Senior Sem Journal: History and Science (part 1)

Last night members of our Senior Seminar class attended a talk by Henry Schaefer, chemistry professor at the University of Georgia, on C.S. Lewis’ critique of “scientism” as opposed to science. Lewis (via Schaefer) criticized those who would assume that only the methods of the natural sciences were valid types of inquiry, and contended that science alone could not sustain “objective values” essential to human existence — nor could it answer questions about the nature of that existence (e.g., the source of morality, the purpose for beauty and love) or about the existence of God.

In an optional journaling assignment, our students considered the differences between history and the natural sciences, Lewis’ critique of scientism, or whether the study of history might better answer some of the questions Lewis found inaccessible to science. Our first response comes from Dana Morrison (’12).

Determining whether or not history is better suited to answer weighted questions versus the “hard” sciences is difficult to answer. Can history sustain objective values of humanity and can it answer questions of human existence? For me, the answer is “yes.” I won’t go so far as to say that it definitively answers these questions, but it does give me guidance when pondering them. However, how can I say for certain that history is better suited than the “hard” sciences at answering these questions? I can’t, because what is true for me is not necessarily true for other people.

The reason I think history is better suited at answering questions of human existence is because it is the field I relate to. If I want to learn why humanity makes the decisions it does, I can hypothesize why by looking back to history to give me some answers. The reason Americans generally have a sense of privilege and superiority is because of the superpower status we gained after being victorious in after World War I and World War II especially. Many other countries suffered much heavier casualties (both soldiers and civilians) and the economic structures had been demolished, whereas the United States gained a lot from winning the wars. By this one example, it shows that by looking at history and reflecting upon it, it can answer a question about human existence.

Of course, I would never disregard the “hard” sciences or social sciences as not being useful when reflecting upon the question of human existence. As I said before, I don’t relate to these sciences as much as I do the humanities so it is hard for me to find them as useful. However, many people do find value in the sciences and can use them to answer questions on human existence. For example, the sciences can help explain in detail how humans are different than animals and what is it about us that makes us superior.

I did not approve of the term “squishy-headed” sciences that Schaefer used to describe sociology and psychology. Choosing this phrase apart from any other description comes across as derogatory. I am not necessarily interested in sociology and psychology to a great degree, but I understand their relevance and that people studying these sciences can make a lot of useful conclusions from their research. I think it is important to respect other academics’ areas and see the value in them. It is understandable that one might have a bias towards their own area of study, but that doesn’t mean that person should judge other areas.

– Dana Morrison

Read Dana’s previous posts here: introducing her research on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, and offering her perspective on what it is that historians do.

<<Read the previous entry in the Senior Sem Journal series

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