September 20, 2012

The Fundamentalist

Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide To Reality has to be the purest, most fundamentalist tome on materialistic atheism that I, or anyone else, has ever read or probably ever will read. Nothing like it has been written since Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (50 B.C.), a middle-of-the-road yarn compared to Rosenberg’s book. Rosenberg makes today’s new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens—look like compromising, waffling, dithering sellouts.

It’s not just his absolute faith in scientism (the belief that the methods of science are the only means to knowledge), but it’s his incorrigible pushing of every position to its outrageous (but, arguably, logical) conclusion that makes this work so over the top.

Reality for Rosenberg—from the composition of the sun, to the composition of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s head as he wrote it—is simply the interlay of subatomic particles, period. “All the processes in the universe,” he writes, “from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.”

2012 1526 page17Our existence began, he assures us, with “molecules randomly bouncing around a region of space” (after the Big Bang, obviously). Though most fell prey to disorder, over eons some managed to randomly “result in a few stable and replicating structures.” These structures, surviving the vicissitudes of time, morphed by chance into “really big assemblies of stable and replicating molecules—for instance, RNA and eventually DNA sequences and strings of amino acids.” Voilà! “The rest,” he wrote, “is history.”

The whole process is, of course, without design, goals, or purposes. “What is the purpose of the universe?” he asks. “There is none. What purposes are at work in the universe? Same answer: none.”

Though if the meaninglessness and purposelessness of the universe makes you depressed, Rosenberg warns against taking your “depression seriously.” Why? Because our emotions, including depression, are nothing but specific arrangements of neurons and chemicals; so what’s so serious about that?

Rosenberg, however, does have an answer for those discouraged by the meaninglessness of their lives. Because depression is merely a particular configuration of neurons, simply rearrange the neurons, and you can do this with pharmaceuticals.

“If you don’t feel better in the morning . . . or three weeks from now, switch to another one. Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs such as Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. And if one doesn’t work, another one probably will.”

This isn’t satire; he’s serious. And his take-a-pill-and-call-me-in-the-morning response, however unsatisfying, is a logical answer for an atheistic materialistic worldview. The difference between him and most other atheists is that most of the others try to find some meaning amid a godless, purposeless cosmos. Rosenberg crassly, even harshly, not only denies the possibility; he mocks any attempt to, which, he argues, is like “trying to build a perpetual motion machine after you have discovered that nature has ruled them out.” He’s merciless, for instance, toward Richard Dawkins, a grand poo-bah of atheism, for trying to find a meaning to life.

How seriously should Rosenberg be taken? I assume that most atheist scientists, especially physicists, however sympathetic to his premises, would find many of his bold conclusions about how subatomic particles just kind of turned into DNA and other self-replicating molecules nowhere near as simple and matter-of-fact as Rosenberg claims. And, too, his quick jump from research on sea slug nerves to human consciousness is one of many wild extrapolations he makes. A New York Times book reviewer wrote: “Much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts.”

Despite Rosenberg’s scientific leaps and bounds—given his atheistic and materialistic premises (common in science), his horrific conclusions are the logical end of the road he’s taken. He’s just a rare voice that admits it. 

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Shadow Men, is available from Signs Publishing in Australia. This article was published September 20, 2012.