Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rosenberg on History

I was invited by Gary Comstock to comment on philosopher Alex Rosenberg's interesting and provocative article on the implications of naturalism, "The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality," at

I stated eight objections as an invited commentator at that site, but due to word limits I was unable to post my ninth and final objection, which pertained to Alex's take on history as a field. As that happens to be my Ph.D. field, and I'm particularly known for this (as well as my expertise in historical methods), I didn't want anyone to get the impression that my silence on that last point implies agreement with Rosenberg. Quite the contrary. Gary will mention this at the original site, and asked me to publish my ninth objection elsewhere. So that will follow.

For those who want to catch up, you can read Alex's article through the link above, with comments from many naturalist philosophers afterward. For those who want to skip straight to my remarks, they are all summarized here and the first eight are elaborated in greater detail on my own blog here. Here's a table of all eight of my objections:
Objection 1 (meanings and purposes do exist)
Objection 2 (moral facts are scientific facts)
Objection 3 (morality is more than selfish genes)
Objection 4 (cognitive science has not refuted free will)
Objection 5 (blindsight is compatible with qualia)
Objection 6 (beliefs and desires do exist)
Objection 7 (there is an enduring self)
Objection 8 (brains can encode meaning in sentences)
By and large, except where I say otherwise, I agree with everything else Alex says (often agreeing with his facts more than his conclusions). But here is my last objection:

Objection 9: I also don't quite know what to make of Alex's claim that "most of the works now on the non-fiction list" should be considered fiction. This not only contradicts his own scientism, since most non-fiction consists in fact of the very science he claims is not fiction but so factual it should change our views about everything (I agree), but it seems hyperbolic even when all those works of science are excluded.

Certainly, a lot of autobiography and self-help claptrap and so on is no better than fiction, and quite often far worse, artistically and logically. But as a historian I can assure you a great deal of non-fiction, even autobiographical, is not mere fiction, but awash with fact. It differs not only in intent (an author who represents what he says as fact bears entirely different epistemic obligations in making his case, than an author who represents what he says as mere fiction) but also in content. Pick up any history book and you might find plenty in it that is questionable, claims more like fiction than fact, but not all of it, and the best works know how to draw the line between them, declaring when a particular section is speculative or reconstructive, or how much of an account can be established as fact and how much is speculated as likely based on other known facts, while in other sections simply stating matter of factly what we can claim to know (and not know) given the facts we have.

Alex seems to err in assuming that the human innate tendency to make stories of everything (an entirely apt and correct observation) means there are no actual stories, just the ones we make up. That's certainly untrue. We have evolved the drive to find the story in everything precisely because there often is a story, and it benefits us to know what it is. And this isn't only the case in human social relations. Even physical, mindless objects have stories. A pile of debris by a cliff tells a story of a landslide. It is a story that is true (a sequence of events did indeed occur and did indeed have the result now observed), and it is a story that is useful (now we know where a landslide risk is, hence the predictive value of learning from the past).

But this is especially so in human histories. People do do things for particular motives, they do plot with others, they have affairs, they wage wars, they conduct experiments for particular reasons, they have and change alliances and enemies, they make and break friendships, they evolve and change. There is indeed a story, of how and why everyone did what they did, when they did it. The only question is how accessible that story is. Can we reconstruct it from the clues left behind? How much can we reconstruct? And how accurate is our reconstruction? Those are the questions the science of history is aimed at answering. And like other sciences, we slowly improve our methods, and in consequence our results, as we find more and more ways we can be in error, and more and more ways we can increase our information and certainty.

The pinnacle example is in criminal trials, in which clues are used to reconstruct history, using highly demanding standards, thereby discovering who did what and why. And our treatment of the guilty reflects the power this historical knowledge gives us to predict the future: proving that a man indifferently killed one person, we can predict he is likely to indifferently kill another, so we lock him up. History must work with less demanding standards, and for that reason must confess to having less certain results. But less does not mean none.

Alex also seems oblivious to the self-defeating nature of his strange claims about history. He doesn't seem to realize science is history. If you can't do history, you can't do science. All data is historical. All past proofs and observations and experiments confirming all past theories, are matters of history. If it were true that "reasons for taking history seriously--to know the future--will never be borne out" then how is it that we can know the future using past science?

You have to take history seriously to be a scientist--you have to not only believe that Einstein's theory of relativity was proved long ago by certain specific historical observations, but your belief in that fact has to be correct. And if we can successfully do history when it comes to science, and even predict the future using past examples in scientific observation and discovery, why would there be any categorical difference in any other field of inquiry, whether politics or business or gender relations or what have you? We are certainly fools if we do not learn from past wars how to avoid future wars, or fight them better. And so we have. Even on the tactical scale. Fundamental to military academy training is studying the historical successes and failures of prior battlefield commanders, so as to set up more of those successes in the future, and avoid those past failures, and then creatively combine both fields of knowledge to invent new ways to prevail against an armed enemy.

And as in war, so in everything else of importance to us, from romance to family relations to whether bringing back slavery is a good idea. When Jews now echo the axiom "never forget," it would seem quite absurd of Alex to say "Forget what? You don't know anything about history, nor would your knowing it prevent it happening again or help you detect the conditions that may bring it about again." Clearly, we do know something about history, not only what happened, but what caused it or allowed it to happen, and also what stopped it, and thus what could have prevented it in the first place. Learning about how the Holocaust was even possible, will certainly help us predict the future: we will know what conditions will threaten to cause genocide again (as long as we are observant enough to notice them), and we will know that if we prevent those conditions from obtaining, we will reduce the frequency of future genocides. The notion that history is all bunk is thus not only false, it's dangerous. For such an attitude will at once convert "never again" into "definitely again."

As in most of my other objections (eight in all, posted at the site of his article), Alex has the premises right (all the limitations and difficulties of doing history, and of predicting the behavior of individuals and societies, especially over longer scales of time), but derives the wrong conclusion. Just because history is limited and hard, doesn't mean it can't be done or is of no use.

Indeed, Alex refutes himself by using history to argue against the utility of history. All his rigmarole about arms races cannot be true, unless he can demonstrate historically that it is true, and has been true in all historical periods and cultural matrixes. But how can he do that if history can't be done? And in his effort to claim history cannot make predictions, he makes a massive, blanket prediction from history. He can't have it both ways. If you can use history to make such sweeping, absolute predictions as Alex does, you can't use that fact to then predict you can't use history to make predictions.

I believe Alex is just as arrogantly wrong in declaring so much certainty from such a poor examination of the facts as Karl Marx was. But such a travesty of fallacious pseudohistory is not an argument against the utility of history. It's an argument against doing it badly.


Martin Freedman said...

This post needs to be link to in a comment on the original Rosenberg post. I have posted a comment to this effect.

Ben said...

Couldn't you break 9 into 9A and 9B? Just sayin.