“Science can answer ‘how’ questions, but religion answers ‘why’ questions” has become a cliche, oft-quoted by those believing in a proper role for religion even in today’s scientific world. Rarely is this claim argued for, rather it is usually stated as though it were obviously true, a knock-down argument that refutes scientism. The claim is that, while science can tell us how the natural world works, only religion can tell us how the universe came to be and why it was created. Too much emphasis on science is seen as leaving the narrow-minded advocate of scientism as lacking any appreciation of the world of values and emotions and desires and everything that makes life worth living.
The advocate of scientism rejects any such suggestion, considering that values and desires are just as much a property of the natural world as anything else, being the products of highly evolved but entirely natural animals, and thus just as much within the proper domain of science as anything else.
What do we actually mean by a ‘why’ question? To a large extent, ‘why’ and ‘how’ are synonyms, and many questions using one could be rephrased using the other. “Why does a boat made out of metal float even though metal is denser than water?” is the same as asking how a boat floats.
Those who quote the above cliche, however, don’t mean ‘why’ in that sense; by ‘why’ they refer to the desires and purposes of a sentient being who deliberately caused or created something as a means to some end.
It is simply wrong, and trivially so, to claim that science cannot address such questions. Why did the chimpanzee strip leaves from a twig? To use it as a probe to fish for termites. Why did the vervet monkey give an alarm call? To warn its fellow monkeys about a predator. Why does a squirrel store nuts? To eat in winter. Why did the Neanderthal make a stone tool? To chop up food. Anyone who thinks that answering such questions is not scientific is simply wrong.
If the questions are about humans, instead of other mammals, that makes no difference. Humans are just as much products of the natural world as other animals, and the study of ourselves (variously called anthropology, sociology, human biology, medicine and psychology) is just as much a science as other areas of biology.
So what on earth can people actually mean by “Science can answer ‘how’ questions, but religion answers ‘why’ questions”? They are referring, not to squirrels, monkeys, chimps or even humans, they are referring to gods. They are suggesting that the answer to questions such as “Why is the Earth here?” is that “God made it as a home for humans”, and they are suggesting that science cannot give these answers; that needs religion.
But, is the complaint really that science cannot give answers involving gods, or is it merely that science does not give such answers? The possibility that the universe or Earth was made for a purpose by a god is just as much a scientific issue as the origin of a stone tool made by an ancient human, or the origin of any other natural object. If the world had been intelligently designed the fingerprints of that creation would be all over it. Yet they aren’t. And don’t try pointing to supposed fine tuning as evidence of design, it isn’t. To quote Richard Dawkins:
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
As understanding of the natural world has developed, science has become more and more atheistic. As science has progressed, explanations involving gods have been progressively discarded because they work less well (and far less parsimoniously) than explanations that don’t involve gods. Nowadays, science “has no need of that hypothesis” (in the words of Laplace, when asked by Napoleon whether God was intervening).
If the universe had been intelligently designed, science could and would reveal it. If the answer to the ‘why’ questions was indeed “God did it”, then science could and would give that answer.
If science does not give those answers, that is most likely because there are no gods, and because phenomena in the natural world are not the result of the purposes and actions of gods. The complaint that science does not answer ‘why’ questions is really a case of shooting the messenger. If the answer is not the one desired, the believer rejects it and blames science, claiming that science must be incapable of giving the ‘right’ answer.
Religion does give the ‘right’ answer (the one the believer wants). Of course it is not a true answer, but then religion is about comforting beliefs, not about the pursuit of truth. The complaint “Science can answer ‘how’ questions, but religion answers ‘why’ questions”, should really be re-phrased: “Science gives evidence-supported answers that are likely true, but religion tells us what we want to hear”.