Alex Rosenberg


On his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality

Cover Interview of November 06, 2011


The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is not a how-to or self-improvement book. There are already far too many books tempting gullible people who think that all they need to change their lives is a convincing narrative. But there is a lot of science we can take to heart and make use of, bending our lives in the direction of less unhappiness, disappointment, and frustration, if not more of their opposites.

Neuroscience shows that reading this book will rearrange a large number of neural circuits in your brain (though only a very small proportion of the millions of such circuits in your brain). If those rearranged neural circuits change your answers to the daunting questions, then this book will have worked. You will find yourself enjoying life with fewer illusions.

Which ones? Here are a couple:

Don’t take narratives too seriously. When politicians or political commentators try to sell you on a narrative become suspicious. Things are always more complicated than any story we can remember for very long, even if the story happens to be true. Being able to tell a story that voters can remember is almost never a good qualification for elective office.

This advice goes double for anyone trying to sell you on religion or stories of self-improvement. Religion and those who make their living from it succeed mainly because we look for stories with plots everywhere. We need continually to fight the temptation to think that we can learn much of anything from someone else’s story of how they beat an addiction, kept to a diet, improved their marriage, raised their kids, saved for their retirement, or made a fortune flipping real estate.

Once you adopt science, you’ll also be able to cease treating the humanities as knowledge. Disputes about the meaning of works of art, literature, and music, are ones in which all disputants are wrong, since they are arguing about whose illusion is correct.

What about our own emotional lives?  If you enjoy being unhappy, if you really get off on the authenticity of the tragic view of life, science has nothing much to say. You are at the extreme end of a distribution of blind variations in traits that Mother Nature makes possible and exploits. To condemn these extreme traits as wrong, false, incorrect, bad, or evil is flatly inconsistent with nihilism.

On the other hand, if you are within a couple of standard deviations of the mean, you will seek to avoid, minimize, or reduce unhappiness, pain, discomfort, and distress in all its forms. If so, science has good news. There is an ever-increasing pharmacopeia of drugs, medicines, treatments, prosthetic devices, and regimes that will avoid, minimize, or reduce these unwanted conditions. But you can write off any treatment whose provider excuses it from double-blind controlled experiments on the grounds that you have to believe in it for the treatment to work. Even placebos pass the double-blind test.

Science has nothing against having a good time. In fact, it observes that we were selected for seeking fun. It serves our genetic interests most of the time. Not all the time, of course. But by now our brains have become powerful enough to see through the stratagems of Mother Nature. We can get off the Darwinian train and stop acting in our genes’ interests when they conflict with having fun. There can’t be anything morally wrong with that (recall nice nihilism) if that’s what we want to do.