Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-8tfrx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-30T02:44:11.040Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The Role of Historical Science in Methodological Actualism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022

Meghan D. Page*
To contact the author, please write to: Loyola University Maryland, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21210; e-mail:


This article examines the role of historical science in clarifying the causal structure of complex natural processes. I reject the pervasive view that historical science does not uncover natural regularities. To show why, I consider an important methodological distinction in geology between uniformitarianism and actualism; methodological actualism, the preferred method of geologists, often relies on historical reconstructions to test the stability of currently observed processes. I provide several case studies that illustrate this, including one that highlights how historical narratives can improve predictive models.

Research Article
Copyright 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Tremendous thanks to Richard Alley, for many conversations and insights during the development of this article, and to Elizabeth Dahl for putting us in touch. Additional thanks to Elanor Taylor, Allison Krile Thornton, Jennifer Jhun, Elizabeth Miller, and three anonymous referees, for helpful comments on previous drafts, and to Christine Grandy for her assistance with graphic design.


Albritton, C. C. 1963. The Fabric of Geology. Boston: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
Alley, R. B. 2007. “Wally Was Right: Predictive Ability of the North Atlantic ‘Conveyor Belt’ Hypothesis for Abrupt Climate Change.” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35:241–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alley, R. B.. 2010. “Reliability of Ice-Core Science: Historical Insights.” Journal of Glaciology 56 (200): 1095–103..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Broecker, W. S., Peteet, D. M., and Rind, D.. 1985. “Does the Ocean-Atmosphere System Have More than One Stable Mode of Operation?Nature 315 (6014): 2126..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cartwright, N., and McMullin, E.. 1984. How the Laws of Physics Lie. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Cleland, C. E. 2011. “Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62 (3): 551–82..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cuffey, K. M., Alley, R. B., Grootes, P. M., and Anandakrishnan, S.. 1992. “Toward Using Borehole Temperatures to Calibrate an Isotopic Paleothermometer in Central Greenland.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 98 (2–4): 265–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cuffey, K. M., Alley, R. B., Grootes, P. M., Bolzan, J. M., and Anandakrishnan, S.. 1994. “Calibration of the δ 18 o Isotopic Paleothermometer for Central Greenland, Using Borehole Temperatures.” Journal of Glaciology 40 (135): 341–49..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cuffey, K. M., Clow, G. D., Alley, R. B., Stuiver, M., Waddington, E. D., and Saltus, R. W.. 1995. “Large Arctic Temperature Change at the Wisconsin-Holocene Glacial Transition.” Science 270 (5235): 455–58..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Currie, A. 2018. Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gould, S. J. 1965a. “Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?American Journal of Science 263 (3): 223–28..Google Scholar
Gould, S. J.. 1965b. “Is Uniformitarianism Necessary? A Reply.” American Journal of Science 263 (10): 919–21..Google Scholar
Hooykaas, R. 1963. The Principle of Uniformity in Geology, Biology and Theology. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Hutton, J. 1788. “X: Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe.” Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1 (2): 209304..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jeffares, B. 2008. “Testing Times: Regularities in the Historical Sciences.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science C 39 (4): 469–75..Google ScholarPubMed
Johnsen, S. J., Dahl-Jensen, D., Dansgaard, W., and Gundestrup, N.. 1995. “Greenland Palaeotemperatures Derived from Grip Bore Hole Temperature and Ice Core Isotope Profiles.” Tellus B 47 (5): 624–29..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lange, M., et al. 2000. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Lewis, D. 1979. “Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow.” Noûs 13 (4): 455–76..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lyell, C. 1837. Principles of Geology: Being an Inquiry How Far the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface Are Referable to Causes Now in Operation. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Brother.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitchell, S. D. 1997. “Pragmatic Laws.” Philosophy of Science 64 (Proceedings): S468S479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitchell, S. D.. 2000. “Dimensions of Scientific Law.” Philosophy of Science 67 (2): 242–65..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Paterson, W., and Clarke, G.. 1978. “Comparison of Theoretical and Observed Temperature Profiles in Devon Island Ice Cap, Canada.” Geophysical Journal International 55 (3): 615–32..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Platt, D. E., et al. 2017. “Mapping Post-glacial Expansions: The Peopling of Southwest Asia.” Scientific Reports 7 (1): 110..CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Reutlinger, A., Schurz, G., Hüttemann, A., and Jaag, S.. 2019. “Ceteris Paribus Laws.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Zalta, Edward N.. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. .Google Scholar
Schick, K. D., and Toth, N. P.. 1994. Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
Turner, D. 2007. Making Prehistory: Historical Science and the Scientific Realism Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Turner, D.. 2014. “Philosophical Issues in Recent Paleontology.” Philosophy Compass 9 (7): 494505..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Whewell, W. 1832. Review of Principles of Geology, Vol. 2, by Lyell, Charles. Quarterly Review 47:103–32.Google Scholar
Wilson, R., and Elling, W.. 2004. “Temporal Instability in Tree-Growth/Climate Response in the Lower Bavarian Forest Region: Implications for Dendroclimatic Reconstruction.” Trees 18 (1): 1928..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, R. J., Luckman, B. H., and Esper, J.. 2005. “A 500 Year Dendroclimatic Reconstruction of Spring–Summer Precipitation from the Lower Bavarian Forest Region, Germany.” International Journal of Climatology 25 (5): 611–30..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Windelband, W. 1894/1980. “Rectorial Address, Strasbourg, 1894.” History and Theory 19 (2): 169–85..Google Scholar
Woodward, J. 2000. “Explanation and Invariance in the Special Sciences.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51 (2): 197254..CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wunsch, C. 2006. “Abrupt Climate Change: An Alternative View.” Quaternary Research 65 (2): 191203..CrossRefGoogle Scholar