XFiles Weekend: The wisdom of the “why’s”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Once upon a time, a man met three students, and asked each of them, “Why did Jesus die?” The pre-med student replied that Jesus died because he had lost a lot of blood during his beatings, and because of the physiological effects of crucifixion, and because he was stabbed with a spear. The political science student replied that Jesus died because he ticked off the wrong group of guys, and was becoming popular enough to pose a credible threat to the political establishment. And the theology student replied that Jesus died in order to save mankind from sin.

All three answered the same question. All three gave answers that their professors (at least) would count as correct. None of the three contradicted the other two. And yet they gave completely different answers. How can this be? Once we understand the answer to that question, we’ll be ready to look at C. S. Lewis’ claim that science can never answer the question “Why is there a universe?”—or at least, not to his satisfaction.

Lewis, as you may recall, is arguing that there are certain questions science can’t answer. Sure, it’s ok for making observations, and telling us how the world is.

But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question… The statement that there is such a thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make… After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, ‘Why is there a universe?’ ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were?

The whole idea of “meaning” in life, of searching for some kind of “purpose” for the universe, has become a fairly dominant expression of religious yearning, and something that many, many Christians today appeal to as a justification for their faith. It’s worth spending a little time on, because once we understand the roots of this appeal, we’ll understand a lot better why Christians cling to it, and what it really implies for their faith.

Let’s begin our own quest for meaning by examining the meaning of the word “why.” When we ask “why?” what exactly are we trying to find out? As the introductory story shows, “why” encompasses at least two different types of question. The first question is “what chain of cause-and-effect led to the event or condition we’re asking about?” For example, if I ask my doctor, “Why do I have a rash on my elbow?” my doctor will examine my elbow and try to find some sort of injury or infection that would be likely to cause a rash.

Obviously, that’s the sort of question science is particularly well-suited to answer. Indeed, you could do a lot worse than to summarize all of science as being the process of answering the question “Why does the world go on as it does?” So when C. S. Lewis describes “common sense” as telling us that science ought to be unable to answer a question like that, it’s clear that Lewis must have some other kind of “why” in mind, because this kind of “why” is science’s bread and butter.

Let’s go back to our three students. The pre-med student gave us the scientific “why” for Jesus’ death by describing the cause and effect relationships that lead to his demise, but the political science major and the theology major gave us a different kind of “why” by describing the motives of those responsible. This is the other kind of “why” question: the question of goals and desires and agendas. In other words, the “social why.” And yet, here too the questions are not immune to scientific inquiry, as witness the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and yes, even political science (not to overstate my case, but it is political “science”).

Notice, though, that we frequently distinguish between “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry, and “soft” sciences like sociology. It’s not that these fields are necessarily less scientific, but rather, the number of variables, and the subtle interactions between the variables, become difficult to manage. Samples, summaries, approximations, and margins of error assume a much more significant role, and researchers are more likely to resort to (dare I say it) intuition for their insights into the problems they’re working with.

So, not to stray too far from my main point, there is a different sort of science that deals with the more social sort of “why” question. But here’s the rub: all of us, by virtue of our membership in a sentient, socialized species, are naturally gifted at answering “social why” questions. Our socially-oriented minds automatically draw instinctive conclusions based on approximations and trends and intuitive pattern detection. We do a very crude version of this sort of “soft science” every time we interact with other people, reading their moods and inferring their motives.

It’s understandable, then, that Lewis would turn to something other than (hard) science for answers to “social why” questions. Even if there are soft sciences like psychology and sociology, you don’t turn to science for answers to questions like, “Who should I marry?” or “What would my kids like for a Halloween costume this year?” The soft sciences tend to give broad, general answers, not individual specifics, and are a lot more error prone (at least on the scale of the single individual) than are relatively simpler sciences like subatomic physics.

In this sense, Lewis is justified in appealing to common sense as proof that there are some questions that science cannot answer. When it comes to concrete cause-and-effect relationships like those that govern physical events in the material universe, then science can give hard, specific answers with very low margins of error. When it comes to people having agendas and desires and social obligations and pride and so on, pure science is less able to give specific individual answers to questions like “why did you do that?”

The catch is that you have to be dealing with a person who has motives and fears and so on, before you can ask a “social why” question. That is, by asking a “social why” question, you are implicitly assuming that some sort of person is involved in producing the event or condition you are asking about.

Let’s go back to the first question that (according to Lewis) cannot be answered by science: “Why is there a universe?” If we ask the “scientific why” question, we can see that the correct answer is that the universe ultimately does not have a cause. Lewis himself would cheerfully explain this to you, if you were to ask him “Why is there a God?” In Lewis’ theology, God has always existed, and has no cause, therefore it makes no sense to ask why there is one. But, as science is currently documenting, material reality itself has the properties Lewis ascribes to God: it has existed for all of time, and has no beginning and no cause. The question “Why is there a universe?” therefore, is not a meaningful question.

So much for the first “why,” then. But what about the social why? This is where our instinctive animism comes into play. If you ask “Why is there a universe?”—meaning “why” in the social sense—you are assuming that there is some kind of person involved in causing the universe, and that this person has motives and agendas in mind for the cosmos. It’s a loaded question, designed to prevent any atheistic answers from being offered.

Clearly, science cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question, because it is a question based on false premises. Science also cannot explain why baseball has more little green men from Mars than soccer has. It’s the same problem. Any answer that would satisfy the question (and its implicit assumptions) would have to involve describing a real-world process in which actual little green men (or actual Cosmic Creators) played a significant role. Science, however, is limited to what it finds in the real world, which sadly does not contain any observable Martian men (or Divine Creators). So while it is true that science cannot answer these sorts of questions, that’s a deficiency in the questions, not in the science.

It all comes back to the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Science is the systematic application of this principle, used to acquire knowledge of new truth based on its consistency with the truth we already know. It’s because of this inherent self-consistency that it’s even possible to ask questions and get meaningful and accurate answers. All real-world truth is interconnected and self-consistent, and therefore science is able to follow the connections, and test for consistency, and make valid discoveries.

This, unfortunately, leaves science without any way to arrive at the animistic conclusions Lewis would like to reach, and therefore he declares science to be incapable of answering certain questions. He proposes a different reality, one that lies outside the reach of science, that he hopes to discover by means of subjectivism (as we’ll see next week). Unfortunately, since truth is consistent with itself, that means all of reality is going to be consistent with the truth as well. Any reality outside of this would have to be a “reality” that was not consistent with the truth (otherwise it would be part of this reality). So the bottom line is that Lewis is rejecting science in order to better pursue a lie. And what better place to find a lie than inside your own head?

Stay tuned.

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Posted in Science, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: The wisdom of the “why’s””

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    I like the different ‘truths’ and the social science thang. It’s one of those things that are like on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t put it into words.

  2. Jesse Says:

    An appreciative ex-lurker here.

    I just wanted to say that I hit on this idea about a year ago, though not in relation to C.S. Lewis and what-not. At the time, I had a tough time trying to express my thoughts about why one cannot cleanly separate how questions from why questions. In fact, I remember searching the Internet to see if anyone else had expressed the idea, hoping that I could find some expression of the idea somewhere, if only to see if there was a clear and easy way to do it, and I didn’t find anything.

    By coincidence some time later, I read an excellent piece by D, at the She Who Chatters blog, which gives the separation a good thrashing. She made it clear that there are three kinds of how questions (causal, quantitative, rational) and two kinds of why questions (causal, purposive). She then explained that causal-how and causal-why questions about inquiries about the same thing, though expressed differently. She then goes through each of the kinds of questions and shows that science meets or beats religion every time.

    I thought you might be interested in it, so here is a link to her piece: http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/2009/08/abusive-cosmology-poverty-of-howwhy.html

  3. Hunt Says:

    Taking the diametrically opposite view of morality from that of Lewis, and one that one that probably accords pretty well with yours, Sam Harris’s new book:


    is getting good reviews.