ASA Web About Science
Charles (Chuck) F. Austerberry, A view from the ASA Listserve, (2008)
Perhaps natural science is distinguished from other fields of knowledge in that natural scientists attempt to
explain why things happen via causes that operate consistently, can be manipulated (i.e. selectively
combined with other causes), and measured.
Experiments in the natural sciences test understandings of how causes operate by combining causes (perhaps in a novel way), predicting outcomes, measuring actual outcomes, comparing the actual with the predicted, modifying the understandings to match actual outcomes, combining causes in a new way and predicting new outcomes, etc.
Scientific explanations of past events can be fully scientific, if the explanations employ causes that can be
tested. Reproducing the historical event is not absolutely necessary, as long as the causes can be tested.
Under this definition, the humanities (art, history, theology, literature, languages, philosophy) would differ
from the natural sciences in that the humanities' explanations invoke personal agents who act freely and
possibly inconsistently and who might not be manipulatable or even measurable. Note, however, that
certain humanities explanations are quite objective and rational. In fact, I personally think that mathematics
is closer to philosophy than it is to natural science, though both natural sciences and social sciences are
very dependent upon mathematical tools.
Under this definition, explanations in the social sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology)
blend natural science explanations and humanities explanations.
Natural science encounters limits not only when dealing with free personal agents, but also when dealing
with any (even impersonal) entities that behave inconsistently (unpredictable, random, chance, etc. events).
However, if by combining a sufficient number of such events a consistent pattern emerges, then the
explanation of that pattern is still scientific (e.g., gas laws, radioactive decay, diffraction of photons passing
through parallel slits, etc. ). Of course, below or beyond the aforementioned limit, questions and answers
would go beyond science (e.g., are quantum events caused or uncaused?). Metaphysics is distinct from
natural science. By the way, I share Poe and Mytyk's preference for wanting natural science to be "
metaphysically neutral" (see the Sept. 2007 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith), whether
or not one thinks the term "methodological naturalism" works in practice (Poe and Mytyk think it does not).
Natural science also encounters practical limits when the complexity and subtlety of the causes exceeds our ability to measure and integrate them (e.g. meteorology, evolution). Thus it may be impossible to reproduce, even theoretically, past weather events or past evolutionary trajectories. But notice that meteorology and biological evolution are still natural sciences, because their identified underlying causes (though unrealistically oversimplified when only a few are isolated and manipulated) do appear to operate consistently, can be manipulated, and be measured.-- Charles (Chuck) F. Austerberry, PhD