A Guide to Reality, Part 14

It’s been more than three months since I wrote about Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. I left off part of the way through chapter 8, “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything At All”. Having read the book once before, it’s been difficult going through it again, but I’m now going to finish chapter 8.

The principal thesis of Rosenberg’s book is that since the universe is nothing more than subatomic particles, much of what we take for granted about the world is illusory. In the case of the human brain, this means that the brain does its work without anything happening in the brain being “about” anything at all.

Rosenberg asks us to consider a computer:

Neither the … electrical charges in the computer’s motherboard nor the distribution of magnetic charges in the hard drive can be about anything, right? They are just like red octagons. They get interpreted by us [as stop signs or whatever] [187].

Electrical engineers and computer programmers assign meanings to a computer’s low-level states (“on” or “off”, or 32767, or the letter “w”), but those states have no meaning in themselves. It’s only because people are able to assign meanings to the states of a computer and then interpret those them that those states can be about anything, just the way a red octagonal sign with “STOP” on it only has meaning for those of us who know how to read a traffic sign.

But doesn’t that mean that the physical states of a computer can be about something? Doesn’t our interpretation of those states imply that those states are meaningful?

Rosenberg doesn’t think so. Earlier, he discussed how brain cells function as input/output devices. Now he compares the brain itself to a computer:

The brain is at least in part a computer. It’s composed of an unimaginably large number of electronic input/output circuits…The circuits transmit electrical outputs in different ways, depending on their electrical inputs and on how their parts… But that it is at least a computer is obvious from its anatomy and physiology right down to the individual neurons and their electrochemical on/off connections [188-189].

But if what’s inside a computer isn’t about anything, and your brain works like a computer, what’s inside your brain isn’t about anything either. It’s merely an enormous bunch of interconnected cells that have no intrinsic meaning. That’s Rosenberg’s conclusion.

To clarify his point, he then offers an analogy. The image in a still photograph doesn’t move. But string many photographs together, project them on a screen and you’ve got a motion picture. The motion we perceive in a movie, however, is an illusion. Creatures whose physiology worked faster than ours would simply see a succession of still pictures, not actors or objects in continuous motion. In similar fashion:

The illusion of aboutness projected by the neurons in our brain does not match any aboutness in the world. There isn’t any….There is no aboutness in reality [191].

So, despite what introspection tells us (or “screams” at us, using his term), our thoughts aren’t about anything either:

Consciousness is just another physical process. So, it has as much trouble producing aboutness as any other physical process. Introspection certainly produces the illusion of aboutness. But it’s got to be an illusion, since nothing physical can be about anything [193]. 

But doesn’t that mean The Atheist’s Guide to Reality isn’t about anything? Why bother reading it then?

Rosenberg’s answer is that his book isn’t “conveying statements”. It’s “rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information” [193]. But, we might ask, isn’t information “about” something? And isn’t the distinction between accurate and inaccurate information dependent on the idea that information can be about something in a more or less satisfactory manner?

At this point, I can’t remember why Rosenberg is so interested in convincing us that there is no real “aboutness” or what philosophers call “intentionality” in the world.

It’s certainly puzzling how our minds are able to assign meaning to and find meaning in the world. Being appreciative of science, I can accept that there is nothing in the universe but quarks, leptons and bosons when you get right down to it (or their component parts if there are any), but there are also arrangements of those things. Some of those arrangements are meaningful to us and some aren’t. The fact that scientists might and probably will explain our experience of aboutness in biological terms, and then in terms of chemistry, and then in terms of physics, doesn’t change the fact that Rosenberg’s book and the words I’m typing are about something.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know if I’d work through any more chapters in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (although if the universe is as deterministic as Rosenberg thinks – and I tend to think – that was decided some time ago). But now what I think I’m going to do is skip the next three chapters. They’re concerned with purpose (an illusion), the self (also an illusion), history (it’s blind) and the other social sciences, especially economics (they’re all myopic). Chapter 12, the final chapter, is called “Living With Scientism: Ethics, Politics, the Humanities, and Prozac as Needed”. That seems like a good place to stop.

1 thought on “A Guide to Reality, Part 14

  1. Well said. I found a lot to agree with in Rosenberg’s book, but his insistence on this matter irritated me. I think he would have been better off looking at what we intuitively mean by the word “about” and its actual emergent nature rather than insisting it doesn’t exist.

    I also found his views on history and the social sciences myopic nonsense. He seemed overly disturbed by their inability to make predictions. A biologist can’t predict what a particular bear will do in a situation, which by Rosenberg’s criteria, makes biology worthless. I for one am very happy the Federal Reserve Chairman was well versed in the economic history of the Great Depression when he was making policy decisions during the Great Recession. Most of the poor policy decisions came from people who didn’t understand that history.

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