History of the historical vs. operational science distinction

The actual phrasing may have been concocted by a modern creationist, but the distinction long predates modern creationism. Newton, Kepler, Boyle and other early modern titans of science, who were by no means “creationists” in the narrow modern sense, saw themselves as explaining how the universe works now, in terms of laws emanating from the mind or will of God, not as explaining how the universe originated. They all appear to have believed that the universe (in particular, the set-up of the solar system) originated in supernatural action by God, though afterward following natural laws. The role of science was to set forth the laws that governed planetary motion, not to account for where the planetary system came from. In light of this, the fact that they did not formally distinguish between “origins science” and “operational science” does not really matter much. The notion was a traditional one, not the product of modern creationism.

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Newton’s genius was not constrained to explaining how the universe works now, but in generalizing principle from data. Newton did not so much set a boundary for science as he set a compass. His gravitation was a profoundly powerful unification of falling objects and celestial mechanics, but his generalization failed at the speed of light. Boyle generalized gas laws, but failed at the quantum scale.

These failures led Einstein to further generalization, with relativity generalizing gravity and his work on Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect pointing the way to QM. The most basic frontier questions in physics now involve the generalization of relativity and QM. It is the shortcomings of known laws of nature to generalize to all time and space which gives science impetus; arbitrary boundaries have no heuristic value.

General relativity precludes the static universe of Newtonian mechanics. This is a result of the physics, and has little to do with philosophical outlook. That the universe as a whole is fundamentally dynamic, and cannot be as it appears now in the past and remain in the future, is a statement that necessarily encompasses the arc of time.

Science is driven by uncovering and generalizing the basic principles by which nature unfolds, and because these basic principles do not recognize temporal distinctions but include time in their essence, neither does science.

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Nonsense. You merely mention some people who worked in particular fields, none of whom defined the role of science, merely of their own personal work. You’re just making stuff up here. But I’m glad you finally agree with my original point, that this distinction was invented by a creationist.


Assertion rejected (again!) due to no evidence being provided, only biased and irrelevant suppositions

Assertion rejected.


You wouldn’t make that comment, if you knew anything at all about the history of science. But, like the vast majority of working scientists, you appear to know very little about science’s history. I gave the examples of Boyle, Newton, and Kepler. I’ve taught their ideas in university courses. I’ve read their writings. I’ve made nothing up. They thought that the solar system was created by what a modern person would call a miracle, or a series of miraculous actions. They did not think it was created by natural laws acting without plan or direction. They distinguished between what it takes to originate something, and what it takes to keep it going, once originated. I’m not asking you to agree with them. I’m merely pointing out to you that in the early days of modern science, the most advanced students of nature held to a distinction between the origin of nature and the operation of nature. This is a matter of historical record, whether they used the phrasing of modern fundamentalists or not.

The evidence is found in the primary writings of the great early modern scientists, already mentioned, and in works of history of early modern science. The fact that modern biologists aren’t in the habit of reading things more than about ten or twenty years old (mostly journal articles in the technical areas of genetics or cladistics etc.) is probably the reason why this isn’t blindingly obvious to a good number of people here.

Your condescension is misplaced and certainly un-Christian.

Not relevant to the subject.

Actually, Newton thought that the solar system would require occasional intervention to keep going. So what it took, in his opinion, to originate it was also needed to keep it going.

Not true, but even so, how is that a distinction between origins and operations science? You’re still making things up.


Yes, but this is a distinction of creation and nature, which not the same as the YEC distinction of historical science and operational science. Newton did believe that is was possible to infer past states from a knowledge of the present, even if ultimately God set the machine in motion. The Principia was envisioned as the system of the world and was not limited to the present. YEC considers any extrapolations not repeatable, and under eyewitness watch, to be historical science. Even though science was forged in a traditional Christian worldview of origins, the current creationist contrast has never been a really significant distinction in science. From early days, science has been characterized by the search for fundamental and timeless principles.


That someone as bright as you obviously are can’t see the relevance is astounding. Some kind of blinder is blocking you from seeing what is a very straightforward point. Maybe the blinder is some very narrow and specific understanding you have of the terms “origins science” and “operations science”? I thought I made clear that I wasn’t insisting on any particular phrasing or any particular modern writer’s terminology, but was only describing a general idea, an idea which is much easier to grasp than the technical stuff you routinely have to grasp as a biologist.

A clock works by mechanical laws. Once the clock is wound up, it works by blind necessity, and where the hands will be at any point in the future is dictated by rules, laws, etc. connected with the nature of springs, gears, etc. Nobody thinks that a human being has to stand there invisibly and push the hands around; everybody concedes that the hands move “naturally”, in accord with mathematical, mechanical laws.

On the other hand, nobody thinks that the clock came into existence by the same laws that make its hands move around. Everybody thinks the clock came into existence because a mind and will decided to put it together. The kind of explanation that works for how the clock’s hands move around is utterly useless for explaining how the clock came into being. The origin of the clock has a different cause than the daily working of the clock.

Boyle made use of the clock metaphor. The solar system worked like a great clock or other machine, with its parts moving in law-bound fashion. But like a clock, or other machine, it needed to be put together by an intelligent agent. For Boyle that agent was God. The origin of the solar system, then, must be explained with reference to a different set of causes than the operation of the solar system. The origin required active intelligent agency.

When a modern fundamentalist says that “origins science” is different from “operational science,” however bad his execution of particular arguments may be (and often it is pretty bad, I concede), he is thinking, in broad terms, like Boyle (even if he’s never heard of Boyle). In contrast, when a typical modern scientist insists that there is no ultimate difference between the two kinds of science, because we can extrapolate backward from present causes to infer origins, he is thinking like Kant, who was the first major thinker to say that Newton, Boyle, Kepler, etc. had it wrong, because the origin of the solar system could be explained without any intelligent intervention at all, given a big enough cloud of gas and gravity.

So who is right, Boyle or Kant? Perhaps both, depending on the origin in question. Maybe physics alone can explain the origin of solar systems, with no intervention. But maybe chemistry alone can’t explain the origin of life with no intervention. (Very good chemists such as James Tour have expressed doubt about the power of unguided chemical reactions to produce life.)

Whatever knowledge the future may bring regarding origins, the point is that the distinction between “how a thing came to be” and “what laws or principles keep it going along, once it is formed” is not a stupid distinction, and not one that originated from American fundamentalists who dropped out of their Kentucky hills schools in fifth grade. It is a distinction with an ancient pedigree, going back in the first instance to the founding of modern science, and with ancient examples as well.

You are more than intelligent enough to follow everything I’ve just said, and I can’t think of how I could say it more clearly, so if this explanation doesn’t make clear to you the reasonable and basically common-sense nature of my point, I don’t know what more I can do.

PS I’m well aware of the point about Newton, but of course later Newtonians abandoned Newton’s claim, believing that they could show how the system would remain stable without intervention. In any case, Kepler and Boyle made no such claim, and since Newton’s system, as later polished, makes no such claim, the general distinction I’m making still holds for early modern astronomy/physics. The whole idea of the enterprise was to discover the inexorable laws by which the universe ran, laws which, it was believed, were put there, along with matter, force, etc. by the mind and will of God, exerted through supernatural action. It was not science’s job to investigate the supernatural origin of things – how God’s supernatural action worked, how the first matter or forces or laws came into being. It was science’s job to investigate, given the universe as we find it, how the universe works.

The idea that science’s job was to explain origins came along later, first in cosmology and geology, and later in biology, and still later in psychology. It wasn’t self-evident, from the very nature of science as it was conceived in the 17th century, that science had any obligation to, or even any possibility of, explaining origins.

All these things are well-known to historians of science, and can be gleaned from the primary sources or by reading historical works on the origin of science. I’m not “making anything up”; I’m reporting what I’ve learned from 40+ years of reading primary and secondary sources in the history of science. (50+ years, if you throw in my reading of popular-level science history works in elementary and high school.) The works of Burtt, Koyre, Cassirer, Collingwood, Oakley, Jaki, and many others are easily available from university libraries, online bookstores, etc., and the general correctness of my historical remarks here can easily be confirmed from reading them.

Still confusing a question of ultimatate origins with questions about general historical inference. The fact that some people thought that the solar system or the cosmos originated by divine intervention does not mean they agree with the claim that there is a fundamental difference between so-called historical and operational science. Presumably Newton would agree that his laws of mechanics could be used to draw scientific inferences about the historical behaviors of celestial objects, despite their (in his view) putative divine origin.


Unfortunately for Eddie, this isn’t even close to being the same distinction.

Millions of years of evolutionary history would be included in “historical science”, but not in “what it takes to originate something”. So would plate tectonics, planetary histories, study of ancient languages and paleontology. Noah’s flood would likewise fall on different sides of each of these distinctions.

The distinction between “historical” vs “operational” science is a creationist invention, and should not be confused with any of the distinctions “fieldwork vs labwork”, “experimental vs observational”, “origination vs continuation” or “miracle vs non-miracle”.

Then cease your unconvincing name-dropping and quote from those primary writings.


There are no such terms except as invented by creationists. There are no such separate concepts except as invented by creationists. There is definitely no such thing as “origins science”. There is such a thing as historical science, but even Newton practiced that when he used his rules of gravitation to determine past states of the solar system. Historical science doesn’t differ from other science in any significant way.

Yes it is, since the same laws or principles are involved in how it came to be as in what keeps it going. There is continuity among past states, present states, and future states.

In other words, they improved the explanation of how the solar system came to be in its current state. “Origins science”!

Of course, that belief had nothing to do with science, so it’s odd that you even bring it up.

What do you mean by “origins”? That’s another creationist notion. A better term would be “change”. The investigation is of how a system changes from one state to another. And of course that’s what Newton, Boyle, etc. were doing too.

I reject your unverifiable claims of knowledge and your name-dropping. Those aren’t arguments.


I tried to reply to you last night, Ron, but the “slow mode” prevented me. (It’s quite irritating, actually. I don’t mind the idea of making people wait an hour before posting a new reply, to cool down passions and enable them to edit their posts, but four hours slows things down far too much. I wish the powers that be here would reduce the wait time.)

Anyhow, I think we are going to end up in approximate agreement, though getting there by different routes. Here are my responses:

Agreed. But being able to infer past positions of the planets in the solar system based on the present position of the planets in the solar system is not the same as being able to infer, from the current position of all bodies in the solar system, how the solar system came into existence. Newton’s physics could retrodict the past positions of the planets, but it didn’t tell him anything about how the solar system came into existence. He didn’t offer any explanation of how it came into existence, beyond saying that it was a wise contrivance of God, was the creation of God, and the like.

Not the same distinction exactly, but not unrelated. The distinction between the original acts of creation, which cannot be explained by means of modern science, and the post-creation “normal operations” of nature, which can be so explained, lies at the root of YEC arguments. For a YEC, “origins science” (an accurate knowledge of the causes of the origins of natural things) would have to be different from “operational science” (an accurate knowledge of the causes of rainfall, of the movement of the planets, of plant growth, etc.), if the origin of natural things was a series of supernatural actions, whereas the everyday operation of nature involves no supernatural actions. And I don’t think the broad general principle is unsound (as I said, even Newton, Boyle, etc. thought that science did not explain origins); the problem is in the way YECs apply it.

Where YEC goes badly wrong, I think, is in moving from a typical early modern position, that there are certain things about ultimate origins that we cannot know by science because science can’t deal with the miraculous aspects of origins, to the more extreme position that extrapolation into the past, based on natural laws, is unreliable and leads to false conclusions. To be sure, they don’t say this absolutely: they grant that if you know where Mars is today, you can back-calculate where it was 100 years ago. But they aren’t consistent about this, because of their commitment to a certain timeline derived from Biblical exegesis.

Thus, where Mars was a 100 years ago or even 6,000 years ago, they don’t care about, because it doesn’t affect their religiously-based timeline, so they will leave inferences about the past like that unchallenged. But if one extrapolates from rates of sedimentation and other natural processes and infers that there was no global flood in 3,000 BC or thereabouts, suddenly they deny the value of extrapolation into the past, because they have a theological commitment to the reality of a global flood at that date. In short, the distinction between “origins science” and “operational science” is inconsistently applied. Sometimes “operational science” is given a free hand to extrapolate into the past; other times it isn’t. It can safely extend 6000 years back and give us the correct position of Mars, but it can’t safely infer that a much more recent event (the flood) did not happen. A certain set of Biblical interpretations controls when the origins/operation distinction is to be applied, how far it is to be applied, etc. It looks very much as if the origins/operational distinction is an ad hoc affair rather than consistent epistemological position.

So in the end, I agree with you that the 17th-century distinction – between God’s supernatural creative action and the subsequent rule of the world by natural laws – does not exactly match what many YECs do with the origins/operational distinction. Nonetheless, the YECs, albeit in an inconsistent way, are picking up something that was really there, at the beginning of modern science, something that makes the materialist posters here uncomfortable: the titans of early modern science were unapologetic theists who thought that natural causes alone could not explain the origins of things, and that the methods of natural science did not and should not have monopolistic control over the discussion of origins.

But it had everything to do with the origin of the world. The point is that Newton, Boyle, etc. did not think that the origin of the world had a “scientific” explanation. That’s where they disagree with you, and with the other atheist posters here. As for the rest of your reply, the tone is too aggressive and gauntlet-throwing; you appear to be in the conversation to win every single point, not to learn anything from anyone. So I decline to comment further.

I already conceded that the actual phrasing was a modern invention, but was pointing out that underneath the phrasing, and underneath all the badly formulated and inconsistent arguments, there was an important connection with early modern scientific thought. I am not recommending that people study YEC writers, but that they go back and read some of that early modern scientific thought (and philosophy of nature thought, since the two fields overlapped back then). But the reading will do no good if it’s undertaken to dig up quotations to be used in arguments on the internet. It will only do good if it’s undertaken out of sheer intellectual interest in the thoughts of the early modern scientists on origins, the nature of science, etc., with an open mind.

Why are you bringing atheism into it? Don’t scientists who are Christians also mostly think that the world (by which we seem to refer to earth and/or the solar system in this conversation) has a scientific explanation? This has nothing to do with atheism.

Now, I doubt they thought much about whether the origin of the world could be explained by science. They just accepted a story they had been told and never thought to bring evidence to bear on it. But that doesn’t amount to any sort of considered position on what is and isn’t science, much less on a difference between two sorts of science.

Flouncing is not conducive to progress. You tone has been arrogant and condescending throughout, but that hasn’t deterred me. Have a little more backbone.


Oh, look, another quote-mine. This one omits the rest of the sentence, which contrasted the “historical” vs “operational” science with other distinctions that have been made, including the one Eddie is referring to. Here’s the full sentence again:

*The distinction between “historical” vs “operational” science is a creationist invention, and should not be confused with any of the distinctions “fieldwork vs labwork”, “experimental vs observational”, “origination vs continuation” or *“miracle vs non-miracle”.

Deleting a response to a point and then reiterating that point as if there was no response is fundamentally dishonest.

So when 'a modern fundamentalist says that “origins science” is different from “operational science,” ', he’s not talking about origins science as practiced by scientists, he’s talking about creationism.

I think everyone here will agree that creationism differs from operational science. That says absolutely nothing about “origins science” or “historical science” though, modern or earlier.

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It is not the religious, philosophical, or cultural drift from the time of the classical scientists that has changed the mandate of science. The impetus towards origins has been inexorable from within science itself.

Newton accepted that his Principia did not encompass creation, not only because of his cultural milieu, but also because his theory had no explanatory power for the origin of the mechanical universe. The state of science for Newton and Boyle presented a steady state for the universe as a whole, and inherently excluded origins.

I would take this a step even further and say that it was explicitly evident that 17th century science had no possibility of explaining origins. 20th century science, in contrast, finds itself obliged to consider domains once reserved for philosophical and religious contemplation. GR, QM, and current biology necessarily extend to a penultimate zone of origins, without any regard at all for philosophy of science. There is no option of returning to classical science; that universe simply no longer exists.

There is, of course, the ultimate question of why does anything exist at all? I believe in creation, and do not think that science can ever answer that, but others would disagree.


The same scientific method is used for all of the science you are describing. This applies to understanding how rain is falling right now and to how solar systems form.

It should make you nervous when people arbitrarily decide which questions science is allowed to ask and which it is not. Just how far back do the natural laws go? Do we get to draw a line and say, “Here be dragons”?

What would Newton think now? I am very, very, very certain that Newton would fully accept the science showing how the solar system was formed, and he wouldn’t bat an eye calling it science. It is understandable that scientists from the past failed to imagine how far science could progress in determining the history of the universe.