I received a query by email recently from Jennifer, an MD.
Dear Dr. Wilkins,
I’m wondering if you had the time if you could perhaps steer me in the right direction of help me understand the philosophy behind the argument of creationist use to negate the theory of evolution saying that it is grounded in historical science and not in experimental science as below. I have a understanding of evolutionary biology but have to admit that my philosphy of science is limited to one undergraduate course a very long time ago. I stumbled across of a few of your essays on talk orginis website, would be very grateful if you could at all further clarify. I come from a medical background and understand scientific methodology (predominately qualitivative and quantiative) but am finding the argument rather difficult to defend evolutionary theory as “scientific”. Is it sad that a creationist is causing me to lose faith in evolutionary theory as science?
The argument presented to me is as follows:
You need to draw the proper distinction between operational science and historical science, and so to grant evolutionary theory (which is historical science) the equivalent status of theories of operational science. Technically, what is designated “historical science” is really not science at all, but history. Whether one is speaking of evolutionary theory (e.g. common descent), or biblical creationism, or Old Earth creationism, or theistic evolution, all of these are historical theories. They all appeal to scientific data to support their theories, but the data needs to be interpreted within their theoretical framework; the data does not speak for itself. Extrapolating into the past is not the same as present observation. I’m saying they’re different disciplines–one being science and the other being history. It doesn’t follow simply from them being different disciplines that the one is characteristic of greater certitude in its conclusions than the other, but sometimes this does follow based on the differences in method and procedure, given the subject matter. Science is the study of natural substances with respect to the kind of things they are, which includes the study of their composition, powers, dispositions, and relations. Hence, science is concerned with what is empirically testable and observable (in a broad sense, since it can also be inferred from the relationship of observable objects). But while science studies physical substances according to the kinds of things they are (or particular things qua universals), history studies the past of particular things qua particulars. Science draws more generalized conclusions than history, since science studies the natures of things whereas history studies particular persons or objects (and their relationship to other things) limited to a particular and definite period of time. Scientific analysis of existing materials is employed in some historical investigations, but the theory that would be proposed would not be a scientific theory but an historical theory. Historical theories draw on various types of evidence that are not always limited to scientific procedures (e.g. written texts). And even when they are limited to scientific procedures for providing evidence, the same assumptions should not be made in proposing an historical theory as with a scientific theory. Science, in the operational or proper sense, should assume methodological naturalism, whereas history should not. For this reason, unlike science, historical theories cannot be deductive but are only probabilistic. So the distinction needs to be emphasized between the historical and the operational; and this distinction does in these cases have epistemic implications.
Any clarification or direction of a synthesis of philosophy of science between the two would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks in advance,
I gave my response, and thought it might be interesting here: