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Why? Why? Why?

Entry 1963, on 2019-01-31 at 20:53:01 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

Have you ever discussed a deep and meaningful subject with a child and been frustrated because you got nowhere after every answer you gave was greeted with the question "why?" Generally any subject can go down that path, and ultimately there is always a point where there is no answer.

For example: Why do we have night and day? Because the Earth rotates on its axis and only half is ever illuminated by the Sun. Why does the Earth rotate like that? Because the original gas the Solar System was made from was spinning violently as the Sun and planets formed. Why was it spinning? Because the Big Bang was a very energetic event and the Universe expanded a bit unevenly. Why did the Big Bang cause the Universe to expand? Because some event triggered that expansion almost 14 billion years ago. Why did the Big Bang happen at that time, and not some other time? Yeah. Good question.

My proposal is that every "why" type question can never ultimately be answered because there is inevitably an infinite succession of further questions of the same sort, which lead to a recursive process which never terminates (and that's a real computer geek style explanation).

It's actually perfectly fair for young people to ask questions like that, and it is healthy for the person trying to answer to admit that there are questions which we don't have answers to. There are two reasons why those answers might not be available: first, there might be an answer but we haven't figured out what it is yet; and second, the question might not have an answer, because there is no guarantee that just because an idea can be framed as a question that there should be an answer to that question.

So in the example I gave above the answer might be discovered some day, either after better observational work is done, or after fundamental theories are updated to help understand the conditions at the Big Bang. So we might discover clues in the cosmic microwave background indicating the Big Bang is simply a local event in a larger metaverse, in which case we could continue asking the why questions about what triggered that event; or we might find that universes just happen occasionally for no reason, and then we cannot ask any more questions - but that seems somehow unsatisfying.

The same phenomenon applies to more philosophical questions too, which might not be as well defined as the physics question I asked above. For example, we might ask this series of questions: What is the correct way to behave to be truly moral? (note that I count this as a "why" question even though it doesn't start with that word) An answer might be: We should try to give the greatest happiness for the most people (a utilitarian style answer). Why is happiness more important than some other measure, and why should this only apply to humans and not other conscious animals, like dolphins? Well, those are good questions and ultimately we cannot justify one set of criteria being any better than any others.

Unfortunately this phenomenon can be exploited by people as a dishonest way to counter a perfectly reasonable argument they cannot respond to in a more appropriate way.

For example, I was debating with a creationist a few days back and the argument went something like this: You agree that an individual's characteristics are primarily determined by their genetics, that genes change from one generation to the next, and that individuals with better genetic changes are more likely to survive and have offspring, which continues the process of change? Yes. So you agree that evolution exists then! But why do those changes happen? Because chemical reactions are never perfect and can be affected by many external factors. But why did they start in the first place? Because various chemicals combined to form more complex molecules according to basic chemical laws and this eventually lead to life. But why did the chemicals form? Some were produced in the Big Bang and others in the cores of stars. Why did the Big Bang happen then? Yes, there's that question again, and I admit we don't know yet. So evolution is false then!

Notice that the why questions gradually drifted off the original topic in a devious way designed to disguise the fact that it is impossible to reasonably refute evolution. When it is shown that evolution is inevitable the question turns towards a related but different topic: abiogenesis (the origin of the earliest primitive life from non-living chemicals) and when that is partly answered the question then turns to the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang which really has no direct relevance to evolution at all.

So instead of making reasonable counter-arguments to mine, my opponent just asked "why, why, why" like a child would. As I have already said, those questions are OK, but it is more the intent of the questions rather than the fact of them being asked which is the issue here. Ask enough of them and there will always be a point where there is no answer, but that lack of an answer has no real bearing on the reality (or otherwise) of evolution.

If I had been debating more seriously instead of just sparring with a religious friend I would have insisted we stick to the original topic instead of taking the old escalating "why" route, which is very commonly used by creationists who are very aware that there will always be some question which has no answer.

I could also have used the same tactics against my opponent. I could have said: Why are there so many different types of life? Because God wanted it that way. Why did God not concentrate on a lesser number of species instead of creating 600,000 species of beetle, for example? Because that was not God's wishes. Why would he have such strange wishes then? I don't know. How can we understand the mind of God?

So you can see that the why recursion problem can be applied just as easily to theology as it can to science or philosophy!

In the end there are ultimate questions which I don't think are answerable. Stuff like: "why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?" or (if you are religious) "Why did God start existing in the first place?" Scientists, philosophers, and theologians should all have problems with these, because I think they really are "non-questions". The first because some things just don't have a cause, and the second because you cannot answer a question about something which doesn't exist.

There's no harm in pondering these questions, because they are interesting even if they have no answers, but they shouldn't be used as an excuse to reject explanations from questions where there are good answers. Unless you're a kid, try to avoid why? why? why?

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Comment 1 (4983) by Dr Smith on 2019-02-19 at 09:46:40:

But wait, you are confusing physical and metaphysical questions. Just because a question can't be answered by science doesn't mean we can't answer it. That's what religion is for.

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Comment 2 (4984) by OJB on 2019-02-19 at 10:48:24:

The problem is that some questions don't have answers, because they just aren't properly formed questions. For example, if I asked "how did God create the first man" I would say that isn't a good question because it pre-supposes a certain type of answer. And if I ask "why did that atom radioactively decay at this time" there is no answer because physics has established that radioactive decay literally happens with no cause.

So admitting that a question might not have an answer, or is just badly formed and is not worth answering, is better than making up an answer which is almost certainly invalid, in my opinion. After all, a theologian could answer any question with something like "because God wanted it that way". What value is there in that? It's worse than no answer.

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