I have often read people on Physics.SE (and on many other sites) say that the role of physics is only to provide a good description of nature. For example, we don't ask questions like 'why does x happen?' But is all of science just for providing explanations which match observations? One could say that spirits provide a good approximation of some certain psychological phenomena like split personality (or something else) and misuse this rule of approximating. So, why do we assume that it is the role of philosophy to ask why questions? Isn't it necessary for science to ask the why questions?

  • 4
    Mathematics doesn't tell you what's true; it tells you: if you assume this to be true, then that other thing will also be true if you suppose these sets of principles and rules. Physics doesn't tell you why things move; it tells you: if you have a certain environment with such an such things interacting in such and such a way, then you can observe such and such behavior over time. Philosophy differs from those sciences only in generality; it doesn't tell you why things are the way they are; it tells you: if you assume certain things to be this way, other things will be that way. Jun 4, 2014 at 19:08
  • But very often I have heard people saying that the why questions belong to philosophy. Is that really a question of philosophy or people are just trying to avoid those type of questions?
    – Yashbhatt
    Jun 5, 2014 at 8:49
  • @Yashbhatt, physics is concerned with how the world seems, philosophy is oftentimes concerned with how the world is.
    – user132181
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:17
  • @user132181 Is it enough to know what we see? Shouldn't we try and find out what actually is?
    – Yashbhatt
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:21
  • @Yashbhatt It's hard to tell without seeing the questions. SE has a feature that allows different subdomains to close and send questions to other subdomains of the SE network. If a question is philosophical and has been asked in physics.SE, say, then the question should be migrated here. Jun 6, 2014 at 2:39

5 Answers 5


That's a good question. Both science and philosophy are complicated and while some may argue this, I would say they have roughly the same goals. The goal of science is to understand the observable world. The goal of philosophy is to understand the world (observable or not). Both of these larger categories have sub-goals that are fulfilled through different sub-disciplines such as chemistry, physics neurology for science and logic, metaphysics and philosophy of science in philosophy.

You have a lot of questions. I hope I can answer the main ones. I would argue that because of these definitions, science is actually a branch within philosophy. Even outside of that, philosophers do ask questions like "why does x happen?" For instance, aristotle's causes (http://www.usefulcharts.com/philosophy/aristotle-four-causes.html) categorize ways to answer that question. Philosophy was around a long time before science. Aristotle was one of science's founding fathers.

The goal of science has changed and become more narrow through time. As some of the previous answers have mentioned, Bacon is a hugely important guy to look towards for answers about what the goal of science is. THe Novum Organum is dry and long and a little feisty, but definately worth reading if you're serious about this pursuit. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novum_Organum).

You mentioned spirits as possible causes and it made me think of Comte and his conception of how theories and social thinking develops over time. He wasn't much of a scientist but I think it would be important for you to read about his ideas too (http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072824301/student_view0/chapter3/chapter_summary.html).

Basically, things have changed over time. But everybody is and should be asking why. They just have differentiated over time how they will get those answers. Either through observation, experimentation, mathematics, logic, or whatever.

Also just for fun I'm going to throw this in too. There's a new area of philosophy forming where philosophers are getting up out of their arm chairs and are performing experiments to get answers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_philosophy).

Hope this all helps.


Because science today is restricted to efficient and material causality. This was explicitly recommended by Francis Bacon to focus science on improving the livelihood of man.

However, you are right, it is not a necessary restriction. It is quite possible to discuss formal and final causality (teleology) within an empirical, measurable context. But up to this point there has not been significant work rigorously defining what an empirical science of the latter two kinds of causes would look like.


We should first say something about what is meant by science (at least, science as it is understood today). Science involves:

  1. Making observations about nature
  2. Creating models to explain those observations
  3. Using those models to make predictions
  4. Testing those predictions, refining the model, and repeating

That is the process by which science takes place. Therefore, it can only answer questions that can be resolved in that manner.

If you subscribe to a materialist view, the story is already over - everything is fully described by matter, there is nothing beyond it, and there is no "why." If you believe there is something to existence beyond what's in nature (the "supernatural"), then there are necessarily things that science cannot answer, because:

  1. It only makes observations about nature.
  2. It only makes statements about predictable processes.

So, for example, asking why God made such-and-such a decision isn't a matter of science, because there is no way to reproduce making that decision, there is no counter-factual or control group, and the predictions that have been made from positing a model for such a decision are evidently not so clear as to be beyond all doubt.


Why bodies fall on earth ?

Because, according to Newton's law of universal gravitation :

any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

We study it at school and we still use it in calculations.

This is a clear and meaningful explanation of "why" bodies fall.

If there is a need for other - "more deep" (according to some philosophical traditions) - sense of "why", e.g. final causes (see Teleology), this is a debated issue in philosophy at least since ancient Greece.

  • The meaningful whys and the profound whys. I like this. Jun 4, 2014 at 19:25
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    @HunanRostomyan - yes, of course ... "Why" is linked to cause and cause is a deeply philosophical-laden word. Jun 4, 2014 at 19:28
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA We know that it is the property of all massive bodies but we don't have a precise definition of mass.
    – Yashbhatt
    Jun 5, 2014 at 8:53
  • @Yashbhatt - maybe ... but it is not clear to me why this fact can affect the explanation besed on Newton's laws of the fact that bodies fall. For sure, it is a better answer to the question : "why they fall ?" with respect to the previous one : "because they have the dsire to reach the center of the cosmos". Jun 5, 2014 at 9:02
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Of course it makes no difference to Newton's Law but even finding out that Nature follows laws doesn't change Nature but we still do it. Then, we should also try to find out why it happens.
    – Yashbhatt
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:17

Your premise is flawed.

Science does try to answer why things happen all the time. Providing a good description of nature doesn't contradict this.

  • Of course, it does try. That is the aim of science. But if you look at some sites(including the SE network), people avoid the very basic questions by saying that it belongs to philosophy.
    – Yashbhatt
    Jun 5, 2014 at 8:53

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