—Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
In other articles about science and the Church (notice which is uppercase), I have said that science answers “how” questions, not “why” questions. I’ll have to recant that opinion, or at least admit that it’s only partially true. Why?
According to my latest assignment from the Caltech alumni book club, “The Book of Why: the New Science of Cause and Effect,” by Judea Pearl, there is a science of “why.” And this science reveals causation to be a legitimate concern of science.
After I finish reading the book, a review will be forthcoming. Before that, I’ll agree that science should take account of causal relations. Nevertheless, I strongly assert that not all why questions can be answered by science. Here’s a quote from my favorite scientist/philosopher/theologian, Fr. Stanley Jaki, OSB, that makes this point better than I could:
“To answer the question ‘To be or not to be?’ we cannot turn to a science textbook.”
—Fr. Stanley Jaki, “The Limits of a Limitless Science”
CAN SCIENCE ANSWER “WHY” QUESTIONS?
Let’s examine what “why” means in a scientific context. If a child asks “Why is the sky blue?” he/she doesn’t want to know what purpose a blue sky serves, but rather, how is that blue achieved. In short, it’s a “how” question rather than a “why” question.
If the child asks “Why does a caterpillar spin a cocoon?” you can answer: “to protect itself while it grows into a butterfly.” Here purpose or teleology enters, the Fifth Way of Aquinas. Such purpose can be a legitimate part of a scientific explanation applied to a particular event.
However, science shuns teleology as a tool to explain general laws. Teilhard Chardin’s proposal that evolution is a path to a final “Omega Point,” a union of the universe with Christ, is not acceptable science. (And for many, it’s not acceptable theology.)
Science requires verification of theories/hypotheses by reproducible measurements. Ideally such measurements can quantified, but sometimes not, as in the historical sciences of biology, geology and anthropology. So, why questions that cannot be answered by experiments or measurements are not part of science. (See here, here and here for some of my thoughts on how science works.)
Let’s look now at the “why” questions God can answer, but science can’t.
WHY QUESTIONS SCIENCE CAN’T ANSWER, BUT GOD CAN
Here are some among many—I invite the reader to submit others.
- Why is there anything?
- Why do I exist?
- Why does science work?
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.
- Why do we believe in God?
- Why do we seek the beautiful, the good?
- Why does the Second Law of Thermodynamics work, or, why is there an arrow of time?
- Why does music affect us?
The best answers to such questions are given in the Baltimore Catechism and in Holy Scripture:
Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
—Question 6, Lesson the First, Baltimore Catechism #1
and in Psalm 19A:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.—Psalm 19 (KJV)
So there is where I’ll look for answers.