Is Historical Science Useful?

The differences between empirical and historical science, how predictions can be helpful in the sciences, and how worldview affects our perspective about the past.

by Dr. Jennifer Hall Rivera on July 16, 2021
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Scientists disagree on the accuracy of historical science to analyze evidence from the past. This disparity in viewpoints is largely between scientists who support evolutionary ideas and those who believe in the biblical, God-spoken creation. Scientists who support evolutionary ideas will often not acknowledge that science should be divided into two categories, empirical and historical. What is the difference? Empirical (observational) science is observable, testable, and repeatable, whereas historical (origins) science does not meet these criteria.

Empirical vs. Historical Science

At its root, the word science means knowledge. Knowledge is learned by studying the world around us. When you hear the word science, the first things that likely come to mind are research and experiments using the scientific method. The scientific method uses the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) to hypothesize (predict) and then directly observe, record, and analyze information to collect empirical data.

In order to analyze this type of evidence, a scientist must draw conclusions and make inferences about things they did not directly observe. This lies outside the realm of the scientific method and demonstrates that scientific study does have limits.

Can this method be used when examining evidence from the past? Evidence that is not directly observable in its original form, like fossils, archeological artifacts, or crime scene evidence? In order to analyze this type of evidence, a scientist must draw conclusions and make inferences about things they did not directly observe. This lies outside the realm of the scientific method and demonstrates that scientific study does have limits. Take, for example, a crime-scene investigator. When the crime-scene investigator arrives on a scene and collects evidence, they must use observational science to process the evidence (i.e., DNA and fingerprint analysis). They then have to apply the analysis to a criminal act that occurred in the past. This requires the interpretation of past events. Any scientific study that falls outside the boundaries of empirical, operational science falls into a distinct category we call historical science.

Supporters of the evolutionary theory claim that scientists who believe in a six-day God-spoken, biblical creation and young earth of 6,000 years use historical science as a crutch to “discredit evolutionary theories,”1 since evolutionary processes are not observable. This claim was recently discussed in the INTEGRATE curriculum by BioLogos, an organization that propagates the idea that God used evolution in the creation process. They claim that those who classify crime-scene evidence and fossils as historical science are inaccurate. They believe that current standards can test evidence from the past.

Verifiable Predictions=Observational Science?

BioLogos also claimed that evolutionary ideas about life on earth, and the predictions that stem from this belief, are observable in nature and therefore not historical science. This assertion is contrary to what is considered observational science. Evolutionary processes have never been observed. The origin of life is in the past and not unobservable, and studying unobservable evidence from the past is not empirical science. Studying evidence from the past, unobservable in its original form, is interpreted based on a set of assumptions. BioLogos went on to say that evolution is empirical science because scientists have been able to make testable predictions and found evidence to support their claims. One example provided was the discovery of a fossil labeled Tiktaalik. The article claimed this was a transitional fossil. They stated in their article, “Is historical science reliable?”.

Based on known fossils and their dates, according to the theory of evolution, land animals evolved from aquatic animals some 375 million years ago. That generates the prediction that we might be able to find transitional fossils if there are layers of rock from that era that formed under suitable conditions for preserving the life forms then.2

But when we take a closer look at the Tiktaalik, it is clear the design of this creature is not exclusive and is evidence of a thoughtful master Designer and Creator God:

A “robust” pelvic girdle with long-rayed pelvic fins in an extinct lobe-finned fish is not, however, evidence of ambulatory evolution, just evidence that Tiktaalik was as sturdy and strong on its back end as on its front. For a nine-foot-long fish, this would seem to be a good design.3

Uniformitarianism

But is uniformitarianism what the Bible describes? Contrary to this evolutionary ideology, biblical-creation scientists recognize that natural processes today are very different from what occurred in the past.

Supporters of molecules-to-man evolution believe that natural laws and processes operate in the same way today as they have in the past. This assumption is called uniformitarianism and is summarized as “the present is the key to the past.” But is uniformitarianism what the Bible describes? Contrary to this evolutionary ideology, biblical-creation scientists recognize that natural processes today are very different from what occurred in the past. Using the Bible as the starting point is the key to understanding what happened in the past and interpreting the evidence we see in the present.

Since the past is unobservable, studying evidence from the past, such as fossils, requires historical facts, reliable sources, or eyewitness testimony to provide clues to the events that occurred. Therefore, biblical-creation scientists rely on the perfect eyewitness testimony of Jesus Christ found in the inerrant Holy Bible. The Bible is the only fully accurate source to interpret the events from the past and to analyze the evidence seen in the present. One clear example is the biblical description of the global flood in Genesis chapter seven. This catastrophic, global event forever changed the surface of the earth and resulted in the death of billions of living things. And what do we find today? Billions of dead organisms have been buried in layers of sediment and debris laid down by water. This is visible evidence of the Genesis account. Clearly, processes in the past are different from what is seen in the observable present.

Ironically, while BioLogos insists in a textbook they funded that “[T]here is no basis for the origin science-operation science distinction” (emphasis theirs), the evolutionary community at large disagrees.4 A Harvard herpetologist wrote, “But evolutionary biology is a historical science. Like astronomers and geologists, we evolutionary biologists try to figure out what happened in the past. And like historians, we are bedeviled by the asymmetry of time’s arrow-we can’t go back in time to see what happened. Moreover, evolution occurs notoriously slowly, seemingly making it impossible to watch as it occurs.”5 It is very curious that BioLogos willingly swallows everything the secularists say and regurgitate it with a smattering of God-language, yet for some reason reject the distinction between origins and operational science that even secularists acknowledge, seemingly only to undermine young-earth creation, which is based on a straightforward reading of Scripture.

The interpretation of evidence from the past is always influenced by a scientist’s worldview, whether originating from a man’s evolutionary ideas or God-spoken, biblical creation. Both worldviews require faith to believe, since both worldviews are unobservable. The question is, do you believe in man’s everchanging, imperfect ideas about origins or God’s historical account provided in his perfect Word?

Worldview Influences Interpretation

Everyone would agree that a scientist will study and interpret evidence based on their expertise in their respective field. But secular and biblical creationist scientists do not agree that all scientists interpret evidence through the lens of their worldview. A worldview consists of beliefs, views, and perspectives which form the way we view the world, especially about origins, the existence of God, and the scientific processes in place in the world. There are only two worldviews: either man’s imperfect word or God’s perfect Word. Because secular scientists and biblical creation scientists start from two very different worldviews, their definition of science varies. Science is not, and can never be, neutral.

Every scientist, and every person, starts with a presupposed set of ideas or beliefs, which is their worldview. A scientist’s presuppositions directly influence the direction of their research and their interpretation of the evidence.

Every scientist, and every person, starts with a presupposed set of ideas or beliefs, which is their worldview. A scientist’s presuppositions directly influence the direction of their research and their interpretation of the evidence. The influence of presuppositions applies to both secular scientists, who support evolutionary ideas, and biblical-creation scientists, who believe in the authority of God’s Word, and thus a supernatural creation. As we discussed earlier, there is also disagreement between the secular and biblical-creation scientists about the difference between empirical and historical science. The area of disparity is largely attributed to the fact that, for creation scientists, historical science is founded upon the Bible and its inerrancy, which evolutionary ideas reject. But the principle holds that what cannot be observed in the present is historical in nature.

Reliability

When scientists evaluate historical evidence, like fossils or crime scene evidence, a certain amount of assumption and interpretation is required because the past is not observable, testable, or repeatable. Neither creation nor evolution falls into the classification of observable science. Both start with a set of assumptions and rely on faith to believe. Evolution is nothing more than a set of ideas based on man’s interpretation of evidence. Fundamentally, it’s the same data and the same evidence but is seen through two opposing frameworks, and therefore different conclusions are drawn. As Christians, we have the perfect Word of God to provide the historical reference. The Bible is the starting point to interpret the evidence from the past, understand the processes observable in the present, and anticipate the events yet to come.

So, to answer the title question, “Is historical science helpful?,” we would answer yes, but only when used through the lens of God’s perfect Word, which is found in the Bible.

Footnotes

  1. Is historical science reliable? https://biologos.org/common-questions/is-historical-science-reliable
  2. https://biologos.org/common-questions/is-historical-science-reliable
  3. https://answersingenesis.org/extinct-animals/did-tiktaaliks-pelvis-prepare-fish-to-walk-on-land/
  4. John H. Walton, Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis and Stephen O. Moshier, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology and Biology in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 338.
  5. Jonathan Losos, Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and Future of Evolution (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), 20.

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