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Author Topic:   Does science ask and answer "why" questions?
bluegenes
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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:
 Message 3 by Catholic Scientist, posted 01-07-2012 11:12 AM bluegenes has responded
 Message 8 by Mr Jack, posted 01-07-2012 1:20 PM bluegenes has responded
 Message 11 by NoNukes, posted 01-07-2012 1:36 PM bluegenes has responded
 Message 33 by Straggler, posted 01-08-2012 4:25 PM bluegenes has responded

  
bluegenes
Member
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 Catholic Scientist
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?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 3 by Catholic Scientist, posted 01-07-2012 11:12 AM Catholic Scientist has not yet responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 5 by kbertsche, posted 01-07-2012 12:21 PM bluegenes has responded

  
bluegenes
Member
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
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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bluegenes
Member
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
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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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 27 of 353 (647182)
01-08-2012 11:02 AM


So far:
O.P. writes:

(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."

So far, no one seems to want to defend statements (1) and (2), which is hardly surprising. There's some defense on statement three, mainly based on the idea that the meaning of "why" in it should be considered in context. As it's there on its own in the O.P. without any surrounding verbiage, I'll try to find some scholarly articles that use that phrase or something very similar when I've got the time.

Supposing we amend it to:

(3a) Science answers both "how" and "why" question, but only religion answers the "why" questions that are concerned with purpose.

Put this way, it's still wrong. Science certainly deals with purpose when it deals with us and any other animals capable of purpose. And there's no reason to suppose that science couldn't or wouldn't deal with purpose if it was somehow identified elsewhere. It just hasn't been.

Edited by bluegenes, : rong speling


  
bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 28 of 353 (647187)
01-08-2012 11:24 AM
Reply to: Message 22 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 9:08 PM


Re: Why questions.
kbertsche writes:

But there is also opposing evidence that evolution does have a direction or goal. Simon Conway Morris (a theistic, teleological evolutionist) has shown evidence of this with examples of biological "convergence", such as the similarity between the human eye and the octopus eye.

I think you're now inadvertently making the case for science not only asking why questions, but asking any and all why questions. Both Simon Conway Morris and Richard Dawkins are scientists who've made observations, and come to conclusions in relation to teleology, albeit different ones.

So, we can both easily agree on mechanistic why questions. I hope you're coming round to the idea that the hard sciences do actual study humans and other animals, and therefore must consider purpose in their studies. And surely I can persuade you that there's no reason to restrict science from doing what Morris and Dawkins (and many others) have done.

All in all, doesn't the first statement in the O.P., the bald "science doesn't ask/answer why questions" just seems a silly thing to say when it's so obviously false?


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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 34 of 353 (647212)
01-08-2012 4:39 PM
Reply to: Message 32 by kbertsche
01-08-2012 4:07 PM


Why?
kbertsche writes:

If there is such a thing as "purpose" or teleology, then it lies in a realm outside of science.

Why?


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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 36 of 353 (647215)
01-08-2012 5:13 PM
Reply to: Message 33 by Straggler
01-08-2012 4:25 PM


Re: Currently NOT
Straggler writes:

A mildly tangential question is - Should science ask 'why' questions? In other words - Should the question 'why' be restricted to purposeful intent rather than cover reason and cause as well?

Why? Or rather, for what reason? Because it's easier and quicker to use three words than one? It never has been restricted in that way inside or outside science. Why attempt to force useless arbitrary changes on language? Should "when" be restricted to the past, and not used to refer to the future? Should we stop using "where" in questions like "where in your life did you go wrong?" and restrict it to physical geography?

Also, when we ask the question, how are we supposed to know the answer and whether or not it involves purpose? Someone comes into the room with wet hair, and you ask "why is your hair wet"? The answer could be that she was caught in the rain outside, or it could be that she's decided to sport the new, fashionable wet look on purpose. But you can't go wrong with a good old word like why, which asks for any reason, cause or purpose.

Straggler writes:

It is also worth saying that science does indeed cover purposeful intent. Why do humans exhibit the behaviour that they are observed to do is a scientific question.

Yes. I pointed out that science does actually sometimes concern itself with purpose on the thread where this started, and Modulous and I have both been putting the point here. In other animals as well as us. Zoology, psychology, archaeology and neurology all could ask questions about it. And indeed, it's their job to find out what it actually is and how and why it emerged.

So, that leads me on to a point I was going to bring up. Mechanistic (reason, cause) why questions can end up being asked about purpose itself. On purpose.


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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 66 of 353 (647333)
01-09-2012 10:04 AM
Reply to: Message 65 by jar
01-09-2012 9:58 AM


Re: Nuances.
jar writes:

You can investigate all you want but it will still not be the preference itself.

You can investigate the hammer all you want but it will still never be the hammer itself.

You can investigate love all you want but it will never be the experience itself.

You mean that you're enlightening us with the wisdom that an investigation itself is not the object or phenomenon being investigated?

Thanks.

BTW, was anyone implying anything else?


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 Message 65 by jar, posted 01-09-2012 9:58 AM jar has responded

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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 69 of 353 (647336)
01-09-2012 10:21 AM
Reply to: Message 62 by jar
01-09-2012 9:46 AM


Re: Nuances.
jar writes:

I'm suggesting that the causes are not the preference.

I agree. Was someone else suggesting that causes are their effects?


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 Message 62 by jar, posted 01-09-2012 9:46 AM jar has acknowledged this reply

  
bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 82 of 353 (647376)
01-09-2012 1:00 PM
Reply to: Message 70 by Catholic Scientist
01-09-2012 10:42 AM


Catholic Scientist writes:

I think the point is to exemplify the differences in the kinds of answers that science and religion can provide you.

Science can investigate damn-near everything, but this doesn't include a certain kind of why-questions (I'd call how a subset of why). With science, you need to be able to control an experiment. Some things can't be nailed down enough for scientific controls. Other things are too broad to be defined well enough for a proper scientific investigation.

I understand exactly what you're saying. So far, you're the king of the apologists for statement 3 in the O.P.

However, supposing someone wanted to express the view that there are certain questions that science doesn't ask. They could, for the sake of clarity, phrase it like this:

There are certain questions science doesn't ask.

Easy, eh?

And they could put in the addition to the claim:

There are certain questions science doesn't ask which are answered by religion/philosophy.

I'm not making that claim, but I'm pointing out that there are easy ways of making it without being ambiguous or linguistically incorrect.

For the purposes of this thread, that's my main objection to question (3). As phrased, it can lead to people making statements that are often put forward as if they are facts. Statements 1 and 2 in the O.P. are examples.

Whenever I read the phrase: science doesn't ask "why" questions on the internet it makes me cringe. It's as literally incorrect as saying "there's never snow in Canada". But I think you agree with that.

As for your examples of broad and narrow questions, they'd make for interesting discussion elsewhere, and for practical purposes, sure, you would break the broad ones down into narrower ones. The broad ones can potentially be given broad answers though.

But I don't think that the religious people who put statement 3 forward are really inspired by practicality. In fact, I'm sure they're not.

Edited by bluegenes, : No reason given.


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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 87 of 353 (647412)
01-09-2012 4:07 PM
Reply to: Message 86 by jar
01-09-2012 3:58 PM


Re: Observations in the realm of thoughts
jar writes:

It is irrelevant what the cause is and ephemeral as well. In fact knowing the cause quite often destroys the very thing studied.

Really? I could see that knowing the cause of delusions, for example, might help destroy them. But it's hard to think of anything much else that would be destroyed by knowledge, apart from ignorance.

Do you think that science should stop studying the causes of things? Or perhaps just certain things?


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 Message 86 by jar, posted 01-09-2012 3:58 PM jar has responded

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bluegenes
Member
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 92 of 353 (647424)
01-09-2012 4:38 PM
Reply to: Message 88 by jar
01-09-2012 4:16 PM


Re: Observations in the realm of thoughts
jar writes:

It is always neat to know more as long as you remember that some knowledge is irrelevant to the reality.

Can you give an example of some knowledge that is "irrelevant to the (or a) reality", because it's hard to see exactly what you mean here, unless it's another version of your rather obvious point that an investigation is not the thing being investigated.


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 Message 88 by jar, posted 01-09-2012 4:16 PM jar has responded

Replies to this message:
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