Thursday, 1 December 2016

Naturalis Historia| Historical Science: How do We Know a Fish Fossil is a Fish Fossil?

Naturalis Historia| Historical Science: How do We Know a Fish Fossil is a Fish Fossil?


"The example he uses is a fossil fish. He asks what we can know about the fossil on the screen. The answer: Its dead, and it’s a fish. He claims this is the extent of what you can know about this fish.

He is going to go on to claim that we dig up fossils in the present and we can’t know much about their past such as their age, what color they were, what they ate or how they behaved etc.. To most audiences this sounds reasonable. But lets stop for a moment. I want to back up a bit and ask what might sound like a silly question. Just how does Tommy Mitchell know that the image on the screen is a fish? He stated it was as if this was an unassailable fact and not subject to interpretation.

He introduced this part of his talk by making the claim that what we know is that this is a “dead fish.” Did he see the fish when it was alive? Did he see it die? Did he see it become fossilized? Did the fossil come with label saying it was a fish? Did it even come with a label saying it is a fossil? The answer is No to all of these questions. So how can he be absolutely confident that this is, first, a fossil, and secondly that it is the remains of a dead fish?

I am not suggesting he is wrong. In fact I am quite sure that this fossil does represent the remains of what was one a living fish. But Mitchell’s own definition of historical science precludes his high degree of confidence that this is a fish without accepting that we can actually know things about the past and we can know about the past by our observations from the present world."

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