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on 10 July 2012
When asked "what is the most influential book you've ever read?", my stock answer used to be "The Selfish Gene". Not any more.

Alex Rosenberg has achieved an incredible feat - to explain the ultimate implications of a scientistic world view in an accessible way. The stakes cannot be higher, because one of the central insights from scientism is that the language of stories, purpose and beliefs (that comes easily to us) is not the real language of the brain, and not the right language to use when we look at the world. It is fortuitous that Rosenberg is a master at both.

This book is not a defence of atheism against theism - the author assumes that, by picking up the book, you have already settled that particular question yourself. This book is about exploring what the materialistic view of everything ultimately leads to - and the results are mind numbing.

For me, the two most interesting topics raised are the implications on morality and propositions (or beliefs). On morality, the physical facts are unambiguous - there is no such thing as right or wrong - our perception of morality is simply nature's solution to an interaction problem. But it's more interesting than that - our Darwinian core morality provided us with a "nice" nature, so even if we deny morality, we can at least be comforted by the fact that we are not about to turn into psychopathic monsters.

But the real meat, for me at least, is about how our minds experience the world, stores information about it, and allow us to have beliefs and desires that motivates us to follow plans. Which is to say, it actually doesn't, at least not in the way intuition tells us it does. This is the first attempt I've seen at explaining the eliminative materialist position to a broad audience, and these sections will require some concentration to get through if you value the un-exploded state of your brain.

Rosenberg makes sure we are introduced to the topic softly. He points out a few results from neuroscience and computer programming to put in the foundations of what is to come, and cleverly shows that our intuitive notion of storing information "about" stuff must be wrong, because it leads to an infinite regress - who is there to determine what the information is about? (Aboutness, you see, requires both the data and an agent that can interpret the data into what it represents. But how does the agent know which data is the right data? It needs agent that can tell it, and so on). Using the sea slug (and later the frog) as a simple example, he shows how our brains can (and must) function without actually "reading information about stuff". Turns out, our thoughts of introspection is actually just some after-effect of what the brain is actually doing (like a fever produced by an infection).

Now many other reviewers and commentators have claimed that this all leads to a self-refuting argument of some kind (for scientism to be true, we must believe it, but scientism says we don't have beliefs!). Allay your fears, this is quite nonsensical. If you want to argue about scientism (without begging the question), you must use the language of scientism, and "belief" is not in its vocabulary.

Disillusioned, I'm looking at the world in a new way. Of course, the illusions of morality, purpose, meaning and aboutness are so strong, that it is impossible to live life without it, but it is most rewarding to sometimes sit back, and re-evaluate your position from a different perspective - that of the scientistic.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 March 2012
This book wants to go beyond restating the arguments against God's existence. The author accepts there is no God, and argues for a worldview based on the premise that `physics fixes the facts'. He unashamedly calls this `scientism', the only defensible view of reality there is, which provides nothing less than `the whole truth about reality' (p.20). As I reviewer I am in complete sympathy. But this book, despite being thought provoking and very well written, is a flawed contribution to understanding reality in materialistic terms. I set out my reasons below.

To begin, what does this Rosenberg mean by `scientism'? Well, some of the arguments deployed in the first half of the book are already familiar ones. The laws of physics and Darwinian natural selection together eliminate any need or point for a deity. The universe has no intrinsic purpose and neither does life in general.

Given this, there is no right or wrong. For believers, morality is rooted in God's commands. But are God's commands right because he tells us so, or has he chosen the right things to command us to do? But if there is no God, this question is redundant There is no way we can show that killing is wrong - or right, for that matter. But this is not a problem. Evolution has granted us `a core morality', (p.95) which allows us to agree on the content of essentials, across cultures, without having to root this in a divine command. This is what he calls `nice nihilism'. (p.144)

But Rosenberg wants to take us further. Consciousness is itself cannot be relied on. It is not even a reliable real-time window to the world, merely the historical product of evolutionary selection that improved the survival advantage of our ancestors. Consciousness is framed by what the world used to be, not what it is. `We drive through life with both eyes fixed on a rear-view mirror', the author says (p.155). Thought and introspection are likewise illusions. Why? Well, atomic particles - of which your neurons consist - do not have thoughts. What is it then? It isn't anything. He gives (on p171) the example of your thinking about Paris. You think you are thinking about Paris but you aren't. Just neurons with an electrical current running through them - neurons cannot be `about' anything. Remember, physics fixes the facts.

From this he deduces that self and free will - stuff of thought - are an illusion. Can science illuminate social sciences and the humanities? Alas, no. History is blind and social science is myopic. The former details with the illusory confabulations of consciousness and the latter, if it detects regularities in human affairs at all, merely picks up `temporary equilibria, periods of calm or stasis between arms races' (p.261). Examples of arms races abound in human affairs. A company dominates the market only to be felled by some upstart in a basement somewhere. Think how the big airlines struggle against budget airlines and Facebook sunk Friends Reunited.

As for Rosenberg is concerned, all appearances of design and purpose are just useful illusions that scientism obliges us to give up.
This is all bracing stuff and I would say that I would agree with much of it. There is no purpose in the universe. But this doesn't mean we have to turn into monsters or kill ourselves. We can be decent to each other and we can get out of bed in the morning to get on with our lives, without God commanding us to do either.

However the second half of the book, in which he attempts to dispel the illusory nature of thought, introspection and the self, fails to convince. We are not offered any reasons why we should write off consciousness as an illusion. It is true that we have a theory of other people's minds, and this can often be flawed. We are frequently mistaken about the intentions of others. But to believe that there are no other minds whatsoever would not get us very far in this world - and I doubt it would have got Rosenberg very far either, if he really believed that consciousness is a merely a `rear-view mirror'.

But perhaps least convincing of all is his writing off of thought and introspection, based on an argument that atomic particles do not equal thought. Our brains are agglomerations of atomic particles, which make neurons, `but piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can't turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world (p.184).

But this is a Reductio ad absurdum- Atomic particles make nothing of themselves, in the same way that grains of sand alone do not make bricks that make houses. Lots of thought is junk and isn't about anything. But to say that NO thought represents ANYTHING out there in the real world is just plain daft. The author anticipates these objections. What about his book - is it about nothing? He brusquely replies: `Look ... treat the illusion [of thought] like ... optical illusions ... this book isn't conveying statements. It's rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information.' (p.193)

Here the author is simply chasing his own tail. For one thing, his statement presupposes the existence of thoughts in readers' minds objecting to the thoughts he has set out in his book.

Rosenberg is right to note that thought can deceive. One can fall prey to optical illusions. One can have thoughts about fairies, ghosts and UFOS, things that don't exist. But correcting these illusions requires having thoughts about what the world is, and what it is not. And saying that thoughts are just electrical currents in neurons presupposes of course that things like electrical currents and neurons exist. If Rosenberg's observation is true, there is no way that science can be done.

This is not to say that I believe an alternative, non-material theory of mind is any more convincing. The mind is the brain, and when our brains die, so do we, and all the elusive constituents of consciousness like the self and personal identity vanish with it. But I do I take strong objection to trying to deal with the problem of other minds by using a linguistic sleight of hand. Among his concluding remarks, the author states: `We can organise our lives in the absence of real purpose and planning. We do so by reorganizing the neural circuitry that produces these very illusions of design and forethought.' (p.313) The first sentence I can agree with; the second simply begs the question. Who or what is doing the reorganising?

Because the book overstates, it overshoots. The basic arguments for atheism are sound. But if the job is to be finished, then the remaining problems confronting a purely materialistic explanation of the universe need to be apprehended and seen for what they are. To do away with them by an intellectual sleight of hand won't do. Remember also that this book is supposed to offer positive reasons to embrace the reality Rosenberg portrays. It is not supposed to be some smart-Alec intellectual parlour game. Therefore there should be good reasons to give up these illusions up. They are not offered here.

More thinking needs to be done, to understand what reality is, and is not, about. This book claims the job is already done. It isn't.
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on 14 September 2012
Though I am not an atheist I thought this book is the best thing that I have ever read by an atheist. It does without the bluster of Dawkins and other philosophical amateurs like Sam Harris. For Rosenberg there are no higher purposes, history has no goal, progress is as much a myth as are religions. The only knowledge is science and that has real limits. Much of what happens is simply chance. Conscience, free will, duty beauty and other such abstract nouns have no reality apart from the reality that human language might put upon the,

Rosenberg is a firm Humean. There are no Selves. And there is a firm division between Facts and Values. So he`ll have none of Sam Harris`s doomed attempt to produce a science of atheist ethics.

And having set all that to one side, he tries to show how an atheist should best live his life. And one thing no atheist should bother to do is waste time trying to convert other people to atheism. If people despite all evidence wish to believe in god(s) then that is probably due to factors which cannot be changed by argument.

A dry, astringent, bracing book.
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on 29 April 2015
The Atheist's Guide to Reality is challenging, exhilarating and downright uncompromising in its central thesis - a reductive ontology that charismatically and stridently proclaims that "physics fix all the facts". Don't expect to hear the old arguments for and against god's existence in this book. Instead expect to have presented to you an entire worldview - Scientism - that has some profound and challenging implications for the way we relate to the world, each other and ourselves. You may not agree with every argument in the book but the one thing you won't be able to do is remain in your intellectual comfort zone.

Dr Rosenberg challenges your deepest intuitions and feelings about morality, metaphysics, the mind, meaning and more. Dr Rosenberg describes a worldview that we need to take seriously in the contemporary scientific age. If you want your mind stretched by new ideas (or should I say neural circuits rewired) then you can get no better than this - a philosophy enthusiast's dream and a treat for any person that has ever been bothered by the 'perennial questions' of philosophy.
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on 13 August 2014
I just lost what I had written and I can't repeat myself - but I want to say this book is fantastic. It takes apart not only religion but also dreamy humanism. Yes it does praise science highly, particularly Darwin, and perhaps here and here I would disagree. But it is enjoyably relentless, and it does top Dawkins, Harris et al. in its scope and reasoning. Although it discusses nihilism, it avoids bitterness. It is, If you're 'one of us', a must read. Ignore the nerdy nitpickers and buy it today.
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on 25 April 2015
Rosenberg defended the thesis in this book against William Lane Craig in a recent academic debate. The debate went to a vote (Craig won by a landslide) and has been published with responses in "Is Faith in God Reasonable?: Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)". Rosenberg is far more sophisticated than most of the more popular atheists but still, at times, falls into a lazy rhetoric of advancing definitions as truth. However his atheism is built on a solid logical framework and not merely a disjointed collection of slogans. However this is the problem; it is not particularly ambiguous and the truth claims quickly dissolve into pixie dust when placed under scrutiny (for example by William Lane Craig).
Despite this the book is a solid read from a respected analytic philosopher at the top of his game and a superb, non-trivial, introduction to some core issues in metaphysics, philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. My low score reflects only the failure of its central argument and is not a condemnation of its depth or its value as a monograph on modern atheism.
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on 24 May 2013
Not worth reading, just panders to believers. Provides a long list of his intellectual heroes, and little else.
In ancient Greece hubris was considered the greatest folly and Socrates deflated many a Rosenberg of his time. But as soon as someone turns up and pokes a whole in the materialist account of non-material things, Rosenberg turns angry and childish, calling the vastly superior Thomas Nagel 'not clever', while he, presumably, thinks of himself as an intellectual giant.
Just the exasperated tone with which the faithful meet justified critique of their claim that EVERYTHING can be explained by their petty theories lets them immediately close ranks like any other cult.
If religious belief is so robust and persistent it must confer some evolutionary advantage, not? And if atheism struggles since thousands of years it must confer some disadvantage, not? Hence the faithful believer in Darwinism can only draw one conclusion: become a Theist. So why do they fight Theism, thus refuting their own fitness claims?

Towards the end of this dismal book he tries to defend a life of nihilism - I bet the number of followers will remain thin on the ground since even secular humanism requires too much faith (which Rosenberg can't stand). Since Rosenberg is a stern believer in hard determinism and an angry denier of free will, I wonder which atomic configuration decided to write this book for the sole entertainment of dumb matter?
So how does one live a life of nothingness?
All he can come up with is a recommendation of Epicureanism - how original. But Epicurus and followers were surely not interested in science as they weren't interested in society in general. Without a large community working hard and creating surplus there would be no money to finance scientific investigations. Or small-scale thinkers.
Perhaps Rosenberg should retreat into a faraway garden and gather his two disciples around him, thus realizing his rather obvious desire to be some sort of guru, he, he
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