One 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:
- Why is there existence?
- Why (not how) do you exist?
- 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?
- If your anger is rooted in a sense of injustice (i.e. that what I say or believe is “wrong”), why?
- 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?
- 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?
- Why do you say believing in God is “wrong” and atheism is “right?” On what do you base this?
- 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?
- Why is anything wrong at all, if behavior, thought and decision are simply and biologically determined?
- 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?