God's Existence, Science and Faith, Suffering and Evil, Jesus' Resurrection, and Book Reviews

Monday, February 9, 2015

Observational Science vs. Historical Science?

2016 Note: This post was written addressing the distinction between observational science and historical science as Ken Ham and many young-earth creationists understand it. Their understanding of the concepts and their distinction are INCORRECT, but they are common in Christian circles, so they must be addressed. After reading this critique and seeing the highlighted problems with their distinction, please read my chapter-by-chapter review of the book that originally defined the terms and described the proper distinctions between them (Origin Science by philosopher Norman Geisler). The proper distinction does not fall prey to the critiques in this post, thus I do support the distinction between the terms, but ONLY as the terms are properly understood and properly distinguished.

It is quite common to hear in Christian discussions about science that there exists a distinction between observational science and historical science. This distinction took center stage in Ken Ham's debate with Bill Nye one year ago (see here). Ken Ham is a young-earth creationist, who often appeals to this distinction to undermine the evidence that supports any age of the universe that is older than what he believes it to be (6000 to 10000 years). Bill Nye, as well as the majority of the scientific community, rejects such a distinction, though, so Ham's critiques based on this distinction are rarely taken seriously. For Christians who wish to demonstrate evidence for the truth that God created the universe, this distinction often stands in the way of their being taken seriously by those who offer scientific evidence against a young universe and earth. If this distinction is one that is not true, then Christians need not defend this stumbling block that stands between their scientifically minded friends and those friends' salvation. I decided to do a search for a piece that might explain the distinction a bit more on Ham's site before I critiqued the distinction. This is what I found: "Deceitful or Distinguishable Terms—Historical and Observational Science." Please read it to ensure that I am accurately representing the claims of the author in this critique.* Ken Ham recently posted a blog post the other day that appeals to this distinction. It may be read here. I also checked to see if those at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) subscribe to this distinction, and they do; their article can be found here.

Understanding the Distinction
The distinction is explained as observational science being science that is repeatable and verifiable and thus falsifiable with the senses. This type of science is what takes place today. It can be empirically tested thus can be known. Historical science, on the other hand, is an investigation of the past. The past is something that is not repeatable or verifiable with the senses thus it cannot be falsifiable. Since it cannot be empirically tested, it cannot be known. The author says that since the past cannot be known by the senses (thus by scientific means), they choose to "trust the Word of God, who was there."

In Christian discussions of the mechanisms and length of God's creative acts, much rides on the truth or falsehood of this distinction. Many Christians believe that the past can be known and is known through scientific means. What they claim to know often contradicts what many who draw this distinction claim (i.e. that the age of the universe is less than 10000 years old). If this distinction is a true distinction, then conclusions about present-day phenomena cannot be extrapolated into the past, and either side could be correct about the history of the universe (age and events). If that is the case, the debate is strictly an issue of the correct interpretation of scripture. On the other hand, if the distinction is not true, then conclusions about present-day phenomena can be extrapolated into the past, and the debate is not only an issue of the correct interpretation of scripture but also an issue of the actual events of the past.

The persuasiveness of this argument comes from the apparent truth of the premise that the past cannot be empirically tested, thus it cannot be known. I believe that the distinction is a false distinction, so I believe the correct interpretation of scripture and past events can be known. Today I want to propose a positive case for past events being known, and I want to propose a negative case for past events not being known. (See more on the importance of offering both positive and negative arguments for a view here.)

The Positive Case
Since Christians. who hold the Bible to be without error, tend to be the ones making this distinction, I will appeal to the Word of God for one of the premises of my positive argument. Jeremiah 33:25-26 states
"This is what the Lord says: ‘If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes[e] and have compassion on them.'" (NIV)
It is agreed by both adherents to and critics of the distinction between observational and historical science that the proper interpretation of this passage is that God is comparing the constancy of the laws of physics throughout time to the reliability of His promise to Israel. If this interpretation is correct (which I believe it is), then God tells us that the laws of physics are constant and have never changed through time. Thus the first premise of my argument is:
  • The laws of physics are constant and have never changed through time.
The second premise appeals to the present. Both sides agree that events in the present are generally repeatable, verifiable, and falsifiable- this is what "observational" science is dependent upon. Scientists are constantly testing theories about the laws of nature. Theories are being falsified and others refined as more precise measurements are made repeatedly. Since the present can be known, due to its empirically verifiable nature, the present laws of physics can be known. The second premise of the argument is:
  • Theories of the laws of physics that have been repeatedly tested, verified, and not falsified are known to be true.
If both of those premises are accepted as true, then it follows necessarily that the current laws of physics that are known can be extrapolated into the past. Now, since measurements can be taken repeatedly within a scientists' lifetime, establishing a certain pattern, if a law of physics accurately describes that pattern, then that law of physics can be extrapolated further into the past (before measurements were taking place) to discover the events of the measured phenomenon in the past. Since the laws of physics are constant, that extrapolation can take place all the way back to the moment of creation. Thus, all those past events can be known.

If the distinction between observational science and historical science necessarily concludes that past events of nature cannot be known, then that distinction is necessarily false. The positive case depends necessarily and sufficiently on the truth of Jeremiah 33:25-26 and the ability to empirically verify present natural events. So, if the supporter of this distinction wishes to maintain the truth of this distinction, they must deny one of those two premises.

*Please note that this argument does not conclude that all past events are known or will be known, merely that they can be known. Discovery of the past is an ongoing scientific project that is valid only if the distinction between observational and historical science is false.

The Negative Case
Now, even though there is a sound (I believe, feel free to critique in the comments) argument for the falsehood of the distinction between observational and historical science, there are several necessary and false implications of accepting such a distinction. If a necessary implication of a view is false, then that view is also false necessarily. If a necessary implication of a view undermines the view, itself, then the entire view is undermined, thus it is false necessarily. Here I will provide a few of the necessary implications that are either false or undermine the view. These are arguments directly against the truth of the distinction.

To make these arguments all easy to follow and present together, it will be best to understand that they have something in common. They all depend upon the idea that what is observed in the present cannot be extrapolated into the past.

One final note before we begin with the negative arguments: "Past" is any time prior to the "present" moment. Unless there is some peculiar physical distinction between "further in the past" and "closer in the past," then no past events can be known because the "past" cannot be verified, repeated, or falsified. This is an "all" or "nothing" proposition regarding the knowability of the past by means and mechanisms that cannot be repeated, verified, or falsified. If something far in the past cannot be known, then neither can something close in the past. If it is in the past, it cannot be known because the past cannot be repeated, verified, or falsified.

Events in Our Own Lives
If we are forced to doubt and even deny some past events, due to the truth of the distinction between observational and historical science, then we are forced to doubt and even deny all past events on the same grounds. Let us take just a few important events in our own lives:
  1. Our past purchase of the items we own
  2. Our past commitment in marriage to our spouse (if you're married)
  3. Our past conception or adoption of our children (if you have kids)
  4. Our past trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior
  5. Any event that took place in your life prior to the present moment  
Most of us have memories of these events, and thus would say that it would be ridiculous for us to doubt that they happened. However, our memories are not repeatable, verifiable, or falsifiable, so they cannot be the source of knowledge, especially about the past. Since none of the past events of our lives can be known, if we follow the logic encouraged by the supporters of the distinction between observational and historical science, we would be unreasonable not to doubt and even deny that these events actually took place in the past.

Imagine the repercussions of merely doubting even one of the listed events above, then imagine doubting all of them, then imagine doubting the actual happenstance of every event in your memory. The first three are easily understood by both Christian and nonchristian. But the fourth event, for the Christian, is utterly devastating. Such repercussions, though, are ridiculous (not to mention the very exercise of doubting the events). However, necessary acceptance of the repercussions of necessarily being required to doubt these events is demanded if the distinction between observational and historical science is a true distinction. Since it would be unreasonable to doubt these past events (simply because memories are not repeatable, verifiable, or falsifiable), it is also unreasonable to doubt other past events because they are discovered by mechanisms that are not repeatable and supposedly not verifiable or falsifiable (see the positive argument above).
    Past empirical records of scientists
    In order for scientists to know anything about the present world, they must be able to repeatedly test it. "Repeatedly" requires the passage of time. If no past event can be known, then neither can prior measurements be known. Thus "repeatability" is not even a valid concept for determining what is true about the present world. Without being able to know past measurements of a phenomenon, there is no way to verify it without repeatability, thus no way to falsify a theory about it. Thus, there is no way to even know items that qualify as "observational science." Knowledge of the present depends upon knowledge of the past- this is a key truth. Separating the knowability of the past via the senses from the knowability of the present with the senses undermines the knowability of the present with the senses. 

    If there is a distinction, there is no distinction because knowledge of observational science depends necessarily on knowledge of historical science, and if historical science cannot produce knowledge, then neither can observational science produce knowledge. On the other hand, if observational science can produce knowledge, then historical science necessarily must be able to also. If historical science cannot produce knowledge, then the entire scientific enterprise falls apart necessarily. If one is granted, then the other must be by logical necessity. 

    Reliability of the Bible We Have Today
    If historical science cannot be trusted to give us knowledge about the past, then (the supporter of the distinction between observational and historical science will conclude) we must rely upon the "Word of God, who was there." Unfortunately, we have a serious problem here. If current phenomena cannot be extrapolated into the past and the past cannot be known, then all evidence that we have for the reliable transmission of the text of scripture (especially the earliest portions of it) cannot be known to be what was actually written.

    This actually is a problem for two reasons. If past events necessarily cannot be known (and thus must be doubted) simply by definition of being "in the past," then so should every event that led to the reliable transmission of the Bible through history be doubted. However, there is another reason that it fails. The critique above undermines any knowledge of how physical processes work (in the present and the past), thus all dating methods used for the manuscripts cannot be trusted. So we would have no idea of where to place the different manuscripts on the historical timeline to even come close to a chain of events to build a case for the reliability of the proper transmission of the text that we have today being what was originally recorded. This means that since we cannot trust our senses to tell us anything about the past and we cannot trust that we have God's actual Word, then the past cannot be known by either source. So if the distinction between observational science and historical science exists, then we can not rely upon the copies of the Bible (any portion of it, including Genesis) that we have today to reveal truth. If we cannot trust the beginning chapters of Genesis, how can we trust what is written in the gospels?

    This third negative argument removes any reliability that any of the text that we have today was actually written. This includes any self-claims of the Bible that we have today to its being inspired by God, so it is now fair game to ask this question: "Why should I trust the testimony of a person who cannot trust their own memories?" Now the historical accuracy of the original text of the gospels is necessarily in doubt...and if Mark and Luke are actually testimonies of someone other than the author, we are removed from knowledge of the events they record by yet one more level of memory of the past.

    The necessary removal of knowledge of the past by our senses by the distinction between observational science and historical science is a dangerous game to play, both philosophically and theologically. It is a game that has no winners. So for these reasons, I reject such a distinction. If you reject the truth of the necessary implications I described above, then to remain logically consistent you must also reject the distinction between observational science and historical science. If you do not, then it is up to you to demonstrate how each of the implications does not necessarily follow.

    The young-earth Christian community is constantly using the supposed distinction between observational science and historical science as a weapon to cast doubt upon dissenting understandings of the universe's history. However, because scripture, itself, tells us that the past can be known through the senses and because of the absolute logical and theological bankruptcy of such a distinction, I have chosen to reject the distinction and encourage all Christians to do the same. If you have decided to reject this distinction, I wish to welcome you to a whole world of knowledge that will keep you in awe and wonder of the power and majesty of our Creator. It will give you many more ways to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a dying world, and give you an avenue to be heard among the most scientifically knowledgeable among those you frequent.

    "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."- Psalm 19:1-4a

    For updates on this post (per the 2016 note prior to the introduction) please see these new posts:

    Book Review: Origin Science
    17 Quotes from Norman Geisler on Evidence for Special Creation
    Philosophy of Science, Circumstantial Evidence, and Creation
    Presuppositions, Circumstantial Evidence, and Free Will

    *This post is designed to look at the claims of the distinction between observational and historical science. In the portion of the post addressing the logical implications (the negative argument), I draw out the logical implications of such a distinction. Keep in mind that I am only representing those who hold the distinction as true as holding to its claims, not its logical implications. I am encouraging those who reject the truth of the logical implications to reject the distinction because it necessarily implies those false things.


    1. Wrote up a response to this post if you're interested. https://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/historical-science-observational-science-and-creation/

      1. Fred, thank you for taking the time to critique the post, and thank you for alerting me to the book "Origin Science." Iron does sharpen iron. I will post my response to your critique and a chapter-by-chapter summary review of the book in the coming year.

    2. Check my comment in response to the one you left. I pointed you to some other articles that may be helpful in outlining my position as you critique it.

      Will the book review be a critique of the Thaxton/Bradly/Olson book or the Geisler/Kerby book? Just wondering.

      1. Thanks.

        The review will follow the same format of my other book reviews. "Origin Science" by Geisler and Anderson.


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