Sometimes the scientists do themselves no favors.

Following my earlier armchair-philosopher post “The born-again atheists bother me“, I encountered an atheist’s web page purporting to respond to “50 reasons to believe in God“.  The reasons range from the lame and childish to the moderately intelligent.  A number of them aren’t reasons to believe in God at all, such as “atheism is based on faith”, which is just a criticism of atheism, as are several others.  The responses are largely entirely predictable and the only interesting thing about the web page is that it brings a number of Christian/Atheist strawmen together in one place.  The only one I want to talk about here is number 36 “How vs. Why”.

The “reason” given is “Science can explain ‘how’ something works, but not ‘why’ something works.”.  Why this is a reason to believe in God, per se, escapes me because I see it only as a statement of one of the limitations of science and also misleading, on its own, because how “why” differs from “how” is not addressed, and that’s an important question.

The responses are two.  First: “This argument is essentially meaningless. To science, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are the same thing.” which is an astonishing cop-out.  If we agree that science certainly answers “how” questions, and I suggest that there is nothing controversial in that, then defining “why” to be the same thing as “how” immediately cuts off any investigation of “why” questions that is not “scientific”.  I put “scientific” in quotes here because no scientist should make that assertion unless he’s talking about scientism and not science, which should also be made clear if it is the case.  In a sense, it says that there is no “why”, without justifying the claim.

The second response just irritates me, because I like Terry Pratchett, who, the page claims “sheds insight onto this. The question “why” presupposes that there is a story to be told. A narrative. Science is a different way of knowing, and one of its discoveries is that the language of the universe is not that of story and legend, but that that of mathematics. It’s something that a lot of math-phobes have a hard time accepting.”  Yes, I suppose a narrative is a way of understanding what “why” means, but it’s a bit of a red-herring and the meat is more in the position about mathematics.

OK, so the universe speaks mathematics.  I speak English.  I can tell a story in English.  Why cannot the universe tell a story in mathematics?

Apart from that, the rules of the universe, its mathematical and scientific laws, are just that, the rules that are (apparently) followed.  They are not the universe itself.  They are a “how”, they are not a narrative or a motivation.  They are themselves not a reason for the universe’s existence.  A logical conundrum – “this sentence is false” – is not a reason for its own existence, but it’s rules are obvious.

Perhaps the universe has no reason for its own existence.  If not, then I challenge the loonie atheists who reify the scientific method to the level of cosmic significance: prove it!

Oh, I know, they’re trying, trying very hard.  But what they are really doing is trying to answer the “how” questions and hope that the “why” questions go away; and granted, they often do.  Ultimately, perhaps “why?” is limited to the realm of subjective experience.  Like blue, pain, love, it might be open to scientific analysis insofar as you can identify the parts and processes of the brain where such experiences lie, but you cannot extract and measure an independent substance to which you can reasonably give such labels.

You can go on about why I see the sky is blue until you’re blue yourself, but at no point can you prove that your experience of “blue” is identical to mine.  Likewise, I suspect that everyone’s “why” is different, dependent on their own experiences and derived world view.  The argument, like this blog post, is pointless.

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