I examine historical science, building a picture of its epistemic and explanatory credentials. These are, first, explanations of sauropod gigantism.
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Author: Adrian Currie
Category: Convergence (Biology)
We should be optimistic about historical science's capacity to uncover past events, even those leaving little trace. Moreover, historical science does more than describe or catalogue the past. In uncovering patterns and weaving narratives, historical scientists provide explanations: why history unfolded as it did, and how it could have been otherwise. These claims are related: the historical scientist's drive for explanation increases her reach into the past, as speculative hypotheses provide avenues for fresh tests and linking past events together. I examine historical science, building a picture of its epistemic and explanatory credentials. These are, first, explanations of sauropod gigantism. Sauropods were one of the most successful lineages of the Mesozoic, comfortably outdoing all terrestrial animals in size. How did this evolve and how was it possible physiologically? Second, the 'snowball earth' explanation of Neoproterozoic deposits. Rocks formed over 500 million years ago show distinctive glacial signs, but formed in the tropics. By the snowball earth hypothesis the entire earth was ice-locked for brief periods. We might be pessimistic about finding answers to these questions. Although access to past events is granted by their downstream effects, 'traces', these signals decay over time. Historical scientists frequently face incomplete, 'gappy', and 'faint', difficult to access data-sets. Moreover, we sometimes lack manipulative access to these events, so traditional experimental investigation is unavailable. However such data-sets are also 'dispersed', heterogeneous, allowing us to draw on and knit together multiple lines of evidence. Moreover, there are evidential sources which are independent of signal decay. I describe two sources. First, 'surrogative' evidence. This evidence accesses the past by (1) supporting 'midrange' theory (background theory which links traces to past events); (2) supporting general models of causal systems, the dynamics of past events; (3) testing between hypotheses about the past. Second, explanatory relations can be evidential. Some explanations of past events are 'interdependent': the occurrence of one event makes another more likely, and vice versa. Other explanations of the past cite 'common processes': events are unified as instances of the same process-type, and provide evidential support in virtue of this. Moreover, historical science is not 'parochial', or merely concerned about, or restricted to, particular histories. I demonstrate that historical scientists are frequently interested in understanding 'fragile systems': relatively contingent systems which occur under specific circumstances but, nonetheless, support counterfactuals. Even when they are interested in explaining particular events, historical scientists draw on evidence from other instance types. These considerations ground optimism about historical science, but they are also revelatory of broader issues in the philosophy of science. I discuss how some historical explanations, in particular those which describe complex narratives about particular cases, come apart from 'systems-based' or 'mechanistic' explanation. I also demonstrate that the use of models, particularly simulations, in historical science has a far more epistemic character than contemporary treatments of modelling suggest. As opposed to using models to maximize predictive power, explanatory salience, or for heuristic traction, historical scientists use models to compensate for minimal data and to empirically differentiate between hypotheses.