Is history a science? Creationists don’t think so

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,
jenn

I gave my response, and thought it might be interesting here:

“Dear Jennifer,

 
There is a distinction in the philosophy of science that goes back quite a ways between the general (“nomothetic”) and special (“idiothetic”) sciences. The former address universal properties like that of an electron, and are typically not based on historically contingent processes; an electron is an electron no matter what its past. But the special sciences study things that are contingent in time and space, which exist only for some period of time and in a place or places.
 
Now it’s obvious that biology, geology, ecology, medical science and the like are special sciences. That is, they study things that are not universals – organisms, continents, the Amazon Basin, and so on. Evolutionary biology studies special unique objects – species, populations, lineages and so forth. These are unique objects. Some of these unique objects (in fact the majority of them) existed before there were any humans to observe them, and so we make inferences about those objects based on what we know about similar objects (organisms, species, ecologies) today. It is true this is historical investigation, but it is also science.
 
There are ways in which we can tell, for example, how old an object is. Consider a rock that has an isotope of a radioactive element in it which is (we know by experiment and theory today) decaying at a certain rate into another isotope (or even element). When we find the rock with a ratio of these isotopes, we can estimate quite precisely how old that rock is. Although the event of the rock’s formation is a historical event, we can use modern (experimental) science together with some simple ancillary assumptions (such as it is unlikely that these isotopes would always be deposited together in the same ratio) to date it. This is science by anyone but the most obdurate creationist’s criterion.
 
Likewise, when we see a pattern of some kind today, we can make inferences about how that pattern came to be based on observations and experiments taken today. For example, Darwin based his inferences about common descent on the nested groupings of relationships of modern organisms. All primates are mammals, as are all canines, etc. The pattern of relationships calls for an explanation, and the historical process of descent with modification (which we call “evolution” today) is just such an explanation. So there is an operational aspect to historical science based on our knowledge of things we can observe and experiment or intervene with. We will never know for certain if this or that ancestor existed in one way or another, but we have perfectly reasonable grounds for thinking there was an ancestor, in part because we have seen speciation (the splitting of one species into two) in the modern period, but also because we have firm grounds for thinking this theory (of common descent) explains adequately and without trouble the observed relationships of modern organisms.
 
To deny that we can know the past in any sense is not science. It is in effect an admission of failure, but we need not be so pessimistic. For example, we know Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions. We might not know how they were dressed or if it was raining that day, but we do know it happened. Likewise, we know the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened. The evidence is there, supported by experimental observations.
 
A final note: experiment is not the sole aspect of science. Field observations (like mapping geological formations or observing species in the wild) are also a source of information. Often we do not have experimental evidence in such cases, but rely upon likelihoods of what must have happened, even today. And history can be a science in itself, as anyone testing a document for appropriate age can attest (they use carbon dating among other techniques).
 
 
Thoughts in comments?

52 Comments

Filed under Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Evolution, Philosophy, Science

52 Responses to Is history a science? Creationists don’t think so

  1. I am inclined to say that history is not a science, though it is an empirical study and it does make use of scientific methods where appropriate.

    Your correspondent was particularly concerned with historical sciences, which I take to be distinct from history, though your correspondent conflates them. I am not entirely sure that there is a clear distinction between “historical sciences” and other sciences, though the creationists like to argue as if the distinction does exist.

    In online forum discussions, I have seen a distinction made between “natural history” and “evolutionary biology”. It seems a good distinction, with “natural history” referring to what you correspondent is presumably discussing, while evolutionary biology is very much an experimental science.

    It is no surprise that creationists are confused.

    • [As you undoubtedly know] there is a long term debate in history itself (human history) about whether it is a science or an art. I think that even if human history is art, it relies upon science, and we can identify events and processes in the past scientifically.

      Natural history means, historically, that you investigate (the Greek term ‘istoria means investigation) the natural world, in contradistinction to natural philosophy. Broadly the former refers to biology and geography, while the latter applies to physics and similar sciences. I think using “history” in the sense you suggest would cause confusion (amongst historians of science).

      Sciences that deal with unique events or locales are the “special” sciences. As I like to say, life is what physics does on one planet on a Wednesday. To investigate life involves inferences from physical sciences based on the special conditions we actually observe. That is why the special sciences are sciences.

  2. Richard Peachey

    A fascinating topic, John, and one that deserves some careful discussion. A few observations to start with:

    (1) Until philosophers of science solve the continuing “demarcation problem,” there is little point in debating what is or isn’t “science.”

    (2) You have allowed a distinction between nomothetic and idiothetic aspects of science — i.e., a contrast between dealing with non-unique objects like electrons that are (presumably) all the same, and unique objects like animals and persons. I think this aligns to some extent with what creationists are talking about when they use terms like “operational science” and “historical science.”

    (3) Physics and chemistry (called “hard” sciences) tend to deal more with non-unique objects, which are most amenable to repeatable experimentation. (An exception is the branch of physics called astronomy, which deals with unique objects.)

    (4) Various branches of biology are “harder,” so to speak, than others, and this is true for other disciplines as well, such as geology. Experimental evolutionary biology deals with limited change within populations, and such experiments are in principle fairly repeatable (though shakier than, say, laboratory physics). When we move to long-time-frame evolutionary biology, there are more unknowns, less repeatability, longer chains of inference, and more speculation. This is not to say it should not be called “science,” or that it doesn’t use results from “harder” experimentation; it is just to recognize that there are increasing differences in methodology (and thus potentially more room for disputability).

    All of which is to say that I think that creationists, while they may need to fine-tune some features of their argument on this question, are basically on the right track. (In other words, we are not all that “confused.”)

    But I’m interested to see Jennifer expressing anxiety about losing her “faith” in evolutionary science. Could this be typical of many scientists who are trusting experts in other scientific fields regarding evidence for evolution which they don’t really find in their own disciplines?

    • 1. The demarcation problem is less rigid these days, if you avoid an essentialistic definition (necessary and sufficient conditions). A recent book, in which I have a chapter, revisits the matter well.

      2. Creationists deny the reality of “historical science” altogether (because if they permitted it, then we’d be able to establish that the earth is older than 10ky and that evolution happens).

      3. That’s what I said :-)

      4. You are therefore disagreeing with the argument Jennifer was responding to.

      If someone thinks one has to “have faith in evolutionary science”, then that person is failing to understand the entire notion of science.

      • “If someone thinks one has to “have faith in evolutionary science”, then that person is failing to understand the entire notion of science.”

        Very much so. I can’t help being rather suspicious that Ms. Jennifer is playing the role of what has come to be known as a “concern troll”, ie someone claiming to be on the side of their interlocutor, while simultaneously working to undermine the interlocutor’s position in an underhand manner.

        The proposition she’s putting forward looks to me like classic whataboutery and water-muddying. We can debate the factuality vs social constructedness of “history” till the cows come home, which is presumably a false alley that creationists would like to see their opponents waste time on.

        However, the definition of “history” is really very simple. History is what human beings record about events and doings that we have experienced or been told of by those who did experience them. This is why we have, on the one hand, what we call “the historical period”, which is very short; merely the last few thousand years since humans developed writing, and on the other hand, the “PRE-historic period”, which covers all the rest; the vast length of time prior to human history-writing, and to understand which we need to use other, NON-historical, methods.

        Amusing to see how desperate creationists are that they will try any sort of intellectual dishonesty to try and confuse the issue.

        • ditto — agreeing with “between the lines” . I only sped read so far and that is exactly my impression. And such an obvious lie (bad Christian), that I ignored it. Seems John was much more generous — or merely used it to show the weaknesses without addressing possible deceit.

          Also, being in Medicine myself, I found the writing to be odd.
          This quote:
          ” 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”. ”

          First, the spelling of qualitative and quantitative are wrong — a very odd mistake for a “Jennifer” MD. Second, what other sorts of scientific research are there that don’t fit in those categories — I don’t get it.

          • Richard Peachey

            Well, the two of you are right. These things do seem suspicious. If “Jennifer” is really a “concern troll,” then I as a creationist vigorously condemn his/her tactic.

            • I should note that I got no reply from Jennifer.

            • Porlock Junior

              I just assumed that she was a very non-native speaker of the language. Some of the locutions, such as a general muddiness about the use of articles, even seemed to suggest a suspect for the language family. OTOH, I haven’t looked that carefully, and there may be a lot that doesn’t fit well into any such pattern. Which then leaves us wondering what is the basis of the odd sorts of misusage.

        • History when applied to human populations involves recorded events, but in the sciences any discipline that reconstructs the past is “historical”, like plate tectonics or biogeography.

      • Richard Peachey

        On (1), thanks for the information, John. I will definitely get hold of that book.
        On (4), I am not fully “disagreeing” with the standard creationist presentation of “operational science” versus “historical science.” I am just suggesting that as we consider any particular broad discipline (such as “biology”), we may find some of one and some of the other, in various combinations. Perhaps a spectrum is a better metaphor here than a canyon.

        • A spectrum is exactly what I implied. It is Jennifer’s creationist source that asserts that historical science doesn’t exist at all.

          • Richard Peachey

            To be fair, what Jennifer’s creationist source was saying is not that historical science “doesn’t exist” but that it “is really not science but history.” A more nuanced statement would have been that historical science partakes more of historical reasoning (unique objects, inference, speculation, etc.) and less of “hard” science than does an experimental discipline like laboratory physics.

            All of this assumes that “Jennifer” herself does exist, which some of your readers have called into question — for good reason, I believe.

  3. DiscoveredJoys

    So we know Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions… historical fact. Did he do it for one set of political concerns or another? Would he have done it later if his bunions weren’t playing up? Did one legion advance by mistake, so Caesar had to commit? All historical interpretation. But the Rubicon was still crossed.

    I think the extra difficulty with history is that historians try to interpret facts in the light of human motivations. Historians seem to spend a lot of effort in defending their interpretations or attacking those of other historians, which could be seen as the dominant theme of ‘doing history’ – encouraging *some* people to argue that one history is as good as any other.

  4. This confusion of operational and historical science is seen in the frequent, but naive claim by anticreationists that ‘science has disproved the Bible’. What they really mean to say is that their interpretation of data, according to their origins science presuppositions, is incompatible with the Bible. That may well be true in certain circumstances, but does not alter the fact that historical science according to creationist presupposition is completely consistent with a different interpretation of the evidence, as well as compatible with scripture.

  5. The key aspect of science is not experiment, but observation. An experiment is simply a way to control observation. Observation of events which are not experiments are still valid observations.

  6. Ian

    Can’t we apply ‘science’ of a sort to Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon? Propose a hypothesis, and then use the data (documentation) that we have to disprove various possible hypotheses? Sure, documents need to be interpreted – but so do DNA sequences, temperature measurements, rain gauges, photosynthesis chambers. Calibrations, assumptions, working hypotheses – they’re not a world away from what historian do, are they?

  7. Ian H Spedding

    I view the attempt by creationists to separate “historical” from “operational” science as a false distinction. It’s a creationist tactic aimed at undermining the credibility of evolutionary biology, nothing else. It’s similar to the false distinction between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine. What matters there is the distinction between therapies that work and those that don’t..

    What matters in biology is the same as in other sciences: observations, the gathering of data, the construction of explanations that account for the data and the testing of those explanations, ideally using as rigorous a methodology as possible.

    When investigators gather evidence about a crime committed a couple of days ago we regard that, in part, as forensic science. They gather as as
    much data as they can find and try to construct the most probable explanation of what happened, hopefully one that will identify the offenders.

    When historians and archeologists do the same, using similar methods and technology, about events that happened a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand years ago then they are still doing science.

    If there is a difference between history as art and history as science it lies in the interpretations and moral judgments we make.

    Establishing that an event called the Battle of Gettysburg took place in the United States in 1863 and what transpired then is a question for science. Establishing the Battle as one event in a much longer sequence of events called the Civil War is also a question for science.

    Deciding whether the war was fought to abolish slavery and therefore A Good Thing or whether it was a more complex issue involving economic factors and issues of state versus federal rights and therefore not-so-clearly-but-most-probably-still-to-some-extent A Good Thing is more of an art.

    Whatever individual scientists may personally believe, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about Christian creation myths or morality. The fact that some researchers are Christians doesn’t necessarily make their work any more or less scientific just as the lack of support from evolutionary biology for Christian creation stories doesn’t necessarily make it any more or less scientific.

    • On Gettysburg, I once saw a documentary where people went over the battlefield with geophysical ground detectors and found that some of the written records were inaccurate. With science!

      • Richard Peachey

        “On Gettysburg, I once saw a documentary where people went over the battlefield with geophysical ground detectors and found that some of the written records were inaccurate. With science!”

        Every human-generated historical document must be subject to challenge, questioning, and possible correction — because humans are known to have engaged in frauds, half-truths, ambiguities, confirmation bias, unintended errors, agenda-driven activity (etc.).

        That includes the human-generated historical documents we call “scientific research articles.” We know that “scientists,” like other humans, have perpetrated their frauds, half-truths, ambiguities, confirmation bias, unintended errors, agenda-driven activity (etc.). Many scientific articles have been found to be fraudulent or erroneous and retracted; others are no doubt still lurking in the literature waiting to be exposed.

        (Of course, we like to put a positive spin on that, and enthuse about science being “self-correcting.” We could do the same with history, I suppose.)

        Anyway, I’m suggesting it would be a fair-sized oversimplification to formulate a standard story-line of (good, accurate) science versus (bad, inaccurate) history.

        • David

          “Every human-generated historical document must be subject to challenge, questioning, and possible correction — because humans are known to have engaged in frauds, half-truths, ambiguities, confirmation bias, unintended errors, agenda-driven activity (etc.).”

          I assume that this includes the Bible as well?

          • Richard Peachey

            Your comment was not un-anticipated. :)

            Yes, I reaffirm that every human-generated historical document must be open to challenge, for the reasons given.

            As a conservative Christian, I believe the Bible will ultimately pass the test. (In my view, it is not merely human-generated: it is the inerrant Word of God.)

            But in any case, freedom of inquiry within a pluralistic democratic society requires that no claims (whether religious, scientific, philosophical, historical, or other) be immune from critical analysis.

            • David

              I appreciate that you think that all claims should be open to critical analysis.

              How should we analyze the claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God? How could this question be approached? If the Bible isn’t inerrant, how could we tell?

              Just so that I know where you stand on the issue, do you think that the Bible says that the Earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old?

              • Richard Peachey

                “I appreciate that you think that all claims should be open to critical analysis.”

                I’m glad we can start with that agreed upon. All of us are on equal ground on this. All of our views are fair game for others to question.

                “How should we analyze the claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God? How could this question be approached? If the Bible isn’t inerrant, how could we tell?”

                Those are fair and important questions. The Biblical writers themselves make many claims to be God’s authorized spokesmen, and to be speaking the truth — but of course, that cannot be the end of the analysis. Questions like the following are appropriate: Does the Bible display any clear internal contradiction? (I.e., does it say A is B, and also A is not B, at the same time and in the same way?) Does the Bible report anything that must be understood to be contrary to well-established empirical fact? Are there cases in which the Bible been charged with errors only to be vindicated by later findings (archaeological, historical, or otherwise)? Have Biblical prophecies been fulfilled, or has something opposite happened, or have prophecies gone past their “best before” date? And especially, regarding its claim to be the “Word of God”: Is the Bible unique and superior in its provenance, its message (salvation from sin as God’s gift through the self-sacrificing death and resurrection of the foretold Messiah Jesus), and its impact on people’s lives?

                “Just so that I know where you stand on the issue, do you think that the Bible says that the Earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old?”

                The Bible doesn’t cite an age of the Earth quite that directly, but it seems to me that the numbers given in the Genesis genealogies (chapters 5 and 10), plus a few other pieces of Biblical data, allow a calculation of about 6000 years old. Creationists have suggested that there is also plenty of scientific support for an age lower than billions of years: http://creation.com/age-of-the-earth

              • David

                Richard,

                There doesn’t seem to be a place to leave a reply below your comments, so I’ll reply here and hope that you see it.

                I was going to go through all of your tests one by one, but I think I’ll keep this simple.

                You said…

                “The Bible doesn’t cite an age of the Earth quite that directly, but it seems to me that the numbers given in the Genesis genealogies (chapters 5 and 10), plus a few other pieces of Biblical data, allow a calculation of about 6000 years old.”

                Well, if you are accurate in your interpretation of what the Bible says (and I think that you probably are), then it seems very unlikely that the Bible is the Word of God, because it seems very unlikely that the Earth is 6000 years old. So, it’s very likely that the Bible is simply wrong. It seems far more likely that it is just another flawed, human-generated historical document.

                I understand that we’re going to disagree, but if this the methods by which we are to analyze the claim that the Bible is inerrant, I think that the Bible fails the test.

              • Richard Peachey

                “. . . it seems very unlikely that the Earth is 6000 years old. So, it’s very likely that the Bible is simply wrong.”

                David: You’ve agreed that the Bible teaches this as the age of the Earth. But you have not given any specifics about why the Bible is incorrect on this point, in terms of either internal contradiction or something contrary to well-established empirical fact. Secular dating in terms of billions of years is not empirical fact but is interpretation based on inference, assumption, and calculation. The creationist viewpoint is that the Bible has not been falsified on this score, but instead, secular dating methods are flawed.

                Or to put it in your terms: “It seems very likely, based on a variety of features, that the Bible is God’s Word. So, it’s very unlikely that the Earth is billions of years old.”

                However: may I suggest that a long drawn-out back-and-forth discussion of this point would probably not be appropriate on John Wilkins’s website. Suffice it to say that neither your worldview nor mine is going to be overturned by merely raising a single issue of this kind. If you would like my email for further discussion, John has my permission to give it to you. I would welcome hearing from you.

              • David

                “It seems very likely, based on a variety of features, that the Bible is God’s Word. So, it’s very unlikely that the Earth is billions of years old.”

                I assume that you think that it’s “very likely” that the Bible is God’s Word because you don’t see internal contradictions or failed prophesies? Well, I see both contradictions and failed prophesies. I figured I wouldn’t get into all that in order to keep my previous reply short, but I think the Bible fails the testing by your own criteria. Further, the criteria that involve the Bible’s status as “unique” and “impacting people’s lives” seem like weak tests to me, because all religions are unique in some way and all impact people’s lives. To a Muslim, I’m sure that the Koran is unique and superior in its provenance, its message, and its impact on people’s lives.

                I appreciate your offer to discuss this by email, but I can tell by your reply with respect to dating methods that this would be pointless. I’ve been down this road too many times with young earthers to expect otherwise. I don’t mean this in a rude or snarky way, not in the least. it’s just a fact. (An empirical fact?)

                Thanks for the exchange.

              • Richard Peachey

                “I assume that you think that it’s ‘very likely’ that the Bible is God’s Word because you don’t see internal contradictions or failed prophesies? Well, I see both contradictions and failed prophesies.”

                David, it’s not that I’m unaware of various difficulties, apparent contradictions, etc. that people have proposed as problematic for the Bible. Such things have been brought up in various other blog exchanges (and in books and articles), and often (not always) there are straightforward responses to them. With some proposed difficulties, I may not have enough information to formulate a proper response, and I must therefore wait and see what might turn up.

                Any other worldview — for example, a secular worldview involving a “Big Bang” from nothing; an unguided chemical origin of life; and the rise of the biosphere through mechanisms such as mutation and natural selection over millions of years — also has its troubling difficulties, but its adherents are nonetheless persuaded that eventually those difficulties will be chipped away at, and the worldview as a whole is worth holding onto.

                All of us must be prepared for the discovery that major parts of our worldview (or even the whole thing) might possibly be wrong-headed. I wish you all the best in your own search. (Sincerely.)

              • Michael Fugate

                How does one know when a god is speaking to him or her? How does one know when someone claims a god spoke to them that a god really did speak to him or her?

              • Richard Peachey

                “How does one know when a god is speaking to him or her? How does one know when someone claims a god spoke to them that a god really did speak to him or her?”

                A very worthwhile question (or set of questions), which goes to heart of the Christian faith. One of Christianity’s central claims is that God has indeed revealed himself and has communicated with humankind (Hebrews 1:1-2).

                For the rationalist (anti-supernaturalist) any such claim has such low probabilistic merit that it has to be automatically dismissed. (I.e., in line with Hume’s thinking, it’s always easier to believe that the claimant is mistaken, lying, or delusional than to accept that some supernatural being has really made contact.)

                Even in Biblical times individuals to whom God spoke were often doubtful and had to be convinced. And that can be a process taking some period of time. Anyway, the following texts may be helpful to begin dealing with your questions.

                Jesus said: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If any one chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:16-17; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14)

                The Jews who heard Jesus speak had been trained for centuries on how to distinguish true from false prophets. Criteria included validation of prophecies by events (Deuteronomy 18:21-22; cf. John 14:29) and conformity of the prophet’s teaching to previous revelation (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; cf. 1 John 4:1-3).

              • Michael Fugate

                Great non-answer Richard. Please try again. If there is a god or gods speaking to humans, then it would be nice to know what to listen for. Perhaps you can come up with something more concrete.

              • Richard Peachey

                “… it would be nice to know what to listen for. Perhaps you can come up with something more concrete.”

                Let me try this, Michael . . . What event or set of events happening to you personally would convince you that there had been a supernatural intervention (or communication) in your life?

              • Michael Fugate

                Just what I expected no methodology – just making it up as you go along.

              • Richard Peachey

                Just what I expected — you have no answer. That’s because your worldview will not permit you to give one.

              • Michael Fugate

                Richard, You, not me, believe that gods reveal things to people. If I did, I would make it a point to know how it works so I could distinguish between random thoughts and gods’ prods. Yet you do believe it, so how do you do it. How do you know a god talked to Moses and not Joseph Smith? If Oral Roberts says a 800 foot tall Jesus told him to build a medical, how do you know if he is telling the truth? The burden is all on you, pal.

              • Michael Fugate

                Before you answer Richard and this time please do answer, you might want to consider the story of Abraham in your “literally true” Bible. If a voice popped into your head claiming to be your god and told you to sacrifice your son – you would seriously need to be damn sure it really was your god talking to you before proceeding, wouldn’t you? Of course you might be delusional and need to be institutionalized before you actually hurt your son.
                I can imagine what the conversation was on that day as Abraham and Isaac are leaving the tent.
                Sarah says, “Honey where are you and Isaac off to?” Abraham replies, “The big guy in the sky, he who shall not be named, told me to sacrifice Isaac on an altar. And you know how angry he gets if we don’t do what he says.”
                Sarah screams, “Are you nuts!!!!! You are not going to murder my son!!!”
                And you believe this story and in the sadistic god depicted?

                So Richard how would you know? A life is on the line. Should you believe the voice in your head or dismiss it as an “undigested bit of beef?”

              • Richard Peachey

                Michael: I have already answered your question, in the post that you then labeled as a “great non-answer.”

                Regarding Abraham, you have inserted some mythological conversation of your own invention, while ignoring what actually happened: in particular, the outcome of the episode (Isaac was spared, and a ram was sacrificed instead), and the fact that it makes a marvelous foreshadowing of the Father’s sacrifice of his Son Jesus two millennia after Abraham’s time (Hebrews 11:17-19).

                You should not expect God to speak to you if you mock the things he has already said. In the words of that same Abraham (cited by Jesus), “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)

              • Michael Fugate

                Richard, you’ve still answered nothing. No method – even though you to pretend to understand philosophy. You do get that being able to explain how we know what we know is important, don’t you? Jesus’s teaching radically differed from that before him (otherwise why a need to break from Judaism?), no matter what he tried to claim about the law. How can you possibly know that the Jews who proclaimed Jesus Messiah were correct and those who did not were wrong? Same facts, different interpretation (where have we heard that before?) You do realize how easy it was to write a biography of a messiah that matched some OT prophecies, don’t you? They are all there in the OT – the Gospel writers even claim that things were done for purposes of fulfilling prophecy.

                Abraham could not have known the outcome beforehand – so your god is a very sick puppy to put anyone in that situation. Have you no empathy? If this god knew Abraham was faithful, then why the need to test him? God as a crime boss – not really inspiring.

              • Richard Peachey

                Michael: Please stow the condescending approach (“you … pretend to understand”; “You do get … don’t you?”; “where have we heard that before?”; “You do realize … don’t you?”). It’s not conducive to reasoned, respectful dialogue. I suggest that if your worldview is genuinely true, you can afford to be a little more gracious than that.

                Of course Jesus’ teaching (and that of the New Testament in general) is distinct from what came before him. I was quoting Luke 16:31 to simply suggest to you that, according to Jesus, no new evidence is likely to convince you if you’re going to dismiss the truth God has already revealed.

                As you say, Abraham probably did not know the exact outcome beforehand — but he apparently had enough experience with God’s dealings to think God would follow through on the promise he had made in Genesis 21:12 (and earlier promises). Hebrews 11:17-19, to which I alluded previously, refers to Abraham’s expectation that God had the ability to keep that promise. James 2:21-24 similarly points to Abraham as a strong example of trust in God, to the benefit of his (Abraham’s) spiritual descendants.

                God is in charge, Michael. He has every right to put us through a variety of experiences, including difficult ones. He certainly does have empathy (Hebrews 4:15), and he knows what is best for our development (Romans 8:28-39). If you have serious (non-mocking) questions, I will do my best to address them for you.

              • Michael Fugate

                Richard, But will you ever answer the question I asked?
                You keep trying to deflect the fact that you can’t answer by alluding to tone and getting sidetracked into minutia (like it might not always me a voice in one’s head). If you had an answer, you would have given it by now – so it is obvious you don’t. What I find interesting is that you truly believe these Bible stories to be absolutely true. I grew up in that tradition too and know many people still within it, I just don’t see how if you are as educated as you appear to be that you won’t apply the same criticism you do to everything else to these stories. The elements of fictional narrative is so overwhelming that their intention must be to solely to impart a moral, not to be taken as a true reading of historical fact.

              • Richard Peachey

                Michael, it seems to me I have dealt adequately your question. You, however, never responded properly to mine.

                Now regarding your comment, “The elements of fictional narrative is [sic] so overwhelming that their intention must be to solely to [sic] impart a moral, not to be taken as a true reading of historical fact.”

                I could understand it if you said you simply disbelieve Genesis because it conflicts with your evolutionary worldview. But you seem to be making a different claim: that the human author(s) of Genesis were deliberately telling fiction. (But somehow they were so devious about it that virtually everyone in Israel, and in the church until the last century, read it as intended to be historical narrative.) Yours is a fascinating hypothesis. Most evolutionists, I think, would adopt the view that the author(s) meant what they said but were just wrong. For example, consider Thomas Henry Huxley’s argumentation as cited in this article: http://creation.com/a-child-may-see-the-folly-of-it

        • David

          Richard,

          About your “non-answer”…

          It’s not directly related to the “voice of God” question, but if Jesus said: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.”, then this would seem to contradict any notion that Jesus = God. And there goes the Trinity.

          Back to the main event. You suggested that one can tell that it’s God speaking when the voices in ones head are in “conformity of the prophet’s teaching to previous revelation”. But this just pushes that question farther back in time. How do you know that the original (previous) revelation was from the voice of God?

          In the specific case of Abraham, could you be more specific? How specifically, exactly, precisely did Abraham know that the voice in his head that said “kill me a son” (out on Highway 61) was the voice of God? Saying that it turned out ok in the end does not explain how Abraham knows that he’s hearing the voice of God at the start of the game.

          • Richard Peachey

            Hi, David. Thanks for your questions.

            You write, ‘… if Jesus said: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.”, then this would seem to contradict any notion that Jesus = God. And there goes the Trinity.’

            Your equation “Jesus = God” does not correctly represent Biblical teaching. What I mean is, there is more to God than “just” Jesus, and there is more to Jesus than “just” God. God (the Trinity) includes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (not “just” the Son, who became incarnate as the person of Jesus of Nazareth). And Jesus is the God-Man: fully God and fully Man — at the incarnation, the eternal Son of God took on something he did not have before: human flesh. As the God-Man, he claimed to be divine (e.g., in John 5:18) and did many amazing deeds. As the God-Man he submitted himself in full dependence to his Father. His statement that “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me” reflects his role as God’s ultimate Prophet (Spokesman), who conveys God’s truth as no one has ever done before.

            Which brings us back to Michael’s question regarding God speaking. A key text is Hebrews 1:1-2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” Jesus’ role as ultimate Revealer of God is validated by his resurrection from the dead, in power (e.g., Romans 1:4).

            Returning to your series of questions: ‘You suggested that one can tell that it’s God speaking when the voices in ones head are in “conformity of the prophet’s teaching to previous revelation”. But this just pushes that question farther back in time. How do you know that the original (previous) revelation was from the voice of God?’

            Actually, I said nothing about “voices in ones head.” God spoke “in various ways,” some of which are specified and some are not. The criteria I mentioned were given to the Jews. They were also given a variety of precedents of God speaking through, and accomplishing great things through, Moses. The Jews, as Paul notes, “were entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:1-2). Many OT figures, when exposed to God speaking to them (one way or another), did not express immediate confidence in what they heard; sometimes it was a process of becoming convinced. There was apparently no easy, instant, “one-size-fits-all” answer to the question of how to recognize when God is speaking to a person. Historically, God’s revealing of his truth took place over many centuries, and the Bible is the end-product of that process which was entrusted to the Jews.

            Finally, you write: ‘In the specific case of Abraham, could you be more specific? How specifically, exactly, precisely did Abraham know that the voice in his head that said “kill me a son” (out on Highway 61) was the voice of God? Saying that it turned out ok in the end does not explain how Abraham knows that he’s hearing the voice of God at the start of the game.’

            Again, Scripture does not record that there was a “voice in his head.” There are other possibilities, such as visitors in human form who spoke with Abraham (as in Genesis 18), or a “vision” (as in Genesis 15:1). We are not told how he knew it was the voice of God in Genesis 22, but the record indicates Abraham had received several revelations from God over a period of decades (Genesis 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-21; 18:1-33; 21:12-13) — so he apparently was able to tell (somehow, though we’re not given details) who was speaking to him about what is admittedly a severe test. By the way, God didn’t say “kill me a son” — he deliberately described him as “your only son Isaac, whom you love” (Genesis 22:2, cf. v. 12). Abraham’s obedience received a rich reward (Genesis 22:15-18), and the episode stands as a marvelous foreshadowing of the God the Father’s giving up of his “one and only” Son to die as a sacrifice, for sinners (John 3:16; as foretold centuries earlier in Isaiah 53:10-12).

            • Jeb

              One recent sociological theory on whats termed ‘the family annihilator’ is that it is an act committed by people who have identified too heavily with an idealized and fictive notion of what a perfect family should be.

              Knowledge annihilators wither they identify with science or religion, it seems to me may share certain features in how they construct ideas. Buy into a thesis then retrospectively search for forms of legendary proof that reinforce the original thought.

              I don’t think religious thought has a monopoly on this type of activity or that science is exempt from the processes. I think its just easier to identify the features in cultures different from you’re own.

              Buying too heavily into an identity does seem to lead to the notion that you hold a monopoly on truth.

    • Richard Peachey

      Historical versus operational science is not a false distinction. Geologists distinguish mineralogy from historical geology. Physicists distinguish laboratory dynamics from theoretical cosmology models. Biologists distinguish experimental biology from paleontology.

      Attempted reconstructions of the past, especially the distant past, tend to involve shakier assumptions and more speculations, disputable chains of inference, and (in fact) professional reversals of opinion than do the “hard” sciences.

      John Wilkins’s discussion of nomothetic versus idiothetic sciences seems to support, to some extent, the creationist distinction, as I have argued in a previous post in this thread. (Sept. 4, 1:31 p.m.)

      As well, see John’s additional comment: “History when applied to human populations involves recorded events, but in the sciences any discipline that reconstructs the past is ‘historical’, like plate tectonics or biogeography.” (Sept. 5, 8:35 a.m.)

      I am not claiming John’s support for creationism in general (!), only for this distinction in particular.

      • Richard, one thing: this is a long standing distinction in the philosophy of science. The nomothetic/idiothetic distinction was coined by the 19th century philosopher Wilhelm Windelband. And he was not the first to make it.

        It is not a “creationist” distinction. Moreover, what the creationist was saying is that if it’s in the past it cannot be science. The “creationist distinction” here is between science (nomothetic) and non-science (anything that is not nomothetic), and that is false.

        • Richard Peachey

          The “creationist” cited by “Jennifer” said, “Technically, what is designated ‘historical science’ is really not science at all, but history.”

          I have not heard any other creationist put it quite as starkly, nor would I. Typically creationists distinguish between operational “science” and historical “science” — i.e., both are allowed the designation “science,” and then the differences are discussed.

          It’s possible that “Jennifer” (if she really exists, which some of your commenters have questioned) is quoting her “creationist” loosely. Or maybe that “creationist” is just atypical.

      • Ian H Spedding

        Historical versus operational science is not a false distinction.

        It is if it is so framed as to imply that the historical sciences are in some way less ‘sciencey’ than the operational sciences. If it is just pointing out that there is a difference between phenomena that can be studied in a laboratory in real time and those from the distant past that can only be reconstructed from the fragmentary remains that have survived to the present, that is unexceptionable. As long as historical scientists bring to bear the same suite of investigative tools as their operational brethren they are doing science.

        In fact, I would say that science, inasmuch as it can be said to reside anywhere, lies in the the methodology and practices that have been evolved by its practitioners. Science, in a sense, is just what scientists do. This is not to say that anything qualifies as science. There is a clear difference between studying the natural world for clues about its origins and uncritical acceptance of the creation accounts in Genesis as indisputable Truth. We may not be able to draw a bright line between what is and isn’t science but we can still see the difference, Which gives me the chance to wheel out a favorite Edmund Burke quote I first learnt from John: “Though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of night and day, still light and darkness are on the whole tolerably distinguishable”.

        Geologists distinguish mineralogy from historical geology.

        Yes, but when they do so they are not implying that historical geology is less of a science than mineralogy.

        Physicists distinguish laboratory dynamics from theoretical cosmology models.

        How else would you study events that are incredibly remote in both space and time, at least in the first instance, other than through theoretical models? Do you think that laboratory researchers are working any less with theoretical models?

        Biologists distinguish experimental biology from paleontology
        .

        Perhaps they do but not, I would suggest, to the detriment of paleontology.

        Attempted reconstructions of the past, especially the distant past, tend to involve shakier assumptions and more speculations, disputable chains of inference, and (in fact) professional reversals of opinion than do the “hard” sciences.

        Yes, historical scientists struggle with less data. Their explanations are less well-founded and their conclusions less sure. That doesn’t make what they do any the less science, though.

        • Richard Peachey

          Sounds like you’re granting the truth of much of what I said. I’m not about to argue with anyone who wants to use the word “science” for what they do. (I may, however, wish to dispute the quality of whatever it is they’re doing. But that’s no different from you, I think.)

          Regarding what you denounce as “uncritical acceptance of the creation accounts in Genesis as indisputable Truth” . . . everything is (in theory) disputable, and we should all, of course, be critical thinkers. Having said that, I do accept the creation account (singular) in Genesis as truth. So did many European intellectuals involved in and after what is called the “Scientific Revolution.”

  8. I think some of the arguments about the discipline of history vs the institution of science can be resolved if we recognize that the crucial thing that historians do is to make sense of the past by selection and the creation of narratives. That doesn’t mean that historians get a pass on factual accuracy, just that maintaining factual accuracy is a constraint on an activity with other priorities. Scientists and even mathematicians also have to struggle with issues of relevance, but their priorities are reversed. The point is to figure out what is the case under the constraint of picking elements and aspects of the universe that matter. A question of what’s figure and what’s ground.

    (In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not contrasting nomothetic and idiothetic inquiry in making these distinctions. I’m talking about history as a social science or humanistic discipline (your choice) vs natural science.)

  9. Rob Schenck

    Cleland’s Chp10 in this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=Pc4OAAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Seems relevant. I think it’s intersting that she’s moving from the historical/experimental terminology to there being Field Sciences and Experimental Sciences. Cleland also, I think, differs in how she makes this distinction, as being related to overdetermination of facts/events and underdetermination of facts/events. So a collision of tectonic plates is overdetermined; there are dozens of evidences that it has left for an investigator in the field. Whereas the interference pattern of an electron passing through a slit doesn’t help is find the position of the electron before being beamed at the slits; this is a job for experimentalists.
    Using that terminology, it’s blatantly obvious that they’re both sciences, and if anything you get the feeling that Field science is on a more solid foundation (but that’s probably an erroneous impression anyway). Hell compare petroleum geology as a field to string theory, one’s a historical field science and the other high level physics. Knowing one will make you rich and knowing the other, for all we know, makes you /wrong/.

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