Operational Science can be defined as any science that sets out to describe how something works. It uses the traditional tools of observation and experimentation. Examples of this sort of science would include physics and chemistry. 1
Historical Science can be defined as any science that attempts to piece together past events in order to explain those events. Examples of Historical Sciences would include Archaeology and Police Forensics.
A key difference between these two types of science is that theories in operational sciences can usually be thoroughly tested in order to prove whether or not the theory is true. In contrast, in historical science, theories generally cannot be tested and always have some level of assumptions and doubts.
There is, however, at least one good reason to include design as a proper explanation. Meyer's own research in the philosophy of science was on the methods of the historical sciences. "There is more than one scientific method," he said. "In fact there are at least two." 2
The inductive sciences (by which we might understand physics, chemistry, and the other primarily experimental sciences) are motivated by the question "How does nature normally operate?" The historical sciences (by which we might understand cosmology, geology, paleontology, evolutionary theory and biological systematics), on the other hand, are motivated primarily by the question "How did this system or object come to be?" These are logically distinct questions. In the latter case, when we ask how something came to be, we explain by invoking causal narratives or patterns of events -- employing methods often termed "abductive" or "retroductive" -- to find that set of events that best accounts for the features of what we observe in the present.
This is "detective-style reasoning", and while such reasoning certainly employs natural laws (the bread-and-butter of the inductive or experimental sciences), those laws are insufficient tools for answering the questions posed in the historical sciences. The point has been appreciated well by evolutionary theorists defending their domain against the skepticism of their more experimentally-minded colleagues. In evolutionary theory, says Stephen Jay Gould, "we infer history from its results."
This means that testing, or theory evaluation more generally, will also differ in important ways between the inductive and historical sciences. As Darwin often argued to his correspondents, the theory of common descent by natural selection had to be weighed comparatively, "vis-a-vis its competitors." Explanations are judged by their relative power, and by their consistency with what we know from the present.
"Can a theory of design be formulated to meet these standards?" asked Meyer. Yes: the theory is attempting to answer a "What happened?" question, and does so by postulating the past action of an intelligent agent. "That's a perfectly appropriate answer," he said, "to a perfectly appropriate historical question." Starting with distinctive features of living systems (as discussed by Michael Behe, for instance), design attempts to account for those features by referring them to a sufficient cause, namely, an intelligence. In every respect, argued Meyer, design as a theory is logically fully consonant with the types of answers, and methods of evaluation, common to the historical sciences.
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