Tag Archives: History of Science

The Naturalist’s Fairy Tale

don-quixoteBertrand Russell, like the New Atheists, supports much of his attack on Christianity with an almost total ignorance of the history of science:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts.

It seems that it can’t be pointed out often enough that science and theology are different subjects. At least, the New Atheists seem to have so much confidence in the idea that science is theology (and metaphysics) that they feel no need to give any reason for the strange conclusion that science answers questions about God’s existence.

But it’s not only theology of which such people are ignorant. Any real respect for history would at least acknowledge the facts of past as it actually occurred. Far from forcing itself onto Christianity, the earliest science was developed by Christians, and sponsored by the Church.

Almost no culture has believed that the universe would have regular patterns which could be observed by the kinds of experiments science uses as its stock and trade. The west is so saturated in science that we never think to question this fact, and, therefore, never notice that most of us can offer no reason why reality would be this way.

Naturalists, for instance, can give no explanation as to why the universe should have this surprising consistency. David Hume famously pointed out that belief in science, as far as the naturalist can see, is based on a logical fallacy.

It was Christians, and other monotheists, who invested the effort in developing modern science because they held the conviction that a rational creator would make an ordered universe.

For Russell to claim, four-hundred years after the fact, that the Christians who invented, supported, and sponsored science somehow have a less scientific worldview than those atheists who blindly trust this inexplicable Christian invention is simply astonishing.

None of this precludes the idea that naturalists can be great scientists; the tools of science can be used by anyone. But to say that the success of science somehow refutes the belief that predicted it would work strikes me as deeply irrational thinking.

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.)