Scientific and historical levels of explanation

Tuesday August 22, 2017

From page 1 of Flynn's What is intelligence?:

A warning for everyone: there are problems that can simply be settled by evidence, for example, whether some swans are black. But there are deeper problems that pose paradoxes. Sometimes the evidence that would solve them lies in an inaccessible past. That means we have to retreat from the scientific level of explanation to the historical level where we demand only plausibility that conforms to the known facts. I believe that my efforts to resolve the historical paradoxes we will discuss should be judged by whether someone has a more satisfactory resolution to offer. The reader should be wary throughout to distinguish the contentions I evidence from the contentions to which I lend only plausibility.

I'm not sure whether an existence claim (about black swans) is the best example, or whether it matters much if other problems are deeper or pose paradoxes, but I do think this is an interesting way to phrase the epistemological difference between a claim supported experimentally, as by a randomized controlled trial, and a claim based on observational evidence that is not direct. It's the kind of thing that I think is worth considering, especially as there seems to be so much disagreement about how to settle problems.