Historical Science

Readers who are familiar with creation science may have been able to put a phrase to the Ceratosaurus post. That phrase would be “historical science.” For those who are unfamiliar with the term, historical science refers to a science that examines things that have already taken place. Paleontology, for instance, studies creatures that are extinct. While we are able to learn about them and infer their behavior and lifestyle from their skeletons, impression, traces, and so forth, the creatures in question are extinct and thus cannot be observed directly.

Historical sciences can be contrasted with operational sciences. The latter are sciences that examine things that are in the present. Physics, for instance, is an operational science since it deals with the behavior of matter and energy in the present. In a similar manner, biology is primarily an operational science, as biologists spend a lot of time studying the anatomy, behavior, and classification of creatures that are alive in the present.

It should be pointed out that historical sciences are inherently less certain than operational sciences. Take Genyodectes, the South American relative of Ceratosaurus. Why was it classified as a tyrannosaur and an abelisaur before it was decided that it was a ceratosaur? Because the remains of Genyodectes are fragmentary: the only parts that are known are the tips of the jaws. Until, and unless, more remains are found, that is all that we know about Genyodectes. With a whole, living specimen to study, much of what we know about Genyodectes will remain speculative.

While historical sciences inherently contain some speculation, so do operational sciences. Sure, with an operational science, we can observe and manipulate things directly, making it easier to test ideas. However, there is still a lot about the world that we do not know and understand. For example, we can be very certain of Coulomb’s law, which tells us the force of attraction between two charged particles. To be specific, if the charge of the first object is q1 and the charge of the second object is q2, and the distance between them is r, then the force between the objects is calculated by where F is the force and k is a constant that is approximately equal to Nm2/C2. Coulomb’s law has been tested repeatedly and is a good description of how two charged particles behave, so much so that physicist no longer bother testing it: it is taken for granted that it accurately describes the force between two objects. However, what if we were to ask the question why Coulomb’s law works? There is no real answer to this question. Charge is simply an intrinsic property of matter. Some particles of matter, like protons, have a positive charge, while other objects, like electrons, have a negative charge. Protons and electrons can be combined to created atoms and ions, and the combination of protons and electrons can determine the charge of ions, but there is no answer to why protons and electrons have the charges that they do: it is just something that we have to accept in order to understand the world and use electrical charges. Thus, there are some things that even operational sciences cannot explain.

Another example would be dark matter. Dark matter is proposed to explain the unusual rotation of galaxies. To make a complex problem simple, galaxies do not rotate the way they “should” if we count only the matter of stars and other celestial bodies in the galaxies. It appears that there is some “missing matter” that is needed to explain the rotation of these galaxies. This missing matter is called dark matter.

Dark matter can also be detected by the way it bends light. It is well understood that gravity can bend light. In areas of the a galaxy that are thought to have dark matter, light bends around the dark matter, just as if it had mass and gravity like ordinary matter, even though the dark matter is otherwise invisible.

What is dark matter? We do not know since no scientist has ever collected a sample of it. After all, it appears to be in distant parts of the galaxy, so it is not like astronomers can travel off and collect some. Yet, astronomy is an operational science because it studies things in the present. However, many things in astronomy, such as dark matter, have to be inferred by their behavior because we cannot observe them directly. Once again, an operational science has limits to it.

Hopefully, this brief discussion has shown that while historical sciences inherently contain some speculation, so does operational sciences. While operational sciences may be more certain, in the sense that they can readily be tested in the present, there are still limitations to human knowledge and abilities that make some things beyond our grasp. In short, science is limited because it is practiced by limited humans. If we want to understand something as foundational as truth, we must turn to a source of truth as our starting point, namely the Bible.

-by Steven King