Why? A Simple question often overlooked or suppressed today. But we who believe must keep asking it of a secular world.

080113One of the more common misunderstandings of the modern age, we might even call it a delusion, is to confuse explanation with meaning. Through scientific method and other empirical ways of studying, we have gotten very good at explaining many of the processes and mechanics of the natural world.

But to give explanation, is not the same as to ascribe meaning. To answer how things work is not the same as to answer why.

Why, for example, do things exist at all? Why is there existence vs. nonexistence? Why is there observable order in the universe vs. chaos. Showing for example the wonderful and symbiotic relationship of photosynthesis and describing how it works at the molecular level, does not explain why it is there in the first place. Explanation is not the same as meaning; “how” is not the same as “why.”

The Delusion – Yet, in our modern times, perhaps as a prideful result of being able to explain so much, we often think we have wholly accounted for not just how things work, but why. We have not.  Many today like to argue that the material, or physical sciences have presented a comprehensive explanation for most things. They have not. By definition the physical sciences can only look to the physical interrelationships and secondary causes of things.

Put in philosophical terms, the physical sciences deal pretty well with material and efficient causality, but are not well equipped or able to answer questions of formal or final causality (More HERE and HERE) . Further, the material sciences can address some secondary causality, but not primary Causality (More HERE).

The error of our day, that the physical sciences give a comprehensive explanation for things is often referred to as “scientism.” As Father Robert Barron and others have rightly pointed out, there is a metaphysical assumption at the basis of all the physical sciences: namely, that reality is “intelligible.” It is a necessary presumption for the scientific method that things are not mindlessly, dumbly, or haphazardly here.

Science must base itself on intelligibility but cannot answer why there is intelligibility, why there is meaning at all, or purpose to be discovered. That we “think,” and are able to extract meaning, and that things are intelligible, is self-evident. But why do we have this capacity? Why do rocks and trees, and likely most animals, not have this capacity?

Simply looking to brain chemistry etc., can tell us some of “how” we have this capacity (though consciousness and the sense of “self” remain mysterious) but not “why.”

Again, to “explain” is not the same as to “understand.” One of the great tragedies in this modern and  unreflective age is that too many do not grasp or realize this. In our intellectual acumen, impressive though it is, many have stopped adverting to the wonder and awe that engages our humility at the moral level, and our faith at the spiritual level.

Man is naturally spiritual. Hence we ask the burning question or “Why?!”  And, despite the relatively recent surge of atheism in the decaying West, faith is quite ubiquitous in human history, and even today across most cultures. No matter how much we think we have “explained,” deep down, there is still that lingering question, “Why?” Ultimately, even the secularists and atheists of our modern age cannot wholly avoid this question, for explanation is not the same as meaning. They may postpone, try to ignore it, or deny its relevance, but one day they will and must confront it.

There is a remarkable story told about a dying soldier in the trenches of World War I. As the 18 year old lay dying, the Chaplain spoke to him to comfort him. In his delirium the soldier said, “Why?”  The chaplain thought he was struggling with why he was dying after a mere 18 years of largely hidden life on this planet. And so he asked the solider, “Do you mean, ‘Why am I dying?'”  But the soldier answered by asking something far more profound: “No,” said the soldier “Why did I live? What was I here for?”

“Why” is about meaning and is not a question that science is equipped to answer. It is not a question that seems to come from our body, or “brain,” it is a question that comes from our soul. There is no evidence that rocks or plants or animals ponder meaning, seek to understand, ask “why” or agonize over nonexistence as they lay dying. It is a uniquely human question: “Why….what is the meaning…..?” To explain is not the same as to understand.

No matter how materialistic, secular or atheistic our culture becomes, no matter how widespread the error of scientism is, it is not a question that is not going away: “Why…..why!?”

We who are of faith have answers given to us, for faith is a way of knowing based on God’s revelation. Granted the answers given by God are not understood by us comprehensively and contain mysterious elements. But, the answer to why things exist rather than not, why I am here rather than not, the answer is simply this: God is, and God is love.

We of the house of faith must gently but clearly “re-up” the fundamental question of “Why” to an unbelieving age and respectfully inisist that the question be addressed. There are many ways to ask it and then respectfully wait for an answer:

  1. Why is there existence?
  2. Why (not how) do you exist?
  3. Why are you angered when I mention God? You are not angry when I mention a duck-billed platypus or the possibility of ancient space visitors to this planet who sowed the seeds of life. But my mention of God seems to evoke a strong response in you? Why?
  4. If your anger is rooted in a sense of injustice (i.e. that what I say or believe is “wrong”), why?
  5. In other words, why do we human beings have a sense of justice, of right and wrong? Where does it come from and on what is it based?
  6. Is there any basis for morality at all, if as a materialist you say that everything is caused by random mutation and behavior and is biologically determined?
  7. Why do you say believing in God is “wrong” and atheism is “right?” On what do you base this?
  8. If you point to the “evil things” believers have done such as the “Inquisition,” where does your sense of injustice come from, and why be angry with believers if we are simply doing what the chemicals in our brain made us do?
  9. Why is anything wrong at all, if behavior, thought and decision are simply and biologically determined?
  10. In a word, “Why?”

Some will seek refuge in debates about meaning in terms like “pre-frontal cortex,” “hippo-campus” etc. But these sorts of words and concepts are focused on how, not why. Why does the brain do what it does, have what it has,  and why is it there in the first place? Why is it not there instead?


30 Replies to “Why? A Simple question often overlooked or suppressed today. But we who believe must keep asking it of a secular world.”

  1. Thought provoking! I have stopped wondering “why” so much and have decided to trust in God, instead. Mercifully, this crazy life won’t last forever! 🙂

    1. I recall Father Benedict Groeschel saying that when you find yourself in a difficult situation don’t ask why, but ask instead, “What do I need to do now?” That has helped me. I also recall him saying that sometimes, in life, coping is the best we can do and that ‘coping’ is a good word to keep around. That probably should have helped me more than it is has. 🙂

  2. Equally puzzling is why our soulless materialists think that every advance in science is cause to throw another shovel-full of dirt on God’s grave. Whenever a mechanism is discovered that explains some physical process they pull yet farther away from God — “see, look, we can now explain X,Y,and Z, …so obviously God doesn’t exist.” Yet the mechanism was no different before or after its discovery, so how does its discovery now prove the nonexistence of God? Those who are constrained by logic will only be able to ask “how” — the “why” comes from the other half of the brain. Limiting oneself to just one of the questions makes one half-brained. A complete thinker bridges both halves of the human brain. Chesterton says that only the coming of Christ and the Christian faith reconciles the “warring tendencies” of “how” and “why” in full and in balance.

    “… Otherwise the two sides of the human mind could never have touched at all; and the brain of man would have remained cloven and double; one lobe of it dreaming impossible dreams and the other repeating invariable calculations. The picture-makers would have remained forever painting the portrait of nobody. The sages would have remained for ever adding up numerals that came to nothing. It was that abyss that nothing but an incarnation could cover; a divine embodiment of our dreams; and he stands above that chasm whose name is more than priest and older even than Christendom; Pontifex Maximus, the mightiest maker of a bridge.”

    1. I think that most atheists believe that we have a God who explains what is missing, a God of the mysterious and the gaps, so that as more and more becomes explained we have less and less of a need for God. But to my point of view the more science is able to explain things, the more rationally conceived the universe appears, the more my faith in God is increased. I would expect random chaotic chance to result in a universe without scientific laws, just as I would expect the random typing of an illiterate person to result in meaningless gobbledygook. The fact that the universe follows laws we can comprehend implies to me that there is intelligent design behind it all, not random chance and chaos.

  3. Like the difference between facts; on the one hand; and hypotheses, theories, theses, etcetera; on the other hand. There are also facts that are so profound that they have become called “laws of science” because they have been taken across a threshold level to another place due to their ability to encompass more than singular facts. Newton’s laws of motion are this.
    Yet, there is a confusion as many people do not grasp the difference between the two categories and, the differences within the categories. So, many regard the potentially alterable things (hypotheses, theories, theses) as being facts or laws – thus exhibiting and acting upon these alterable things as final conclusions and; adopting a faith in science (and other means of truth seeking) which science does not have in itself.
    I only have a hypothesis, which roughly translates as less than a theory and is a translation I use because that illustrates it simply without putting a mini textbook here.
    Why? Eve, then Adam, gave consent to following cunning of a fellow creation, rather than the wisdom of Who had created all three of them and their environment and, therefore, Adam and Eve jumped the process of learning.
    Lynch mobs have done this in an effort to fulfill a desire for conclusion for a feeling (in this case anger) by taking action before there were enough facts to lead to a proper conclusion. Many innocent people have died as a result of lynch mobs, and actions of the same nature, as good and evil become confused. What’s even more unfortunate about this is that the society which the lynch mob presumes to represent remains vulnerable as the perpetrator of evil survives within a false sense of security which society has created by regarding good as evil and eliminating the good. Facing this tendency which is in all of us, including myself, is so uncomfortable that we defend it with anger – especially when some one dares to confront us with truth. I feel that I do it a lot less but, still find myself doing it. Sort of, “don’t preach at me (and make me aware of discomfort within which I will claim you caused)”
    Accepting being lead to the truth is very uncomfortable and takes time. I have complained that a search for the truth within me would take many years and, that there would be at least one year before I felt any benefit. I managed to deal with it by telling myself that the first year (and the many other years) would go by and asking myself where I would be then. Repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, which is Einsteins definition of insanity, as the insanity continued to grow? Or, by feeling the beginnings of, “happy, joyous and free”?

    1. i entertain the thought that even if one were to string together the very reason(and hence answer the deep “why”) such a statement would remain useless. Each recipient of such a statement has to make it live at a personal lived/experience level. I am not a Muslim hence the entire Muslim message is meaningless. A practising Muslim finds it live. The jump to make the statement live is faith. This faith is a free gift. When make the statement live it gains the force of locus of action.Whatever I do thereafter must meet the standards the statement prescribes.I can accumulate all statements but without making the live I simply increasing my cerebral knowledge. yes such knowledge can all that is known about God and afterlife.
      Did Cardinal Newman of the Oxford School say something relevant to this discussion?

      1. So, the Namatsi comment helps me to see that, my comment here is from my viewpoint and serves me to clarify my viewpoint but, I also see that as a possible form of “telling my story” which can be very inspiring on a, possibly, spiritual level – especially if it offers hope. All due to your comment.
        The “telling my story” message has spread into many venues lately but I excercise caution, when observing, in looking for hope as a validator. An alcoholic who had sobered up and was not just abstinent but who had also aquired peace of mind which he/she cannot recall ever having had before. Someone who had been obsessed with gaining more of the vast wealth and power which they already had but who is now content with a comfortable income in a career that leaves time for family and recreation. So many more.
        Where I live all cigarette packages have horrible pictures of diseased lungs, hearts and cancerous tonques but where, I ask, is the hope? Where is the joyous ex smoker atop the freshly climbed mountain as they enthusiastically breath full lungs full of fresh air? Where’s the excited children running out to see a parent arriving home. Children who had dreaded the parent’s return home when they were always grouchy about not having a smoke? No longer grouchy since doing the 12 Steps of Nicotine Anonymous. There is such a group.
        I always seek to put hope at the conclusion of “telling my story”.

  4. They have a response to the “where did the idea of right and wrong come from” question – we need to be prepared to respond to that.

    1. Yes, they fall back on the sociological and anthropological usefulness of morality. Among other arguments, such as morality’s evolutionary usefulness (Richard Dawkins, I think, argues this one a bit.)

  5. Secularism always causes societal crisis. A group of European Theologians responded back in the 1930’s to the godlessness fostered by Communism and Socialism with a movement focused on “a rediscovery of the riches of the whole of the Church’s two-thousand-year tradition.” Most of what I have read on this movement is from the mind of Henri de Lubac; who was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s. While it is incumbent upon the individual to seek God, I would add that leadership from the clergy would hasten the discovery of the path whereby the scales begin to fall from our eyes. How did we get here … and why? Some of the causes include: post-modernism, Education-turned-Propaganda, the sycophant media (or should I say sophist?), worldly clergy and politicians stealing the dignity of work in exchange for a govt check; all for the price of a Democrat vote… to name a few. Where is the USCCB? While averting their eyes from the blatant pro-secularist funding of non-profits by the Laity-supported Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), as well as, hiring openly Leftist advisors on issues such as healthcare & immigration, the USCCB sets the tone in their apparent preference for worldly attachments over the Cross of the Christ. Msgr. Pope is most definitely a welcome exception to the sad state of the American Catholic Church. In short, it’s time for Pastors to turn up the heat and do away with the lukewarm Catholicism they helped create with their Catholic-lite homilies. Raise the spiritual standards in your own life. Be bold in your faith. Return to Theology and away from this new age Catholicism that helps nobody. Above all things, seek God.

  6. I was taught if you ask “WHY” seven times, you will get to the truth.
    I have used that in my professional career to resolve process issues.
    Thanks for showing me I can use the “WHY” in apologetics as well.

  7. Well, all of secular ‘how’ explanations of the existence of the universe are just theories and hypotheses which cannot be replicated in laboratories because that is just it, there are no laboratories existing before or after such theories were devised that can redo another universe. These are just thought processes that theorize ‘how’ but will not even attempt to answer ‘why.’ Why? Because it cannot be answered now by human faculty whatever and however one surgically divest and divide minutely the question of existence. My faith answers it though in the depths of my being but ask me how I arrive into it? Don’t bother, I don’t know how or why? I exists for GOD. Even if GOD explains it to me now why I exist, I would not understand it. It would be like explaining to my dog, Happy, what is calculus or the Phytagorean theorem or simple arithmetic. ‘Initium sapientiae timor DOMINI’
    Thank you for going back to basic, Monsignor, you just woke me up from my stupor.

    1. “These are just thought processes…”
      Well said. Something called a “thought experiment” is recognized by science, along with its limitations due to the lack of a true laboratory which uses experimentation that’s less vulnerable(than a thought experiment) to human desire to do such things as to prove one self right; no matter what. Please note that I say a “desire”
      I especially like the point about not having a laboratory in which to redo another universe. Thank you.

      1. Thanks, Peter Wolczuk. If you will analyze, all these mumbo jumbos of the elitist academes and the chattering class (media), except for natural science and exact mathematics and physical sciences, these ideas that abound are all just that ideas, theorems and hypotheses. And yet they immediately claim them as truths, Darwin, Dawkins, Lenin, Machiavelli, and even Jefferson. We are now reaping what was sown in the pursuit of happiness without regards to higher morals and common (not greater) good. We don’t know why and where we are going at the rate of the decline of our culture. I know this though, that out of these decrepit situations something good will come out of these. The HOLY SPIRIT will provide us the depths of GOD’s plan and our individual role in it. I exist for GOD. So does everybody. GOD Bless you all.

  8. “. . . why be angry with believers if we are simply doing what the chemicals in our brain made us do?”–That’s a good one.

    1. Also, Monsignor, back to your post on Jacob/Israel: I think this passage from the Gospel of John supports your reading of the text over St. Augustine’s: John 1: 46-47 “[46] And Nathanael said to him: Can any thing of good come from Nazareth? Philip saith to him: Come and see. [47] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him: and he saith of him: Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” If Jesus had said, “Behold a son of Jacob indeed, in whom there is no guile,” He was would have been saying the opposite of what you said, but by saying, as He did say, ” Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile,” He is referring both to the previous guile of Jacob and the state he came to as Israel, that is, without guile.–because what is an Israelite, except a son or daughter of Israel?

  9. Other thing is, it’s a “who do you trust?” issue. Do you believe the scientists – that they have come up with true answers, even though throughout history various scientific theories have been disproven (not all of them, but it happens)? Do you believe the media (NY Times, etc.), when they tell you what the Catholic Church believes? and so forth.

    Science is not always altruistic – there are those in that community with agendas, same as everywhere else. Wherever human beings are, there will be human faults and failings – whether in the Church or in the scientific community.

  10. Monsignor, when the apple fell on Newton’s head maybe he should have simply eaten it.

  11. Excellent post, Monsignor! Those of us educated with the Baltimore Catechism, know quickly how to respond to that question. Interestingly, the question of “Why are we here?” is raised on one of the longest running tv sitcoms – Everybody Loves Raymond. If anyone is unfamiliar with the program, it features a typical, suburban, catholic family. The father, prepared to explain the birds and bees to his 8 year old daughter, is blindsided by her question: “If we’re all going to heaven some day, why did God put us here on earth?”. His reaction should also come as no surprise. Here’s the clip. Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j4iMm4yz8I

    After the parents and grandparents engage in much thought provoking discussion, the dad decides to call their parish priest. The call is picked up by Fr. Hubley’s answering machine. The dad explains that the family is gathered together and they have a quick question: “What is the meaning of life?” It is one of the funniest episodes, especially from a catholic perspective.

  12. “…as a materialist you say that everything is caused by random mutation…”

    Why …would any materialist ever respect anyone who writes this babbling nonsensical ignorance?

    Many problems with this text. The first problem is of course the idea that the universe owes you the answer to a question you yourself thought as important. Then, the idea that this question (why) as formulated by yourself (denying any ambiguity with the word “how” and ultimately transferring it to metaphysical posturing) is by definition important per se.

    You could have made a much better point if you focused on the paradox of a being who is physically determined by his own atoms, etc., having a will, a sense of freedom, and how random and arbitrary it would all sound if we were just nevertheless imprisoned, forced to do whatever it is that our atoms “tell” us to do. But this is not focused. This is either pandering to your own croud who seems amazed and wowed by this word “Why” or otherwise ignoring the alledged crowd you were targeting this to.

    You should also be aware that this “primary causality” and so on are always human speculations about how things work, and as such are extremely exposed to our well known human stupidities, biases, logical errors, handwaving armchair “a priori” rantings that might have zero to do with how the universe “actually is”. Materialists are well advised to ignore these speculations. Most people who fail to do this might even be amazed by the exercises done by the likes of William Lane Craig and so on, whose analogies with the common sense experience and then applying those simple, “obvious” ideas to the extreme margins of our knowledge are obviously doomed at the start. If science has ever taught us anything worthwhile metaphysically it is precisely that we should be extremely suspicious of any metaphysical rambling by any logician master, for what it has shown us in the last century is that whatever Reality is, it is surely to be much more strange and surprising than any simplistic thoughts that these metaphysicians have ever conjured even today.

    So keep asking “why”. I don’t mind. Just don’t pretend you have an answer, when you obviously don’t.

    1. Why are you angry and why the name calling and ridicule (some of which I deleted)? I find it particularly puzzling that you reject the premise as babbling and nonsense etc., but then affirm it in the next sentence, describing us as a being who is physically determined by his own atoms, etc and further describe us as only have a sense of freedom.

      But if I am physically determined and not really free, why do you get angry at me when I am only doing what my atoms determine me to do? And why do you sense injustice (a metaphysical concept) in my view? If we are all just matter, then we just do what we do, there is no moral component in my acts or view. I am really no different from a dog or cat who defecate on your lawn, I only act according to my nature. SO why are you upset and why do you see injustice in my view at all? I am just matter, so there is no basis for your outrage.

      It seems in critiquing my point you make it. My questions still remain of you: Why? When I ask why in this response to you, I am not asking the universe. I am asking you. It is not about whether I am owed an answer by you or the universe, it is whether you are not avoiding the question that cannot ultimately be ignored. If you are willing to live with utter meaninglessness, then fine, join Nietzsche. But if you do, do not get angry at me or anything, for nothing has meaning. But if anything does have meaning then “why” is an appropriate question.

      I think I do have an answer. As I say, it is not a comprehensive answer, for I am not unlimited, but it is a satisfying answer for me: God is, and God is love. You don’t have to accept it but you do have some questions to ask of yourself even if you deny you do.

    2. Mr. Luis Dias, huh?!! So you think you know the answer? I propose, learn more so that you will know what you do not know. If we cannot answer the why then what is the purpose of our being? Is it just materialism, a product of random causality? So bland, so superficial. There is more to life than your materialistic ramblings. So you know how the universe “actually is”? Mind you, even now it is still being explored and all explanations given are just posturings, ideas, hypotheses and theorems. Come on! Have a life, Mr. Luis Dias.

    3. Luis Dias wrote:
      This is either pandering to your own croud who seems amazed and wowed by this word “Why” or otherwise ignoring the alledged crowd you were targeting this to.

      Perhaps you should learn how to spell first. One mistake within a single sentence is distracting, while two is an abuse of the English language.

  13. Having read into the comments I see a possible definition of “scientism” as a faith in science which no true scientist has. Not any scientist who realizes that a theory is just that. A theory.

  14. I have challenged my atheist/agnostic friends and family with these “why” questions. Their response is basically to dismiss my questions as irrelevant. They say, “How will pondering these useless questions help me make money/pay the rent/cure my sickness/feed the kids/etc?” Or they say “What does it matter? The meaning of life is whatever you decide it is.” (existentialism) Talk about sin darkening the intellect. The one friend who would actually give answers would give all the standard “evolution and science is the only kind of truth” type answers. And when stumped, he says we don’t know this yet but someday science will give us an answer. In the words of Millenials, I facepalm just remembering such answers. I don’t understand how they can’t see how inconsistent their reasonings are, and how much mental gymnastics they need to do to arrive at their answer. I am throwing my hands up. i give up. I sow the seed, or so I console myself.

    1. Yes, they may dismiss it but two things have happened. First, they are being asked to answer a few questions, they are required to reply. We need to do more of this. Further, their dismissal of you does not mean that the question goes away in their mind.

  15. Excellent. And at the following thread you can see one of these debates going on at Catholic Answers Philosophy Forum: How does God create “the act of existing” out of nothing?


  16. Msgr,
    Stop by Catholic Answers Philosophy Forum and see: Ten Questions for philosophers from Msgr. Charles Pope . Sign up and chip in. You might want to use a nick name.


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