Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg has a book out which I like rather better than such Gnu Atheist books by the likes of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. It’s called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. Rosenberg doesn’t bother rehashing arguments against the existence of God; he begins from the (correct) premise that atheism has won the argument, indeed, that atheism pretty much won the argument by the time David Hume published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. But like Hume, he understands that religion persists not because it’s any kind of good theory about the world but because it has roots in human nature. Rosenberg is thus writing for a minority which is small and likely to remain permanent: those who accept atheism and wish to really explore its implications.
Following Garrison Keillor’s comic radio-drama hero Guy Noir Rosenberg poses a series of “life’s persistant questions” and the answers thereto, which Rosenberg suggests fall out of taking serious the proposition that the world just is what our best scientific understanding says it is. If anyone wants to know what Faustus believes, they could do a lot worse than looking up these. Here are the questions, Rosenberg’s answers, and my glosses upon them.
Why am I here?Just dumb luck.Quite true, although it is important not to conflate dumb luck with goodluck.Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.I believe it was Montaigne who said that you shouldn’t worry about dying; when the time comes for that, your body will take care of that for you.
|Question||Rosenberg’s Answer||Dr. Faustus’s gloss|
|Is there a God?||No.||Which is a bit of a shame in a way, since there would be something magnificently heroic about having a God to stand up in defiance against, but the world is what it is.|
|What is the nature of reality?||What physics says it is.||Which is a bit depressing for me, since I’m not as good at math as I’d like.|
|What is the purpose of the universe?||There is none.||Unless “achieving heat death” counts as a purpose.|
|What is the meaning of life?||Ditto.||I guess this is true, although I must confess I always found the notion of the “meaning” of life to be so vague as to border on meaningless.|
|Does prayer work?||Of course not.||I mean, do grow up.|
|Is there a soul, is it immortal?||Are you kidding?||Again, this comes as something of a relief when you think about it. Because if you could live forever you could suffer forever.|
|Is there free will?||Not a chance!||I’ve never understood how anyone (at least since Newton) ever could have thought that free will could fit into the universe.|
|What happens when we die?||Everything goes on pretty much as before, except us.||Not a comforting thought, really, if you feel distress at how things other than yourself were going on before. But a comforting one if you are distressed about how you were going on before.|
|What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?||There is no moral difference between them.||Professor Rosenberg’s way of putting this is a bit of a joke, but I take his point.|
|Why should I be moral?||Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.||I take it that this is basically Hume’s answer to the question of why one should be moral, and it’s the only one that ever made much sense to me.|
|Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?||Anything goes.||True, though we all can’t help but have opinions.|
|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.||I guess this means that I don’t need it that much.|
|Does history have any meaning or purpose?||It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.||Another thing that’s painful to admit, given how much I enjoy history. But I guess I have to confess that I can’t find in it anything more than a costly and recondite form of entertainment.|
|Does the human past have any lessons for our future?||Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.||I’m intellectually doomed. My degree is from a social science department. Guess all I can do is enjoy the ride down.|
If this sort of things is as much your cup of tea as mine, do read Professor Rosenberg’s book. Or, if you want something shorter, consider listening in on this hour-long interview at American Freethought or this video discussion with his colleage Owen Flanagan.