I like books that take some of my cherished assumptions about how the world works and chew them up into tiny pieces before putting them in a Truth Blender where they're dissolved into unrecognizable thought-mush.
And, yes, once again it has blown my mind. But in a different way from the first time, because I'm a different person now.
Being a habitual highlighter and back-of-book note writer, I've found that what struck me the most about Rosenberg's ideas back in 2011 often isn't what hits me hardest now, in 2016.
Basically, I'm finding that Rosenberg is the most radical writer about science and atheism I've ever encountered. He takes no prisoners when it comes to debunking myths about how the mind/brain works, whether these are tales told by religion, philosophy, or the humanities.
(Rosenberg is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Duke University, so he's a heavy hitter.)
Below are some excerpts from a final chapter. This will give you a feel for the thesis of "The Atheist's Guide to Reality," though only that... a feel. It really takes reading the entire book to understand the subtleties of what Rosenberg is arguing for.
Which isn't so much complicated as, like I said, mind blowing.
I need to point out that how Rosenberg uses scientism is very different from the usual definition of the word. Here's how I described this in my first post about the book.
Standing in Powell's Books, thumbing through "The Atheist's Guide to Reality," what made me decide to buy the book was a positive mention of scientism that I came across in the first chapter.
Almost always this word is used in a perjorative manner. Meaning, scientism is considered a viewpoint that fails to recognize the legitimate limits of scientific inquiry, a reductionist philosophy which ignores aspects of reality beyond the bounds of science.
Appealingly, Rosenberg proudly appropriates this word. He stands tall for scientism, and a scientistic outlook on life.
But we'll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share "scientism." This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when "complete" what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.
We'll often use the adjective "scientistic" in referring to the approaches, theories, methods, and descriptions of the nature of reality that all the sciences share. Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about.
You may not agree with Rosenberg. But if you read his book, I guarantee that he will make you think. He will challenge your assumptions about how the world, and you, are. I'm getting mini-revelations on almost every page.
Here's the passages from a final chapter.
Fatalism is very different from determinism. Fatalism tells us that no matter what happens, the outcome is unavoidable. It claims that no matter what route life takes you down, all roads lead to the same place. Determinism is quite a different matter.
If the universe is deterministic, then where you end up depends on where you start out (plus the laws of nature). Start at different points, and almost every time you will pass through altogether different places and come to a different end.
Determinism does not dictate that you'll end up in the same place at all.
Of course, we are all going to die. The difference between fatalism and determinism is this: If fatalism is right, you'll die of the same thing no matter what you do. If determinism is right, how you die, what you die of, depends on what you did in life.
(Did you smoke, overeat, wear your seat belt?) That's a big difference. Some deaths are worse than others. Which we experience will be determined, but not fated.
...Everything that happens in your life is determined. That doesn't mean that reading this book can't make a difference to your happiness, well-being, or adjustment to reality. That you bought, borrowed, or otherwise acquired this book was determined. So was its effect on you, if any.
If your brain is organized in roughly the same way mine is, there are neural circuits that have produced disquiet in you, along with the illusion of thoughts about the persistent questions.
Reading this book has rearranged 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 their outputs in certain ways when triggered by inputs seeming to pose the daunting questions, then this book will have worked.
The process will be the same one psychotherapy employs when it works. It will have changed your neural circuitry, unconscious and conscious. You will acquire the correct information about the matters that keep you up at night. You will almost certainly undergo the conscious illusion of thinking about these questions in a new way, as finally having been answered.
Don't take narratives too seriously. That is the most obvious moral of our tour through science's version of reality. By now you can see why this advice is important and also hard to follow.
After all, the human brain has been shaped by millions of years of natural and cultural selection to be addicted to stories. They are almost the only things that give most of us relief from the feeling of curiosity.
Scientism has nothing against stories. It just refuses to be an enabler. Stories are fun, but they're no substitute for knowledge. In fact, the insistence on packaging information into narratives is an obstacle to understanding how things really work.
Scientific findings, along with the models, laws, and theories that explain them, can't be squeezed into the procrustean bed of a good detective story, or any other kind of story for that matter.
...This advice goes double for anyone trying to sell you on religion. But if you have read this far, you don't need to be warned off stories with spooky plots that always end well for the good guys and badly for the bad guys.
Religion and some of those who make their living from it succeed mainly because some of us are even more given to conspiracy theories than others. But none of us is entirely immune.
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.
Even if their story is what actually happened, the storytellers are wrong about the real causes of how and why it happened. Learning their story won't help you figure out the real causal process from rags to riches, from misery to happiness.
...Once you adopt scientism, you'll be able to put lots of the strife and controversies about politics into perspective. You will also be able to cease taking seriously aesthetic and ethical judgments that offend you.
When it comes to politics, you will be able to sidestep disagreements in which other people try to force you to choose just by pointing out that the dispute is at least in part a factual one, and the facts are not in. You will be able to undercut some arguments just by pointing out that they make assumptions about reality that science has already shown to be false -- for example, that humans have souls or that there is free will or that most people are selfish.
...We can organize our own lives in the absence of real purpose and planning. We do so by reorganizing the neural circuitry that produces these very illusions of design and forethought.