iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: History


Science and history again

To some extent the sciences of society and history can be pursued as if they were natural sciences. For example, groups of people exhibit some characteristics of natural objects, and so reflect physics to some extent.

On the other hand, the physics of social beings is different in a complementary way from the physics of natural bodies. That is because social beings have purposes and plans. These can be accommodated within natural science only by including formal and final causes to some extent.

But knowledge of society and history are different from knowledge of the physical world. Their focus is different and the result is more likely to be a narrative than a theory.

The natural sciences emphasize quantities and have an over-riding principle of qualitative parsimony, often called Occam’s Razor. The sciences of society and history have a complementary principle of quantitative parsimony. This is seen in the increasing distinctions and qualities of society and history that resist generalization and lead to greater particularization.

While it would be best to have a balanced methodology of qualitative and quantitative parsimony, it may work well to have a dialectic of methodologies between two schools or disciplines, one with qualitative and the other quantitative parsimony. Then they can critique each other and seek to converge at a common solution.

Distinguishing history and science

The post continues several posts on history and science such as here and here.

All histories are part of the humanities, which are separate from the sciences. There is no scientific history or historical science – that would be like a round square.

A purported scientific history or historical science is either science and not history or history and not science. A scientist who writes histories is to that extent an historian, not a scientist.

Histories are focused on significant dissimilarities, discontinuities, and particulars. Sciences are focused on significant similarities, continuities, and universals.

Histories are diachronic; sciences are synchronic. A history takes a region or subject and follows it over time. A science takes a period or object and explores it over space.

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The hierarchy of knowledge

The physical sciences, especially physics, are considered nowadays to be the pinnacle of knowledge. They are given credit for modern technology, which has far surpassed any other civilization. Maximum deference is given to the physical sciences, which then function as the paragon of all knowledge. “Physics envy” pervades the study of knowledge today.

But it is a mistake to put the physical sciences at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge. They are very limited in scope, and their methods are not appropriate for all disciplines. Instead, the most general disciplines should be at the pinnacle of knowledge. For secular universities this would be philosophy, and for religiously-affiliated universities this would be theology.

The humanities should be returned to their place of seniority above the sciences. Philosophy, great art and literature, classical studies, and mathematics should regain their seriousness and their cultural significance. To some extent mathematics still receives respect, but it is considered an arcane subject, which happens to be useful to arcane specialists.

The social sciences and history should be next in the hierarchy of knowledge. They are dependent on the higher disciplines but are more general than the physical sciences. They provide the context for the physical sciences, which has been weakened by over-reliance on physical knowledge. This extends to all studies of humanity, including those that intersect the physical sciences such as biology. We must never forget that we are humans first, and animals second.

The physical sciences and the practical arts such as business, engineering, medicine, and technology should complete the hierarchy of knowledge. There’s no discredit in coming at the bottom for that is where we mostly live our lives. We are accustomed to extensive physical knowledge as a resource for solving the complex problems of contemporary society.

This is a return to the old academic hierarchy. It was abandoned out of fear that narrow-minded clerics and philosophers would limit the ability of scientists to discover new realities. That is a lesson of history that bears remembering – but only as a genuine history, not as a prejudice against philosophy and theology. We should also be wary of the Whig histories of those who misread the history of ideas.

Singular and regular

There is a basic distinction between what is singular, unique, non-repeating and what is regular, usual, natural. The latter is the domain of science, both natural and social science, whose premise is that if something repeats, it is characteristic of the way things are. What if something does not repeat? Then science cannot deal with it, except perhaps as an outlier that becomes a footnote or is simply removed.

History is different. It is the singular, the unique that stands out and needs explaining. Why did someone not do the culturally usual thing? Why did the singular characters of history arise instead of the many other common characters? Why did war break out here but not there or there?

History goes beyond science to investigate singular people and events. In fact, these are the most important things about history. The common appearances of the sun and moon, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the life-cycles of countless humans and other organisms are not the core of history.

What’s history is what happens that’s different. As the old newspaper line has it, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”

Some people say that anything that is not natural is “supernatural”. That implies it must be something beyond or against nature, but that is not necessarily so. Something unexpected is not necessarily beyond or against nature. It may be that a unique set of circumstances called for a unique response. It may be that an unusual individual rose to the top at a unique time in history.

A balanced knowledge of reality requires taking into account both sides, the singular and the regular. If we only look to science, we will miss the singular things. If we only look to history (or the news), we will miss the regular things. Science needs history and history needs science. A science or history that monologues is deficient. They need to dialogue to be balanced.

E. W. Kenyon, part 1

D. R. McConnell in A Different Gospel, 1988, and Hank Hanegraff in Christianity in Crisis, 1993, accused E. W. Kenyon of promoting heresies such as those found in New Thought. However, Joe McIntyre in E. W. Kenyon and His Message of Faith: The True Story, 1997 (rev. 2010), documented how Kenyon’s teachings were well within evangelical Christianity. Since Kenyon is considered to have influenced the controversial Word of Faith (or simply Faith) movement, an assessment of this requires a closer look at Kenyon and his teachings. This series of posts will include excerpts from McIntyre’s book and Kenyon’s writings.

McIntyre quotes Kenyon on his seven-fold test for the truth of Christian doctrines (p.33-34):

This danger of being led into false teaching stood at the threshold of every new truth in the early days of my Bible study, and I prayed much that the Lord would give me a real testing tube, scales, weight, and measure, whereby every step could be satisfactorily proved. (May 1916)

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Modernity and parsimony

I’ve written before about modernity here and parsimony here.

An age begins by repudiating something essential about the previous age. The middle ages started with repudiating the ancient gods and myths (cf. St. Augustine’s City of God). The modern age began with the Reformation, which repudiated the history of the Church and the pagan past of the Gentiles. It continued with scientists repudiating Scholasticism and Aristotle. And it came into its own by starting anew, whether in religion or science or politics.

If modernity starts with breaking free of the past, then what keeps it from flaming out into insignificance? The key for science was parsimony, commonly called simplicity. In contrast with the middle ages, which specialized in ad hoc explanations, the modern age adopted Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, which privileged the fewest number of assumptions and kinds of entities.

Modernity took the law of parsimony to an extreme. It led to questioning, if not overthrowing, every tradition, every non-empirical entity, every metaphysics. The absolute minimum ontology was considered the best, which turned out to be the physical world.

Even the nature of physical things was questioned as unknowable, until the only nature left was the nature of the physical world. This nature became the idol of modernity, the one thing that could not be questioned. It became Nature, reified as something with a will of its own, something that led to human life, something that substituted for God.

As we break free of modernity, we can see its limitations and failures more and more. One is the bias of the law of parsimony: it meant qualitative parsimony but not quantitative parsimony. That is, only one or a few kinds of things could exist, but the number of them available for explanatory purposes was unlimited. This bias fit well with the use of mathematics as the language of science.

But mathematics is more than the study of quantity. It is also the study of space, structure, and change. And there is no good reason not to apply parsimony to all of them in finding the best explanation. Once we open up to the possibility of a balanced application of the law of parsimony, we can see some of the weaknesses of modern science.

Deep time was invented in the 18th century and exploited in the 19th and 20th centuries to explain the history of the Earth and the universe. What started with geology expanded to human history, biology, and cosmology.

It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. Carl Sagan

Time is in fact the hero of the plot. … Given so much time, the “impossible” becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait; time itself performs the miracles. George Wald

The flaw is simple: it’s too easy to “explain” anything. The violation of quantitative parsimony was the Achilles’ heel of modernity. The temptation to explain everything was too much to resist. And so, as with every age, modernity ended in failure. A great failure, but a failure nonetheless.

We can only hope that the current age will learn from the failure of modernity and seek a balanced parsimony.

Knowledge and repetition

Consider the distinction between repeatable events from unrepeatable events. Repeatable events includes events that have repeated or may be repeated at will (as in a laboratory) or may possibly repeat in the future. Unrepeatable events are events that are very unlikely to repeat or are impossible to repeat. It is said that science only studies repeatable events, and it can be argued that history is the study (science) of unrepeatable events – not that it excludes repeatable events but that it focuses on unrepeatable events.

“Nature” could be defined as the realm of repeatable events. Then natural science would be the study of nature or repeatable events. Those events that are unrepeatable would be left to historians but ignored by natural scientists. But could such scientists rightly study the past while ignoring unrepeatable events? Ignorance of unrepeatable events would be a limitation and a defect. We would not expect historians to ignore repeatable events, so why expect scientists to ignore unrepeatable events?

We may well expect events that only involve inanimate nature are repeatable in some way. But are all events with living beings repeatable? The position of naturalism says, Yes. But at some point we need to say, No, at least some living beings have free will (or whatever you want to call it) so that their actions may be unrepeatable, and thus beyond the purview of a science of repeatable events.

Knowledge of repeatable and unrepeatable events may need different methodologies to address both kinds of events but it could not ignore either kind without bias. We need both the study of history, with its unrepeatable events, and the study of science, and its repeatable events, as independent disciplines. The synthesis of science and history would require a different discipline, perhaps called “scihistory” or “histence”, that would balance the input of each discipline with the other.

Textual realism and anti-realism

Anti-realists always begin with reality – and reject it. Because, they argue, it is obscure, misleading, and subject to different interpretations. So anti-realists begin again, this time with an idea of theirs. Even materialists begin with an idea, the idea of materiality. Thus anti-realists substitute their ideas for reality.

In contrast, realists begin with reality and accept it. Because, we argue, it is reality whether we like it or not; it is sufficiently perspicuous; careful observation and reflection can overcome misleading appearances; and interpretations should be based on reality.

All of this applies to writings as well. Anti-realists turn away from the inherent meaning of the text in favor of their interpretations of the text. Realists accept the inherent meaning of the text, yet are also free to discuss its significance and application.

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Combining history and science

In 18th century the sciences started to become more prestigious and influential than the humanities. In the 19th century this led to a realignment of modern thought and society as scientists (a new term then) took the dominant position within the universities and high culture – in the place of clerics, philosophers, jurists, historians, poets, and the rest of the humanities. One result was the realignment of the humanities toward the sciences.

History in particular was thought to need a foundation of science. From Descartes on historical knowledge had been deprecated as mere opinion. A scientific history would fix that. Yet the difference between natural (and later social) science and history could not be denied. Science takes a nomothetic (lawlike) approach and history takes an ideographic (contingent and accident) approach.

Isaiah Berlin:

scientific procedure is directed in the first place to the construction of an ideal model, with which the portion of the real world to be analysed must, as it were, be matched, so that it can be described and analysed in terms of its deviation from the model. But to construct a useful model will only be feasible when it is possible to abstract a sufficient number of sufficiently stable similarities from the things, facts, events, of which the real world – the flow of experience – is composed. Only where such recurrences in the real world are frequent enough, and similar enough to be classifiable as so many deviations from the selfsame model, will the idealised model that is compounded of them – the electron, the gene, the economic man – do its job of making it possible for us to extrapolate from the known to the unknown. It follows from this that the greater the number of similarities that we are able to collect (and the more dissimilarities we are able to ignore) – that is to say the more successfully we abstract – the simpler our model will be, the narrower will be the range of characteristics to which it will apply, and the more precisely it will apply to it; and, conversely, the greater the variety of objects to which we want our model to apply, the less we shall be able to exclude, and consequently the more complex the model will become, and the less precisely it will fit the rich diversity of objects which it is meant to summarise, and so the less of a model, of a master key, it will necessarily be.

When a historian, in attempting to decide what occurred and why, rejects all the infinity of logically open possibilities, the vast majority of which are obviously absurd, and, like a detective, investigates only those possibilities which have at least some initial plausibility, it is this sense of what is plausible – what men, being men, could have done or been – that constitutes the sense of coherence with the patterns of life that I have tried to indicate. Such words as plausibility, likelihood, sense of reality, historical sense, denote typical qualitative categories which distinguish historical studies as opposed to the natural sciences that seek to operate on a quantitative basis. Isaiah Berlin, The Concept of Scientific History

Then what about scientific history or historical science?

J. N. Nielsen:

Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.

Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition. Big History and Scientific Historiography

As scientific history takes science into account, the historical sciences should take history into account. In the end they both combine history and science. There is genuine dialogue and balance of the two.

On the unique and the uniform

This continues posts on history and science (see here).

Uniformity is the background for history: what everyday life is like, what is constant in a culture. But history focuses on what is unusual or unique because that is the key to differences between people and places and periods. It is the unusual or unique that enable us to discern and explain why different things happen.

The unique aspects of things forms the background for science: the appearance of things, their unique details. But science focuses on what is usual or uniform because that is the key to commonalities between people and places and periods. It is the usual or uniform that allow us to discern and explain why similar things happen.

What is called “historical science” appears to be the science of historical events. But it is basically history, not science, because what is unique is more significant for historical events than what is uniform. Science can inform the background but history is the real focus in order to determine why things went one direction instead of another. This applies to history of nature as to history of humanity.

If there are gaps in historical records, knowledge from science about regularities can provide information about what might have occurred in the past. Such knowledge is valuable for studying cultures lacking written records.

This works the other way, too. If there are gaps in scientific data, knowledge from history about unusual events can provide information about what might have occurred uniquely in the past. Such knowledge is valuable for studying changes that shaped the physical world.

The more we know about uniformities, the more we can find uniform aspects of unique things. This works the other way, too: the more we know about uniqueness in the world, the more we can find unique aspects to things that seemed completely uniform.

A science is a system of the uniformity that is in the extensional universe. A history is a narrative of the uniqueness that is in the intensional universe.