for example, would argue that, if physicalism implies that we can't have any thoughts about anything, then physicalism is false. Indeed, demonstrating that physicalism cannot account for intentionality is widely viewed as a reductio argument against the cogency of physicalism. But, rather than denying this implication (as most naturalist philosophers do), Rosenburg bites the bullet. Since the neurons in one's brain cannot -- on physicalism -- be "about" anything, and since our thoughts are nothing more than neuronal processes, ergo, our sense that we think "about" concepts, ideas, beliefs, etc. is an "illusion."
Of course, as Rosenberg seems to appreciate, this argument implies that the hundreds of pages of text in Rosenberg's book aren't about anything either. Rosenberg's very arguments for scientism must be dismissed as meaningless scribbles, the excitation of neurons firing in Rosenberg's brain. Which is to say that Rosenberg's core argument -- like scientism itself -- is self-refuting. Indeed, it is not even coherent.
Rosenberg, for example, insists that "science" not only shows that the world is devoid of intentionality, "science" also maintains that there is no such thing as a self or person. But, if there is no self, who is the subject of the "illusion" that our thoughts are about something? Throughout his book, Rosenberg argues that human beings are beset by numerous "illusions" that science has now dispelled. Nowhere does he explain how it is possible that a non-existence self could entertain illusions in the first place. Who, exactly, is experiencing these illusions?
This is frankly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with Rosenberg' argument. Take the matter of defining one's terms -- an essential part of any philosophical argument. Rosenberg can't be bothered. Most notably, while pronouncing himself a believer in "scientism," Rosenberg cannot even be bothered to define what he means by "science." Does it include mathematics (presumably)? Philosophy (presumably not)? What does it mean for something to be "physical"? The closest Rosenberg comes is to say that science is "more a matter of blueprints, recipes, formulas, wiring diagrams, systems of equations, and geometrical proofs." Well, that narrows it down.
Other unaddressed questions abound. If purpose does not really exist in the universe, what the source of our concept of a "purpose"? How can Rosenberg demonstrate, within the methodological limitations of modern physics, that physics exhausts all there is no know about reality? Is there a theory of physics from which one can draw that conclusion? Can one account for the explanatory success of scientific theories while also maintaining, with Rosenberg, that there are no persons who are capable of thinking about anything? If so, how?
In lieu addressing these fundamental, threshold questions, Rosenberg offers what, for a professional philosopher, can only be described as blatantly fallacious arguments. He identifies (alleged) errors in introspection in certain discrete experimental settings and then draws the sweeping conclusion that introspection cannot be trusted at all to tell us anything about the mind. But Rosenberg ignores the modern neuroscience would be impossible if introspection were entirely unreliable. Even in the blindsight experiments that Rosenberg touts, the results depend on the reliability of the subject's report of his personal awareness (or lack thereof) of objects in his or her visual field (how does one know whether the subject does or does not see the object without introspection). Similarly, neuroscientific accounts of the correlation between brain activity and conscious states assumes that subjects have some reliable knowledge of the content of their conscious states.
Then there is Rosenberg attempt to explain away those features of reality that are inconvenient for scientism. For example, many philosophers -- including non-theists such as Thomas Nagel -- argue that the subject experience of consciousness, or "qualia," are impossible to explain with the tools of physical science. Rosenberg's response to this argument is, in essence, to complain that it is not "fair" for opponents of scientism/physicalism to highlight features of reality that physicalism cannot explain. That is, "science" -- really, Rosenberg's confused philosophical position masquerading as science -- has its tools for explaining reality; if reality isn't amenable to those tools, so much the worse for reality!
At points reading this book, it occurred to me that Rosenberg might be a closet religious fundamentalist who was trying to write a parody of atheism. I certainly found myself laughing out loud at time at the disparity between Rosenberg's intellectual self-confidence and the strength of his arguments. But, as remarkable as it may seem, there is no reason to doubt that Rosenberg quite sincerely believes in his scientism. Which, if scientism is true, makes no sense, as "beliefs" are non-physical and thus yet another examples of the many illusions with which "we" -- another illusion! -- are confronted.
Rosenberg's reductio thus is complete. If Rosenberg is right, he is wrong. Or, to be more precisely, if it is even possible in principle for Rosenberg to advance an argument through reasoning, and if it is further possible to assess the truth of that argument, then Rosenberg's scientism is thereby falsified. This, ultimately, is Rosenberg's only accomplishment.
In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg asserts that modern science has ended the debate for all time. “The basic things everything is made up of,” writes Rosenberg, “are fermions and bosons…that’s it” (p. 21). Physics tells us what reality is and there is nothing more. Sure, physicists still have a lot to learn about reality, but the broad outlines are set and we can be confident they won’t change.
This is at least a reasonable position, even if many of us have a hard time accepting it. Where Rosenberg really presses the implications is with our common sense notions about consciousness. What seems to be the most important feature about our experience is largely non-existent. Neuroscientists have “established that many of the most obvious things introspection tells you about your mind are illusions” (p. 148). Whether you accept Rosenberg’s conclusions about the mind or not, it’s well worth reading his chapter on consciousness.
I enjoyed this book in spite of the fact that it undermines so many of my own philosophical views. While I’m certainly skeptical of religion, I do believe that philosophy, history, literature, and the social sciences provide actual, if non-scientific, knowledge about reality and human affairs. Rosenberg seems to see these disciplines as having nothing more than entertainment value. Only the hard sciences provide true knowledge. I’m not ready to fully accept this position; maybe someday.
There are many interesting sections in this book. I liked his discussions of anti-depressants, criminal justice, and Epicurean philosophy. This is also the best book I’ve read about the continuity of physics through the other hard sciences (biology, cognitive neuroscience, etc.). If you’re at least open to notion that only modern science provides access to truth and reality, you’ll probably appreciate this book. Alternatively, if you cannot accept the possibility that ultimately physics is all there is, this book is unlikely to convince you.
Top reviews from other countries
Unfortunately despite the boldness of the opening, proclaiming a profoundly concrete answer to some of the supposed big questions of life, the lack of proper editing and an ambling prose leads the actually points that he's trying to make into a total mess by the end unless you're already convinced by most of the points Alex is making.
The notions about what physics is, how it relates to determinism and free will are par for the course. The analogies used to explain how some of the "theory of mind" critics have been barking up the wrong tree are well explained but poorly explored. I think if more pages were dedicated to these I think there would be more grounds to side with his attmepts dismiss the ideas about conciousness further on in the book.
The biological explanations of how we as humans interact both politically and psychologically are again well written but the problems begin with how the actual content of the book is written and it's style.
Alex has a few bad habits, and they are REALLY bad. In his attempt to reclaim "scientism" as a positive word over a perjorative as cynics of science have started to use it he's been reduced to use the damn word about 10 times on every page as if repeating it enough times will convince you it's true, or maybe he's just trying to jam it into our lexicon so we inadvertently pick it up.
Also the way he tries to run you through some of arguments for his claims is just tedious. Endless analogies and explanations are repeated some 3 times over in just a few pages, as if he's just trying to make up the word count set by his publisher. This book could really have done with a few more re-drafts with help from a proper editor... and a thesaurus.
What's worse is that Rosenberg has written some REALLY great books that are marvellously written and on par with the explanatory power of books like Dawkin's "The blind watchmaker". So it's inexcusable that such a book that's intended to popularise the positive notion that athiesm isn't some evil boogey man of science, ends up forcing you to scratch you head at every step to find what Alex's actual arguments are trying to get at.
I think maybe the problem lies with trying to explain the illusion of intentionality without appealing to the language of it that we're so used to. But other philosopher's such as Dennett have a natural talent for doing that.
Rosenburg's position isn't an intuitive one, and it's certainly not a well popluarised one amongst a lot of atheist's so this book really needed to nail the introduction to the argument he's proposing about removing the "aboutness" of conciousness from our worldview. It needed clear examples, step by step argumentation with clear premises leading to a distinct conclusion... and it just... really doesn't work.
And it works even less when you get to his views on history. So he appeals to the pragmatics of the physcial sciences. Then procedes to state that nothing can be said about history or politics or economics except through a lens of physical reductionism. A rather black or white position compared to the previous pragmatic one.
Well that's all great and all until you realise that computationally you simply cannot do that, even with the biggest Deep Think PC ever concieved off. The argument comes across as equivocating because he's using an ever increasing accuracy of physics derived from innaccurate common sense psychology to backup his argument that physicalism is the final answer. I agree it's the final answer ontologically, but saying there is an impossible divide of the humanities, even if they use a scientific method to establish truth about the world is just flat out wrong. If you just want a pragmatic answer then you're not going to be looking for a completely reducible account of why "Henry VIII killed his wives" in terms of physical laws. You're just looking for an explanation that falls into the purvue of psychology. It doesn't matter if it falls down to neurons firing in this order or that because if you can't ACTUALLY calculate that (which unless every person is walking around with a portable MRI scanner) then you simply can't do ANY science on the matter.
Again, this might be a strawman, but given the lack of clarification, poorly written statements with no real coherent premises you'd be hard pressed to interpret it any differently. Using ever more accurate terms for representing the mind in a physical manner brings you closer to the "true" answer, but it doesn't make it pragmatically feasible to demand a neuron level account of human thought every time. I don't think any neuroscientist when pressed would want to commit to that anymore than a software engineer would demand we all code everything in assembly logic.
His most important sections, the ones on conciousness itself are unfortunately the most muddled, and given it's trying to talk about how unreliable introspection can be, you would have thought maximising one's ability to introspect correctly on the matter whilst reading would have been a priority, either with well thought out verbage combined with good examples of empirical data (not just piece-meal appeals to blindsight experiments).
Anyway, moral nihilism 'good', explanations of biology fantastic, political ideology of humanity still pretty great, but his views on historcism are just.... cringe.
Go find a copy of his book written with McShea on the Philosophy of Biology. It far surpases this one in everyway.
Perhaps this is a lesson in the trials of publication deadlines. I don't know. I can only comment on the content as it stands... and Alex would lambast me for daring to infer that I can examine his intentions without appealing to the phsyical facts ;)
Tl;dr Lacked a clear direction and just got lazy at the end of the book in order to meet a word count.
Really dissapointed given Rosenburg is hardly known for his inability to write well or his oratory skills in lectures. Side effects of taking too much prozac I guess.