What is Historical Science and Who Cares?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A recurring misunderstanding I have seen in the intelligent design (ID) debate is the ignorance that many on the anti-ID side have of historical science.  So, what is historical science and how is it different from the sciences which study currently operating phenomena?

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer lists four criteria of historical sciences that differentiate them from non-historical sciences in his book Signature in the Cell .  Take particular notice of the fact that these same four criteria apply to portions of evolutionary science as well as ID.

A Distinctive Historical Objective

Meyer explains that historical sciences ask certain kinds of questions like, “What happened?” or “What caused this event or that natural feature to arise?”  Non-historical sciences tend to ask questions like, “How does nature normally operate or function?” or “What causes this general phenomenon to occur?”  According to Meyer, “Those who postulate the past activity of an intelligent designer do so as an answer, or a partial answer, to distinctively historical questions.”

A Distinctive Form of Inference

Meyer describes the kinds of inferences that historical sciences usually make.  “Unlike many non-historical disciplines, which typically infer generalizations or laws from particular facts (induction), historical sciences employ abductive logic to infer a past event from a present fact or clue.”  The paleontologist Stephen Gould once said that the historical scientist infers “history from its results.”  ID, in particular, infers a “past unobservable cause (in this case, an instance of creative mental action or agency) from present facts or clues in the natural world, such as the specified information in DNA, the irreducible complexity of of certain biological systems, and the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics.”

A Distinctive Type of Explanations

“Historical sciences usually offer causal explanations of particular events, not lawlike descriptions or theories describing how certain kinds of phenomena – such as condensation or nuclear fission – generally occur.”  With respect to ID, “Theories of design invoke the act or acts of an agent  and conceptualize those acts as causal events, albeit ones involving mental rather than purely physical entities.”  Further, “Advocates of design postulate past causal events . . . to explain the origin of present evidence or clues, just as proponents of chemical evolutionary theories do.”

Use of the Method of Multiple Competing Hypotheses

“Historical scientists do not mainly test hypotheses by assessing the accuracy of the predictions they make under controlled laboratory conditions.  Using the method of multiple competing hypotheses, historical scientists test hypotheses by comparing their explanatory power against that of their competitors.” In other words, historical scientists posit several explanations of the cause of an event in the past, and they then evaluate which of the several explanations best explains all the available evidence.  In the case of ID, the explanation of an intelligent mind best explains the presence of complex specified information in biological structures.

Any science which tries to explain singular or rarely occurring events of the past is a historical science.  Sciences which are trying to explain currently recurring or repeating phenomena are non-historical.  A failure to understand this distinction is a failure to grasp how science works.  Without historical science, any attempts at explaining the history of the evolution of life could not be done, which is why I find it so ironic that evolutionists attack ID on the grounds that it is historical.  They are sawing off the very limb that supports them.