Some Facts That Are Not Scientific— The Case of History

There are a great many factual claims that could not possibly be established by scientific methods. Some of them have been mentioned: most obviously, there is the claim that there are no facts that cannot be discovered by science. In order to test that claim, we first have to get some definition of science. This is subject to much debate, but the main characteristics of natural science are that its data are publicly observable, measurable, repeatable, and agreed on by all competent observers. The question, then, is: are there any data that are not publicly observable, measurable, repeatable, and agreed on by all competent observers?

What we need to do is to undertake a thought experiment (not a real, physical, scientific experiment) to see if we can think of any such data. This brings to light a function of reason that is not just an apportioning of belief to the evidence. For what we are asking is whether there is any evidence that does not count as scientific evidence. We think rationally about this question when we try to assemble all relevant information, classify and analyze it, discern patterns of similarity or difference within it, and possibly achieve an integrated, plausible, and coherent general interpretation of it.

This is an exercise not of experimentation but of rational inquiry. Reason addresses the data of experience, seeking comprehensiveness, consistency, coherence with other knowledge, elegance of classification, and awareness of all the implications of a proposed interpretation. It is more like pure mathematics than it is like experimental, natural science. One of the questions reason will ask is whether it is acceptable always to apportion belief to the empirically establishable evidence. Another is whether all forms of evidence have to be establishable by scientific, observational, and experimental, methods.

In pointing to the passion for truth and the faith in intelligibility that mark good science, we have seen that it can be reasonable and admirable to hold a passionate and morally grounded belief that goes well beyond the available evidence. And we have already discovered a question that cannot be answered by the methods of experimental science, no matter how long and complicated: "Are there any questions scientific methods cannot answer?"

But it might still be insisted that these points are about moral values and about matters of verbal definition. They are not really questions about facts. Are there any obviously factual matters that science cannot establish?

Consider some facts from past human history. Caesar crossed the Rubicon. That is either true or false; it is a historical fact (or a claim about one). Is it publicly measurable or repeatable? Obviously not. Is it agreed by all competent historians? It may be; but many historical claims are not agreed on, and there is no way in which universal agreement could be guaranteed. If we have read more than one history book, we should be aware that historians disagree continually. They are always providing new interpretations of past events and arguing about whether ancient historical records are legendary or strictly factual. Is it publicly observable? Obviously not; all we have are historical records; we can never gain access to the facts themselves.

This does not make us give up the attempt to understand history or deny that the past ever existed. It makes us aware that few historical judgments are absolutely certain or established beyond reasonable doubt. There is a truth to be known, but we will never have direct access to it and must be content with interpretations that will inevitably express our own preferences, beliefs, and inclinations. And we know that universal agreement will never be achieved.

To be a historical perspectivalist is to say that the facts of history will always be interpreted from a particular perspective and that such perspectives will probably always differ in ways that can never finally be resolved. But that does not make us doubt that historical truth exists. It might make us aware of the theoretical uncertainty of our perspective and of the usefulness of knowing about other perspectives that may be strong where ours is weak. But it will probably not make us give up our perspective or lapse into a complete agnosticism.

Sometimes, indeed, past facts are of immense practical importance— for instance, where a large sum of money belongs to someone only if it were bequeathed to him or her in the past. In a matter of great practical consequences, we might strive for one interpretation of history with all the passion at our disposal, with a passion that far exceeds a strictly neutral survey of the available evidence. It would be silly to say that we must always apportion our belief to the evidence. If we are lawyers, it may be our duty to argue a case strongly and to make the evidence conform to our committed view. This is not generally taken to be hypocrisy, much less irrationality. It is a practical commitment in the face of strictly objective uncertainty, in a case where we genuinely believe the facts are in our favor but where that is not beyond all reasonable doubt.

History suggests, then, that there are facts that are not publicly accessible or verifiable, measurable or testable, or susceptible to universal agreement. The evidence for such facts is often objectively less than certain, but it is often reasonable to believe more strongly than the available evidence strictly allows, if there is a great amount at stake, if we genuinely believe that the facts are as we judge them to be, and if there is no way of avoiding the issue.

These are the factors William James mentions in his famous essay, "The Will to Believe," first published 1896 (see Burkhardt, Bowers, and Skrupskelis 1978). If a belief is forced (you cannot avoid it), vital (of great practical import), and living (a realistic and plausible option), then, James suggests, it is rational to commit yourself to it even with less than overwhelming evidence. That seems to me to do no more than reflect the practice of good scientists when they believe that "there is no event without a cause," "there are universal laws of nature," or "the universe is comprehensible and mathematically intelligible." We admire the tenacity of Einstein who refused to give up belief in determinism in the face of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. We may even admire Daniel Dennett's determination to avoid dualism at all costs or Richard Dawkins' refusal to read books of theology because he already knows they are rubbish. Much will depend upon our own perspective. What is certain is that there are few people who can live in the real world refraining from believing anything unless they have theoretically sufficient evidence for it. Human life is too short for that.

There are certainly facts of history. But they cannot be established scientifically, and they can rarely be established at all with theoretical certainty. There is much evidence for some historical facts, but, for many others, there is very little evidence, and narratives have to be filled in by what we think, on other grounds, is likely and by an imaginative patterning of the past shaped by our own experience of the present, adjusted as well as we can for cultural differences.

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