Monday, September 12, 2005

Science or History?

In recent posts, I commented on whether intelligent design is science. It is perhaps a good time to recall what many people do not seem to grasp, and that is that macroevolutionary theory is an historical science, not an operational science. Moreover, I would say that it is actually more precise to say that macroevolutionary theory is fundamentally historical, but that the data is scientific in nature. It is history, but instead of looking at documentary evidence, we look at geological and fossil evidence.

Consider these three questions:

A. What is the origin of the animal and plant species that we see around us?

B. What is the boiling point of water at the summit of Mt. Everest?

C. What caused the Great Chicago Fire?

Is question A more like question B or C? I would argue that it is more like C.

Three more questions:

A2. What caused penguins to appear on earth?

B2. What is the chemical composition of the rocks at Stonehenge?

C2. What (or who) caused Stonehenge?

Is question A2 more like question B2 or C2? I would argue C2.

The questions A, A2, C and C2 above are looking for the cause or explanation of events that happened once in the past. The questions B and B2 above are looking for answers that can be tested and observed right now, and repeated and verified as many times as anyone wishes. The questions in A, A2, C and C2 require conjecture and speculation based on historical evidence.

The ramifications of this are many. When we are discussing the cause or causes of historical events, it is often unreasonable to assert dogmatically that one thing is definitely the cause of a particular historical event. Who was responsible for the shooting of JFK? One person? Many? Those who hold to one theory dogmatically in such cases are held in disdain by many as conspiracy theorists. Can we be any more certain as to what caused the Cambrian Explosion 500 million years ago?

We must also ask if methodological naturalism is as appropriate in the historical sciences (or in history) as in the operational sciences. It may merit strong weight or even be a controlling principle in situations where we can conduct direct testing, observe results, and repeat tests over and over. But is it so useful when we are making inferences as to the cause of events that occured once and only once millions or billions of years ago? Can we reasonably assert that undirected natural forces must have caused all the biological phenomena that we see around us? If scientists answer this with a "yes," then they are also able to assert that there have been no supernatural forces at work at all in the history of human civilization. Are they willing to assert this as well? Some may be. But most, I think, will not, because then their apparently neutral "scientific" principles would be obviously shown to be philosophical and religious in nature and effect.

In an earlier post I asked the question, is macroevolutionary theory science? Again I answer "yes," but its essential nature is more history than science. And its plausibility is heavily influenced by the a priori philosophy and worldview that scientists bring to the evidence-- far more than with the operational sciences.

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Paul Johnson notes the historical aspect, as discussed and linked here.

By the way, if you really want to know the boiling point of water at the summit of Mt. Everest, go here. You will need to know that the elevation is 29,035 ft.