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What exactly is a "why" question?


Reaper
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Just something that caught my attention while reading the "God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, page 56. The exact quotation is :

 

It is a tedious cliche (and' date=' unlike many cliches, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with [i']how[/i] questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word "why" is a legitimate question...

 

*This also holds for all other languages in case it isn't clear.

 

 

 

Anyone care to discuss?

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'How' questions ask for underlying processes. 'Why' questions ask for a rationale for those processes.

 

For example, 'How did the earth come into being?' asks for the processes that resulted in the formation of this planet. This question can be answered through cosmology, physics, geology and so-on. 'Why did the earth come into being?' asks for (and thus assumes) some rationale behind those processes and the existence of the planet.

 

Dawkins' position is that in studying the natural world/Universe, most 'why' questions are unanswerable and so, meaningless. There is no rationale behind a product of physical laws beyond the physical laws themselves, which are sufficient on their own to explain their product (i.e. 'how'). So, most 'why question simply become circular.

 

For example:

 

1) "How is a star formed?"

 

"A gravitational instability in a hydrogen cloud causes the hydrogen to coalesce on an area of higher gravitational density until the internal pressure of the mass of hydrogen is sufficient to cause the hydrogen to begin to fuse into heavier elements."

 

2) "Why is a star formed?"

 

"Because some perturbation in a previously stable gravitational field caused hydrogen to begin to coalesce ..."

 

"Yes, but why?"

 

"..er..because, that's what gravity does"

 

"But WHY does it do that?"

 

"Because, it's GRAVITY, dagnabbit!...."

 

Most parents will recognise the pointlessness of such 'why' questions.

 

A more sensible iteration of the second question would be 'for what reason does a star form?' If you think about it, there is no answer beyond the one given to the 'how' question, i.e. a star is a product of the processes of physical laws acting on matter and once the laws and processes are understood, there are no more questions. Thus, the 'why' question is a pointless 'non' question.

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I think the "cliche" is entirely correct and Dawkins is talking out of his arse again. "How" is concerned with the mechanism with which something happens, whereas "why" is concerned with the motivation. The "cliche" is pointing out that science is not equipped to answer some questions because it can only ultimately answer "how".

 

I would dispute Glider's answer to the second question. "Because some perturbation in a previously stable gravitational field caused hydrogen to begin to coalesce ..." is actually an answer to the "how" question, not why.

 

And of course, Dawkins is unable to recognise as relevant anything which is not describable or answerable by science and therefore claims that why questions are meaningless :rolleyes:

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"WHY" is one of the most Widely used an Valid questions a Scientist can ever ask, he seems to Overlook that part in his appeal to the masses by using it as an anthropomorphism to imply Intent of a Conscious nature, quite pathetic and transparent as far as tactics go!

 

Motive is NOT dependant on Conscious intent, (I wonder if he knows what EMF stands for?).

 

Why does X react with Y and Why does it make Z?

 

that is the Starting point for Most Scientific work, the How is the establishment of the Why.

 

Dawkins is a Crackpot!

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I agree with Glider's point. The why questions described in the posts after his are still, in fact, how questions (IMO anyway... stupid semantics).

 

Why is a question that does not resolve issues, it simply drills you down into deeper levels and new questions. When questions are approached with "Why," then the scope of the question is enlarged tremendously. It does not set adequate criteria for the final answer.

 

Why is the sky blue? Why does light react this way? Why do we perceive it this way. Yes... we can answer these, but asking it using "why" ultimately leads to a infinite regress toward more "why" questions until we ultimately arrive at one of two answers:

 

1) God did it.

2) Just because. (or, I don't know)

 

How, however, is a question that addresses clearly a context and a specific situation, and once answered closes the issue. It is well defined, and it's criteria are clear.

 

 

So, another question might be, "Why is this thread on using "why" versus "how" questions already spiraling into a bashing of Richard Dawkins, who was only referenced as a way to indicate what birthed this question in the first place?

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motivator/driver/force behind/incitement and the likes are MY way of seeing it.

 

entirely Void of Intent, Thought or Choice.

 

lets Juxtapose the wording a little for example:

 

Why does it fall to the ground? A: Gravity

How does it fall to the ground? A: well Duuugh! straight down dummy!

 

now "How" is the silly question here :)

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only when used with a Qualifier, "What makes" it fall to the ground.

 

to use my prior example.

 

questions like, "Where" and "When" are Spatially specific and "Who" is Personal Directive so non of these really need enter into it.

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Science deals with why questions. The observations are the hows and models are the whys.

 

Q: Why do planets move around in the sky?

A: They move in ellipses around the sun.

Q: Why?

A: Because of gravity

Q: Why?

A: [insert Grand Unified Theory here]

 

Each time "Why?" gets asked, the answer grows exponentially harder!

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I think the "cliche" is entirely correct and Dawkins is talking out of his arse again. "How" is concerned with the mechanism with which something happens, whereas "why" is concerned with the motivation. The "cliche" is pointing out that science is not equipped to answer some questions because it can only ultimately answer "how".

In what way is the cliche correct? Where science has answered the question concerning how stars form, in what way is theology equipped to answer the question Why stars form? What is the motivation behind star formation?

 

I would dispute Glider's answer to the second question. "Because some perturbation in a previously stable gravitational field caused hydrogen to begin to coalesce ..." is actually an answer to the "how" question, not why.

 

That was my point, which is why I went on to say:

If you think about it, there is no answer beyond the one given to the 'how' question, i.e. a star is a product of the processes of physical laws acting on matter and once the laws and processes are understood, there are no more questions. Thus, the 'why' question is a pointless 'non' question.

 

And of course, Dawkins is unable to recognise as relevant anything which is not describable or answerable by science and therefore claims that why questions are meaningless :rolleyes:
As far as science is concerned they are and so, in that context, he's quite right.
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And of course, Dawkins is unable to recognise as relevant anything which is not describable or answerable by science and therefore claims that why questions are meaningless
As far as science is concerned they are and so, in that context, he's quite right.

How do we advance if we only worry about the questions that are describable and answerable with our current knowledge?

 

Eventually we will learn to describe the indescribable and answer the unanswerable but we must first accept that a question exists that needs describing and answering.

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How do we advance if we only worry about the questions that are describable and answerable with our current knowledge

 

You're overlooking that technology uncovers questions that can't be described or answered, QM is still AFAIK as baffling today as when it was first discovered. Some hypotheses have attempted a radical reworking of reality to accomodate.

 

Eventually we will learn to describe the indescribable and answer the unanswerable but we must first accept that a question exists that needs describing and answering.

 

Before a question is experimentally testable, it remains in the realms of philosophy...the latter is the attempt at trying to answer the unanswerable.

 

Q: Why do planets move around in the sky?

A: They move in ellipses around the sun.

Q: Why?

A: Because of gravity

Q: Why?

A: [insert Grand Unified Theory here]

 

That doesn't follow...

Q:Why do planets move around in the sky?

A:Because of gravity

 

There's no why question following that, except...why does the universe operate like that, which is a non-scientific question. How does the universe operate like that, is. A GUT will only explain how gravity behaves at the planck scale, not why it behaves as it does.

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In what way is the cliche correct? Where science has answered the question concerning how stars form, in what way is theology equipped to answer the question Why stars form? What is the motivation behind star formation?

 

The religious motivation behind the formation of stars is that it is God's will. That simple! Science is not asking why, it is asking how.

 

As far as science is concerned they are and so, in that context, he's quite right.

 

But we are not just talking about science. I have clearly explained that science only asks how questions, so if you make statements only "in the context of science" then you are not dealing with all the questions. Now, it is your right to hold the opinion that the question 'why' is not important (since it cannot be scientifically answered) and can thus be ignored, but that is your own (and Dawkins') personal bias.

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The religious motivation behind the formation of stars is that it is God's will. That simple! Science is not asking why, it is asking how.

My interpretation is that you seem to agree completely with Glider on this point.

 

 

But we are not just talking about science. I have clearly explained that science only asks how questions, so if you make statements only "in the context of science" then you are not dealing with all the questions. Now, it is your right to hold the opinion that the question 'why' is not important (since it cannot be scientifically answered) and can thus be ignored, but that is your own (and Dawkins') personal bias.

I didn't interpret Glider's point to suggest that *he personally* does not think why questions are important, only that *in terms of science* they are somewhat meaningless.

 

It's possible that you are arguing with someone who agrees with you, which is why I pointed out the above. Cheers.

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I`m with snail on this one too:

That doesn't follow...

Q:Why do planets move around in the sky?

A:Because of gravity

 

There's no why question following that, except...why does the universe operate like that, which is a non-scientific question. How does the universe operate like that, is.

 

there is no WHY question to be asked (like that anyway), it in itself provides the answer completely.

 

you CAN however ask, "Why does Gravity behave like this?"

 

That would then be Valid.

 

 

 

A:Because of gravity

q: Why?

 

just leads to an infinite Loop, and requires a breakout point to advance the questioning.

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Why is asking for the ultimate cause of things, so obviously a why question assumes there's an ultimate cause for things. If there isn't, then why questions don't have any meaning (but why does that turtle support all the turtles above it?). A purely materialistic philosophy isn't necessarily going to be devoid of an ultimate cause for things though, so why questions can be asked here as well, though you can draw a line between philosophy and science if you want.

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