Several months ago, I stumbled upon this post over at a blog called, Faithful Thinkers written by a fella named Luke Nix, a Reasons to Believe fan,
Observational Science vs. Historical Science?
It is meant to be an “apologetic” corrective to the sloppy thinking of young earth creationists, particularly the folks over at Answers in Genesis, regarding their articulation of historical science and observational science.
For those who may not be in the “know” regarding those terms, I’ll provide a brief definition of each. A lengthier study can be found HERE.
The idea of observational science, or what is also known as operational science, is that science done in the present. It involves experimentation in controlled situations and deals with evidence that is repeatable, verifiable, and observable in order to identify patterns of recurring behavior in the physical world. Mechanical physics, chemistry, and medicine are good examples of observational science.
On the other hand, historical science, or what could also be termed origin science, is men utilizing present day circumstantial evidence along with what is believed to be reliable eye-witness testimony to figure out the cause of some past, singular event. A singular event would be any event that is non-repeatable, like creation. They then take that circumstantial evidence and supposed reliable eye-witness testimony and concoct an interpretation in order to explain that singular event.
Historical science is the idea of evolutionists cleaning off a bucket of bone fragments and building an entire species of humanoid that is said to have lived millions of years ago and declaring that those fragments represent an ancestor to mankind. In that case, the science is really making wild-eyed, speculative guesses about the history of the past with the handful of evidence available. Historical science is more philosophical in nature, and is premised upon one’s presuppositional interpretations and overall worldview.
With those definitions in mind, I wanted to focus upon Luke’s attempts to “debunk” the distinction between observational/historical science especially as it is articulated by young earth creationists. I’ll provide a brief overview of the arguments he sets forth that rejects the observational/historical science distinction and then offer a critique of my own.
Briefly, Luke asserts that the idea of there being observational science separate and distinct from historical science is utterly false.
In fact, when young earth creationists raise the argument of observational and historical science, no one in the scientific community ever takes them seriously. (Read that with a smug expression and a pinky finger raised as you sip your Intelligentsia coffee and watch Neil Tyson Degrasse call religious people stupid on the Bill Maher Show).
Neil thinks you’re a moron
The observational vs. historical science argument, says Luke, is a real stumbling block and no one should ever have to defend that bird-brained position with his scientifically-minded friends when he attempts to evangelize them. Because we all know that once those scientifically-minded friends are convinced of the rational, scientific evidence favoring the Christian faith, they’ll all bow their knee and make Jesus Lord of their lives, right? We’ll talk with them about all that miracle stuff at a later time.
He then offers a positive case and then a negative case against the distinction.
With the positive case, Luke points out that the laws of physics are constant and have never changed through time. Everyone agrees that events in the present are repeatable, verifiable, and falsifiable. Since theories based upon the laws of physics have been repeatedly tested, verified, and shown to be true, it only goes to show that those laws can be extrapolated into the past, or what we know as history. Hence, there is no historical/observational science distinction.
But he goes on. Presenting the negative case, he lists three key points he confidently insists devastates the young earth creationists dependence on the absurd observational/historical distinction.
First are the events in our own lives. We have memories of past events in our lives, like our first kiss, getting married, buying a new car, and for a Christian, the moment of our salvation. Since it is unreasonable to doubt any of those past events (and in the case of a believer’s salvation, such would be disastrous), because as Luke notes, our memories are not repeatable, verifiable, or falsifiable, we should trust those unverifiable mechanisms of memories for those past events.
Secondly, we have past empirical records of scientists that are no longer repeatable and it is believed those records are trustworthy. Think of Newton’s experiments, for example.
Third, our dependence upon our current Bible cannot be trusted if we cannot trust the reliability of the transmission of the biblical text of Scripture in the past. We weren’t there to see the Bible being written or transmitted; the events are consigned to history and no longer repeatable.
He then concludes that YEC has used the historical/observational science distinction as a weapon of doubt against dissenting understandings of the universe’s history. Yet, because the Scripture itself tells us the past can be known with certainty through our human senses, as well as the logical bankruptcy of that distinction, the historical/observational distinction must be flatly rejected and abandoned as an apologetic argument.
Luke gives his readers the impression that the historical/observational science distinction is an apologetic argument developed and used exclusively by young earth creationists. In other words, no sharp-minded, faithfully thinking Christian (who would obviously be an old earth creationist) would ever use it in a discussion with a community college atheist about the book of Genesis, origins, and evolution for fear of embarrassing Jesus.
He seems to be unaware of one significant fact, however. The argument was put forth years before Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis was popular on the internet by none other than old earth creationists during their battles in the market place of ideas with evolutionists.
The first real treatise on the topic can be found in the book The Mystery of Life’s Origin, a crushing evaluation and debunking of chemical evolution, written by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olson published in 1984. A pdf scan of the book can be found online at The Mystery of Life’s Origin.
In the epilogue, from pages 202-206 in the printed edition, there is a discussion of the distinction between origin/historical science and operational/observational science. To my knowledge, none of those three men are young earth creationists. Charles Thaxton, the principle researcher for the book, is a fellow with the Discovery Institute, and writes for their Center for Science and Culture. The last time I checked, the Discovery Institute was hardly an advocate for the young earth position and typically distances itself from well known YEC proponents.
Secondly, Norman Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson wrote an entire book on the subject of historical/observational science, aptly entitled, Origin Science: A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy. The six page introduction makes a compelling case why the distinction between origin and operational science must be recognized and maintained. The last time I checked, Norm Geisler is a convinced old earth creationist. He’s even listed on Reason to Believe’s web article naming Christians opened to progressive creationism.
I find it a bit humorous that the very argument Luke so stridently insists is false was initially formulated by individuals who hold to his exact same position on deep time for earth’s history. Not only that, they believe it is a key apologetic point!
Moving along to his presentation, Luke isn’t interacting with the real argument. He seems to have created something of a strawman view of what it is HE thinks Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis speakers are saying when they talk about historical/operational science. He comes across confused in his presentation, identifying operational science done in human history, say for example Michael Faraday’s experiments with electromagnetism, with the concept of historical/origins science. The two are hardly the same.
Remember, historical or origin science speaks to singular, unrepeatable events. The most obvious being the creation of the world. For biblical creationists, creation was a miraculous, supernatural event. It is what put into function the laws of physics to begin with. We cannot say those laws are applicable in discovering the history of that singular event in the same way they are with discovering something like gravity or electromagnetism. The only way we know about creation is if we have the creator tell us what happened. Because that is an event that cannot be repeated and tested, operational science does not apply to it.
Big bang cosmology exists in the same category if one thinks about it. It’s an unrepeatable, non-testable singular event. Proponents of the cosmology have to rely on their interpretation of what they perceive is evidence observed in deep space. Since big bang cosmology heavily depends upon presuppositions and other subjective interpretations to make sense of the alleged data, YEC believe it is inappropriate to read big bang cosmology onto the Bible in order to frame a particular model of creation. In this case, progressive creationism and its appeals to deep time.
Luke then appeals to three eccentric arguments that are utterly irrelevant to the historical/observational science discussion. Since he has misidentified the argument to begin with, and has in essence erected a strawman version in its place, what he has labeled as “historical” science is really just observational science accomplished in history. That means the science experimentation can be evaluated presently, even if the work was initially done 600 years ago. Let me consider each of his points in turn.
He first claims that our own memories are not repeatable, verifiable, or falsifiable, hence because it is unreasonable to doubt those past events in our own lives, it is unreasonable to doubt how we understand other past events like those that took place in deep time 2 billion years ago. I don’t know about the reader, but that is a bit of a stretch in logic.
Again, keep in mind that historical science deals specifically with singularities, not just past events in history like the accumulation of receipts from purchases. Luke provides a couple examples he believes demonstrates his point with the idea of a marriage ceremony and an adoption, and while it is true those events are singularities in that they happened once (at least for many people), they do not fit the definition of singularities in the concept of historical/origin science. Marriages and adoptions exist in the present and can be verified via observational means even if they happened years ago.
Let’s consider an extreme example. If a guy awakens one morning with a bout of amnesia, and lying next to him is a woman he faintly recognizes, one can easily appeal to the observation of church records, a marriage certificate, multiple eye-witnesses, next of kin, and numerous amounts of photographic evidence to verify that this woman is indeed his wife. That is observational science that is distinguished from origin/historical science.
Next, Luke states that historical science is saying we can’t depend upon the past empirical records of scientists because we have no ability to verify the data of their original experiments. Knowledge of observational science depends necessarily on knowledge of historical science, he claims, and if historical science cannot produce knowledge, then neither can observational science.
Again, he is misidentifying what is really observational science with origin science. Contrary to what he asserts, we most certainly can duplicate those original experiments, so they exist in the present for us to observe. When the YEC distinguishes historical science from observational science, what he means is scientists now, in then present, taking data from those experiments, reading it back into deep time, and then fabricating an alternative history for life on earth than what is revealed in Scripture. Science of that nature is dependent upon philosophical presuppositions, not experimental data alone.
Lastly, he says that if historical science cannot be trusted we cannot trust our Bibles, because all the evidence we have for the reliable transmission of the biblical text cannot be known to be what was actually written. The argument, however, is completely unrelated to what is termed historical science.
The writing of Scripture was not a singular event. The community of God’s people were involved in its writing, transmission, and canonization. We have tangible, physical copies of the biblical text that can be observed. Critics can reconstruct, in the present, what was originally written. There are multiple copies of other translations of the original text. All of that evidence is verifiable by observation now in the present. Why he believes this argument supports his thesis is truly a mystery.
Luke wants to believe he has offered some mighty blow against YEC apologetics, but his critique begins with a wrong understanding of what it is he is evaluating and so his trajectory directs him wildly off course. Hence, his arguments really fail on their own.
Additionally, as one considers the debate between secular evolutionists and creationists, the more one will see how philosophical presuppositions play into the disagreements. Just like Thaxton and Geisler, two of the original articulaters of the origins vs. operational science distinction argued, deep time ideology isn’t merely one of brute fact and pure evidence, but is governed by how that evidence is interpreted. That is what the idea of historical/origin science clearly reveals.
And then finally, as much as he wants to keep his evaluation of historical vs. observational science away from the exegesis of the creation week as recorded in Genesis, ultimately, Luke has to engage the text. In my opinion, it does not provide him the basis to prop up the progressive creationist constructs he insists must be embraced.