The how and the why

I’m wondering how long it will take before philosophy finally learns to separate how and why.

I’m fully aware of the way why is used in English: it’s a substitution for “what makes it do that?” in both the mechanical and volitional sense. But I think it would do us all an enormous favor if we split it into why and how: The latter would be the mechanical sense. The former would the volitional sense. Therefore, if you ask how I tripped down the stairs, I did it because my foot caught on the carpet. If you ask why, there’s no answer, because it was an accident. (We’re leaving a god who orchestrates accidents out of this for the sake of the example. I certainly didn’t mean anything by my theoretical faceplant.)

See, there’s all these arguments about science vs. faith, the origins of religion, etc etc, and nearly everyone – on both sides – keeps confusing the two senses. Science tells us how: it is all to do with mechanics and forces, atoms and molecules, energy and space and the rest of it. Faith deals with the why. A materialistic universe has lots of how but no why. People more skilled than me can explain how my body is living, or how the galaxy moves and changes, or how my computer is able to run. But they cannot use scientific means to tell me why – except for the computer, which was designed and created with explicit whys in mind. (Which can be discovered through the entirely scientific method of asking the folks who made it.)

Anthropology and archaeology and psychology can attempt to explain how religion exists. It can search out roots and threads and common ideas. It can point to sources. Whether these are right or wrong is for each of us to decide. One may say, “religion exists to satisfy the psychological need of your average human.” That’s not a why, because it does not address the purpose of said psychological need, only the fact of its existence. The question must then be, not how we have a psychological need (if we do – I think we do, but that’s beside the point), because that will only lead to brain chemistry, or evolutionary advantage, or cultural norms, or all three. That’s the mechanics of how it works, how it was introduced, how it persists in humanity. Doesn’t say why.

Now, I realize that this distinction is not one that’s been made much in former centuries, but I think it’s essential now. It used to be that how and why really were the same question: saying “God did it,” answered both. But with the ascent of science, we’re running into two problems, equally ugly. One is rationalists saying that “God did it” is a cop-out that kills science, while the other is the faithful actually using it as a cop-out.

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” That is a deeply misleading sentence. ‘Cause I may believe the first two parts wholeheartedly, but in my experience, they settle nothing. They are merely the beginning. God’s fiat gives us a why, but not a how. Not only that, but we too often fail to grasp the entirety of the why in the first place. A good why is gorgeously multifaceted, with meanings on the surface and meanings in the depths, and meanings on every level inbetween. I have yet to exhaust a good why. “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” You got a spare week?

Even if we could settle the why, we cannot neglect a good how. It’s the reason it’s fun to watch an artist at work, or a builder in a shop. I know why a piano exists. That should actually encourage me to learn about the how, about the materials and the techniques of the building, and the stresses and forces in the soundboard, or the mechanics of the action. Knowing the why, knowing what the pianist wants out of that not-inconsiderable bulk of wood and metal, should make me curious as to what it takes to accomplish the therefore.

Which is the reason, at the heart of it, there is no conflict between science and faith, because they are asking two completely different questions. If they clash, it is because science asks “Can we?”, while faith asks “Ought we?” and the answer to both is not always the same. I believe that God created the heavens and the earth: I am fascinated by astronomy because of that, not in spite of it. The how is still unfolding, and it will never negate the why.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10a, ESV) “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7a, ESV) Far be it from me to downplay beginnings: they are the seed and start and foundation, and must be done right. But they are still beginnings. The path is a long and awesome one, full of unexpected glories. We’ve got a lot of discovering yet to do.