Hows, Whys, Wherefores, and Miserable Refuges
[See Part I for introduction]
Adelard of Bath (or Athelhard, AD 1080-1160) is sometimes known as the first English scientist. In his classic work Natural Questions he states:
I will detract nothing from God; for whatever is, is from him and by him; yet not even this is said vaguely and without due care, as we must listen to the very limits of human knowledge: only where this utterly breaks down, should we refer things to God.
In common with Christians down through the ages, Adelard sought natural answers to natural questions as far as such studies could be taken. Natural Questions is a dialogue between Adelard and his nephew in which he asks, ‘Why is there a rainbow in the heavens?’ His nephew replies that it is a sign of God’s promise not to flood the entire earth again. Adelard says
Of course that’s what God said and of course God put the rainbow there, but that doesn’t explain the rainbow. That is an example of a miserable refuge from a real philosophic explanation…I know God did it! But that’s not natural philosophy [i.e. science], that’s theology.
Although Adelard makes an important distinction, he is rather too hard on his nephew. After all, he didn’t ask how (i.e. by what means) there is a rainbow in the heavens, which would have elicited the naturalistic physical explanation he is evidently looking for, but why (i.e. for what purpose), which implies motive and design. There is the greatest of difference between a ‘how’ and a ‘why’ question, for example ‘how’ and ‘why’ a person was murdered. At its simplest, the joke ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ has a very different answer from the question ‘How did the chicken cross the road?’ Or, we might ask how Joseph became prime minister in Egypt, and rehearse all the steps in that process (all in the providence of God, if we wish to add such). But if we ask why Joseph became prime minister in Egypt we have a ready answer that relates to purpose in Genesis:
And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.
But we commonly use the concept of law to explain things and answer ‘why’ questions, thus investing the concept of law with a power that it does not have. This is rather disingenuous, and itself a miserable refuge from a proper explanation. We lazily invoke the concept of law to describe the behaviour of physical bodies: but that is all it is, a description, not an explanation. We talk about laws ‘governing’ and entities ‘obeying’ them and being ‘subject’ to them, but this is just so much anthropomorphic talk. We can’t properly use a description of behaviour or inherent properties of matter in a way that has explanatory power or purpose. As an example, if we ask how (by what means) two massive bodies gravitationally attract there is still no accepted answer in physics of the underlying mechanism at the present time. If we ask why two bodies attract we are inclined to answer in the context of law: there is a universal law of gravitation that defines the attraction between massive bodies at a certain separation; these separated bodies have mass and so are subject to this law; therefore they will attract by such and such amount. But this ‘law’ is merely a description of what we have observed for other bodies, so we impose it universally by a process of induction. It does not properly answer the Why question but supplies a fig leaf to pretend to cover the nakedness of our lack of knowledge.
If we ask the question ‘How does this jet engine work?’, we can give a very detailed explanation of all the parts of the engine and the physics. But if we ask ‘Why does this jet engine work?’ we must answer in terms of apparent or real design, for example ‘because fuel and air are introduced in the right proportion for combustion, and ignited in a chamber that allows for the emergence of the hot gasses of combustion in one direction only’. Or I could invent and invoke a law of jet engines, a ‘Whittle’s Law of Jet Engines’ that ‘all machines that conform to this, that and the other of Whittle’s design principles will perform as a jet engine’. This machine conforms to Whittle’s Law, so this machine will work as a jet engine. From this example we can see that invoking Whittle’s Law as an explanation of why this particular machine operates as a jet engine is not a proper answer to the question ‘Why does this jet engine work?’ It is, in fact, another one of those ‘miserable refuges’ that Adelard spoke about.
Science can answer why questions only in a limited capacity at the microscopic level by inferring function. So, for example, if a working jet engine had mysteriously dropped out of the sky in the 1920s (before the jet engine was invented), science could have attempted an answer to the question ‘Why is this pipe on this engine?’ The answer would be one of function or design, e.g. to carry fuel to the injection nozzles. And the question ‘How is this jet engine built’ could be answered through disassembly and making meticulous drawings and plans. Medical science has been doing the same with another ‘given’, the human body, for thousands of years, and has still not exhausted the questions – what is this organ for? Or nowadays, what is this gene for? And increasingly it can answer the question ‘how is the human body built?’ But science can never answer questions such as ‘Why was this jet engine built?’ or ‘Why does the human body appear in its present form?’
Isaac Newton was criticized in his lifetime because he sought to formulate general ‘physical laws’ whilst being unable to explain what was causing the phenomena to which he applied the laws. The idea that there could be attraction between bodies millions of miles apart and separated by empty space was considered to be rather ‘occult’ in his day, especially as he could proffer no physical explanation. Even in our day we do not understand what causes gravity. Likewise, in Fourier’s day there was a conflict concerning the nature of heat – whether it due to a substance called caloric, or due to motion of atoms. Fourier said that it was irrelevant – he was able to develop an excellent mathematical description/model of heat flow without knowing what heat was. All this goes to show that science, engineering and mathematics can make progress instrumentally even when there is gross uncertainty, and a total absence of explanatory power, about underlying reality. So-called ‘natural laws’, or mathematical concepts and models, should never, ever be confused with the underlying reality of the fabric of this universe. This seems to be a confusion made by Stephen Hawking, who we learn was early in life bored of actually studying the natural world, and spent the rest of his life dreaming about mathematical models which might or might not have anything to do with reality at all.
Let Adelard have the last word:
If we turn our backs on the amazing rational beauty of the universe we live in, we should indeed deserve to be driven therefrom, like a guest unappreciative of the house into which he has been received.