Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why vs How - a false conflict

The Atheist Spy sent me an email asking me to comment on his blog, and this post in particular. My knee-jerk reaction was that he is taking an awfully long time to say a fairly simple thing, but I think his point (once you get to it) is basically valid: people become religious or not depending on whether they care more about "why" than "how", or vice-versa. And there's no way to justify a concern for one over the other from first principles. Every world view, even atheism (even solipsism or nihlism), requires a leap of faith. (I actually made this point in my very first post here.)

But all that got me to thinking: why (it's a loaded word now!) must these two questions put people at loggerheads? Why can't we care about both? How (!) can we reconcile the conflict that seems to arise between the Whyers and the Howers?

The answer, I think, is very simple. The problem is that the methods that are effective for answering "how?" are not very effective for answering "why?". So if you care about one or the other then you naturally conclude that the methods that are effective for answering the question that you care about are "good" (because they produce the answers that you care about).

Can these positions be reconciled? Of course they can. All it takes is to recognize that there are two questions being asked, that people can be legitimately concerned (or not) with both of them, and that the effective methods for answering them are different.

Of course, this requires a bit of humility and a willingness to admit that what is important to you might legitimately be different from what is important to someone else, and perhaps even a willingness to admit that you might be wrong about some things. Such humility is in short supply at both extremes of the debate. Both religious fundamentalists, who insist that X must be true because it is what they think their holy text says (they are very rarely actually correct about this -- more on that later), and science fundamentalists (like Dawkins), who insist on pretending that anything that does not succumb to reductionism is nothing more than a human foible, will never be convinced. For the rest of us, middle ground is not hard to find.

The problems with fundamentalist religion have been extensively cataloged. Fundamentalists have attempted to make similar catalogs of the failings of "fundamentalists science" (e.g. creationist/ID critiques of Evolution) but these fail because they attempt to critique science using logic, and that can never work because science by definition *is* logic. It is rather like trying to critique faith by saying, "Jesus can't be the Son of God because I don't believe it." It doesn't work.

An effective religious critique of science must be based on the methods of religion, not science. The problem with science is not that it has trouble explaining how we got here, it's that it is utterly uncapable of explaining why we got here. The scientific answer to this is to simply dismiss the question as unimportant, but that's cheating. It's just as much of a cheat as saying, "It's true becuase the Bible says so." If I want to ask "why?" it is not for you to say whether my concern is worthy of consideration. The mere fact that I am a human and I choose to ask makes it worthy of my fellow human's concern. (Likewise for those who choose to ask "how".)

It is a happy circumstance that those who choose to ask "how" have stumbled recently (like in the last few hundred years) upon a method on which they (we) could all mostly agree and which seems to be effective. Those who choose to ask "why" have not yet been so fortunate. But that in and of itself is not license to dismiss the question. It was not that long ago in the grand and glorious scheme of things that the how-askers were trying to convert lead into gold. The arrogance of fundamentalist science is no more well founded than the arrogance of fundamentalist religion. Just because we scientists have found some common ground does not give us license to dismiss as unimportant the concerns of our fellow humans who have not been so fortunate.

I think we would all be well served with a little more humility and compassion all around.


The Atheist Spy said...

Wow, thanks for your review! I'm happy - and not surprised - that you mostly agree.

Indeed, you put it very well and concisely: The best methods used to ask Why are not very good at answering How, or vice versa, and people get into trouble when they try. Well said. That's basically the idea behind the "non-overlapping magisteria" principle I talk about at http://atheistspy.blogspot.com/2006/03/noma-take-2.html

My main idea, though, is not that there is a conflict between Why and How. Both are questions that could be asked and pursued by a reasonable person (like many scientists who are religious or otherwise spiritual). All I wanted to say is that, if you don't feel the need to answer Why, then you can reasonably become an atheist (unlike what some religious people think), and if you do feel the need to answer Why, then you can reasonably become a theist (unlike what some atheists think). So theism vs atheism is not about evidence or about who is "right", it's just about whether or not you care about the Why. There is no conflict between Why and How, but there does exist some conflict between atheists and theists, because they don't understand that the only reason why they are atheists/theists is because of their relationship with the question Why.

In any case, I know we agree, I just wanted to make what I said more clear using the way you put it.

And by the way,

"these fail because they attempt to critique science using logic, and that can never work because science by definition *is* logic. It is rather like trying to critique faith by saying, 'Jesus can't be the Son of God because I don't believe it.' It doesn't work."

that was BRILLIANT.


quantamos said...

i wish i had more time to read and write about all this stuff.

as i think you could tell from the time we met -- i really enjoy thinking and talking about this stuff. not only the differences between atheism, islam, hindu, et al and christanity, but within the different christian denominations. if you find the right kinds of people to talk to, who actually seem fairly rare, the conversation is always interesting and fun...

the lesson that i'm learning more and more is the one you concluded with:

I think we would all be well served with a little more humility and compassion all around.

quantamos said...

oh, and i wanted to add something. it's actually extremely disappointing how few christians there are who actually know more about the bible, theology, and christian living than what they might have been told in sunday school.

part of why i (as a christian) think this is disappointing is because how can you enjoy something if you have never earnestly worked at enjoying it? it's not easy, but so few people seem to think it worth the effort.

but the other reason why i think it's disappointing is because it makes it *really* easy for atheists to write up a "debunking" webpage. one of the things that I've noticed in reading christian apologetic materials (e.g. christian writings against islam) are actually quite simplistic. ignoring the possibility that this was intentional, what it means is that if the christian who does not understand the bible or islam attempts to use these things, they will be rebuffed by anybody who understand the 1st order rebuttals. but the same thing is true of the "pro atheist" webpages I see -- they present 1st order "proofs" against christianity without taking the time to realize that there are answers to all their proofs. to the "weak" christian, they will either be swayed or clam up. to the "strong" christian, their beliefs will only be strengthened since they will wonder "is that the best you've got?" -- they've been vacinated.

i like this idea of a "taylor series" of arguments used for or against a school of thought. the question that I keep wondering is why it seems that "right" or "wrong" is dependent upon the skills of the debaters, since that can't be right. for all us finite humans, it is probably impossible to absorb all available materials on any given topic. so how many terms do you need to keep from the expansion before you are content with your resolution? hahaha... it seems that if you are going to convince a certain person of your point of view, you need to present them with a longer expansion than the number of terms that person is "content" with.

hahaha... this ended up being longer than i expected. talk and analysis is so easy, objective observations are so difficult. speaking of... time to get back to collecting objective (!) data for my paper.

The Atheist Spy said...

Hi quantamos. It's great to meet another Christian who enjoys this kind of conversation.

I think you miss the point of what I try to say in my blog, though. These kinds of debates miss the point, and when you say that someone would do better in a debate if they knew more about the Bible and apologetics, you miss the point too: A leap of faith is always required to embrace theism. Even if you argue that some theological system (say, the Christian one) makes sense, you cannot argue that it is necessary - that is, someone has to choose to adopt it, and choosing to be an atheist is just as valid a choice.

So you can know all about the different interpretations and ideas inspired by every verse in the Bible, you can know all the different possibilities regarding the historicity of Jesus, the miracles, and the early church, you can read all the arguments and reasoning of the great apologetics, you can choose to swallow a little or some or all of Christian theology/mythology... But in the end, you can never prove an atheist wrong. Being a theist requires the desire to answer "why", and a person who does not share that desire will not be compelled by apologetics.

However, once you do have the desire to answer "why", the arguments for why one theological system is better than another for this purpose can be really fascinating. (But they're never necessary, to someone who does not care about "why").

Feel free to send me an email sometime if you want to exchange more thoughts on this. If you think I'm missing something, or if you have any insights or other takes on apologetic/theological "debates", I'd love to hear them. I actually have some new thoughts myself I will write about sometime over the next few days. I used to think that religion and morality should be kept apart but I had a conversation that really made me rethink this. No, I still do think that those fundamentalist Christians who oppose abortion and homosexuality on religious grounds are crazy, but in general the issue is not so black and white once you move away from the extremes and think about what "good" and "right" really mean. You'll see when I post about it soon.

quantamos said...

Sorry, I didn't actually read your post. That was my comment about enjoying talking about things without having time... I really struggle with these issues, but I feel it's important to talk to people anyway.

I have never met a "proof" for God that does not require some kind of "leap of faith" first. Part of the problem is that historical truths are elusive. But for exactly the same reasons, I don't think an atheist could ever find a "proof" against God that does not also require a "leap of faith". This is related to the fact that atheism and theism are completely orthogonal by definition. For the individual, the only evidences that would ever be available would be empirical observations about one's own human nature, taking into account the problem that it is probably impossible to decouple one's expectations from one's observations. Furthermore, the more often one sees what they expected to see in the first place, the more they expect to see it. Naturally. But if the first expectation was wrong (maybe even in an unverifiable way), then the hardening will probably lead you in unhealthy directions. And nobody, ever, approaches these issues without any expectations.

But I'm speaking of our ability to observe hidden truths. This says nothing one way or the other about whether something was true in the first place. Any faith requirement does not preclude the possibility of correctness, it just means that you'll never know it was right unless it's validated for you in some non-proof sort of way (e.g. Jesus changed my life).

I'll have to go and read your statements about the "why" vs "how" but being a Christian (the only kind of theist that I really know much about) does not primarily deal with "why". At least in my opinion, although I can see how an atheist would suspect that. Christianity is all about asking *how* one might become righteous before God. If you don't feel unrighteous before God, then Christianity is guaranteed to mean nothing to you.

I've been keeping my xanga blog of the same user id. I'll try and keep up with your blog, but I get pretty busy sometimes...

Ron said...

Christianity is all about asking *how* one might become righteous before God.

"Why" vs. "How" is an oversimplification. Science asks "how" in the sense of "by what mechanism" do natural phenomena come about. Religion asks "why" in the sense of "for what purpose" do these phenomena and mechanisms exist?

Religion, as you point out, also asks "how" do we accomplish certain non-quantifiable goals (like achieving social justice, or becoming righteous before God). And science can ask "why" do things happen the way they do, e.g. why is the sky blue? Distilling the essential difference between these questions is tricky, but irrelevant. The point is there is an essential difference. Not all questions are open to scientific investigation, e.g. "Is this really love or just a crush? Is modern art really art? Is the United States a great country? Does sushi taste good?" The question of God's existence is of this sort. If it were not, there would be no need for faith.

I don't think an atheist could ever find a "proof" against God that does not also require a "leap of faith".

You can't prove anything without a leap of faith. Even Descartes had to assume "I think therefore I am." How can you be sure that you think? Maybe you just think that you think.

quantamos said...

I was thinking about the types of "why" questions that Christianity seeks to answer, because it isn't actually obvious. First, I just want to say that I don't think the Bible addresses much in the way of justifying scientific phenomena. Secondly, there are more interesting "why" questions that people ask, like "why is there evil in the world". While many theologians could talk on this topic for a long time, I don't think the Bible actually goes into much depth trying to answer this. For example, why did God permit the bad things to happen to Job? God never answers that question (Job 38-42). Habakkuk also thought he had God cornered (Habakkuk 2:1) -- that God would have to tell him why certain bad things would happen, and all he got was a "the just shall live by faith". Jesus had a similar response to tragedy. God certainly doesn't feel compelled to justify all his activities and laws.

I also wanted to point out that the question of the existence of God is not arbitrary. Either he exists (independent of people's minds), or he does not. The issue we have to deal with is how our perception of reality limits us since we are attempting to observe something that we are ourselves interacting with. Science doesn't have to deal with these issues since a scientist will eventually come up with an inequivocal, reproducible experiment. Anybody else can verify the results since the observation can be completely decoupled from the opinions of the observer. Religion (i.e. theism or atheism) also requires observations, for example observations about one's self, about human nature, and about what things have worked and what didn't work. The difference between science and religion, as I see it, is that to communicate ideas relating to religion, you are forced to use reasoning, rationalizations, human language, and many other subjective methods. But even though science has such a huge advantage in it's ability to be objective, I don't think it's correct to conclude religion is itself necessarily subjective just because it is so difficult to handle objectively. Both science and religion seek truth. Science has the advantage that truths can be verified by intelligent enough people; religion has the advantage that truths are accessible to anybody.

The Atheist Spy said...

It is also worthwhile to reflect upon how "Why" can mean "Due to what cause / mechanism" or "For what reason / purpose", two very different things.

"Why is the sky blue" and "Why are our eyes sensitive to this particular area of the spectrum" are the first kind - a scientific "Why" that is really a "How" in disguise. "Why does the universe exist" implies deliberate purpose. Some questions - like "Why is there suffering and injustice in the world", "Why did intelligence arise", "Why is there evil", "How do we go about making the world a better place", can be approached in either way - a scientific "Let's understand the system" way and a religious "What does God want" way, or some combination of both.

I address some of the comments made about my blog at my latest post.

Ron said; You can't prove anything without a leap of faith.

I look at some consequences of this, when it comes to morality, in a recent post. I'd appreciate your feedback on this issue - especially since it seems to me that few atheists appreciate this.

gene said...

I don't really understand what Dawkins is talking about, in that there is no why in science.

For instance evolution provides athiets with a very good why for a lot of the phenomena you see in biology: why does phenomenon X exist? Because it helped the organism survive. To me that is a why.

The how would be the history or mechanism through which that survival was accomplished.

I don't think why is intention (we only see it that way, because we are capable of intentions and most of the forces that act on us or that we care about are the result of the intentions of others).

Why is the fundamental cause or logic behind a phenomenon. For instance if the wind blows and knocks an object off of a table. The how is that the wind blew and the object moved and then fell. Gravity is the why the object fell.

I think scientists are missing out on a lot of exciting opportunities to see new answers to whys, by denying their existence.

Of course it's much easier to say that whys do not exist and focus on the much simpler and straight forward hows, but if it weren't for some one like Darwin, or Mendel who saw through the hows and into the whys then we would not have some of the most cherished discoveries in biology.

nonzero said...

There is no conflict between the 'how' vs. the 'why'. You are right that they ask different questions and are answered in different ways, but that still is not where the conflict arises. Even if the NOMA actually overlap, that doesn't automatically result in conflict.

The conflict arises when the 'how' and the 'why' become incompatible. We pretty much know 'how' humans evolved based on science, but if that interferes with someones' view of 'why' we are here, conflict arises. This creates situations that we see now such as intelligent design where theists try to falsely change the 'how' in order to support the 'why', not out of genuinely wanting to know the true 'how' based on evidence.

The opposite case is also true. The 'how' doesn't reject the 'why' outright because atheists don't care about the 'why' or don't have the right tools/thinking to pursue the 'why' line of thought. They reject the theistic 'why's when they become incompatible with the 'how'. How do you reconcile believing in an omnipotent/omniscient/benevolent god who 'loves' us with the state of the world? How can i believe in Jesus' miracles if there is no evidence for such things and all evidence in fact points to it not being possible? Why should I believe the bible is holy when all evidence points to it being just a historic collection of writings by many different and often conflicting writers?

So this being said, you can still be a theist and believe in 'something' as long as that something's "why' doesn't interfere with the 'how' that we have come to know. But that doesn't really leave room for much of the religions people practice today.

I myself call myself agnostic which is really different from an atheist only in semantics.

Anonymous said...

To Nonzero - excellent point. I am an atheist because theology insist on indoctrination using ideas that can not be reconciled with reality. Theology has no mechanism for self correction when new information becomes available. It continues to ask "why" even after the question has been answered. It claims to know the "how" in the face of all reason. It corrupts the mind by flagrantly perpetrating irrational thought. What bothers me the most? People who are susceptible to irrational thinking, are still allowed to vote.