Our Understanding of the Present Can Help us Understand the Past and Vice Versa

 In Building Knowledge

Since understanding history is so important, there has to be a certain kind of science to help sort out fact from fiction.  We need to be able to compare and contrast historical situations and developments within time periods, cultures, countries, nations, and civilizations in order to extract lessons and this should not be an arbitrary and unscientific process.  If done methodically, this can be reasonably reliable.  The hypothetico-deductive model (HDM) cannot possibly be the only scientific method.  It has to work in conjunction with historical science methods that study evidence relating to how things came together, how things transpired, how things unfolded, and how they are continuing to unfold into the future.

This is not to say that people necessarily should look to times from generations ago or from ancient history for their personal and group identity nor necessarily for their guidance and purpose in life, but that is how people typically think and that is why we need to have more reliable and evidence-based processes for investigating, tracing, evaluating, and coming to reasonable conclusions on this stuff.  Essentially, the study of history needs to be scientific in the general sense.

Despite the fact that unique past events cannot be reproduced, we can analyze evidence that we do have access to that was produced by past events, such as relics, artifacts, and fossil remains, to give explanatory power to phenomena in the present and we can also in many cases observe phenomena in our world so as to better explain the past.  As we develop a clearer, deeper, and richer understanding of the past, this can provide us with better and more reliable explanatory and predictive power for our replicable experiments in the natural and human sciences.

Our studies of recurring and replicable phenomena can aid in our studies of past and non-replicable phenomena, and vice versa.  This goes for fields such as evolutionary biology and astrophysics, which often study physical and biological events in the distant past, and also for studies of particular historical figures and ancient civilizations.  Our understanding of these phenomena from ages ago can add depth to our understanding of the present.  For historical people, we can try to understand their psychology and their motives by studying current people and we can in some cases also get a better understanding of living people by studying the details of the lives of people who are no longer living.  For social science, we often have to rely heavily on the interpretation of large scale phenomena of the past, including cultural trends, political regimes, legal systems, institutions, and economic policies in order to understand the present and to try to predict the future of social phenomena.

This relies on several principles, including the recognition of areas of similarity between present and past phenomena and the acknowledgement that the natural laws that govern phenomena are, at their most fundamental, the same in all times.  The fact that past unique events cannot be reproduced should not entail that they are inaccessible to experimental science, since that would be incoherent.  Certainly, the HDM relies on the ability to reproduce phenomena and to control for a variety of variables in order to discern cause and effect.  This method can be very effective and has given the ability to explain and to control a wide range of phenomena, but this should not cover the fact that this process still relies on interpretation.  The truth is that the same exact events never recur.  If we consider all factors for any experiment, there is always something distinct about each one.  Even when we have the most highly controlled experiments, there will inevitably be certain factors that are unique each time it is conducted.  Certainly, either the time or place of the experiment would have to be different.  In addition, science makes progress in part through reliance on the accounts of scientists who conducted controlled experiments in the (perhaps recent) past to help explain and interpret our results in our current experiments.  Science cannot occur without interpretation of the past.  Thus, this notion that the interpretation of the past is not scientific is quite wrongheaded.

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