History as Narrative Fallacy aka What Type of Apologist Are You?

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I confess I’ve partially changed my mind on one small part of this, namely the use of the word “defective” when refering to our minds. More on that at a later date. But it still gets the point across.

History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work. …the minds of the gods cannot be read just by witnessing their deeds. You are very likely to be fooled about their intentions. (The Black Swan, P. 8 )

In a previous post I discussed the realities of The Black Swan, those improbable events that rule our lives but we pretend don’t and can’t happen. I also discussed how in actuality “randomness” is really just incomplete information. And finally I discussed how we feel the need to reverse engineer explanation for historical events — even though it’s impossible — and how, once we do, we have a really hard time realizing that there is more than one viable explanation for the same event. [1]

Which brings me to how this all directly relates to the LDS Church and specifically to the intolerance we show each other on the Bloggernacle at times. It is all directly related to two facts:

  1. History is a collection of facts demanding interpretation before we can process them.
  2. Thus all history is mostly narrative fallacy.

This means that two people can and will interpret it differently and both will have been fooled by their brains to believe that theirs is the one best way to explain those facts and only an idiot or liar would think otherwise.

It’s not hard to see that this simple explanation explains everything about the relationship between more believing and practicing-but-not-believing Mormons. Indeed, it explains the relationship between Mormons and Evagelicals, and Evangelicals and Liberals and… Democrats and Republicans, and Communists and… well… it sort of explains life. Let’s leave it at that.

Why? Because some people have a narrative fallacy in the mind that proves or disproves the truth claims of the LDS Church (or fill in the blank point of view). To those that think they disproved it, it’s just obvious that the LDS Church is not “the one truth.” Depending on their personal point of view it might also seem “obvious” to them that Joseph Smith was a charlatan, or that he was sincere but misguided, was mentally ill, etc. To those that think they have proven it, the same could be said, but in reverse.

Furthermore, anyone that is held bound by a different narrative fallacy must seem like they are being deceptive, or at least brainwashed, by comparison. After all, both of you are being fooled by randomness (i.e. lack of information) on the subject into creating narrative fallacies to explain the outcome. And both of you, having defective brains, can’t help but feel “you’ve figured it all out.”

This is why we need to understand the real limits of history if we are ever to “get along.”

NNT is a huge history buff, so he wanted to treat history and historians well. Unlike financiers, sociologies, and statisticians, which he feels are usually charlatans, the historian’s craft has value even if that value is not actually finding out “what really happened.”

History is useful for the thrill of knowing the past, and for the narrative (indeed), provided it remains a harmless narrative. One should learn under severe caution. History is certainly not a place to theorize or derive general knowledge, nor is it meant to help in the future, without some caution. We can get negative confirmation from history [i.e. find a Black Swan and thereby prove something], which is invaluable, but we get plenty of illusions of knowledge along with it. (p. 199)

NNT’s advice to use history safely is, “Learn to read history, get all the knowledge you can, do not frown on the anecdote, but do not draw any causal links, do not try to reverse engineer too much – but if you do, do not make big scientific claims.” (p. 199)

This seems like obviously good advice, but as NNT points out, it runs counter to the current thinking by modern historians. He quotes historians that are “explicitly pursuing causation as a central aspect of [their] job.” (p. 199) Isn’t that what we’ve always been taught is the whole point of history? Are we not told that historians are to find cause and effect and that this is useful so that we aren’t “doomed to repeat” our mistakes?

His conclusion: “The more we try to turn history into anything other than an enumeration of accounts to be enjoyed with minimal theorizing, the more we get into trouble. Are we so plagued with the narrative fallacy?” (p. 199)


Mormon history suffers from an additional issue. It’s inextricably intertwined with religion — on both sides of the divide. Everyone knows that believing Mormons comprehend their history through the filter of their religious beliefs, but disaffected and non-Mormons do as well — and as much.

I believe this is why there are “good” apologists and “bad” apologists. The good apologists will realize the non-rationality of their beliefs (not irrationality, just non-rationality – that their beliefs are not a proven fact) and admit it up front. They will identify their biases clearly to those they address because their goal isn’t to prove. And they will take only a defensive stance (i.e. “you don’t have proof that my beliefs are wrong.”) not an offensive attack. They will never try to prove their beliefs using “reason” – which is really just a series of narrative fallacies – because they will realize there is no proof one way or the others and that rational verification is beyond our reach.

By comparison, the bad apologists will advance their personal narrative fallacies as “proving” their position. They will claim that anyone that does no agree with them, despite having the same facts, is being deceptive or must be intellectually inferior. They will use mockery when confronted with counter facts and will not be able to admit “yes, there is more than one viable way to read these facts, but I read it this way.”

But what is less acknowledged is that we are all apologists, believing or unbelieving. And there are good ones and bad ones on both sides.

So ask yourself, which type of apologist are you? Are you a good apologists or a bad apologist for your belief system?


[1] NNT has another excellent quote about this:

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

  1. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in the world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  2. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and
  3. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they “Platonify.” (The Black Swan, p. 9)

4 thoughts on “History as Narrative Fallacy aka What Type of Apologist Are You?

  1. History is the leftovers after the Legos have been put back in the closet. The scientist and intellectual only accepts as the true structure what he can impute from looking at the Legos. The witness of observers of the structure (who never knew that it was built of in the first place) are all denied.

  2. Great post. I like the idea that all historians are apologists. The only difference between them is whether they are humble or arrogant about it.

    The past is the playground of the present. It can be made to say whatever we want it to say. Every time we look back at it, we can see it in a different light. The real power of the past is the mythology we create out of it by our present day beliefs and interpretations. Today, WE have all the power. The past must bend to our will. It is our moment.

  3. Nate,

    I appreciate that your response doesn’t go down the usually track of villifying historians for being interpretative and apologetic. (It also means you understand and agree with the post, at least in that regard.)

    Historians are interested in history precisely because they are working on problems of the present. It is not an accident that so much of history explores racism, even though such ideals didn’t exist within the times being explored.

    At one time this made history seem inauthentic to me. After reading the Black Swan, I no longer feel that way. And I’m not sure it makes it ‘more wrong’ either. Racism (as we now think of it) was a driving force in many aspects of history.

    Even if you argue that it wasn’t quite as much the force as modern historians make it to be (and this is probably true) there is still the issue that we’d never explore history at all if we didn’t have racially minded people that *wanted* to explore it to look at the impact of racism on history. It’s their motiviation in the first place!

    That’s all just one example, of course. There are many things that motivate historians. But it pays to remember that they always have a motivation(s).

  4. Fantastic post! Coincidentally, I count The Black Swan as one of the more influential books on my thinking…

    I have a question about identifying apologists with the interpretation of the past, in particular the LDS past. This may be my own misunderstanding, but I think of LDS apologists primarily in the role of defending the claims of the Church in the present, i.e. the apologetic role is to help defend the plausibility of the concept that the Church is “true” in the present tense and moving forward. (Which concept includes an exclusive claim to the right way to live/return to God/etc. in a very literal sense.) Am I missing something there?

    If that is, indeed, the role of LDS apologists, doesn’t the idea that one could legitimately view the past/evidence in a myriad of legitimate interpretations undermine the truthiness of the present claims that need to be defended?

    From the counter view, apostates are not (in my view) concerned so much with saying what IS true, as much as saying “this is not exclusively true”, or “I can’t find any reasons to come to the same conclusions you are, based on my perusal of the same evidence”.

    Once a conclusion has been made that there are a number of allowable interpretations, among which is the reasonable conclusion that the Church isn’t what it claims to be, the exclusive truth claims seem to have evaporated.

    If a “good” apologist allows for that kind of flexible interpretation, is he then truly an apologist?

    The exclusivity of the truth claim seems to me to be the rub.

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