Validity of Historical Sciences

One of the best parts of Signature in the Cell is Meyer’s defense of the historical sciences. Meyer acknowledges his debt of gratitude to Charles Thaxton for private discussions beginning in the 80’s about historical sciences, or origin sciences as Thaxton calls it. Thaxton wrote The Mystery of Life’s Origins in 1984 together with Roger Olsen and Walter Bradley. This book is considered to be one of the sparks that ignited the modern intelligent design movement since the authors claimed “that an intelligent cause could be considered a legitimate scientific hypothesis for the origin of life.” (p.29) Meyer credits Thaxton for getting him interested in thinking about how science can be used to determine the cause of singular events in the past. As he became a philosopher and historian of science, Meyer focused much of his expertise on this topic.

Meyer carefully distinguishes himself from Thaxton by going beyond him in the degree of confidence with which a scientific endeavor can determine historical causal events. Thaxton expressed doubts that origin science can lead to conclusions that are as compelling as observational science: “Theories about the past can produce plausible, but never decisive conclusions.” (p.30) Meyer believes that there are methods that make studies of historical causality more than just plausible, or possibly true. His quest led him to a study of Lyell, Darwin, and Scriven, as discussed in a previous post. Meyer makes a credible argument that it is possible to reliably determine the cause of events in the past, when sufficient data are available. This conclusion is essential to his ultimate goal, which is to show that an indeterminate intelligent designer was the source of the origin of DNA information. If the historical sciences were not reliable, such a conclusion would have little weight.

The reaffirmation of the reliability of conclusions drawn by the historical sciences, even in the case of intelligent causes such as hominids, is an important step. Too often in our society the historical sciences are considered to be distinct from operation sciences in the degree of confidence one can have in their conclusion. There is, of course, a difference in terms of repeatability. In operations science, a theory describing a repeating phenomenon can be tested by its predictions of future occurrences. Historical sciences, on the other hand, deal with unique events and such theories cannot be tested by repeating an event. But, as Meyer goes on to point out, historical causal adequacy can nevertheless be tested when there is independent evidence of causal existence, causal adequacy, and causal uniqueness. That is to say, that even though the same event cannot be repeated, there can be tests of comparable causal factors that can lead to decisive conclusions of the cause of the original event.

By affirming the credibility of the historical sciences, Meyer effectively distinguishes ID from creationism. Creation science proceeds from the premise that historical science is not credible. The primary reason is their presupposition that God changed the laws of nature in the past, rendering extrapolation of those laws impossible. For instance, starting with a belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, the only reconciliation with observations of the distance of stars or of the magnitude of past radioactivity, is to assert that the speed of light or the radioactive decay constants have changed in the past. Hence, it is not possible to reliably study the past, unless one were there to document the laws of nature at that time. Alternative explanations of past events can be derived by using physical “constants” as variables that can be adjusted to fit data. Such a view would undermine the credibility of a conclusion that an indeterminate intelligent designer was the causal factor of the origin of life.

Meyer points out that one critic had called ID creationism in a cheap tuxedo. By affirming the validity of historical sciences, Meyer shows that the difference between ID and creationism is much more profound than that.

1 comment to Validity of Historical Sciences

  • Charles Austerberry

    Excellent point, Randy.  Kudos to you, and to Stephen Meyer.  Though I am not a proponent of ID theory, I agree with ID proponents that their position is distinct from creationism.  Your post helps me think more precisely about an important distinction between ID and generic anti-evolutionism.  Meyer adopts the former position; Thaxton and his co-authors could only adopt the latter.  Those taking Thaxton’s approach could argue against evolutionary hypotheses on scientific grounds, but they could not make a positive argument for ID without granting a higher degree of confidence to origin/historical science.

February 2010
« Jan   Mar »