Re: Science and Religion

Matthew S. Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Wed, 11 Oct 1995 07:42:29 -0500

I had meant to post this earlier, but accidentally replied to Dwight
privately. apologies to anybody who cares...

Dwight Read writes:

>>Tomaso is correct in noting that we are often dependent upon non-replicable
>>events. But I would argue that even if we arrive at a theory whose stimulus
>>for its formulation is a non-replicable event, such a theory is NOT about
>>that event alone, but is about other events of a like kind where we can
>>potentially make observations that would serve to either confirm or
>>disconfirm that theory. If the goal is to account for the historically
>>particular event, then we are heavily dependent upon non-replicable data--but
>>the same comment can be made about historically particualr events in ANY
>>domain, whether it be a "hard" science or not.

Surprise, surprise, Dwight and I (and probably Danny Yee too) agree
completely. What Dwight refers to here is what I call validation through
multiple lines of converging evidence - in a way, this is a form of
inductive reasoning, but it clearly has a strong authenticating deductive
tendency too. By looking at the implications of a statement as test
hypotheses, with implications for other forms of data, one can (sort of)
perform hypothesis tests. The work that I do in historical anthropology
follows this line of thought, but an example from my masters' thesis in
geoarchaeology should provide a more accessible example -
>I wanted to investigate the historical geomorphological formation of an
archaeological site on Nevis, West Indies. I used ceramic refitting
studies and differential measurement of calcium carbonate accretion on
sherds to directly quantify the probability that postdepositional breakage
accounted for the breakage patterns in the sherds. The refitting method
also allowed me to rule out certain hypotheses regarding the redeposition of
the site which had been based on a series of stratigraphically reversed
radiocarbon dates (all within 1.1 standard deviations) and problematic
stratigraphic relationships. I was able to rule against the idea of
secondary context by showing, among other things, that all of the sherds
that could have been derived from each of the 26 reconstructed vessel lots
composing the assemblage were located within single strata - therefore
assemblages had not been mixed as would occur in redeposition. Having
established that, I employed traditional geomorphological methods and models
along with techniques of optical mineralogy, pedology and micromorphology,
to rough out a model of landscape history for the site and its surroundings.
I discovered that sedimentation rates seemed to correlate quite precisely
with evidence of human activity (no surprise), and that artifact density was
more dependent on 'natural' sedimentation rates than human activity (I put
'natural' in quotes because I believe that intentional defoliation of the
site area induced the increased erosion upstream leading to deposition in
the area of the site I was working on). Finally, I finished the piece off
with an analysis of the history of local sea floor conditions using
assemblages of shell bearing organisms associated with the same time frame
as the site.
All of this this barely grazes the surface of what I learned from this
analysis (soon to be published - stay tuned if you're interested), but, not
surprisingly, the combination of these disparate but mutually dependent data
all resulted in the establishment of a model of site formation processes to
be employed in interpretation in future research on the site (not my own,
however, since I'm now engaged in ethnohistory). The model can not be
tested, but all of the hypotheses which support it certainly can and should
be retested and reformulated as research proceeds and as new areas of this
rather large village site are explored.
This, in my view, is science. And I think Dwight would agree that it is
possible to do this sort of science in ethnographic, historical and even
cosmological settings without undesirably bracketing off subjectivity as an
uninteresting aside from the 'real' meaningful data.


Matt Tomaso.
Anthropology. University of Texas at Austin.
Phone/Fax 512-453-6256