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How to Do History and Science

I’ve been reading through Michael Licona’s, “The Resurrection of Jesus,” and think that his first chapter is seriously helpful in beginning a conversation on the philosophy of history and science.   He has an excellent paragraph on the relation of scientific inquiry to historical inquiry located on pg. 66 of this pdf, under heading 1.2.12, “Is history a science?” (pg. 68 of the printed text). 

I think it’d be helpful to summarize the basic points of his introduction.  The questions that I have written in bold could provide a starting point for a strong philosophy of history/science.  Feel free to answer them, or provide resources that answer them!  

In his prologomena on the philosophy of history, Licona essentially suggests that we use methods that are similar to the methods employed by scientists. Here is his basic methodology:

1. Define history (or science).  He defines history as, “past events that are the object of study.”  How should we define history and science?

2. Explain pre-conceptions of the historian (or scientist).   He calls these preconceptions, “horizons,” or our, “preunderstanding”.  He suggests that ways of overcoming our horizons include: use a common method, explain your preconceptions and your methods publicly, check yourself by your peers, submit your ideas to unsympathetic experts, account for the historical bedrock (things so strongly evidenced that they are regarded as fact, and are agreed upon by the majority of scholars), and last, actually seek for the truth.  These same methods must be employed by scientists for them to arrive at valid hypotheses.

3. Explain “certainty” (which is intimately related with epistemology).  He suggests that we cannot have absolute certainty that an event has occurred, but we can have accurate certainty. Since this is the case, all that we propose about an event is provisional.  While historians are attempting to verify an event as historical, what are scientists trying to verify?  How much certainty can they have about these things?

4. Explain Epistemology.  Licona suggests that a form of critical realism is the best approach to reality.  This  means that first, as a realist, we believe, “reality exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our scientific statements and theories refer to this independent reality.”  Second, in opposition to “naive” realism, which suggests that, “accurate historical judgments always result when correct method, theory, and evidence are employed consistently,” critical realism suggests that “accurate historical descriptions may be held with varying degrees of certainty.”

5. Define truth.  He states that the correspondence theory of truth is most widely accepted, and the best understanding.  He defines it by saying, “For our descriptions of the world around us to be true, they must correspond to its conditions.”

6. Define (historical or scientific) fact.  Licona says, “Richard Evans defines a historical fact as something that happened and that historians attempt to ‘discover’ through verification procedures.”  These verification procedures are the methods he encourages in overcoming our horizons (#2).  How would we define scientific fact? Do scientists employ the same verification procedures?

7. Explain ‘burden of proof’.  Licona suggests using methodological neutrality (rather than credulity or skepticism), which means that the one making a claim bears the burden of proof.  If you claim Jesus was raised from the dead then you bear the burden of proof.  If you claim Jesus wasn’t raised then you also bear the burden of proof.  If we carry this over into science, the scientist who makes a claim is the one who bears the burden of proof.

8. Develop methodology.  
A. He proposes that the best method for weighing hypotheses is argument to the best explanation (as opposed to argument from statistical inference).  This means that hypotheses that fit a proposed set of criteria are preferred, and likely represent what occurred.  
B. The proposed set of criteria generally includes: explanatory scope (quantity of facts), explanatory power (quality of explanation), plausibility (supported by other accepted truths), less ad hoc/simplicity (refers to fewer presuppositions), illumination (provides a solution to other problems).  Are these sets of criteria appropriate for scientific hypotheses?
C. These different criteria are given different weight, and Licona follows this order of importance: plausibility, explanatory scope and power, less ad hoc, illumination. To what extent is this weighing of criteria valid?  Does this carry over into scientific study as well?

9. Develop a list of levels of certainty.  All of the lists I have seen appear fairly arbitrary, however I might as well list what Licona suggests.  He goes in order from the absolutely ridiculous to the pretty much certain: “certainly not historical, very doubtful, quite doubtful, somewhat doubtful, indeterminate, somewhat certain, quite certain, very certain, certainly historical.” A general guideline Licona proposes says that for something to be considered ‘historical’ (or else, ‘scientific’), “1. The hypothesis must be strongly supported and much superior to competing hypotheses and/or 2. the reasons for accepting a hypothesis must significantly outweigh the reasons for rejecting it.” It would be good if we apply something like this to scientific hypotheses.

All this from a theologian of all people!

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