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Author Topic:   Does science ask and answer "why" questions?
bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 1 of 353 (646930)
01-07-2012 10:59 AM


In the last few years on this board, I've noticed several people come up with the sweeping statement that science doesn't ask (or answer) "why" questions. I've also come across this claim occasionally elsewhere on the internet. The origin of this idea may be in another statement I've seen a few times: "Science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions."

Another related claim was made by an EvC member recently:

quote:

"The proper use of "why" is to answer questions of purpose."


Message 143

Although answering questions of purpose is certainly one use of "why", it was news to me that it is "the proper use". Suddenly, I was being informed that writers of books, fiction and non-fiction, were all frequently using the word "why" improperly. That newspapers, magazines and other periodicals were all regularly using the word improperly. It appears that all of us in our day to day speech are often using the word improperly, as were past generations of English speakers. And, most relevant to this thread, scientists are regularly using the word improperly. Dictionaries also appear to be wrong when they describe usages that don't imply purpose.

So, this seems to me to be an extraordinary claim.

It's an extraordinary claim because words are sounds, and what determines their "proper use" is merely how they are actually used in a language at any given point in its history. Good dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, caught on to this in the nineteenth century, and realised that defining words and updating definitions was a matter of systematically studying how words were being used. This is because the evolution of language does not only mean the addition and subtraction of terms, but also changes in the meanings of words, or new meanings coming in alongside old ones.

It's a short cut to look in a dictionary for definitions which, if the research has been done well, should be good. In these days of the internet, it's also much easier than it was in the past for us to do our own research, and the best established current uses of any given word should be found by googling around. So, if we're disputing terms here on EvC, we have a useful tool.

Sometimes how and why questions can be nearly interchangeable. The cause of something or reason behind something (largely the territory or why or what) can be a process (largely how territory). So there can be three valid ways or more to ask pretty much the same question. But on other occasions, there can be significant differences.

For example, we could ask: Why do birds sing

This is liable to produce "reason" answers. They sing to communicate. More specifically they mark territory, make mating calls etc. That's why they sing.

Then we could ask: How do birds sing?

That's liable to produce "process" answers. Physical explanations of how the birds make the noises that they communicate with.

I hope you'll all agree that both of the above are legitimate scientific questions.

So, does anyone want to defend any or all of the following claims:

(1) Science doesn't ask/answer "why" questions

(2) The proper use of "why" is to answer questions of purpose.

(3) Science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions."

The reason for the thread is that I think that the claims above are wrong, and that there's a dubious meme going around the internet promoting the statements. I don't want to see this virus infecting EvC. I think we should pride ourselves here on being able to understand the breadth of the uses of an important word in our language. Why should we let poor why be restricted and abused?

As well as inviting anyone to defend one or more of the statements, I'd like to hear from those of you who agree that science asks and answers many "why" questions, and any reasons or evidence you can think of that supports the view.

To save people being embarrassed by rash commitments, it might be wise to consider just a tiny bit of the evidence in relation to "why" and science.

Why do plants…..

Why do animals….

A definition from:

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/why

why (hw, w)
adv.
For what purpose, reason, or cause; with what intention, justification, or motive: Why is the door shut? Why do birds sing?


Replies to this message:
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AdminModulous
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Message 2 of 353 (646932)
01-07-2012 11:05 AM


Thread Copied from Proposed New Topics Forum
Thread copied here from the Does science ask and answer "why" questions? thread in the Proposed New Topics forum.
    
Cat Sci
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From: near St. Louis
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Member Rating: 1.5


Message 3 of 353 (646933)
01-07-2012 11:12 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by bluegenes
01-07-2012 10:59 AM


Although answering questions of purpose is certainly one use of "why", it was news to me that it is "the proper use".

Its the proper usage in the context of this:

quote:
"Science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions."

But yes, there are other usages that would be proper for other contexts.


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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 4 of 353 (646935)
01-07-2012 11:32 AM
Reply to: Message 3 by Cat Sci
01-07-2012 11:12 AM


But is it an accurate statement? As both science and religion will certainly claim to answer both how and why questions of various kinds, what is the point of it?

And if the statement is referring to only one kind of "why" question, shouldn't that be made clear?


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kbertsche
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Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 5 of 353 (646944)
01-07-2012 12:21 PM
Reply to: Message 4 by bluegenes
01-07-2012 11:32 AM


"Why" has a number of different valid meanings, as you point out. But as CS says, when the context makes a contrast between "how" and "why", it is generally distinguishing between mechanism and purpose. When someone claims that "science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions" this is the distinction that he is trying to make. I agree with CS that this meaning should be so obvious from the context of the statement itself that it needs no further explanation.

In scientific contexts we do often use the word "why", but we mean "why" in the sense of mechanism, not of purpose.

Though the original claim is very concise, I think its meaning is sufficintly clear for anyone who is not being intentionally ignorant or obstinate. But if you aren't comfortable with the wording of the original claim, you can still communicate the same concept by using the word "why" in two different senses and distinguishing between them. I like the following story, which comes from C.S. Lewis:

Suppose you enter your Grandmother's house, hear a teapot whistling, and ask, "Why is the teapot whistling?" Someone could answer in terms of thermodynamics, fluid flow, the physical properties of water, acoustic properties of the nozzle on the kettle, etc. The answer would be a perfectly valid mechanistic answer of "why" the teapot is boiling. But someone could also answer that the teapot is boiling because Grandma is thirsty and wants her afternoon tea. This answer is just as valid and accurate as the first. One answer addresses mechanism, and the other addresses purpose.

No matter how you decide to communicate it, the point is that science can only deal well with mechanistic, cause-effect explanations. It can't address teleological questions very well, if at all. Religion and philosophy specialize in teleological questions. Religion sometimes touches on questions of mechanism as well, but this is generally not addressed in depth and is secondary to questions of purpose.

Edited by kbertsche, : Add sentence.


"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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Modulous
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(3)
Message 6 of 353 (646948)
01-07-2012 12:29 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 12:21 PM


But someone could also answer that the teapot is boiling because Grandma is thirsty and wants her afternoon tea.

And science is perfectly comfortable giving that answer too. The teapot is boiling because a human labelled Grandma has put it on the stove is an empirical claim perfectly amenable to confirmation by science. A scientist might ask Grandma, why is the teapot boiling. A scientist may observe Grandma's actions to see if they are consistent with her statements. A scientist may even go so far as to MRI that old lady to learn more about her desires for tea. A future scientist may even be able to assess whether grandma truly believes that the teapot boiling is a precursor to satisfying thirst.

Science can succesfully answer purpose questions, where purpose exists. It cannot answer purpose questions where there is no evidence of any purpose.

It can not answer what the purpose of a blue sky is, since it has no evidenced purpose and no evidenced purpose giver. If such a thing were to ever come about (evidence for God for example) science may well be the best set of tools we have to really get to grips with said purpose. As it stands, there is no purpose for a blue sky, so asking 'what is the purpose of the sky being blue' can only be answered with 'there is no known purpose'. Science can help us identify whether there is any known purpose and what it is.


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nwr
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Posts: 5182
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005
Member Rating: 2.8


(1)
Message 7 of 353 (646953)
01-07-2012 12:53 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by Cat Sci
01-07-2012 11:12 AM


Catholic Scientist writes:
Its the proper usage in the context of this:

quote:
"Science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions."

That statement is fair enough as a slogan. But we really ought to be able to distinguish between slogan and fact.

Jesus was a liberal hippie

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Mr Jack
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Posts: 3491
From: Leicester, England
Joined: 07-14-2003


Message 8 of 353 (646956)
01-07-2012 1:20 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by bluegenes
01-07-2012 10:59 AM


Of course science answers why questions: it's breathtakingly good at answering why questions.

"Why is the sky blue?"

"Why do birds fly south in winter?"

"Why are planets round?"

Answering why questions is the absolute beating heart of science.

Edited by Mr Jack, : Not sure why I capitalised 'science' there?


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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 9 of 353 (646957)
01-07-2012 1:22 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 12:21 PM


kbertsche writes:

In scientific contexts we do often use the word "why", but we mean "why" in the sense of mechanism, not of purpose.

Does your "we" include psychologists, archaeologists and zoologists? Archaeologists, faced with the broken remnants of some ancient pottery artifact, will definitely ask themselves what it was for, or rephrased, why it was made.

That aside, this thread is really centred on the question in the title. And, as you'd agree, there are plenty of examples of scientists asking and answering why questions that deal with mechanism.

kbertsche writes:

Though the original claim is very concise, I think its meaning is sufficintly clear for anyone who is not being intentionally ignorant or obstinate.

I'm certainly ignorant of any known examples of any of the world's religion actually answering a "why" question successfully. By which I mean arriving at an answer that's demonstrably true. I'm not being obstinate. I genuinely can't think of one example.

kbertsche writes:

It [science] can't address teleological questions very well, if at all. Religion and philosophy specialize in teleological questions.

And what tools to they have to answer teleological questions with that aren't available to science?

Thanks for your reply, and I'm glad you're not in the "science doesn't answer why questions" camp, on the basis of mechanistic questions (which is actually the main point that I was pushing on another thread that led to this).


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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 10 of 353 (646959)
01-07-2012 1:34 PM
Reply to: Message 7 by nwr
01-07-2012 12:53 PM


nwr writes:

That statement is fair enough as a slogan. But we really ought to be able to distinguish between slogan and fact.

Funny you should say that, because I'd been thinking that it sort of reminds me of politician's "sound-bites". Catchy, but no real substance.


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NoNukes
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Message 11 of 353 (646960)
01-07-2012 1:36 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by bluegenes
01-07-2012 10:59 AM


Why questions.
For example, we could ask: Why do birds sing

This is liable to produce "reason" answers. They sing to communicate. More specifically they mark territory, make mating calls etc. That's why they sing.

When we ask why a species of animals exhibits some feature, we might also give an answer based on the theory of evolution. I don't see any significant distinction in scope between that kind of "why" question and the question of why God might have done such a thing.

Perhaps a distinction is that only religion professes to provide answer ultimate why questions. Every answered scientific why question can be followed up with yet another question of why things should be as discussed in the answer.

The same is not true of the religious why questions. At some point after God is cited as the answer, the questions are cutoff arbitrarily as being beyond the ken of mortals or even blasphemous.


Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. Thoreau: Civil Disobedience (1846)

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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 12 of 353 (646961)
01-07-2012 1:38 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Mr Jack
01-07-2012 1:20 PM


Mr. Jack writes:

Of course science answers why questions: it's breathtakingly good at answering why questions.

You're the man in the lab, so I'm happy to take your word for it.


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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 13 of 353 (646964)
01-07-2012 1:56 PM
Reply to: Message 11 by NoNukes
01-07-2012 1:36 PM


Re: Why questions.
NoNukes writes:

When we ask why a species of animals exhibits some feature, we might also give an answer based on the theory of evolution.

In a way, but when a question like that (why do birds sing) is asked, it's really asking for immediate reasons or cause unless stated otherwise. Of course, further why and how questions are asked subsequently, and we get into evolution.

It's the same in life outside science. I could ask you why you're posting on EvC, for example. You'd probably give what you perceived as the immediate reasons, rather than replying with a 50,000 word essay beginning "I was born.....". Strictly speaking, your life history would be part of a complete detailed answer. Or you could even start the explanation at the Big Bang!

I take it that you agree that science asks "why" questions.


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Panda
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Posts: 2688
From: UK
Joined: 10-04-2010


(4)
Message 14 of 353 (647007)
01-07-2012 5:55 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Mr Jack
01-07-2012 1:20 PM


Mr J writes:

"Why do birds fly south in winter?"

And if we look at the 'how' question aswell...

Why do birds fly south in winter?
The primary motivation for migration appears to be food; for example, some hummingbirds choose not to migrate if fed through the winter. Also, the longer days of the northern summer provide extended time for breeding birds to feed their young. This helps diurnal birds to produce larger clutches than related non-migratory species that remain in the tropics. As the days shorten in autumn, the birds return to warmer regions where the available food supply varies little with the season. (from wiki)

How do birds fly south in winter?
Navigation is based on a variety of senses. Many birds have been shown to use a sun compass. Using the sun for direction involves the need for making compensation based on the time. Navigation has also been shown to be based on a combination of other abilities including the ability to detect magnetic fields (magnetoception), use visual landmarks as well as olfactory cues. (from wiki)

Both questions answered by science.
Neither question answered by religion.

Edited by Panda, : No reason given.


If I were you
And I wish that I were you
All the things I'd do
To make myself turn blue

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kbertsche
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Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 15 of 353 (647015)
01-07-2012 6:48 PM
Reply to: Message 6 by Modulous
01-07-2012 12:29 PM


quote:
And science is perfectly comfortable giving that answer too. The teapot is boiling because a human labelled Grandma has put it on the stove is an empirical claim perfectly amenable to confirmation by science. A scientist might ask Grandma, why is the teapot boiling. A scientist may observe Grandma's actions to see if they are consistent with her statements. A scientist may even go so far as to MRI that old lady to learn more about her desires for tea. A future scientist may even be able to assess whether grandma truly believes that the teapot boiling is a precursor to satisfying thirst.

Science can succesfully answer purpose questions, where purpose exists. It cannot answer purpose questions where there is no evidence of any purpose.



If you are thinking of the social sciences, you probably have a point. (I am a physicist, and I often use "science" as a shorthand for "the physical sciences").

I would argue that the physical sciences do not address purpose. Even an MRI (or PET scan) only addresses mechanism, not purpose.


"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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