Why and how

A TED talk by Devdutt Pattanaik reminded me of a distinction theists like to make in order to defend the importance of religious thought. They like to say that religion tells us “why”, whereas science only tells us “how”. Pattanaik suggests a similar dichotomy, but he couches it as a difference between subjective and objective worldviews, rather than theist and atheist.

Let us assume that Pattanaik is right, and that a subjective stance can allow us to answer “why” questions. “Why” questions, from Pattanaik’s point of view, seem to be questions about purpose. Instead of “why X?”, we could ask “for what purpose is X?”.  Another way of rephrasing the question “why?” would be “what explains the occurrence of X?”. However, this latter expression is just another way of asking “how does X come to be?”, and this lands us in the objective territory of “how” questions.

So, given that “why X?” means “for what purpose is X?”, what can “X” actually be? Does it make sense to ask “why?” of absolutely anything? Let’s consider the natural world. We could ask, for example, “for what purpose is this mountain?” or, more grandly, “for what purpose is the universe?” These are questions whose answers depend on the properties of the objects to which they refer. In other words, the purpose of a mountain is what it is, regardless of what I think about it, or what you think about it, or what Pattanaik thinks about it. But all this means is that the question is actually objective. It therefore belongs to Pattanaik’s objective worldview. An attitude of subjectivity simply cannot answer these particular questions. (I will argue later that, furthermore, these questions actually have no answer.)

What “why” questions can the worldview of subjectivity answer? Obviously, it can only answer questions that have different answers depending on who answers them. That is the definition of subjective. I love coffee-flavored ice cream. This statement is true, but only in a subjective sense: it is only true when uttered from my perspective. It is not true when uttered from the perspective of someone who dislikes coffee-flavored ice cream.

What sort of “why” questions can be asked about subjective things? If “why” questions are about purpose, but about subjective purpose only, then they can only be asked about purposes that differ from person to person. So, a good subjective “why” question would be “for what purpose do you go to church?” or “for what purpose do you pray?” The answers to these questions are subjective, because they depend on the person answering them.

What we find, then, is that there is quite a tight restriction on which questions qualify as Pattanaik’s subjective “why” questions. Even worse, there is a rather glaring assumption made when asking any purpose-based “why” question, namely that an answer actually exists. However it is quite possible, if not common, for some things to happen without any purpose whatsoever. Indeed, there is no evidence that natural processes, for intance, have any innate purpose: they are not for anything, they just arise from natural laws. The only real evidence of purpose can be seen in the endeavors of humans (and perhaps other animals).

We must therefore conclude that, while the objective worldview cannot answer purpose-based “why” questions, some of these questions simply don’t have answers. In other words, they can be answered by neither the subjective nor the objective worldview, because they are nonsensical. The purpose-based “why” questions that can be answered only concern the purposes of individuals, they cannot tell us the purpose of the universe or of human existence. Perhaps Pattanaik is OK with this, although I expect not.

Clarification:  I say above that subjective purpose-based “why” questions apply only to purposes that change from person to person.  This is a little vague. Actions or objects can be the subject of a purpose-based “why” question, but only subclasses of actions and objects qualify. Specifically, we can only consider actions performed by a human agent. Other actions, like the fall of a stone due to erosion do not, as far as we can tell, have any purpose, so a “why” question applied to such an action is nonsensical. The only objects that can be the subject of a purpose-based “why” question are objects designed by a human (or human-like) mind, namely a mind that creates the object in order for it to fulfill a goal of some kind. It therefore makes sense to inquire about the purpose of a building, or a tool, but not of a rock or a cloud.

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