I’ve been fascinated lately by the relationship between language and the reality it purports to represent. Judging by the differences we find in languages across cultures, there is a lot of flexibility in that relationship. For example, I learned from this article in The Guardian that Hawaiians name 65 different kinds of fish nets, and that the Persian language has a word for “a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled” (it is nakhur, in case you’re interested). And of course there is the controversy about how many words for snow there are in Inuit languages. Examples like these show that words and phrases emerge out of communities for local concerns, and those words spread more widely or not based on their usefulness in broader contexts (growing up in the Midwest, I never had occasion to need a word for that particular type of camel!).
Peter Harrison’s 2015 book (based on his 2011 Gifford Lectures), The Territories of Science and Religion, includes a helpful treatment of the history of the words “science” and “religion” and how these have been used in various ways over the centuries. Again, there is considerable flexibility. Today the terms are notoriously difficult to define in ways that include all and only the practices we intuitively think should be included. A first course in philosophy of science almost always addresses the demarcation problem: what counts as science, and are there different kinds of science? Students are often surprised to learn that there are no consensus answers to these questions, and they are sometimes frustrated that there is no ultimate authority to appeal to for determining the proper use of a term like “science.” Yes, dictionaries report “correct” usage of terms, but correct usage of a term changes over time.
Of course there is little chance that you could just make up a new term and have it catch on widely. When I was a kid, my family starting calling all Volkswagen Beetles “green cars”. No one remembers the reason for this now, but presumably a green Beetle was pointed out to one of us at some point saying, “Look at the green car”, and then it was the distinctive model that stuck, rather than the color. So I remember actual conversations between my siblings as follows:
“I just saw a green car!”“Oh really? What color was it?”“Red.”
Our usage did not get picked up by others, so I’m afraid this is a (very minor) way of speaking that is going to go extinct with us.
Atheist philosopher Owen Flanagan published a book in 2002 called, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of the Mind and How to Reconcile Them. The “two visions” he refers to are the scientific view and the personal view. The latter includes terms like “soul” and “free will”, which science has shown (according to Flanagan) to be terms referring to fictions (like “unicorn” or “phlogiston”). But Flanagan worries that you can’t just announce to people that they don’t have souls and don’t have free will, so instead he thinks the people in the know should keep using the terms but mean something slightly different by them. He describes the strategy (using the symbols Φ and Ψ as placeholders)
You speak of Φ meaning Φ, while I speak of Φ meaning Ψ hoping that my way of speaking will eventually win the day in this play of language games, so that you, or your descendants, will eventually come to mean Ψ when you or they say Φ (p. 86).
It seems to me that something similar is going on with the usage of “historical science” by people opposed to evolution. They take the phrase, which has some accepted usage and precedent, but then claim it means something different as a way of discrediting sciences that have established the age of the earth and biological evolution. They’re not inventing a brand new phrase, but like my siblings and I did with “green car”, they have shifted the meaning from what has been established. Nothing prevents them from doing this, and they’ll be more successful in having their usage of the phrase catch on if it is close to established usage.
To show that their way of using “historical science” is consistent with accepted standards, they will often appeal to an authority figure accepted by scientists. One of their favorite quotations is from the famed Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr who said,
Evolution is a historical process that cannot be proven by the same arguments and methods by which purely physical or functional phenomena can be documented. Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations.
This sounds as though Mayr endorses the view that evolutionary science, because it studies past events, cannot provide us with reliable information—particularly if you take “inferred” to mean something like “guesswork.” But Mayr clearly does not mean that. The very next sentences in Mayr’s passage (which are never quoted by opponents of evolution) are:
Such inferences subsequently must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests. However, most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties. (What Evolution Is, 2001, p. 13.)
It seems disingenuous to imply that Mayr would accept the definition of “historical science” used by opponents of evolution. I’m pretty sure he (and the vast majority of scientists and philosophers of science) reject any usage that suggests the “historical sciences” are not reliable.
So although there is no governing body that prevents people from using “historical science” to mean something different than what it has typically meant, we ought to resist that way of speaking when it confuses and misrepresents the issues.