Alex Rosenberg, a Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and co-director of its Center for Philosophy of Biology, wrote the book for “Non-believers who embrace the reality-driven life.” It’s a book for “Atheists who want to face up to its consequences” – i.e. that “the physical facts fix all the facts”. Alex expounded these ideas here at Conway Hall at the invitation of AtheismUK and the book is now in the Humanist Library at Conway Hall.
A sample of A.R’s no-nonsense style is this Q & A:
“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? There is none.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance.
On the last question, the neurological evidence (e.g Benjamin Libet’s 1970s experiment) shows that your brain finalises a decision half a second before you become aware of it as your decision. Alex would therefore say that any freedom we feel here is illusory. However, unless one is being coerced, I think one may nevertheless claim it as a free decision, even though it was the inevitable outcome of one’s brain state which, we both agree, necessarily develops as a physical process and so could not have been otherwise. I would call a voluntary act a free act, preserving a valid use for this important word.
A.R. is also keen to insist that a set of neurons in your brain cannot really be about anything else, say, the face of a friend. Generally, he believes that one piece of matter (a set of neurons) cannot refer to another piece of matter (a face), although he knows that if that set was electrically ‘zapped’ (or destroyed by a stroke), you would cease to recognise that face. A.R. surmises that we experience the conscious illusion that we can think about things. Since A.R. accepts that consciousness “is pretty much just along for the ride” (i.e. is epiphenomenal), it must be the neural set itself that generates the illusion. He notes that ants herd, protect, farm and milk aphids and build their nests over several generations, all without any consciousness whatever.
A.R. observes that Humanism tries to ape religion in finding the ‘meaning’ of life. “There is no place history is heading — the history of arms races teaches us that there are no lessons from history”. This bleak conclusion is modified by A.R.’s belief that we should move towards a more egalitarian society because rich and poor don’t deserve their respective fates, not being responsible for their merit or demerits. Read this book if you are ready to have some of your long-standing beliefs challenged.