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What Science Can Explain

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg differentiates description and explanation [“Can Science Explain Everything? Can Science Explain Anything?,” NYR, May 31] to illumine physical science. But in stressing his point he misgauges the aims and nature of historical explanation. He contrasts physicists’ interest in the regularities of nature with the concern of “biologists, meteorologists, historians, and so on with the causes of individ-ual events,” such as the extinction of the dinosaurs or the French Revolution. The stark contrast diminishes and trivializes historical thinking.

Inquiry into individual events is only a small part of what historians do, both with nature and with human affairs. They narrate and synthesize particular episodes to explain the past in general and to show how it has become the present. Individual events are studied not merely for their own sake but as fragments of temporal palimpsests, interlinked in manifold ways. Partly patterned, partly contingent, history emerges out of processes of stasis and change, natural and human, that interact at various temporal scales. Not everything in nature is historical, but the structure of events in seismic, evolutionary, and human history bear some resemblance to the dynamics of non-equilibrium physics.

As Weinberg concludes, most of what we try to understand in the real world depends on accidents. But to posit an unbridgeable gulf between scientific fundamentals—regular, consistent, constant—and historical happenings—unique, contingent, unpredictable—needlessly forecloses prospects for synoptic vision. History may be inscrutably accidental in its specific details. But it is neither wholly formless nor utterly inexplicable. Physical and historical science coexist in the same universe.

David Lowenthal
University College London
London, England

To the Editors:

Professor Steven Weinberg’s article is both carefully formulated and mostly comprehensible even to the non-scientist. One claim is made, however, without any obvious supportive argument: “…We know that there was no advance knowledge of human beings in the formation of the solar system.”

Speculative traditions outside of physics have pondered this teleological question and have responded in various ways. Insights and intuitions, intimations and convictions abound; few, however, have claimed to “know” in the sense that Professor Weinberg uses the term. Perhaps he could share the fundamental principle or the deduction that establishes such knowing?

Rabbi Everett Gendler
Emeritus, Phillips Academy
Andover, Massachusetts

Steven Weinberg replies:

I am sorry that Professor Lowenthal thought my article tended to diminish or trivialize historical thinking. I did not say that historians (or biologists, or meteorologists, for that matter) have no interest in regularities, but rather that, unlike his-torians (or biologists or meteorologists), physicists are concerned with nothing else. The study of history does reveal generalizations that have some value. One of my favorites is Gibbon’s prediction that Europe could never again be overrun by barbarians, because any people with the military technology to defeat the Europeans could not be barbarians. Grand historical principles like those of Marx and Toynbee have generally failed, but this, too, is a lesson of history.

Rabbi Gendler (whose classes our daughter enjoyed at Andover) is right to catch me up on my statement that “we know that there was no advance knowledge of human beings in the formation of the solar system,” if by “know” is meant “know with certainty” or “know by direct observation.” In the same sense, it would have been wrong to say that we “know” that there was no advance knowledge of Columbus in the splitting of the early continent of Laurasia into Eurasia and North America. What I should have said is that our best scientific theories of the origin of the solar system or of the continents do not suggest that any advance knowledge of human beings was involved in the development of these processes. I would go beyond that, and say that it has been an essential element in the success of science to distinguish those problems that are and are not illuminated by taking human beings into account.

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