Trust Past Records, but not if they’re of the Past


“Knowing human history will be useless for anything but telling diverting stories.”

“Physics’ long track record of success is the strongest argument for the exclusion of purpose or design from the account of reality.”

Did you spot the contradiction between these quotations? If so, it might surprise you to learn that they are taken from the same book: Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”.

He spends some time arguing that the history of science is the best reason to trust that it will, in the future, vindicate naturalism (the belief that only the physical is real).

He later spends an entire chapter explaining that history is useless because (he claims) it can’t help us make predictions about the future

Personally, I don’t accept Rosenberg’s apparent assumption that making predictions is the only purpose knowledge can serve. Still, his obsession with science and its ability to predict material events has led him to undercut his own trust of science.

This is a consistent problem with Rosenberg (as I’ll discuss in later posts). He’s much more willing than most atheists to face up to the strange conclusions that follow from naturalism. But he is completely unwilling to see the consequences for science itself.

In one sense, this makes “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” a very useful book for Christian apologists. For, by the final page, Rosenberg has unwittingly argued that modern atheism is both self-contradictory and opposed to science.

(Full disclosure: I’m aware of my own contradiction. I claimed earlier that I’d not be writing about Rosenberg. But I find that he raises too many significant points for me to simply ignore him.)

13 responses to “Trust Past Records, but not if they’re of the Past

  • shortcast2000

    Reblogged this on devincasey and commented:
    Nicely done post on Alex Rosenberg’s book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”.

  • Webeers

    Don’t trust history except the history of science! LOL. Only naturalism is real, except that the idea of naturalism isn’t material, but incorporeal. LOL again. Rosenberg;s deity is looking bad.

    • Debilis

      His book gets amazingly tangled. By the end of it, he’s claiming that none of the sentences he’s written mean anything.

      Part of me wants to believe that he’s secretly a Christian apologist.

  • jdedeusbrasil

    Atheists contradict themselves all the time. Even Dawkins in The God Delusion shows a few contradictions. I discuss some of them in my book Why I Believe in God.

    • Debilis

      I’ll have to have a look. I think one of the big callings for the western church is to break the stereotype that Christianity is a less intellectual position than atheism.

      So, I’m glad to hear you’re helping in that.

  • Naturalism at the Cost of Reason | Fide Dubitandum

    […] spends much time and ink explaining. By the end of the book, he’s concluded that any trust of history, personal perception, language, moral conviction, the principle of causation, or your own thoughts […]

  • Putting it All Together | Fide Dubitandum

    […] more will probably be added, I think enough has been said to demonstrate that there is more to reality than the physical particles and complex […]

  • Alexander

    Where’s the contradiction? He’s talking about two things here;

    a) human history, of which we have mostly artefacts and written words
    b) physics, of which the world’s technology and societies work by

    He’s not saying physics hasn’t got a history; it obviously has. But he isn’t talking about that, he’s pointing to the computer you’re writing this on. He’s talking about the applicability of the knowledge of physics vs. the applicability of the knowledge of history.

    “He later spends an entire chapter explaining that history is useless because (he claims) it can’t help us make predictions about the future”

    If he truly says that, then I’d agree with you that that would be stupid, but I’d have to read the book thoroughly myself first as he’s never come across as that stupid to me in the past.

    • Debilis

      Rosenberg does not make that stipulation in the book. In fact, it would seem to contradict a great deal of what he says.

      I can understand the reaction, given that I’ve only given you a couple of quotations (as opposed to long sections of the book). Perhaps the best response, then, is to offer a bit more:

      Scientism [his professed theory] shares with these historians the insistence that to provide knowledge, their discipline has to show improvement in predictive success. The alternative is to treat the discipline of history as a source, not of knowledge, but of entertainment. As a source of enjoyable stories or polemics written to move readers to action, to tears, or to nostalgia, history is unbeatable. But few historians are prepared to treat their discipline as merely literary art. Yet that is inevitable, unless history can be put to successful predictive use.(p. 246)

      Here, he is not simply comparing about applicability, he is directly claiming that predictive success is the only form of knowledge (and that entertainment is the only other option).

      But what I cannot quote is the section in which he establishes that no predictive success comes from a study of history–because he makes no such argument. Rather, he seems to assume that, because history does not rely on mathematical modeling in the way that science does, so as to make very precise, trackable predictions, that all insight gained through the study of history must therefore be utterly worthless. This is simply an unwarranted leap in logic.

      What tends to have worked in the past is worth noting. And that was the basis of his argument for science–not a precisely mathematically modeled explanation as to how much progress will be made by science over a given time frame. Rather, it is the sort of prediction that historians would make.

      So, yes, he does say these things. And many (including many atheists) have found his conclusions more than a little hard to swallow.

      • Alexander

        Hmm, I think I’ve got two comments on this.

        First, maybe you’re right, and he’s lost his bearings, or gone a bit postal on us. I’ll accept that.

        Secondly, however, there’s something to be said for using Bayesian theory in evaluating historic claims. History as a field is slowly moving in that direction, which I think is a good thing, and perhaps Rosenberg is pointing to that without being explicit. But I know there’s a contention that, say, biblical scholars are using different criteria to historic scholars in assessing the validity of historical claims, and maybe he got those two mixed up (Look up Richard Carrier and “proving history”). Dunno.

    • Debilis

      Okay, getting to these as time permits…

      I’m definitely not holding you to Rosenberg’s ideas. Many atheists reject his conclusions.

      I don’t object to the idea of trying to apply Bayesian theory to history when possible. I only object to the idea that this is the only value historical knowledge can have.

      But, nothing you’ve said leads me to think you’d disagree on that point. I suspect that we mostly agree here, in fact.

    • Debilis

      There is definitely no need to apologize.
      I rather enjoy your thoughts, and you have raised a number of good points.
      I just didn’t want you to think I was ignoring the comments.

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