Science can indeed answer “why” questions

“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.

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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. 

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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).

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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”.

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21 thoughts on “Science can indeed answer “why” questions

  1. cabbagesofdoom

    Well said. It’s also interesting how theists seem perfectly happy to assume that there even has to be an ultimate “why” behind everything. Science (and philosophy) are always able to go one stage further than theology, for they can ask whether there is a “why” at all.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      That’s a good way of putting it: science can not only answer ‘why’ questions, it can go further and ask whether there is a ‘why’.

  2. Joe Keysor

    Of course science can answer “Why questions” – the question is, “Are the answers true ones?”

    Why do we love music? Because of evolution! An answer – but is it true?

    Reply
    1. Gary Hill

      Well, we love music because particular patterns of sound, melody and rhythm, combinations of which we have been culturally programmed to enjoy cause a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the availability of which is certainly due to the genetic evolution of the primate brain. This is true because it can be demonstrated by means of multiple lines of investigation performed in different scientific fields that has produced converging data.

    2. Brad

      First of all….you don’t LOVE all music…you love the ones that make you FEEL good! And because a question can be asked does not mean it makes any sense! What is the color of justice? What is the sound of red? Why do we love music? Really? There is no universal answer to that. That’s for YOU to answer if it even makes any sense to you!! Why look to others for answers? Why read a book to get your questions answered.? Who is your authority and what makes that human have YOUR answers. If I want to KNOW what an apple tastes like….I can ask you what your opinion of an apple is … I can read a definition of an apple…I can ask my teacher or parent what they think…..or I can grab an apple…feel it my hands…smell it with my nose…and then taste it with my mouth. And I will then —without any doubt or anyone else’s answer KNOW…what an apple is. It is the same with the whole universe. If you want to know the universe-you must lose your mind and return to your senses!! It’s really quite simple……with unmediated attention…all will be easily seen without any authority needed! The whole show exists right before your senses with “not a thing” hidden!! Go take a bite out of the universe and SEE for YOURSELF!!

  3. Justified

    “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.”

    That is scientism at its worst. Religion, in its best incarnation, does not give easy answers nor does it leave the seeker without challenges. Quite the opposite. On the other hand, many have credited science as an excuse to ignore God’s calling, or to justify all manner of sinfulness.

    I am not against science whatsoever. But your own answer, sir, is not the true answer but is an answer all about comforting beliefs of the non-believer — not about the pursuit of truth.

    The vapid and widespread dogma these days by supposed “science advocates” (there is nothing scientific about it, actually) against religion is largely cynical, hateful, and theologically incorrect.

    Reply
    1. Gary Hill

      “Religion, in its best incarnation, does not give easy answers”

      Religion does not give us any answers. If religion was the pursuit of truth then we would reasonably expect to see converging understanding from theologians and all the different faith traditions as to the nature and characteristics of god, the mechanisms employed by a deity etc. But let’s be perfectly honest here – we know no more about these matters than we did several thousand years ago – theologians can’t even agree on a definition of god, or what morality actually is and,as a result, there are plenty of people, from Palestine to Kashmir to Belfast to Rwanda to Sri Lanka to etc etc who are suffering as a result.

      Science on the other hand is the uniting force par excellence. There is no Muslim physics or Christian physics, Baptist biology or Catholic genetics, Hindu civil engineering, pantheist astronomy.

      Science has proven itself to have the tools to uncover the truth. Religion does not. I care about the truth. So yes, I’ll choose scientism over religionism any day.

  4. Pingback: Science can deal with the supernatural | coelsblog

  5. CBuick

    “[B]y ‘why’ they refer to the desires and purposes of a sentient being” — Uh, no. They are inquiring about the worth, purpose and ultimate meaning of something. It is not clear why these should be thought unimportant or unintelligent questions. And science’s useless reply? There is “no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”. Why do people say science doesn’t know why? Because that’s what science itself says, that’s why. Science says, the “why” is that there is no “why”.

    But then, if science demands purposelessness, how can science have a purpose?

    And why does anyone then not just off himself and have done with it? The atheist’s rationalizations for that question are no more rational, and no less wishful thinking, than anybody else’s.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      “[B]y ‘why’ they refer to the desires and purposes of a sentient being” — Uh, no. They are inquiring about the worth, purpose and ultimate meaning of something.

      Yes, but notions of worth, purpose and meaning always relate to the thoughts of a sentient being.

      It is not clear why these should be thought unimportant or unintelligent questions.

      They are not unimportant or unintelligent questions. But the answer can be “there is no such ultimate worth, purpose and meaning, because there is no god-like sentient being to have originated them”.

      Why do people say science doesn’t know why? Because that’s what science itself says, that’s why. Science says, the “why” is that there is no “why”.

      Science saying there is no “why” is *not* the same as science saying it doesn’t know. Science says that it does know, and that the answer is that there is no “why”.

      But then, if science demands purposelessness, how can science have a purpose?

      Science does not deman purposelessness. Science says that purposes are the result of sentient beings. Where there are no sentient beings there is no purpose. And “science” does *not* have a purpose, though people have purposes and people who do science have purposes.

      And why does anyone then not just off himself and have done with it?

      Because we don’t want to. Life is very enjoyable. Don’t you think?

  6. JMK

    More materialist and pseudo-scientific bullshit, for a change.
    And no, I am not a religionist, it’s you who don’t realize how stupid and ignorant you are.

    Reply
  7. Tony

    Interesting blog. Like trying to nail jello to a wall,in that it leaves as many questions as it answers: Whose perspective is ‘right’? Whose to say whose perspective is right or wrong, and why would anyone care? Is this even the ‘right’ question to ask? who determines the criteria of truth or error? the number of papers I publish? the number of followers on FB?, me? the money in my account?

    As somebody once eloquently said ‘our lives are shaped by those from who we seek approval’. Certainly we crave significance of one sort or another.Therefore, Is my story where I am in control of my understanding of the universe the right one? and by whose or what standard is this so?

    Would scientism exist without religion? Would god exist without religion? would religion exist without god? How objective is ‘objective truth’? how blind is ‘blind faith’? …. ‘if science has proven itself to have the tools to uncover the truth’ (Gary Hill), then it would seem that there are truths to be uncovered, tools to be used, but limited by those of us who use them, and our limited perspectives of what we believe to be true.

    Reply
    1. விஷ்ணு கார்த்திக்

      The “Why” question is a philosophical question not a scientific one which is denoted by “How”.

      Science can already explain how universe came to be but that still doesn’t answer the philosophical question of why universe exists in the first place and why life exists what’s the purpose of it all you can’t rephrase this question with a “How”.

      This questions simply goes BEYOND Gods.. God is nothing but a made up fake “answer” to that irking question.

      Bottomline:Science DOES NOT deal with philosophy and thus will never answer the “Why” question but then again.. the “Why” question is something that doesn’t really have an answer..so we make up our own answers.

    1. Coel Post author

      Yes I’m aware of the philosophy of science, and yes I believe what I’ve written. Do you have any actual rebuttal?

  8. Ryan

    I certainly agree with your assertion that “Science can answer ‘how’ questions, but religion answers ‘why’ questions” is indeed false. Science answers ‘why’ questions all the time, as you have stated.

    However, I take issue with the following statements:

    “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.”

    I respectfully disagree.

    First, the accuracy of your statement depends somewhat on the definition of “God”, which is not universal. Therefore, it is somewhat presumptuous.

    Second, two attributes generally attributed to the concept of a being we call “God” are omnipotence and omniscience. A desire to be hidden from general scientific inquiry is also generally associated with this being (typically thought to furnish the requirement for faith). Given those assumptions, it is not beyond reason that such a being has the capacity to exist and do anything and everything that is accredited to them (that’s what omnipotence means after all).

    Therefore, what I am arguing is that science cannot possibly provide any significant evidence for *or* against a claim concerning God’s existence (as “God” is generally defined). Any scientific ‘hypothesis’ regarding an omnipotent, omniscient being is inherently logically flawed. To say otherwise is to associate with mankind the attribute of omniscience, for which I am certain we would have enough evidence to conclusively support a conjecture.

    Reply
  9. Jaganathan

    There are atleast two sides in 3 dimensional space tine.science vs spirituality .Both are true. They can never be in agreement. Don’t ask spiritual question to any scientist? He will come out with materialistic answer and scientific question to spiritual person . He will come out with non sense answer. But we are wise and ask our question for wise answers not from wise person.

    Reply

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