How > Why
May 23, 2010 5:58 PM   Subscribe

They say that science takes care of the "how", and religion takes care of the "why"... What I want to know is, do "how" and "why" have equal philosophical footing?

If something has been created, there is necessarily a "how", but is there necessarily a "why"?

[Yes, there's an unfounded assumption here. IANAP.]
posted by klanawa to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is-Ought Problem.

Much ink has been spilled on this.
posted by phrontist at 6:04 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: I don't really see the connection. Is-Ought seems to have to do with morality, but is the question of why, say, the universe exists a moral one?
posted by klanawa at 6:13 PM on May 23, 2010

Let's be clear on what we mean by "how" and "why" questions. It seems that your usage of "how" refers to purely causal explanations and your usage of "why" invokes intentions of a creator. Now, I think it's uncontroversial to say that the act of creation necessitates the former but not the latter. Things can be created without anyone intending their creation. For example, mountains form through blind, mechanistic processes. A big question, then, is about whether there must necessarily be a creator for the universe. I, and most philosophers, would say that the answer is no. Others have argued otherwise. There are three main arguments along these lines: the argument from design, the causal argument, and the ontological argument. You can research these on your own if you're interested. In the end, though, most people would say that the universe doesn't require the existence of a creator, but nor does it eliminate the possibility that one exists. This being the case, scientists study the "how" question because it's all anyone can study empirically.

Other things necessitate a "why" but arguably not a "how." For example, although we might ask how Anna Karenina committed adultery, that's not the interesting question. The interesting question is whether and why it's wrong. This is a moral question, and it's a question science can't answer.

So sometimes the "how" question is more important to us; sometimes the "why" question is. It depends on what we're talking about.
posted by smorange at 6:40 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

IANYAPP (I am not yet a professional philosopher), and my background is almost solely analytic (so moral philosophers may be of more help) But:

To understand why asking "why" about certain happenings is such a tricky problem, we need to understand the nature of "why" itself. When talking about the actions of people, we say why people do certain things by appealing to beliefs, desires, and intentions. Why did Joe post on MeFi? Because Joe had a desire to find out more about philosophy, and believed that posting on MeFi would help him learn more. How did Joe do this? Joe did this by turning on his computer and typing on his keyboard, etc.

But try asking "why" an apple falls to the ground when thrown in the air. A possible answer might be "Because gravity pulls it towards the Earth's mass." But if we deconstruct this, the appeal to gravity is exactly the same one we use when asking *how* the apple fell. When dealing with non-intentional systems, as we are almost all the time we aren't talking about people, the "why" and "how" collapse into a single explanation.
posted by dantekgeek at 6:46 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you might be interested in Teleology. This is a field of philosophy that studies purpose/aim/design.

My poor understanding of it is that Plato and then Aristotle (in his four causes) argued that an object has not only the causes we commonly think, but a final, pupose cause. Eg, a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause, the rain has watering crops as its final cause etc. This adds a "why" cause to the others which are mostly "hows". Most current philosophy would not give the "why" cause to non-concious actors, but religions tend to invoke it as gods will or something similar.
posted by scodger at 6:57 PM on May 23, 2010

There's no real ranking of questions in philosophy, so I'm not sure what it would mean for the two questions to be on an equal footing. That being said: if by "how" you mean reconstructing causal laws, that's simply not a philosophical question at all. It's a question for the empirical sciences, physics, biology, etc. If the "why" question asks for reasons rather than causes, then when applied to people and their actions it's not a philosophical question either but just a matter of ordinary psychology. If you ask the "why" question of everything, i.e. what is the reason for everything's existence, well, that can be a philosophical question, but I would guess that most philosophers nowadays don't think there's an answer because most are atheists. So that question doesn't really come up that much except in theology departments.

What philosophy can do is what I just did: to sort out the various questions and clarify their status. There are also philosophical debates on what sorts of things reasons are, whether there are purely rational reasons, etc. For example the debate about internal versus external reasons started by Bernard Williams. But this isn't answering the "why" question, i.e. Williams doesn't tell you what the reason is for some specific action.

You might be interested in the debate concerning "efficient causes" and "final causes". "Efficient causes" are what we just call "cause" nowadays, and "final causes" are something like purposes. It's taken for granted nowadays that scientific explanation of the world only refers to efficient causes, but this was a hot debate around the time of Berkeley, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, etc. I think it was Leibniz who thought that a world run mechanically by efficient causes was preposterous, and that efficient causes were merely the outer guise of God's reasons for everything, but I'm probably fucking that up. In any case you could say that the debate around this time was whether the "why" question was necessary for any explanation of "how".
posted by creasy boy at 11:33 PM on May 23, 2010

Klanawa: Your original statement "They say that science takes care of the "how", and religion takes care of the "why".." to me is a shorthand for what is otherwise called NOMA (non overlapping magisteria) which gives science and religion each a different playing field. To describe this is as 'How' and 'Why' is useful but sometimes inaccurate (examples above).

I do not subscribe to this view because the line separating the two is blur and moves constantly (during stone age Why is there thunder? was a pagan question, during bronze age it became a religious question and today it is a scientific question).

Interestingly, religion has learnt from the past and has picked on questions such as 'Why are we here?' which cant really be answered by science (or by religion) so there is no future erosion.

My take on this is that just because a question can be framed in English language doesnt mean it is important or answerable or interesting like the question 'Who is the river?' can be framed in English but it is neither important, answerable or interesting.
posted by london302 at 12:50 AM on May 24, 2010

I think you might be interested in Teleology. This is a field of philosophy that studies purpose/aim/design.

Yeah, I think you're just talking about the common two sorts of "why" - the teleological (to what end) and the sort of ontological "how did this come into being" type of why. Both science and philosophy address both of these types of "why," though in different ways. As far as a correlation between the two - that really just depends on if you choose to construct one or not. It's a deep philosophical problem, and one that has been discussed in detail over the past 2,500 or so years.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:51 AM on May 24, 2010

I have a somewhat late comment to add to the discussion. Lots of people believe that "everything happens for a reason" which is an assumption that they like to make because it is psychologically reassuring to think that everything has meaning, even tragic events. However horrible a tragedy may be, it can be conceived to serve some useful purpose in some way. If everything serves a useful purpose then we never really have to feel bad about anything. Your little sister was hit by a car and died, but don't worry, they needed another angel in heaven, right? When Pope John Paul II was very sick with Parkinson's Disease he explained that God had bestowed this disease upon him in order to give him greater understanding and empathy for other people who suffer from serious diseases (His Holiness did not offer any explanation as to why God would not simply eliminate all serious disease from the world, making it unnecessary for the Pope to gain first-hand experience of serious disease in order to gain empathy - although I have no doubt that if asked, he would have come up with an explanation for that, too). However, there is no actual evidence, or plausible argument, to support the claim that everything happens for a purpose. As far as I have been able to determine, things happen because of a long chain of cause and effect that stretches back to the Big Bang, and chances are, the Big Bang also had no purpose, it happened entirely by accident, and all its consequences are essentially accidental as well. We human beings do have purposes and we do things for reasons, but the universe as a whole does not have a purpose, and things just happen. And when religion tells you why things happen, those explanations are fairy tales.
posted by grizzled at 9:40 AM on May 25, 2010

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