Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Descriptive and Explanatory

Science educators devote a majority of their teaching to one, or at most two of three major knowledge disciplines--physical science, earth science, or life science. These specialties sometimes overlap. For example, oceanography comprises knowledge of physical science principles with respect to the ocean as well as life science connections for oceanographers specializing in marine biology. Most often, natural science educators focus on topics related to either physical science or life science. Physical science is more concerned about the topics such as energy and forces. Life science educators, while not unaware of focus topics of physical scientists, are more concerned with the unique qualities of living systems. Living systems have the unique ability to reproduce themselves and initiate volitional behaviors. Viewed this way, life scientists see themselves in a separate category of science discovery. “Something special” sets living things apart from non-living entities in the physical world.

Phenomena of interest to physical and earth scientists are describable and reasonably easy to explain in terms of interactions of energy and forces. Given that numerous physical constants of our cosmos are set in place unchangeably, it is no challenge for scientists to describe and explain the behavior of matter in terms of interactions of known forces and energy. (Debate exists among theists and non-theists about the author of dozens of physical constants and the resulting incredible fine-tuning. Did God author the physical constants? Did obvious fine-tuning of our universe result?) Given that we are immersed in a world of changeless physical constants, it is easy both to describe and explain behavior in the realm of physical science.

To highlight the differences between physical and life sciences we recount four past summer posts. In 2008 we submitted the first of four consecutive summer posts on our remarkable family experiences with monarch butterflies:
Historically, scientists have debated terms like vitalism and √©lan vital. These terms refer to “something special” possessed by living things, though not in the sense of a theistic miracle. Currently these terms are no longer part of scientific vocabulary. Rather, scientists seem content merely to describe the behavior and characteristics of living creatures. Examples include the incredible coded informational content of DNA and the now well-known phenomenon of the cells’ ability to “read” the codes of DNA and RNA to manufacture the body’s thousands of proteins and fold them into correct functional shapes. Secular scientists in our day do not attempt to explain either the past or ongoing role of the divine Originator of the genetic code. Neither do they explain precisely how protein manufacture, folding, and distribution actually occur except to say, “It happens.” Perhaps there are no naturalistic answers. Modern biologists have enormous ability to discover and describe; less ability to explain. Methodological naturalism rules out any speculation concerning the Designer’s past and current active role.

Let us muse concerning our observation of designing and building projects when we were children. Many of today’s senior citizens observed their fathers or grandfathers repairing a motor or executing a carpentry project, especially if they were raised on a farm. Let us apply this mundane example to illustrate the difference between description and explanation. We could describe a working motor in terms of its delivery of steady power to the drive train, but we may be less able to explain how the motor was assembled by an intelligent agent. What wrenches were used to tighten the connections, what other tools were used, and in what sequence were they used? Our father’s hand-wrought lawn furniture may be described and admired. In the sphere of explanation, however, how and when were the saws, hammers, screws, and planes used to fashion the final product? Exactly what did the artisan do?

The exultation of Psalm 139, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” comes to mind frequently when the subjects of human genetic inheritance and assembly are discussed. Bio-science authors have produced a captivating account of the process of RNA coding using only four “digits” of nucleotides. Groups of codons, triplets of three nucleotides in any order, are abbreviated A, U, C, and G and provide meticulously detailed information concerning the manufacture of appropriate proteins. The foregoing genetic “minicourse” does not begin to address how amino acid chains consisting of thousands of molecules are folded into limitless three-dimensional shapes and how proteins so formed are assigned to different parts of the body to build a coherent body structure. We illustrate our fascination with the plentitude of description and paucity of explanation in our fine bioscience textbooks by citing an example: Biology texts presumptuously claim, “Proteins spontaneously fold,” and, “Proteins are self-assembling.”

We urge our readers to consider how satisfying grandfather’s discussion of his completed lawn furniture would be if he merely told his grandson, “My lawn furniture self-assembled!” or, “It formed spontaneously!” Thoughtful grandchildren would want more information on the driving forces and functions of the intelligent mind directing the construction process. “What?” questions are much easier to answer than “How?” questions.

Secular biology textbooks are not spiritual devotional manuals. However, before the deliberate movement toward secularization of science in the late 19th century, scientists were generally unafraid to speculate on intelligent design in nature before molecular biology as a discipline arose less than a century ago. Its birth, beginning about 1930, followed the movement toward secularization of science from 1870 to 1930. Molecular biology primarily originated with identification of DNA structure and the cracking of the genetic code in the 1950s and 1960s. What is significant about these time frames? Ironically, the discoveries of molecular biologists in the last eighty years have opened the door widely to identification of a God of incredible omnipotence and creativity. The DNA code is clearly the product of an intelligent mind beyond our ability to conceive, not to mention our inability to duplicate divine creativity at sub-microscopic dimensions of the cell.

For the first half of the 19th century pronouncements concerning design in the world of life were primarily rooted in scientists’ devotion and worship, basically unchallenged by secularism. Now, in the face of scientists’ nearly limitless ability to discover and to describe genetic code discoveries and other formerly hidden wonders of the cell, we are choked by the religion of naturalistic science. Most scientists, according to the “rules of the game” long established by the secularists, do not countenance promotion of supernaturalism in their domain. Our blog posts have decried this reality and will continue to do so.

Scientists of faith and laypersons whose faith is supported by recognition of apparent supernatural reality in the world of nature must work to blend description and explanation to help call attention to the Creator. Secular public schools still need skilled teachers able to describe our world with scientific accuracy. Outside of secular science classrooms, where mere description seems weak and inadequate, skilled teachers must be prepared to explain the role of God as a supernatural, omnipotent Creator whose actions extend far beyond the mere natural.

The goal of our blog is not only to describe, but also to explain. In our theistic explanation we think creationally and supernaturalistically. We do not think evolutionarily or naturalistically.