Rosenberg on Reality

Rosenberg on Reality February 4, 2018

You have to admire philosopher Alex Rosenberg. His skepticism is piercing. In An Atheists Guide to Reality, he provides a list of questions and their answers, asserting ” how totally unavoidable they are, provided you place your confidence in science to provide the answers.”

Is there a god? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck… Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance! … What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.” (Page 2)

Now this is clearly a strong form of scientism (which has its own problems), but what is definitely controversial, specifically among atheist thinkers, is how far his skepticism goes, both in philosophically biting the bullet on things like morality, free-will, and consciousness, but even more specifically asserting atheism requires such an epistemology (a strict scientism). I don’t agree with his metaphysics or epistemology, but I appreciate the philosophical challenge though; we all have to square our world views.

To be a “good atheist”, he’s asserted that science has revealed a universe bankrupt of purpose, meaning, morality, and free-will. All these things, the conscious self as a whole, is an illusion birthed from Darwin’s pond. He continues:

“The big obstacle to accepting science’s answers to life’s relenting questions is deep, subtle, insidious, purely psychological, and probably hardwired into our genes. It’s a problem even the most scientistic among us grapple with. It’s not that some people will find the answers science gives scare or hard to follow. The problem doesn’t even look like a problem. It has to do with the way we –educated or uneducated, atheist or theist, agnostic, deist, scientist – in fact, all human beings – like our information to be ‘packaged’. We are suckers for a good story – a description of events in the form of a plot with characters driven by motives… We prefer our information to come in a package with a naturalstarting place, an exciting, tension-filled middle, topped off by a satisfying finish. We prefer stories with plots that make sense of the order of events by revealing their meanings.” (Page 7-8)

Though it maybe troubling, failing to discard these notions is just prudish if you take atheism and science seriously. There is something interesting at play here with Rosenberg’s all-in-atheism. Though I disagree with his metaphysical and epistemology, I find his skepticism incredibly consistent. Consider five propositions:

  1. God doesn’t exist (atheism)
  2. Matter is all that does (naturalism)
  3. Free will is an illusion
  4. Consciousness is an illusion
  5. Morality is subjective/relative


Folks like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are happy to jump on 1 + 2. Actually, Sam Harris agrees with all but 5, and finds that morality is “objective”. How one can espouse 3 + 4, but reject 5 is a much longer conversation. Daniel Dennett would be another interesting case, jumping in with 1, 2, and 4, but religiously (pardon the pun) holding on to 3 and 5. Though there is no conscious self and all causes are natural and determined, but free will exists? This would be another longer conversation (and I’ll let Harris critique that view), the bottom line is that he finds the pursuit to salvage free will simply “theology” [1].

Rosenberg’s skepticism would not only concur, but throw Harris into the religious camp as well with his views on morality. Espousing any of those things is just special pleading and very unatheist. Again, Rosenberg has his own metaphysics and epistemology to defend, but there’s something incredibly fresh about consistent skepticism, as opposed to pick-and-choose skepticism.



[1] Harris, Sam. Free Will, page 18.


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