How and why the how/why distinction is irrelevant

“Science answers the how questions, and religion answers the why questions” – that’s a common claim from people who are arguing that science poses no threat to religion, or that they’re Non-Overlapping Magisteria, in Stephen Jay Gould’s rather grand phrase. It’s another one of those many ideas and beliefs that I’ve previously accepted, but am now starting to question.

It’s not controversial that science tells us how things work. The precise position is a little more complicated than that, because the scientific method only really draws provisional conclusions, and is more about the best way of finding out how things work, rather than dictating that this is right and that’s wrong, but it’s perfectly reasonable to say that if a question begins “How”, you’ll want to turn to science to answer it.

BuildingThere’s more of a problem with “Why” questions, because they aren’t all the same. A question that begins “Why” could be asking about cause and effect (“a. Why did the building fall down?”) or the intent of an agent (“b. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”) Either could be taken as questions of either cause or intent as written, but they’ll do as illustrations.

A third category sits ambiguously between these two, asking a question that isn’t obviously about either (“c. Why do we have two legs?”) Interestingly, it’s category c, the most ambiguous one, which is generally intended in the context of the how/why distinction.

Category a, the direct cause of an event, is clearly a scientific question. The only possible way of defining it as outside the realm of science is by assuming a priori that there could be an explanation that would be entirely impervious to scientific investigation, and even then, religion has nothing to offer as an alternative.

Category b, on intent, is a question that could be answered in the language of history, sociology, psychology and probably many other disciplines. Science could have plenty to say about it, while religion has little to offer. Religion might say that a murderer killed because of sin, but this is a pat response with no explanatory power, simply restating the question in different terms.

As for category c, in the example given you can either trace our evolutionary history back through many millions of generations, run models to show the competitive advantages of bipedal locomotion, or you can say that God made us that way. The same pattern is apparent whenever questions like this are asked.

QuestionsThe trick is this: the religious answer to a “why” question only has any validity when there’s an overarching moral purpose guiding events. Fundamentally, a religious answer to any “why” question is going to begin “Because God”. But in order for that to make any sense, there must be a God in the first place.

If there is no God, there is no higher purpose and no directing agent, so the question has no religious meaning, and the only possible meaning is a scientific question of cause and effect. The reason for the how/why distinction being commonly raised for category c type questions is that it equivocates over the true nature of the question being asked and answered. A “why” question is either a “how” question in different words, or it’s begging the question.

I have nothing against religion offering answers to questions of purpose, but would prefer more transparency. The only questions for which religion is better equipped than science are those which assume the existence of an agent outside the universe whose actions need to be explained, an assumption which is very much open to question.

To paraphrase Laplace’s possibly apocryphal words, I have no need for that hypothesis.

Images courtesy of johnnyberg and immrchris, used with permission


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “How and why the how/why distinction is irrelevant”

  1. raintreebranches says :

    I’ve alway found the asking for ‘why’ questions and interesting thing to think about. When you ask a why question, you’re asking for a reason, and there can be any number of reasons for for any one event– in fact, probably uncountable number of reasons that contributed in one way or another, leading up to that event.

    Why questions can often (always?) be chased further and further backwards. (What I mean by that –>)

    Anyway, I don’t think this comment has much of a point, just to maybe draw your attention to some other vocab for thinking about why questions, if you didn’t already know them.


    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I’m aware of the proximate/ultimate distinction, but in terms of the how/why question, it doesn’t really change anything. However far you chase the chain of causation back, you’re still left with a choice between a direct mechanical cause and an intent on the part of an agent at every stage, and religion still begs the question as soon as it answers with reference to a designer.

      What I would say is that searching for an ultimate cause appears to favour theism, because however far back you go, science will always have another “why” question waiting in the wings. The question is whether it’s meaningful to look for an ultimate cause in this way. I’m planning on publishing something next week on that subject.

  2. Pastor James Miller says :

    I don’t buy the dichotomy either.

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