A Scientific Question? Part 7

Some thoughts on the relationship between “scientific questions” and “historical questions”…

Is the question “Was Bradley Bowen born on a Wednesday?” a scientific question? Could the answer to this question be discovered and confirmed (in principle if not in practice) purely by the use of scientific methods? I believe the answer to this question is “No”, but because of the qualification “in principle” it is difficult to be certain.

If the answer to this question is “Yes”, then we have found at least one question about a recent historical event that can be resolved (in principle) purely by scientific methods, and that would suggest that other historical questions, perhaps about not-so-recent events, could also be resolved purely by scientific methods (at least in principle). It would suggest, for example, that we could in principle determine whether Socrates was born on a Wednesday by using only scientific methods, and without using any ordinary historical methods.

If “in principle” just means that such scientific confirmation of a claim is a logical possibility, then the claim is a very weak one, and that makes it a difficult claim to disprove.

Consider the following strong claim:

1. There are at least a dozen unicorns in every forest.

Because this is a strong claim, it is easy to disprove. Just find one small forest and search it thoroughly. If you find no unicorns, then the claim is disproved. But weaker claims may not be so easy to disprove. The following claims are in descending order of strength:

2. There is at least one unicorn in every forest.

3. There is at least one unicorn in one forest on the Earth.
4. There has been, at some point in the history of the Earth, at least one unicorn in one forest.
5. There has been, at some point in the history of the universe, at least one unicorn in one forest on some planet or other.
Claim (5) is virtually impossible to disprove, because it is a very weak claim. In general, the weaker a claim is, the more difficult it will be to disprove the claim.

If the claim that one can in principle determine whether “Bradley Bowen was born on a Wednesday” is a true claim using only scientific methods, without using any ordinary historical methods (i.e. critical examination of historical records and documents) is a claim about what is logically possible, then I’m not sure if my imagination and my knowledge of scientific methods is up to the task of disproving this weak claim.

One thing I can do, however, is to try to prove the claim to be true, and if I fail, that will provide at least some reason, though an inconclusive reason, to doubt the weak claim. So, I will try to show that it is possible to determine that a person was born on a Wednesday using only scientific methods to make the determination.

Suppose that my father was a research physicist, and that shortly before I was to be born, he had designed and constructed an atomic clock in the laboratory where he worked. In honor of my impending birth, Dr. Bowen built a remote control to kickoff the atomic clock at the precise moment of my birth. Suppose further that he carries out this plan, and at the precise moment of my birth, Dr. Bowen uses a remote control to start the atomic clock (starting at: 0.000 hours).

Several weeks later, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, a fellow research physicist who works at the lab with my father, asks “Was your son born on a Wednesday?” Dr. Bowen scratches his head, and tries to remember what day of the week I was born, but he cannot recall this. “What is the date of your son’s birth?” asks Dr. Doofenshmirtz. My dad, being a bit of an absent-minded-professor type, is unable to recall the date I was born, so looking at a calendar for the current year will not help determine the day of the week of my birth.

Then my brilliant father comes up with an idea. He can check the atomic clock that was started at the precise moment of my birth, and that will show the exact number of hours, minutes, and seconds that have elapsed since the time of my birth. He can then work backwards from the present day (let’s say it was a Wednesday at noon when he checks the atomic clock), calculating 24 hours per day, and seven days per week (thus 168 hours/week).

Suppose that at noon on a Wednesday, the atomic clock shows that 987.331 hours have elapsed since the moment of my birth. 987 hours is less than six weeks (= 1,008 hours), and more than five weeks (= 840 hours). Exactly five weeks prior it would be noon on Wednesday, so 840 hours prior to reading the atomic clock, it was Wednesday at noon. This means that my birth was 147.331 hours prior to a Wednesday at noon (987.331 – 840 = 147.331). Six days is 144 hours, so I was born a little more than six days prior to Wednesday at noon. Exactly six days prior to a Wednesday at noon, it would be noon on Thursday. So, I was born 3.331 hours prior to noon on a Thursday. Three hours prior to noon on Thursday is 9:00am on Thursday, so I was born 0.331 hours prior to 9:00am on a Thursday, which means I was born about 20 minutes prior to 9:00am on Thursday, which means I was born at about 8:40am on Thursday; thus, I was not born on a Wednesday.

This is an imaginary example, but it is a somewhat realistic one. There are such things as atomic clocks, and I’m sure that they can run for several weeks, if not for several years. Nothing in this example involves the violation of a law of nature. It might be a bit odd for a physicist to use a remote control to start an atomic clock at the precise moment of his son’s birth, but this is not completely absurd. So, this example shows that scientific evidence could be used to determine whether or not a person was born on a Wednesday. However, the question at issue was a bit more specific than that. Does this example show that one can (in principle if not in practice) determine whether a person was born on a Wednesday by using only scientific methods?

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08967595781013844031 Browning

    @ Bradley.

    Thank you again for taking the time to consider my "born on a Wednesday" case at such length.

    I confess that your reluctance to accept that "Bradley Bowen was born on a Wednesday" is a statement that could be judged in principle by science seems very odd to me. To me that just seems intuitively true, and that is an intuition that I share with most people, including Dawkins. I realize that we could all be wrong in our intuitions, but so far I don't see any credible argument yet to suggest that.

    I have some questions for you.
    1. Would you agree with Dawkins that even though there is currently insufficient evidence to settle the matter, the question "What caused the end-Permian extinction?" is one that science could answer in principle?
    2. If your answer to #1 is yes, given any specific real person X of your choice in history, don't you think the question "Was X born on a Wednesday?" is similarly answerable in principle by science?
    3. If your answer to #2 is no, what makes question #2 different from question #1?

    If I get the gist of your argument in "A Scientific Question? Part 3", it seems to be this: If a question makes any reference to data derived from historical investigations, it ceases to be a scientific question.

    4. Is that a fair way to characterize your argument in Part 3?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Browning said..

    1. Would you agree with Dawkins that even though there is currently insufficient evidence to settle the matter, the question "What caused the end-Permian extinction?" is one that science could answer in principle?
    ========
    Response:
    Good question. However, I'm going to hold off on answering this until I have a handle on the born-on-a-Wednesday example.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Browning said…

    If I get the gist of your argument in "A Scientific Question? Part 3", it seems to be this: If a question makes any reference to data derived from historical investigations, it ceases to be a scientific question.
    ==========
    Response:

    That is approximately what I had in mind. Questions don't generally make references to data, so let me restate the point in different words:

    1. If answering/resolving a question requires the critical examination of historical records and/or documents, then answering/resolving that question requires the use of ordinary historical methods.
    2. If answering/resolving a question requires the use of ordinary historical methods, then the question is not a scientific question.
    Therefore,
    3. If answering/resolving a question requires the critical examination of historical records and/or documents, then that question is not a scientific question.

    I'm not sure if I was that clear in Part 3, but I think this reasoning was what I had in mind.
    I suspect the word "requires" here is a key word that may need some discussion and clarification (relative to the distintion between "in principle" and "in practice").

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    One point in favor of Browning's view of the relationship of science and history is the basic point of logic that there can be multiple lines of argument or evidence in support of a conclusion.

    For example, there are many arguments for the existence of God, so refuting one argument still leaves open the possibility that some other argument for God is a good one.

    Furthermore, refuting all available arguments for God does not disprove the existence of God, becuase there could be another, as yet undiscovered argument that is a good one.

    Similarly, there might be both historical evidence and scientific lines of evidence for the same conclusion. In that case the question relating to that conclusion might not fall neatly and cleanly into one category or the other ("scientific question" vs. "historical question").

    In the case of Dawkins' example of the virgin birth being confirmed by DNA evidence, it seems to me that there would be a mix of historical and scientific evidence.

    However, it seems to me that the historical evidence, in this case, works together with the scientific evidence, not just by adding weight or increasing strength of the evidence, but by making the scientific evidence relevant to the question at issue. Apart from the historical evidence, the scientific (DNA) evidence would be irrelevant. Thus the historical evidence, I believe, is essential, necessary, unavoidable in that example.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Side comment…

    The reference to "atomic clock" in my imaginary example is not necessary to make the evidence scientific.

    Any modern clock that keeps good time is based on scientific investigations and conclusions (esp. in physics). Pendulum clocks, for example, were made possible by Galileo's investigations of the behavior of pendulums.

    So, if my imaginary physicist father had used an ordinary clock to measure the hours from my birth to some later point in time, that would still be making use of scientific knowledge, even though the knowledge would have been incorporated into common practices.

    Perhaps this blurs the line of what counts as "scientific" evidence, but the accuracy of modern clocks derives from scientific investigations and conclusions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I'm not sure if my criterion of "by using only scientific methods" will hold up under scrutiny.

    "Methods" or techniques of logic and mathematics are used in scientific investigations and argumentation, as is conceptual analysis. But these intellectual tools, techniques, or methods do not belong exclusively to science.

    Logic and conceptual analysis are used in all intellectual and scholarly fields, and mathematics is very widely used, even in philosophy (e.g. Swinburne's use of probability calculations).

    Since scientific investigations and reasoning are filled with the use of logic, conceptual analysis, and mathematics, it may not make sense to identify "scientific" questions by the criterion that "only scientific methods" are required, if that phrase implies that the methods in question are used exclusively in scientific investigations and scientific reasoning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    In Dawkins' hypothetical example of DNA evidence being used to verify the virgin birth of Jesus, I pointed to the need to connect the DNA to Jesus, and my view, at this time, is that this connection requires ordinary historical methods, thus making the solution essentially an historical answer to an historical question.

    I have been thinking about the born-on-a-Wednesday example, wondering if there is a parallel need to connect the scientific evidence to the subject of the claim/question (my birth, in this example). What is it that connects the readout of the atomic clock (987.331 hours) to the moment of my birth? It is the memory of my (imaginary) physicist father. He remembers being present at my birth and using the remote control to start the atomic clock. Perhaps, as a good scientist he also documented this event in a scientific journal or notebook.

    How would his fellow research physicist come to know that the atomic clock was started at the moment of my birth? Either by the testimony of my father, or by the notation made by my father in a journal, or by a combination of those two bits of evidence. Historians usually deal with written documents, but they can also rely on the testimony of living eyewitnesses, for information about events in the recent past.

    So, at first glance, it looks like there is a parallel between the virgin birth example and the born-on-a-Wednesday example. The scientific evidence is made relevant to the specific subject of the claim/question by means of historical evidence.

    However, the historical evidence in the case of the born-on-a-Wednesday example is ordinary experience/memory type of evidence, so it is not as clear that the connection "requires the use of ordinary historical methods".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08967595781013844031 Browning

    @ Bradley:

    You say "If answering/resolving a question requires the critical examination of historical records and/or documents, then that question is not a scientific question."

    And you add "I suspect the word "requires" here is a key word that may need some discussion and clarification (relative to the distintion between "in principle" and "in practice")."

    First of all, that is very strange way to talk about science. I can think of plenty of scenarios where science might make use of historical data to test a hypothesis: historical records of population, meteorological records, medical records, etc. A lumberjacks's diary entry might help determine what year a certain tree was felled, and from that scientist might establish exactly how old the tree was exactly, from its rings or some other scientific method of dating. It would seem very odd to say, "Ah, yes, what you know about the year that tree was felled you learned partially through historical analysis of a lumberjack's diary, so you cannot claim to have tested a scientific hypothesis." Talking about science in this way seems unnecessarily pedantic to an absurd degree.

    But, second of all, even if I grant you such an extremely pedantic definition of "science," I still don't think you've adequately addressed Dawkins' argument. Perhaps if you had reason to be skeptical of the historical evidence, you might insist that science determine a question without any appeal to any data that might be gathered by anything resembling "history." You might want a given question to be answered in such a way that was purely scientific. And, according to the way Dawkins thinks, any such question could be still be answered by science in principle, if not in practice.

    Take your atomic clock scenario. Were you born on a Wednesday? If your father could check his diary to find out, then it seems to me the matter would be settled. Ah, but is it settled? Perhaps not. Suppose we have motive to be skeptical as to the veracity of your father's diary. He might be so inclined to absent-mindedness that we may well worry that he got the date wrong when he made the entry. Very well, we can produce your birth certificate. Ah, but birth certificates can be forged, you say! I need scientific proof! Well, we could have a forensic scientist test it for authenticity, and she is 75% certain that it is authentic. Yes, but is that enough to satisfy us? Perhaps there is a considerable inheritance at stake, and we need to be more certain. Eventually, we might find some means that could give us a purely scientific verification of the hypothesis, such as the atomic clock.

    But even if we didn't have the clock, we can say "It's too bad we didn't think to start an atomic clock that day, because then we could have known for certain. In principle, science could have answered this question." Or we might say, "Sadly, there is no atomic clock, but we know that Bradley must have been born on a specific day, and if it seemed important enough to determine that day without any reference to anything that might be called history, we are reasonable sure that science could do so, if we can only find the right data. We might have to perform an autopsy on him and precisely date the heavy metals in his bone marrow, but it could be done in principle."

    In this way, the day of the week of Bradley birthday could be determined in principle the same way that the causes of the end-Permian extinction could.


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