The Atheist's Guide to Reality, By Alex Rosenberg

Get to the point...oh, there isn't one

Doug Johnstone
Sunday 29 January 2012 01:00

What's the point of this book?

Of all the groups of people in the world, you'd have thought that atheists need a guide to reality least. Isn't reality the one thing atheists have got nailed down already?

After struggling through this leaden and joyless philosophical discourse, I have to confess I'm not much wiser about its aims. The author is an American professor of philosophy and here he presents a brand of atheism based on the fundamental laws of physics. As he states often: "The physics facts fix all the facts."

I should make clear at this point that I am an atheist and a former physicist, so I'm pretty much Rosenberg's dream reader. And yet, while I didn't necessarily disagree with most of his points, I found his prose at some times smug, at others woolly or lumpen, and the whole book is certainly overwritten.

Rosenberg's atheism, which he calls "scientism", is an extreme form in which the universe has no purpose, nobody has free will, there is effectively no "self" to speak of, and morality is just a construct brought about by natural selection. Fair enough, and at times he argues well to these conclusions, but what he calls a position of "nice nihilism" actually comes across as anything but.

He spends a long time mocking the humanities for being pointless, and holds special ire for secular humanists (including Richard Dawkins) for attempting to replace the solace of religion with the wonder of science. Rosenberg's point is that there's no solace. Considering that one of his central tenets is that everything is meaningless so just chill out, you wonder why he gets so worked up about it.

Rosenberg writes well at times. The section on biology, and his discussion of Darwin's theory of natural selection and its implications, is clear and sharp, as is the next section where he takes those implications and applies them to human neuroscience and the concept of the mind.

But elsewhere he's on shaky ground. He makes unfounded and sweeping generalisations about the power of physics to describe the universe, and gets tied in knots in his section on human morality, going over and over the same ground.

Ultimately, it's hard to see who this book is for. Atheists are already convinced of their world view, and the theists won't be converted. So, a bit like Rosenberg's universe, his book lacks purpose.

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