Friday, 2 November 2012

Why? Why? There is no why!

One of the oft-repeated claims of those who maintain that religion provides something that science/materialism cannot is that religion can answer "why" questions. The standard re-used metaphor seems to be that used by theologian John Haught about making tea. In response to the question of "why is the kettle boiling?", the argument goes, the scientific answer will be something about heat, energy and the motion of water molecules inside the kettle, whereas there could be an equally valid answer of "because I want a cup of tea". In other words, science tells us what the Universe is like whereas religion can tell us why.

I have lots of problems with John Haught's metaphor and might give it a post of its own one day but it is already dealt with quite nicely elsewhere, such as this Skeptico blog post. In essence, though, the problem is this: none of the answers to the "why?" question that Haught proposes are outside the remit of science. Yes, there were several possible levels of causation that could be correctly introduced as explanations but science could address them all.

It's really just a problem of the recursive "why?" One could go on to ask, why did you want a cup of tea? And there would be a potential scientific explanation for that too. Perhaps you were thirsty. Why were you thirsty? Well, the body loses water through respiration, perspiration and excretion and that needs to be replaced? Why? We are mostly water and our bodily functions all need to be performed in a primarily aqueous environment. Why? Life originated in an aqueous environment. Why? And so and so forth.

Anyone who has spent any time around young children will be familiar with the recursive why problem - you can answer any response to the question "why?" with another question "why?" until, eventually, the answerer reaches the end of their patience and/or knowledge. At the end of the line, there is no why - there is just "because". And while religion claims that the "why" is their domain, they have the same problem. It may be true that they can insert a god in there near the end so that the answer is "God wanted it that way", there is still a "why?" And we end up with "because that's what God is like" rather than "because that's how things are" as our final "answer". It's just like the Origin of Life/The Universe question: if God made the Universe then who made God? If God always existed or popped into existence, then why not the Universe? It doesn't answer anything - it just increases the "unknowable" layer before you give up.

The other thing that really annoys me about religious claims to the "why" questions, though, is that religion really sucks at providing reasons for things. Take "The Problem of Evil" for example. This one still gives theologians major headaches. For science, on the other hand, there is no problem. The "why?" is simply a feature of the natural world - albeit one that we'd rather did not exist. Evolution is another one. Theistic evolutionists can come up with contrived reasons as to why a divine being might want to use the extremely lengthy, wasteful and unpleasant mechanism of Natural Selection to generate the complex life-form that is Homo sapiens but they are no where near as convincing as the more obvious answer to the question as to why did it take over 4.5 billion years for humans to appear - long, slow evolution and Natural Selection is the only way that something complex like humans could appear.

I have not encountered a single question regarding the physical or metaphysical Universe where religion provides a more satisfactory answer to the question "why?" than science and materialism. That's probably because science remains the only way we have of finding out if a given answer is right. (Or, at least, less wrong than our previous answer.) And that is my other problem with the how/what versus why claims: religion can suggest answers but it does not actually provide any way of knowing whether any of them are true.


  1. The biggest kink in the atheist armor is not the why question, it is the recursion that you talk about. This recursive problem implies that science nor any logical system can ever give a definitive and complete rationale explanation of the universe because logical systems can never be self consistent. Hence anyone who thinks science or logic does, is either making a logical mistake or has made a leap of faith (hence my position that atheism is just a religion without the moral stories). Take a look at Hofstader's book Goedel Escher Bach for a description of this recursive problem.

  2. Oops, should be a neither inserted between that and science above.

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  4. Interesting thoughts as always Rich. However, as someone who has used the 'cup of tea' metaphor I have a couple of comments. Speaking for myself, I don't use the metaphor to suggest that 'science' and 'religion' (I really don't like using those terms at all and certainly not dichotomously but for brevity...) have dibs on certain 'types' of question - science for 'what/how', religion for 'why' – as I seem to have inferred from your post. Certainly not, after all, 'why' must be the starting point for pretty much every scientific exploration: if we weren't curious, we wouldn't start investigating...
    I think people that use the metaphor (and certainly me) are instead driving at something else: questions about meaning and purpose. We are a species that seems to be conscious of questions regarding the meaning and purpose of things, and over our history we seem to have raised this enquiry to a metaphysical level: questions about ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose. Now of course you can say that this tendency is just a consequence of our large and complex brains taking the pattern recognition thing into overdrive... But to dismiss one of our (apparently) most central existential realities as a mere misfiring of the apparatus seems somehow... unsatisfying. And hence the ongoing delving and questioning of the metaphysical realm that those of us of a philosophical or theological bent engage in.

    I'm intrigued by your assertion: “I have not encountered a single question regarding the physical or metaphysical Universe where religion provides a more satisfactory answer to the question "why?" than science and materialism.” Surely, the metaphysical is beyond the remit of science and materialism by its very nature. That aside, regarding the 'Problem of Evil' it might be interesting to ask why we have the notion of the problem in the first place. Why as a species do we commonly seem to identify with the idea things are somehow 'wrong', 'evil' or that 'the world is messed up', when apparently this is just the completely normal and natural state of things.

    More 'why' questions I'm afraid! Certainly we may address them with 'scientific' disciplines such as psychology and sociology. We might also approach them philosophically or theologically. To deny ourselves one of those avenues seems rather arbitrary at best.

  5. Ahhrrghh sorry for double posting. Google stuff cross pollinating and I am such a simple soul...

  6. @Joel. I guess I just don't really see it as a problem as such, just the way things are. I'm OK with there being no ultimate explanation. It will still be interesting to see how far back we can push the boundary of the unknowable, though. As I've posted before, I also don't consider trusting science and logic despite this reality to be a "leap of faith". It is simply extrapolation from past experience. If a future experience should contradict that, I will change my position. You can call that faith if you like but then I think the word faith loses all meaning. Would you say that it is a "leap of faith" of my part that I don't expect to float off into space whenever I step outside?

    @Jamie. I have deleted the extra post. I hope that's OK. I've fallen foul of Google crossovers myself.

    I agree with you that some of the non-scientific approaches to problems can be fun and intellectually satisfying. I just don't think that they can ever provide actual answers.

    When I say, "“I have not encountered a single question regarding the physical or metaphysical Universe where religion provides a more satisfactory answer to the question "why?" than science and materialism”, I just mean that adding extra unnecessary stuff like gods to try and conjure up a "deeper" reasons/purposes is no more satisfying to me (and often less) than saying there is no reason. There is nothing else. It is a distraction, albeit one that can be fun (though all-to-often ends in conflict).

    I think philosophy etc. has a useful place in addressing some of these questions but, yes, ultimately I think that the answer to morality lies in biology and psychology. Scientific explanations are far more satisfying to me, make more sense, and are more useful because they can give real, testable insight. The same applies to ultimate meaning and purpose. No tool at our disposal can answer the question of ultimate meaning and purpose (or lack thereof) because of the recursive problem outlined. Within the scope of questions regarding meaning and purpose that are not ultimate - and therefore can be answered - I cannot think of any that cannot be addressed with science. Perhaps you could suggest some?

    Please note that in this post I am not saying that ONLY science should be applied. I am merely attacking the notion that there are questions that science cannot tackle, which something else can. (And gain actual knowledge of whether the answer is right.)

    PS. Sorry for never getting back to you before. I had lots of half-written replies - I think this post probably came out of one of them.

  7. Thanks for clarifying Rich. I have some follow up points but I think they stray too far from the OP so will send an email. All the best.


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