Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

A Completely Misguided Guide to Reality

Atheism does not commit one to a narrow physicalism

About a month ago my very good friend, Harriet Cobb, shared with me Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (Norton, 2011). She commented that even though she was an atheist, she did not like it much and wanted to know what I thought. 

Although an atheist myself, I definitely agreed with her negative assessment. I found Rosenberg’s vision to be a deeply misguided, misleading, and blatantly self-contradictory approach to both atheism and scientific knowledge. The author takes the most potentially problematic implications of atheism—scientism—and embraces them with stereotypic arrogance and dismissiveness of alternative views. The only real value I personally found in the book was that it was an excellent example of a greedily reductionistic worldview that completely contrasts with the emergent evolutionary approach to science, morality, and the universe depicted by the Tree of Knowledge System.

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Let’s start with the book’s title because it is completely misrepresentative of the content. The book has virtually nothing to do with atheism per se. In no way, shape, or form does atheism (which means that one is lacking a belief in a personal god) lead inevitably to the substantive positions in the book. The major argument that Rosenberg makes is that physics is the ultimate arbiter of truth, that the physical reality is the only reality, that nihilism is unfortunately true, and that everything that doesn’t easily and immediately fit into a physical property framework—things like thoughts, consciousness, the self, purpose, and morality—are all illusions. If Rosenberg’s work is not about atheism, then what is it about? In short, the book advocates for a narrow, reductionistic philosophy of science called physicalism. Physicalism is a perspective that has been around a fairly long time and holds that there are no kinds of things other than physical things. A physical description of the facts is a complete description of the facts and this is a frame Rosenberg tries to defend with by repeatedly claiming that “the physical facts fit all the facts”.

From the perspective of the unified theory, there are so many things wrong with Rosenberg’s argument that it is hard to know where to start. To understand the difference in the arguments, Physicalism views the universe as just bosons and fermions bouncing around in quantum foam. Here is a depiction of the standard model. The physicalist believes it is all you need to know about the universe because it maps the only things that really exist.

Instead of being the only things that exist, in the ToK System, the Standard Model represents the foundational layer out of which other layers of Energy-Information.

Consciousness, thoughts, the self, purpose and morality can’t exist for the physicalist because physicalists don’t know how to translate bouncing fermions and bosons into these entities. So they point to some evidence that commonsensical views of these concepts are wrong and go on to conclude that, because the commonsense view is wrong, these entities don’t really exist. And yet all while claiming that such entities as the self, thoughts and propositions don’t really exist, Rosenberg is authoring these claims with propositions designed to change belief-desire systems of his readers. It doesn’t take a philosopher to see why this is self-contradictory.

To get a sense of how Rosenberg’s philosophy characterizes the human condition, take a look at how he thinks of psychotherapy. It is a fairly long quotation, but I include it here so you get a good feel for where his physicalism takes you in terms of thinking about the human condition. Keep in mind he is not writing in an ironic or sarcastic tone. This is his ARGUMENT.

In a section titled “Take Two Prozac and Call Me in the Morning” (pp. 282-285), Rosenberg writes:

“So, what should we scientistic folks do when overcome by Weltschmertz (world-weariness)? Take two of whatever neuro-pharmacology prescribes. If you don’t feel better in the morning…or three weeks from now, switch to another one…Once neuroscience has provided neurology—the medical specialty—with enough understanding of how the brain works, the docs will be able to deal with psychological problems almost as effectively as the now deal with other organs…

“What should you do if you feel the tragic sense of life, if you really feel you need to find the meaning of life in order to keep living, and if you feel nothing will meet that need? Scientism tells you to treat introspection as a symptom…[After all] what is so valuable about the illusion you’re your thoughts have authenticity anyway?...

“Scientism is committed to the mind’s being the brain. It tells us that the direct route to mental health has to be rearranging the brain circuits. In m ost cases, we cannot do that yet. While we are waiting for neuroscience…should we try psychotherapy? Well, it could help out, but not in the way most people think…

After a dismissive comment about Freudian therapies and perspectives that might even attend to dreams, Rosenberg writes…

“There are also scientifically serious approaches to talk therapy. For instance, various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy are sometimes prescribed along with pills. They might work. Stranger things have happened. Scientism has no problem with the improbable, so long as it is consistent with physics. However, if talk therapy does work, it will be like this:

“Your therapist talks to you. The acoustical vibrations from your therapist’s mouth to your ear starts a chain of neurons firing in the brain. Together with circuits already set to fire in your brain, the result is some changes somewhere in your head. You may even come to have some new package of beliefs and desires, ones that make you happier and healthier. The only thing scientism insists on is those new beliefs and new desires aren’t thoughts about yourself, about your actions, or about anything. The brain can’t have thoughts about stuff….There is no reason in principle why the noises that your therapists makes, or that someone else makes (your mother, for example), shouldn’t somehow change those circuits “for the better”. Some of those changes may even result in conscious introspective thoughts that seem to be about the benefits of therapy. Of course, science shows it is never that simple. It also shows that when talking cures work, they almost always do so as part of a regime that includes medicine working on the neural circuitry. The meds reach the brain by moving through the digestive system first, without passing through the ears at all.”

Rosenberg’s ignorance of the human mind, the practice of psychotherapy and the scientific models that guide it, and the research that confirms its effectiveness (which is both well documented and occurs without meds!) is so blatant and appalling that it makes one wonder how this nonsense ever got to print.

The bottom line is that Rosenberg has done a great disservice to the atheistic community such that even atheists who support his philosophy should be concerned. It is hard to for me to understand how a well-respected professor of philosophy at Duke could have been so confused about the basic position he was advocating. The book should have been called a Physicalist’s Guide to Reality, and the major point I want to make here is that atheism per se does not commit one to physicalism. By confounding atheism with physicalism, Rosenberg has completely muddled the issues at hand. Moreover, because a narrow physicalism results in so many ludicrous conceptions (see above comments on psychotherapy!), he has erroneously given opponents of atheism a wealth of arguments that make it easy to paint atheists in the precisely the light that so many find to be so unappealing and unworkable. As such, atheists of all stripes should be clear that what is illusory here is Rosenberg’s sense that the arguments in this book have even a hint of legitimacy and coherence.

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This blog is dedicated to my friend Harriet, who understood that life was much more that bosons and fermions.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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