HOWs and WHYs

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Science and religion – complementary disciplines or mutually exclusive world views? Prior to 1700, science and religion for the most part complemented each other:

  • Parmenides (5th century BC), sometimes called the father of Western philosophy, is also called the father of Western astronomy…even the father of Western science.
  • According to British mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, all post-Socratic Western philosophy is merely a series of footnotes on Plato (d. 347 BC). Yet Plato wrote the Timaeus, probably the first attempt by a Western thinker to produce a TOE (Theory of Everything).
  • Aristotle (d. 322 BC) wrote both the Physics…and the Metaphysics.
  • Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003), Gerbert of Aurillac, was probably the leading Western scientist of his day.
  • Concerning the Late Middle Ages, Marcia Colish wrote: “…Scientists and philosophers studied in faculties adjacent to theologians…theologians interacted with colleagues in fields not informed by religious criteria…”

With the advent of the Enlightenment, everything changed. After that – and until very recently – science and religion have for the most part been sworn enemies. Take the origin of the universe for example. Ask a scientist and she’s likely to talk about “Big Bang”; ask a Judeo-Christian and you might hear a creation narrative from Genesis.

(At first glance, these two ‘explanations’ appear to have absolutely nothing in common; but a much deeper analysis reveals many startling parallels. But that is not a topic I plan to explore in this essay.)

What happened? A complete analysis of the culture shift in Europe in the 18th century could fill a library…and it has. We will not repeat that here. We will focus on one very simple distinction, the difference between ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’

Prior to 1700, intellectuals understood that these were two very different, but perhaps equally important, questions. Science sought to give a detailed description of the world as it is and then asked how it came to be that way. Religion was more likely to accept the current state of the world as a given and ask why it came to be in the first place and why it came to be the way it is.

How vs. why! Science stands in the present and looks back to find ‘causes’. Religion stands in the present and looks forward to find ‘reasons’. By asking ‘how’, science is searching for so-called ‘efficient causes’. By asking ‘why’, religion is searching for so-called ‘final causes’.

“How?” can only be answered by reference to a process that originated in the past; “why?” can only be answered by reference to a process that culminates in the future. The how/why dichotomy divides the timeline into past/future.

Famous contemporary physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, made a similar observation in his anti-theistic book, A Universe from Nothing: “…In science we have to be particularly cautious about “why” questions. When we ask ‘Why?’ we usually mean ‘How?’ If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes.”

I would go one step further. Most of the West’s intellectual traumas have resulted from theologians attempting to dictate “How” or from scientists attempting to dictate “Why”. Remember Galileo? Darwin? And the intellectual bankruptcy of Nihilism, Deconstruction and Postmodernism?

Theologians asking “How?” confuse imagined revelation with empirical evidence, while scientists asking “Why?” are usually guilty of some sort of reductionism.

Let’s apply these musings to real life:

It’s Christmas Eve and Junior has finally fallen asleep. Marge and Henry tiptoe downstairs and begin wrapping the presents that will go into Junior’s stocking and under the tree.

They are almost done. All that remains is Junior’s ‘big gift’, a bright, shiny red fire engine he has been asking for, well, forever. As Henry picks it up he notices something he failed to see when he bought the toy. In huge one inch letters, the box proclaims, “Assembly Required!”

Crestfallen, Henry opens the box and, sure enough, Junior’s bright, shiny fire engine is there…in pieces. Fortunately though, the box also contains an Instruction Manual. The manual spells out an eleven step process ‘guaranteed’ to turn these disorganized pieces into the fire engine of Junior’s dreams.

Methodically, Henry follows the steps and 90 minutes later, viola, a fire engine.

In some vastly overly simplified sense, the eleven events outlined in the manual, taken together, constitute the ‘efficient cause’ of the fire engine. It is how the fire engine came to be.

On the other hand, you could look at this chain of events another way. The fire engine is the ultimate goal. Without that goal, the steps outlined in the instruction manual would have no meaning and Henry would have no reason to perform them.

Looked at this way, the fire engine itself is the ‘final cause’ of the eleven events that precede it. The fire engine is why these eleven events occurred; but even the fire engine is not the final ‘final’ cause. Looking further down the road, Junior’s enjoyment on Christmas morning and beyond is the reason for the fire engine itself.

The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are equally successful in accounting for the end product, a fire engine. However, they are not entirely symmetrical. Only the teleological (why) perspective can account for Henry’s motivation to undertake a 90 minute assembly process on Christmas Eve. Without that ‘why’, that goal, that purpose, the pieces would remain unassembled in the box and the fire engine would remain a latent but unrealized potential.

A ‘why’ may provide the motivation necessary to generate a ‘how’, but a ‘how’ can never translate into a ‘why’.

Nonetheless, this dual analysis works fairly well when we’re dealing with an ‘intentional’ process like making a toy fire engine. Plus, as post-Enlightenment human beings, steeped in Western culture, we tend to think of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. Therefore, the idea that our actions arise in response to final causes makes sense to us.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Determinists, behaviorists, psychoanalysts and deconstructionists would all question the extent, if any, to which our lives are a function of freely-formed intentions. They are interested in the ‘how’ that culminates in our actions, not the illusory ‘why’ that appears to motivate them.

But what happens if we apply our ‘toy engine’ logic to events that are, apparently at least, radically less intentional?

Consider an earthquake, for example. It is caused by plate tectonics and seismic activity beneath the earth’s surface. It doesn’t seem to have a purpose, a goal or a final cause. It certainly has a ‘how’ but apparently not a ‘why’.

But, of course, that is not necessarily true! Earthquakes relieve geological stress and thereby actually protect the planet from more severe catastrophes. Then there is the possibility that earthquakes are a process within an ecological organism like ‘Gaia’. Finally, there are those who view earthquakes as part of some sort of divine plan…or judgment.

Earthquakes are actually homeostatic processes – they keep the earth balanced. According to Gregory Bateson, homeostasis is the core of what we call ‘mind’. At the risk of resurrecting the disastrous mind-body dualisms of philosophies past, we might dare to suggest that every ‘entity’ is both mind and body. Mind is the aspect of the entity that is responding to final causes, while body is the aspect that responds to efficient causes.

Earlier we mentioned in passing British mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (d. 1947). He is generally considered the father of modern ‘process philosophy’. He argued that every event, every ‘actual entity’, has two ‘poles’ – a mental pole and a physical pole.

As an event shapes itself (causa sui), it prehends (feels) some things physically and other things conceptually. Physical prehension contributes efficient causation to the event; conceptual prehension contributes final causation. Ultimately, it is possible to analyze any event from a determinist perspective (efficient causation) or from a teleological perspective (final causation). But where does this leave our theologians and our scientists?

Some modern Christian thinkers (e.g. Teilhard de Chardin and Gregor Mendel) care deeply about how the world works; others find such inquiries boring and ultimately irrelevant. Who cares how the world came to be as it is, the real question is why!

On the other hand, most modern scientists reject out of hand the religionist’s search for ‘why’: the very subject is considered absurd. In fact, the question itself, and any proposed answers, are often considered meaningless.

These scientists reject the concept of final causation per se; they reject the notion that events can even have a ultimate ‘purpose’. Things just are! An event may be explained, at least in part, by things that went before; but things that will happen in the future are totally irrelevant to things that are happening now.

In the 1920’s, a school of philosophy known as Logical Positivism emerged. The philosopher-scientists that formed this school equated ‘meaning’ with ‘verifiability’. Therefore, propositions were only meaningful if they were subject to verification using the scientific method.

There are few Logical Positivists practicing today; nevertheless the doctrine has cast a very long shadow. Just as positivists are entitled to question the meaningfulness of teleological propositions, so religionists are entitled to ask whether a world view based entirely on efficient cause determinism can adequately account for the world as we experience it.

In sharp contrast to the Logical Positivists, Whitehead (above) proposed that events (‘actual entities’) only occur in response to a perceived disequilibrium between a set of values (‘eternal objects’) and things as they are (‘actual world’).

Events (causa sui) ‘assemble’ their own pasts out of the ‘superjects’ of prior events, which they ‘prehend’ physically. They designate their own ‘efficient causes’ in accordance with their unique ‘subjective aims’. They appropriate (‘prehend’) selected material from prior events and incorporate that material in an effort to transcend those prior events.

At the same time, these events also designate their own ‘final causes’; these are the values, the qualities, the ‘eternal objects’ that stirred these ‘actual entities’ into becoming in the first place. Each novel entity selects a unique pattern of eternal objects, which it prehends conceptually, to guide its process of becoming. The chosen final causes (eternal objects) ultimately influence the entity’s choice of efficient causes.

So let’s return to Marge and Henry. Ultimately, it is the idea of the fire engine and the image of Junior’ smiling face on Christmas morning that motivates them to assemble the pieces. Without those ‘final causes’, there are just pieces in a box.

Applying this domestic lesson to the matter of the universe, it is ‘clear’ that without final causation, without values and purpose and meaning, there would be no universe.

The energy and order needed to form events, and so to form a universe per se, requires hope (‘eternal objects’) that the world can be better and faith that it ultimately will be. But we don’t need to wade through Whitehead’s Process and Reality to understand teleology and the religious perspective. Jesus taught the same thing 2000 years earlier…and in much more accessible format:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


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