Historical Sciences

29 August 2009

Saturday


Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould has emphasized throughout his corpus that the historical sciences are distinct, that is to say, that they represent a distinct approach to science and that they should be recognized as involving a distinct approach. In the Prologue to The Flamingo’s Smile he wrote:

History perverts the stereotype of science as a precise, heartless enterprise that strips the uniqueness from any complexity and reduces everything to timeless, repeatable, controlled experiments in a laboratory. Historical sciences are different, not lesser. Their methods are comparative, not always experimental; they explain, but do not usually try to predict; they acknowledge the irreducible quirkiness that history entails, and acknowledge the limited power of present circumstances to impose or elicit optimal solutions…

Later, in an essay on SETI in the above-mentioned collection, he elaborates:

The historical sciences try to explain unique situations — immensely complex historical accidents.

From a philosophical standpoint, Gould’s point is both interesting and inadequate. He essentially constructs a straw man to represent what he takes to be the non-historical sciences, but we can leave this aside. I agree with Gould that we should recognize the historical sciences as a particular approach to science.

Given that there are historical sciences, these sciences could be classified according to the objects of study, but they could also be classified according to the historical period or scope of history such sciences embrace. According to the latter scale, cosmology would be the most comprehensive of the historical sciences, taking in the entire history of the universe. Next would follow astronomy and astrophysics, which study the very long lives of galaxies and stars. After this perhaps would come geology, which studies the time periods appropriate to the surfaces of the planets that orbit the stars studied by astrophysics. These latter disciplines — astronomy, astrophysics, and geology — are less temporally comprehensive than cosmology, but still embrace far more of time than most of what are commonly considered historical sciences.

After these scientific preliminaries we would come to the ordinarily recognized historical sciences of paleontology, paleobiology, and paleobotany, then anthropology, and archaeology. There must be the objects of geology before there can be the objects of paleontology; there must be the objects of paleontology before there can be the objects of anthropology, and there must be the objects of anthropology before there can be the objects of archaeology. Last of all among the historical sciences comes history itself, that is to say, the human history of the historical period.

The familiar image of the historical sciences.

The familiar image of the historical sciences.

We need not stop here, however, as our temporal classification of the sciences is suggestive. Particle physics — that paradigm of the “hard” sciences that today thrives on enormous experiments employing Brobdingnagian machines — could lay claim to studying the smallest time scales, thus assimilating the paradigm of the natural sciences, and even the mathematicized natural sciences, to the paradigm of the historical sciences. As the sophistication of particle physics increases, physicists study particles and other exotic objects that last for small fractions of a second, pushing the boundary of time investigated near to zero. And here the minute time scales of particle physics coincides with the incredible time scales of cosmology, as much Big Bang theory concerns itself with the constitution of the universe during the early fractions of a second immediately after the Big Bang.

There is a strange, sublime beauty in big, sexy science.

There is a strange, sublime beauty in big, sexy science.

As limiting cases of the historical sciences, particle physics and cosmology would seem to have to gone as far as we can go, but there is another step yet that we can take. If we consider on the one hand the totality of time, which, if construed as eternity, might be the object of eschatology (thus assimilating theology to the historical sciences), or if construed as infinity could be the object of mathematics. On the other hand, at the opposite extreme of temporal infinity are temporal instants: single, unextended points in the continuum of history, which construed as points or real numbers would assimilate the objects of mathematics to the historical sciences.

Low-tech research methods in mathematics.

Low-tech research methods in mathematics.

What is the lesson here? Ought we to bring the methods of the historical sciences to bear on point set topology? Ought we to bring to bear the methods of the exact, mathematical sciences — those caricatured by Gould as “a precise, heartless enterprise that strips the uniqueness from any complexity and reduces everything to timeless, repeatable, controlled experiments in a laboratory” — on history? The answer should be obvious: we should cast the net of rational thought as widely as possible. If it is fruitful to bring historical methods to the mathematicized sciences, we should do so. And if it is fruitful to being the methods of the mathematicized sciences to the historical sciences, we should do that too. The cross-fertilization of the sciences is a powerful spur to development and often a source of new and exciting ideas.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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