As promised, a little pet peeve of mine. It stems from the whole science vs religion flame war, namely the diffusive argument (one that I agree with) that the conflict between them is not intractable and indeed is somewhat unnecessary if only they’d stop trying to claim each other’s territory. This is often summed up as “Science tries to explain how, religion tries to explain why”.

A common response to this is to bring up a question beginning with the word why that science typically answers rather than religion e.g. “Why is the sky blue?” The trouble is, no-one seems to see the inherent problem with that response, which is that it’s a semantic fudge. It works because we use the word ‘why’ in two distinct but usually unappreciated ways. This can be illustrated with a similar question: “Why is there a rainbow in the sky?” This in fact could be one of two questions and the answer you get depends on which question the answerer thought you asked!

A science answer talks about water droplets and refraction of light. A religion answer might talk about Noah and the great flood. Two very different answers, but both are valid depending on what the original question actually was.

There are two ways that the question word ‘why’ is used. One considers automated cause and effect, the other considers chosen and purposeful actions. Why[cause] questions are rephraseable in terms of how. “How is it that I am seeing a rainbow?” It’s linguistically clunky, but it’s also more accurate. Why[purpose] questions are always abstract, because by definition it assumes motivations and thought are the root of the issue. “Why did he punch that person?” The question assumes that the man in question chose to do the punching and seeks to understand the motivations for the action, not the mechanics of it.

And yes, that distinction is subtle, but it’s crucial. The next time you ask someone a why question, consider whether you are asking about a cause/effect, or someone’s purposes. Sometimes it takes a bit of thought to even know yourself what you’re really asking.

So you could rephrase the initial argument “Science tries to explain why[cause], religion tries to explain why[purpose].” This is a much truer statement.

Religious ministers usually know zilch about cutting-edge scientific theory, nor do they need to. When they try to make scriptural pronouncements on current scientific questions (why[cause]) they are usually wrong, because scriptures were not designed to be scientific texts. They’re designed to teach people why[purpose] they are here and what they should be doing.

Scientists have a different, but no less fundamental problem with making why[purpose] statements, and it’s to do with reduction. As I explained before, reductionism does not allow for the concept of fundamental agency. It requires that everything, including personal desires and thoughts are the completely dependent result of the motion of basic particles. Agency, in order to exist, would have to be able to exercise some degree of control independently. And that independence, by defintion, could not be explained in terms of cause and effect. It is beyond the realm of why[cause]. Science cannot meaningfully enter why[purpose] territory because at heart it denies the question’s validity.