Reasoning, Data Interpretation, and Storytelling

posted by cacpro
aj roberts

Dr. Roberts is a Reasons To Believe Research Scholar

My name is Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, and I am a research scholar at Reasons to Believe in Covina, California. As a PhD molecular biologist and Christian apologist, I often contemplate the integration of science and Christian theology. I have found that many of the stories we tell as we interpret scientific data are driven not by the data itself, but by the philosophical frameworks that shape our understanding of the world and our lives in it. At the National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA) I will be speaking on “Reasoning, Data Interpretation, and Storytelling.” I’ll survey various types of reasoning and discuss how data interpretation and ultimately the stories we tell about science, nature, and human existence are philosophically influenced, not just data-driven. As a truth-seeker who has found my greatest hope and purpose in the true story of Jesus Christ, I am excited to participate in NCCA this year. The talks and events at NCCA allow us to explore the human narrative and to discover the abundant, soul-satisfying truth revealed and authored by the exalted Creator and almighty God.

Adaptation and Storytelling

In storytelling, the best writers create tension, foreshadowing, plot twists, and characterizations that not only entertain, but also make sense within the world the writer has established. It’s how the narrative all fits together and progresses toward a meaningful, if not surprising, ending that makes a great story. Bad stories, on the other hand, result when the story’s world violates its own principles, or when the protagonist defies his or her own nature.

Two Tales

If we consider cosmic and life history as a story, we might expect it to unfold and develop in ways that reflect its origin and purpose. Naturalistic explanations and assumptions will produce a story structured very differently, with very different characters and settings than one described by a biblical model, in which a powerful, intelligent, transcendent Being created the universe and life. Let’s ponder the tales these two tell.

In a naturalistic storyline, as time unfolds the physical, mechanistic interactions observable in the universe, there can be no goal, no foreshadowed climax, and no moral or purpose in the end. This is the tale of neo-Darwinism and the extended evolutionary synthesis. In this story, characters are mechanistic, the setting devoid of intent and purpose. Any language that is employed to animate naturalistic processes or biological entities as characters of intent does not fit well with the naturalistic story structure and foundation. For example, to tell a naturalistic story where viruses “cleverly evade” a host’s defense system or genes evolve and persist because they are “selfish” and “desire survival” is extremely poor storytelling. As is the following: “Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level” [emphasis added]. This language is inconsistent with naturalistic mechanisms because it does not reflect unguided mutations and natural selection. Instead, it endues its characters with imaginary powers and volition.

A naturalistic story without characters of intent and action would captivate no one. Not only would it bore us to tears; it would be a hard sale because it’s an account foreign to our daily experiences.

We Are a Story-seeking People

Our lives and understanding of reality differ drastically from a story fitting a strictly naturalistic framework. Our world contains characters of intent, animation, contemplation, abstract reasoning, and self-awareness. We are not products of mechanistic processes that advance through accruing mutations over time. Nor are we the offspring of saltation events, shunning gradualism for rapidly increasing complexity in a vast array of biomolecular networks. We are intricately complex, dynamic, adaptive, creative, willful characters reflecting a dynamic and brilliant Creator. The design and engineering replete within biological organisms, as well as the extreme diversity of species extant and extinct, and the incredible fine-tuning required to sustain highly complex and technologically advanced life is astounding! Such inescapable observations led eminent scientist Francis Crick to exhort his colleagues to “constantly keep in mind” that the apparent design in nature is not design but the byproduct of naturalistic evolution. His exhortation is born from a commitment to naturalism, not to interpretation of observed data.

In stark contrast, thinkers like the apostle Paul articulate the design in nature quite differently:

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (Romans 1:19–20, NLT)

In reality our world is bursting with characters that ask questions, form hypotheses, reasonably test them, and build stories with plots and purpose and meaning. We deeply desire meaningful and purpose-filled lives. We will and actualize specific actions. We develop complex, abstract theories and derive mathematical models to understand and mirror creation’s designs. How unfitting to naturalism’s story!

I say all of this primarily to point out the difference in basic story structure between naturalism and creationism, and to encourage people to consider how faithful data interpretation and conclusions fit into competing stories’ structures. Data interpretations and conclusions depend on which tale one is trying to tell and which will fit one’s preferred story to varying degrees of satisfaction. When considering our collective experience and observations of the world, I believe a greater degree of fittingness is found in the progressive creationist story drawn from Scripture and scientific observations.

Let’s consider the specific case of molecular adaptation. Naturalists often herald molecular adaptation as a hallmark of evolution. But is this truly the case?

Adapting to the Storyline

Adaptation addresses how organisms change, survive, thrive, and develop—or else fail to do so —over time. In its scientific context it primarily reflects molecular changes at the genomic level that result in increased fitness to the organism. Adaptation certainly occurs within every organism that has the ability to survive or thrive. Organisms that cannot adapt will not survive. Species will be driven to extinction in the absence of adaptation. Adaptation could certainly occur within both the naturalistic and the biblical storylines, but which one is the best fit?

Adaptation is a quality of living, not inanimate, objects. Therefore, adaptation cannot drive biogenesis (life from non-life) in any storyline, naturalistic or biblical. Furthermore, molecular adaptation is not an intrinsic process of intent. It is not an outcome implemented by an organism’s will to adapt or survive. Adaptation is really a descriptive term reflecting molecular changes that result in increased fitness under specific conditions. In a naturalistic story it actually describes the relatively unlikely mutation events that result in increased fitness in a given environment. Most mutations will result in a loss of, or no change in, function, rather than an increase in function or fitness.

Nevertheless, adaptation—an incredibly unlikely series of accruing fitness mutations in an unguided mechanistic scenario—is evident everywhere we look! Single-cell and complex organisms adapt continually.

Within a biblical storyline, a powerful, omniscient, and intelligent Being who originated life in its diversity would reasonably endow it with a variety of adaptive mechanisms in order to survive and thrive under eons of moderate and extreme environmental stresses and challenges. Molecular adaptation, within a biblical narrative, may be understood as a remarkable process of modification within complex, systematic architectures. It is completely consistent and even predicted within a story of brilliant design.

Molecular adaptation is either an unlikely event that somehow blindly drives evolution toward new remarkable heights for no intended outcome, or it is a mechanism of great foresight and creative engineering intended to increase survival and thriving of highly diverse organisms in the face of extreme challenges. Molecular adaptation fits both stories, but it fits as well or better in a biblical story of creation.

Are Evolutionists Lowering the Standard of Life?” and “Failures to Philosophize” are two related articles available at reasons.org where I frequently write on topics at the interface of science and Christian theology. You can follow my blog, Theorems & Theology, connect with me on Twitter @RTB_AJRoberts, or join in dialogue on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AJRobertsrtb/.

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