Review of Rosenberg, An atheist’s guide to reality

Here. I haven’t read Rosenberg’s book yet, but from this review, it sounds like the book at least presents a clear expression of a full-blown, “mad-dog scientism” world view. As the reviewer summarizes the view’s outcomes,

There is no God. Reality is what physics says (and evolutionary biology). There is no purpose to anything, anywhere. Never was, never will be. There is therefore no meaning to life. I’m here because of dumb luck. Prayer doesn’t work. There is no such thing as a soul. There is no freewill. When we die, everything stays the same except without us. There is no moral difference between good and bad, right and wrong. You should be good because it makes you feel better than being bad. Anything goes. Love is a solution to a strategic coordination problem. It’s automatic, programmed so there’s no need to go out looking for it. History has no purpose (see above) because the future is less and less like the past. Ditto economics. Technology makes predicting the future a guessing game and their rational choice theories are outrageously bad psychology.

Of course, the big problem most people start worrying over at this point is: then why should I care about other people, and doing the right thing? The reviewer answers on Rosenberg’s behalf:

But then, if there are no categorical imperatives (except linguistically) don’t abhorrent values become equal with decent ones? If there’s nothing in the naturalistic worldview to underwrite goodness then Hitler is equal to Gandhi. Rosenberg accepts this but says we shouldn’t worry. Rosenberg says we are all just hard-wired to be nice. Morals are for him a type of norm expressivism. There are facts paired to norms that form a core system that’s universal, shared as a kind of species bedrock. As a species we’ve evolved the same values. There are other facts then that these pairings interact with, local ones including eco systems. So Rosenberg argues that as a species we share the same values and and that all moral disagreement is about factual matters if it persists beyond clearing up background cultural things.

Well, that’s lucky for us. Or I guess I shouldn’t think of it as lucky. It’s just the way things turned out, and since they turned out that way, I end up feeling good about it. Had we evolved to lie, cheat, and steal — or if in the coming centuries, we decide to breed ourselves in that direction — then we’ll feel lucky about that too. I’m feeling better already!


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

29 thoughts on “Review of Rosenberg, An atheist’s guide to reality”

  1. If humans are “hard-wired to be nice” then we must necessarily ‘choose’–willfully go against our nature–to act badly…hmmm. Does this line of thinking really pretend to get us anywhere? Provide any meaningful analysis of the way things actually are??? Why would any philosopher insist on modern science having all the answers when science was born of philosophy (logic) in the first place? Modern philosophy is soo in need of a few loose cannons to set science on its heals. Philosophy should demand more of logic than science does, not less–logic is still the domain of philosophy even though science highjacked it a few hundred years ago for its own narrow purposes. Let’s get back to asking the really hard and interesting questions–give science something to respond to the way philosophy used to–rather than being doled out the answers–especially not by a discipline as limited as modern physics. As useful as it is, physics is still struggling to explain itself! Physics needs philosophers to CONTRIBUTE to the collective understanding of the world not to merely agree with physicists about how the world is. Besided most physicists don’t care if philosophers agree with them or not. If earning the respect of the scientific community is somehow the goal then challenging scientific findings with sound philosophical argument and questioning will do more to make a place for philosophy in today’s technological world than simply backing down–even bowing down–to science, in my opinion :)


  2. It’s a fun and refreshing read, with myriad points of affinity with (especially, I think, ‘middle-period’) Nietzsche, and an entertaining intro to some of the most promising sources of genuine knowledge about ourselves and our evolutionary history that should really unsettle theists and moral realists. I wish someone would make some “Nice Nihilism” sportswear.

    For some cool podcast interviews with Rosenberg on the book:

    [audio src="" /] (This is a really good podcast series, hosted by a very sharp fellow.)

    [audio src="" /]


  3. Now we’re getting somewhere. Though it’s humbling to see the inherent troubles brewing within Scientism, and harrowing to feel the black nihilism bubbling up from underneath, here we have something that could be very encouraging.

    Shouldn’t it be thrilling? Here we are, among the strange clot of human history where we not only have the scientific and technological aptitude – but for the first time the cultural acceptance – to really make some incredible advances in understanding naturalistic human values (or the lack thereof).

    Sounds like there’s work to do; there’s brush to be cleared, and there are roads to be laid by scientists and philosophers if materialists are to sort out this miserable business of values in a mindless, possibly pointless (or does that term even apply?) Universe.


  4. I am all for Alex’s enthusiasm over our newer discoveries, and especially the ones that reveal the sorts of illusions we’re prone to in our thinking. Plus I tend to geek out over subatomic physics. But I also agree with Sandi that it is silly for philosophers to simply wait for scientists to hand us our metaphysics. (This is the result of a hard-waged campaign by Kleiner to coax me out of my own scientism.) I will see if I can give Rosenberg a read, given Rob’s endorsement, but right now my mind is full of 19th-century philosophy. Rosenberg’s scientism – and Dennett’s, and so on – sounds to me just like the scientific materialism of the 1860s and 1870s, in writers like Büchner and Moleschott. The details are different, of course, but the basic attitude is the same. And I’m ready to brew some neo-kantian response!


  5. I think you’ve definitely hit on the spirit of Rosenberg’s book, which evokes for me most strongly the “hard” naturalism of Nietzsche’s HAH1 that he wielded against Schopenhauer, Wagner and the intellectual-cultural trends and movements they apparently represented for him. Eager for your brew, even if only to replace one enchantment with another.


  6. Not everyone shares Rob’s positive opinion of the book, and I am predictably one of those people. I read the book over break, and I would call it 300+ pages of smug. Leon Wieseltier, in an extremely satisfying beat-down of the book, calls it “the worst book of the year.” His review echoes my sentiments.

    Silly philosophers like me might still be wrestling with Great Questions, but not Rosenberg. No, he cooly declares that “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions” are no longer mysteries. Rather, “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” I wish the physicists would send philosophy departments the memo with this news. Maybe send the memo to the administration so they know they can shut us down. Indeed, all of the humanities can be shut down now, for Rosenberg confidently declares that they are “nothing we have to take seriously.”

    An excerpt from Wieseltier’s review:
    “He [Rosenberg] is untroubled by everything under the sun. The man’s peace of mind is indecent. “We know the truth,” he declares sacerdotally in his preface. “Some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug. I fear I have to plead guilty to this charge …” Once upon a time science was the enemy of smugness.”

    Wieseltier also nails the dogmatism of Rosenberg and many of his new atheist peers. With Rosenberg and his lot, “… science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. ”

    Honestly, are there any religious persons as dogmatic as the new atheists? My review: meh.

    Edward Feser spends rather more time with his review. His blog has a 5 part review:


    1. Hi Kleiner: Indeed, as Rosenberg fully admits, even many atheists (perhaps especially those hailing from the humanities), won’t share the message and implications of his book.

      Thanks for the link to Feser’s review, which I’m looking forward to reading. As for Wieseltier’s review, I can only assume that as sharp and intellectually serious a person as yourself will, after having actually read the book, find it difficult to resist sharing in at least a modicum of Leiter’s scorn.


      1. Agreed, Wieseltier mostly just sneers. I have to admit, though, that I am increasingly inclined to just sneer at the sneering new atheists myself. I am growing more and more unwilling to seriously engage thinkers who shallowly refuse to ask the “human questions.” Perhaps that is a fault that I should seek to correct, but it is where I find myself. I am seeing less and less value in taking time to argue against silly and shallow fundamentalism (of theist or atheist stripes).

        Shock value books like this and Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ are not, I think, very serious (despite how impressed the authors are with how “shocking” they are being). So I don’t mind a less than serious sneering at them. Both books pretend to be far more serious than they really are and are both, frankly, embarrassingly bad philosophy.

        Still, a more thoughtful argument against scientism can and should be made, and Wieseltier does not execute that task. Leiter is right about that. The review you link to does propose more thoughtful objections. Invoking Williamson at the end of the review gets you to the conclusion Wieseltier draws (‘scientism is smug and self-defeating’), though with more earnest argument instead of mere sneering. Feser also does an admirable job of arguing against scientism / dogmatic naturalism/materialism (while still being amusingly polemical) in his “The Last Superstition”.


  7. I like Chesterton’s take on materialism:

    “As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out…. [The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in…. If the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk…. The whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole” (Orthodoxy).

    And Lewis’s:

    “You cannot go on `explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see” (The Abolition of Man).


  8. “The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in” – that’s a keeper, Dan; thanks for posting it.

    But okay, let’s pursue this further: if scientific materialism misses all the good and juicy stuff, then how should we go about understanding the wide and wonderful world of human experience? More precisely, how should we go about testing the truth or falsity of the claims we make? This is science’s biggest virtue: they lay their predictions on the line and will toss out a theory if its prediction is false. (Ideally, anyway; I know the ideal is sometimes corrupted.) Rare indeed is the more broadly-minded philosopher who is willing to retract a theory or a claim because anything at all has shown them to be wrong. Usually quite the opposite: they dig in and defend their theories at all costs, sometimes reframing their theories in such a way as to make any possible friction against empirical reality well-nigh impossible.

    Put more provocatively: what, if anything, makes the richer philosophies different from clumsy attempts at poetry?


  9. Part of me wants to dodge your question, because what you seem to be asking for is some kind of “method” or “technique”. Your question might be uncharitably rephrased as “So if philosophy is not science, tell me how to make it more like science!” I am also leery of the embedded “truth as correspondence” assumptions here.

    But quibbling over your assumptions ignores what is a perfectly reasonable general question (rephrased again) – how do we proceed with the human questions if not scientifically?

    How about phenomenologically (I am thinking the Heideggerian sense rather than the Husserlian)? Ground the inquiry in basic and definitive human experiences and careful analyses of “that which shows itself”. This may seem rather loose, but I think it advances the ball (even if not with any kind of ultimate resolution). Reading Heidegger, one gets the sense that philosophy is invitation rather than argumentation. I don’t know that Heidegger ever makes an argument that we could “test”. Rather, he is an incredibly careful observer and he gives his analysis. We are invited to see if the analysis resonates with our own definitive human experiences.

    While we are at it, what is wrong with poetic inquiry? Can truth not be disclosed through the poetic? Or through myth? Discourse, art, etc etc.

    Humanistic inquiry of these stripes requires a special kind of honesty with oneself because the subject is always on the scene of these human questions. As such, your worries about our capacity to fool ourselves will, it seems to me, always be around. But it really cannot be any other way. To “bracket” the subject so as to investigate the matter scientifically is to precisely lose sight of the primary object of humanistic inquiry – the human person. The questioner himself is the question, so the questioner is always on the scene!


  10. Don’t get me wrong – I love poetry, and music, and art. I was just wondering whether the broader-minded philosophy is more like that sort of thing than like science. If it is, then I think that for the most part poetry and music and art are more successful. But in fact I think philosophy is quite distinct both from science and the arts. It’s not like the sciences because its domain is broader, richer, and more relevant to the problems that come with living a fully human life. It’s not like the arts because it involves truth claims more directly and explicitly. So that’s what it’s not. What it is, and especially the sort of inquiry it should follow, is still unclear to me, beyond some broad platitudes. (Which is embarrassing to admit. Students, you should drop my classes immediately!)


    1. I did not mean there to identify philosophy with poetry or art, only to save the poetic from the realm of “unreason”.

      I share your embarrassment in actually not quite being able to say what philosophy is or how it should proceed. An odd venture, philosophy, since philosophers spend a fair amount of time arguing about what they are even doing!

      What about phenomenology? 20th century continental philosophers certainly saw it as a way to break out of the log-jam left by modernity.


      1. You know how I feel about phenomenology. Honestly, I just can’t get anything valuable out of it. I have tried and tried to really see Heidegger’s genius, but so far I have failed. Maybe I’ll get it someday. At any rate, I hope it isn’t the only way out of the log-jam!


  11. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss scientific materialism altogether. Perhaps the problem lies in embracing everything science has to say today as though it were somehow finite and pure truth. I still like Strawson’s idea of “some possible physics” and btw so do some physicists I have spoken to about it :)


  12. In defense of Heidegger, his notions of relativity are precisely the same as those being employed by scientists today. The notion that something can be correct and yet not necessarily “true” is one in the same as Einstein’s conception of the law of relativity. There is much to be taken from the phenomenologists view of the world. It may even be the yin yang that binds science and tradition into a unified perspective…just saying–perhaps haha (someone is bound to not like this but I do.)


    1. I disagree, Sandi, though it’s entirely possible that I am missing something in Heidegger. Einstein’s (special) relativity is crucially just the observation that simultaneity is relative to reference frames, and all that follows from that. And in his theory that is as factual, true, correct, universal, etc. as anything can be.


      1. Most high school physics text books (including the one I taught from) teach that energy is not matter and yet Einstein–as well as particle accelerators–demonstrated that matter is nothing more than stored energy and now the real question in physics seems to be: what the hell is energy??? That is what Heidegger was saying–although he spoke in terms of “being” rather than matter/energy–because matter at least seems to us to have distinct and predictable properties then everything Newton had to say about it from our earthly perspective is useful and correct but from a universal perspective or relative perspective energy is all there actually is–that is closer to the “truth” at this point in the game (the physics game anyways) Does this do-away-with matter? No, not exactly… It rather fulfills or encompasses a lesser or partial truth with a more complete conception of the actual or over-arching truth–the Greeks archae/Goddess Truth etc.

        Even Einstein didn’t believe relativity went “all the way down” his quest was universality/unification that is what he saw through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole of modern physics–He KNEW it but just could never quite “prove” it. I like to think Spinoza really admired him for this. Einstein already had proof that superceded mere mathematical proof, he just recognized that no one would believe him without scientific proof. That is the really interesting story of the early theoretical physicists, they were truly “mystics of the atom” a term attributed to Paul Dirac by a recent biographer.

        Matthew 5:17

        “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

        That is the essence of the theory of relativity–to reconcile the one and the many. “And that’s all I have to say about that.)” Forrest Gump ;)


  13. I don’t know how atypical it is for thinkers in a discipline to be not entirely sure what their discipline is. They know it too well, and so no quick definition does justice. Or am I wrong? Vince, would a physicist be ready with a fast and suitable definition of physics?


  14. I think of philosophy as the pursuit of honesty and wisdom, usually in these ways. This guy sounds like a dogmatist. He seems to be making statements that the science doesn’t imply. Like there’s no purpose to anything, how the hell does a person get to a perspective where they can make that call? In a deterministic universe it seems to me that a person’s purpose might be a given just as easily. If he’s talking about “ultimate” purpose then he must think he has a God’s eye view. Any good scientist or philosopher, I think, holds his beliefs contingently (and holds fewer beliefs, preferably as few beliefs as necessary). So I probably put this into the category of bad science and bad philosophy. I don’t really see this as facing the reality of anything. Though I’m comfortable with the conclusions of science I don’t suggest people extrapolate into bullshit land.

    The idea that a person can (should?) appropriate a worldview in the way Rosenberg seems to imply might be bad psychology. It also might be a task that takes one away from the greater task of understanding one’s own view of the world. The underlying prejudices here remind me of bad religion (i.e. transform your world based on your belief tenets and stick to those). A fool’s errand, unhealthy, etc.

    Of course these are just my assumptions based on pieces of the review.


      1. False paradigms or mindsets lead to bullshil land. We must stay fluid and flexible–

        rigid thinking = bullshit rhetoric

        All of the really great and fluential thinkers had to course-correct; stand up (often alone) against the dogmatic fallacies of their day and it is no different today. So much for history being irrelevant…it is our greatest compass in my opinion.

        As was mentioned earlier, science ideally and continuously course-corrects and so must philosophy. The only real problem with scientism is the “-ism”.


  15. This is a great thread. Thanks to everyone who posted. While I haven’t read Rosenberg’s book, I’d like to make some remarks about the ideas expressed in this thread.

    I’d first like to point out that it may be imprudent to lump Rosenberg together with the “New Atheists” (This is a phrase I dislike, for there are significant distinctions between their main “atheist” bestsellers, and the weight they give to different arguments). Aside from the simple problem of over-generalizing, it seems clear to me that – after reading Harris (The End of Faith), Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Dennett (Breaking the Spell) – they would disagree with much of what Rosenberg says (again, my knowledge of Rosenberg is limited to the links and podcasts posted above). Harris, for one, is fond of saying things like: “we simply do not know what happens after death”; “we do not understand the relationship between consciousness and matter”. Dennett, I’d surmise, would not approve of Rosenberg’s reductionism, and may even refer to it as “greedy reductionism”. These are just a couple points of potential contention. Ever since the New Atheists books started appearing their ideas have been characterized with an unprincipled lumping; I think it does a disservice to any serious discussion about their contents.

    On a similar note, I’d ask you, Dr. Kleiner, to be specific about how the New Atheists are more dogmatic than the religious. I’m not even disagreeing with you at this point. For the ~30 times I’ve read or heard versions of this claim concerning any one of the “Four Horsemen’s” atheist bestsellers, I’ve heard it clearly defended exactly zero. (I only urge this because I myself disagree with many of the ideas of these authors – examples: Harris’ The Moral Landscape; many claims made in The God Delusion – and need some substance to move forward).

    Dr. Huenemann, I think you make a good point when you say that philosophy is “not like the arts because it involves truth claims more directly and explicitly”. This, to me, is something that has to be stated, because it is the reason why science trespasses into traditional philosophical questions. Was the universe engineered by an intelligent artificer? What is the character of consciousness? These questions have answers, whether we are ignorant of them or not. Because they have answers, it would be foolish to expect humans not to use their best tools to get to those answers. Do I mean that science is the only tool to understand the universe? Of course not, it’s just the best one: truths can be expressed in poetry and art. And they can be reasoned in anthropology, sociology and history. But without a method for scrapping the false claims and conjectures, we are left with a clutter of truths, half truths, falsities and outright fantasies articulated with a hubbub of incompatible lexicons. Welcome to a good portion of the social sciences. (Here, I’m referring to much of cultural anthropology and sociology, discourses still engaging in a sort of intellectual isolationism from the rest of the sciences of the human condition.)

    It is the method of science that has been so successful. While I strongly agree with the sentiment (expressed in the past on this blog) that scientists need to get a better grip on philosophy, I would add that many philosophers neglect the value of the scientific method as a means to identify nonsense. Carl Sagan said it right: “The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science” (The Demon Haunted World). If Rosenberg has misinterpreted the science and made some foolish blunders, it will be a clearer look at the evidence which reveals those mistakes, and scraps them.


  16. Vince – I like your definition of physics. It accords with my own impression. Wilfred Sellars memorably defined philosophy as “seeing how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term.” Maybe that’s about as good as any definition gets for philosophy. Not that it is perfectly clear, but it’s vague in the right places!

    Travis – thanks for your thoughtful post. The boundaries between philosophy and the sciences have always been murky, since the sciences all started as philosophical wonderings, and left home once they married themselves to a specific methodology. So some confusion over who owns what turf is inevitable, and mistakes are made all around.

    We can discern a pattern of philosophers making scientific pronouncements that are often wrong, and that get corrected only after a science has split off. (Examples: Aristotle’s account of human reproduction, and Descartes’ claim that a vacuum is metaphysically impossible. But there are loads more.) Philosophers then can try two responses. They can say, “Ah, right. My bad. What should we learn from this?” Or they may say, “Ah, but what I was really saying was something more subtle and deeper, namely ….” This second kind of response may be genuine and interesting, or it may be mere face-saving. Cases differ.

    I bring this up because I think it is at the center of the demarcation question you are raising. Philosophers can either say, in general, that yes, we are at least partly after the very same kinds of truths scientists are pursuing, and sometimes we have to take it on the chin when our metaphysics gets things wrong; or they can retreat and define their entire enterprise as something that can never be proven wrong by scientists.


  17. Vince, your definition accounts for much of physics but does not account for the contribution of pure mathematics, I don’t think. Like Schrodinger’s wave mechanics. He had to tweak his equation to make it fit experiment only to discover a short while later that his original equation accounted for the spin of the electron which had not been observed until later. Observation FOLLOWED in these instances. Any adequate definition of physics would necessarily have to accomodate this more abstract method.


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