In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg embraces the implications of atheistic materialism, the view that there is no God and that all that exists is matter. The subtitle of the book is Enjoying Life without Illusions. What illusions does Rosenberg have in mind?

If all that exists is matter, then everything that we experience is actually nothing more than the result of the laws of physics coming to bear on particles of stuff. As the subtitle of the second chapter puts it, “the physical facts fix all the facts.” Consequently, quaint notions such as right and wrong are merely illusions. Moral beliefs – like everything else – are simply the product of natural processes, an evolutionary adaptation. But just as it would make no sense to speak of other evolutionary adaptations as right or wrong (lungs aren’t “moral” and gills aren’t “immoral”), it really makes no sense to speak of moral beliefs as right or wrong.

According to Rosenberg, polite society likes to think in terms of civility and decency, but the stark reality of materialism is much different.

“There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for. Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes” (p. 110-111).

Rosenberg even concedes that his view of reality seems to undermine any effort to condemn dictators like Stalin or Hitler who decide to make racism and xenophobia the policy of the state (p. 98). Fortunately, Rosenberg says, most of us have agreed upon a nice form of nihilism (the belief that life, meaning, and morals are non-existent). But don’t be fooled by the illusion.

There is nothing morally right about being nice, but we are stuck with it for the forseeable future (p. 144).

So, morality doesn’t exist. But it gets worse.

If all that exists are particles of matter, then human beings do not have a soul or mind. All that exists is the brain, and what we call “the mind” is really nothing more than brain states determined by the laws of physics. This not only means that morality doesn’t exists, it also means that the ability to choose between right and wrong does not exist. Free will, like morality, is an illusion.

“Every state of my brain is fixed by physical facts…[There is] No free will, just the feeling, the illusion of introspection” (p. 236-237).

So, free will doesn’t exist. But it gets worse.

Consider this picture of one of the world’s great thinkers contemplating one of my favorite thoughts. But if clumps of stuff are all that exist, then what is the difference between Homer’s mind and the donut? Both are purely material objects subject to the laws of physics.

Does a donut “think about” anything? Of course not. But if the mind is just the material processes of the brain, then can the brain “think about” anything, either? Rosenberg raises the same question:

“How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe?” (p. 173-174).

Good question. His answer? It can’t. Thinking is an illusion.

“The brain’s neural states, like the states of the semiconductor circuits in a Mac or PC…are not by themselves intrinsically about anything at all” (p. 189).

If you asked him, “Hey Professor Rosenberg, what are you thinking about?” his only response could be, “Nothing.”

So, thinking doesn’t exist. But it gets worse.

It seems silly to suggest that we don’t really think about things. After all, we can think about thinking! Just as Homer is contemplating what it would be like to eat the donut he is thinking about, we have conscious awareness of our thoughts. But Rosenberg says that this is also an illusion.

“So, when consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong. The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts. But the thoughts are not about stuff” ( p. 179).

Wait – is he actually claiming we don’t really possess consciousness? That’s right. And to give Rosenberg credit, he is simply following his atheism to its logical conclusion. We think we have conscious experiences like pain, or color. But since all that exists is matter, only those things that are subject to physics have actual existence. An X-ray may tell me I have severe arthritis in my knee, but no machine can tell me how much pain I consciously feel. Only I can do that. But if there is no consciousness, there is no self to experience pain. All that exists is nerve fibers. So as another materialist says:

“The absurdity of saying ‘Nobody has ever felt a pain’ is no greater than that of saying ‘Nobody has ever seen a demon’…It would make it simpler for us if you would…say ‘My C-fibers are firing’ instead of saying ‘I’m in pain.’ [Richard Rorty, “Mind-Body Identity,” Review of Metaphysics, 1965 p. 30].

How would you like to have one of these people for your doctor! Talk about bad bedside manner! But this is the implication of the stark materialism advocated by Rosenberg.

So, consciousness does not exist.

Now, to bring these points together in a practical way, let me share an embarrassing story from my childhood. When I was in the third grade, I was coloring at a table with several other students. John Brooks had the crayons, and I wanted some different ones, but he wouldn’t give them to me. So I grabbed him around the throat and started wringing his neck (I told you it was embarrassing – but to be safe in the future, if I ask you for the crayons, you better give them to me). Consider, in light of the “atheist’s guide to reality,” the following statement:

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

Given the “illusions” that Rosenberg proposes, there is no such thing as morality. So concepts like “should” and “whether” don’t exist.

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

But neither does free will, so there was no choice to be made.

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

As we saw, “thinking about” things is also a mirage.

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

I also need to eliminate any terms that express consciousness, such as my conscious self (and John Brooks’s conscious self).

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

Since intentionality is also a conscious experience, I can’t really say I intended “to” do anything.

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

And remember, consciousness includes personal experiences like pain and color.

I am reflecting on whether I should have chosen to cause pain to John Brooks to get the colored crayons.

So, what is left in the atheist’s view of reality?

Colorless crayons.


The view advocated by Rosenberg is called eliminative materialism. You can see why – it is a form of materialism that “eliminates” concepts like morality, free will, even consciousness. Not every atheist is an eliminative materialist, although all materialists must wrestle with how to avoid eliminativism.

For a thorough review of Rosenberg’s book, check out Edward Feser’s posts here (to which I am profoundly indebted for this article).