Science in Christian Perspective



Penetrating the Word Maze

Richard H. Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are: "DESCRIBE/EXPLAIN."

The Dictionary definitions: describe: "to represent by a figure, model, or picture/explain: "to give the reason for or cause of " [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1987)].


Two words that seem to get inextricably entangled in discussions of science and religion are "describe" and "explain." Typical of remarks that one may hear are: "Science has passed from the descriptive stage to the explanatory stage: from telling us what things look like to telling us what causes them to be the way they are." Or, "People used to believe mythological explanations for natural phenomena until science explained them. Now, of course, there is neither need nor room for supernatural categories." We will be able to come to grips with such statements better if we reflect on the meaning and use of these two words. Perhaps it is most helpful to realize that both of these words have a bi-level set of meanings. Trying to match meanings of the two words from different levels always leads to confusion. Let us call the two levels, "soft" and "hard."

To describe in a "soft" way means essentially to catalogue. We note what meets the eye: the color and shape of objects, whether the objects be leaves, rocks, or animals. We tell what they look like "to the eye." We may make groupings such as large leaves, medium sized leaves, and small leaves; magnetic rocks and non-magnetic rocks; animals that lay eggs and those that do not. We give "names" to the various kinds we see and we arrange these names in ordered sequences. It is the kind of activity found prominently in classical biology and botany, before biochemistry and genetics came on the scene, Science starts with "soft" descriptions, but it does not end there.

To describe in a "hard" way means to follow the dictionary definition given above: to come up with a model or a picture of the thing or event being described, using phenomena with which we are familiar to describe phenomena with which we have not previously been familiar. it is the language of mathematics, simile and metaphor, conceptual models that seek to produce properties that are similar to those that we see. We say that "an atom is like a miniature solar system with the electrons going around the nucleus like planets around the sun. " There-are differences, because the electrons are held by electromagnetic forces whereas the planets are held by gravitational forces. Then we ask, "If the atom can be modeled as a predictions can we make systems that we might log is exhibited by the Later we find that the is not adequate to describe some of the properties of the atom that we can observe. We are led to try to come up with some other model that will be more completely consistent with known properties of the atom, and, if possible, be successful in predicting properties that we have not previously known. In all of these activities, science is fundamentally engaged in the process of "hard" as well as "soft" descriptions.

The "soft" use of "explain" arises from our ability to say the following: If we have come up with a reasonably reliable model (a "hard" description), then this model tells us accurately in a variety of ways what the thing or. event is like and how it behaves. whereas before the description we had no idea of " how it worked," now we have an idea of "how it works and hence, we have a kind of explanation (a "soft" explanation). Whereas at one time I did no fell to the ground, now I can "explain" it by invoking the model of gravity. I am provided with immediate (sometimes called "proximate") mechanisms for how things work. Lunar eclipses are not totally rnystical events that defy human understanding; I can "explain" them by noting the optical phenomena involved in the casting of the earth's shadow on the moon when the  act of configuration of the earth, moon and sun are appropriate. In fact, I can with great precision predict future eclipses, since they depend rigorously on fairly simple geometrical properties of the solar system. My "hard" description has provided me with a "soft" explanation.

A "hard" explanation seeks to go further-it claims that the knowledge of only immediate mechanisms ("proximate causes") is all that is meaningful, necessary, or relevant, not only within science but for all of life. It denies that the concept of "ultimate cause" has any relevance, Once we have Provided knowledge of a Physical mechanism, then we have "explained away" any other interpretation. This use of the concept of "hard" explanations is based on the assumption that all meaningful answers are scientifically obtainable answers, and that therefore once a scientific answer has been obtained, there are no other relevant considerations. In this view the development of a "hard" explanation in anistic model that works of any other kinds of other models or categories of human experience.

To speak of "soft" descriptions does not do justice to the nature of modern science in seeking for ever more sophisticated and representative models of the world for "hard" descriptions. To speak of "hard" explanations is to introduce a faith commitment that proximate causes are the only causes.

If we speak about science providing us with "explanations," we run the risk of being misunderstood by those who interpret what we say as referring to "hard;' explanations rather than "soft" explanations. What science does is provide "hard" descriptions that serve as soft" explanations.

Remember to let the Editor or Author know whether or not this column describes your explanation.