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Based on the lively discussion of this question over at physics.stackexchange, I thought it might be useful to ask it here as well.

The kernel of the debate is whether or not "why" questions are fundamentally metaphysical in nature and, therefore, have no place in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The question assumes that questions which cannot be answered through experiment or observation are not questions which science should be concerned with. I tend to agree with this claim, but I also think that "why" questions are actually useful in scientific research (often by being useful for scientists rather than for science itself). I have an answer to the question in the link above, but the core of my thesis is three-fold.

First, "why" questions cannot always be reformulated as "how" questions (which appear to be taken as the 'correct' alternative to "why" questions by many at physics.se) without losing the meaning of the question. Second, it is a false dichotomy to claim that "how" questions are scientific while "why" questions are not: both have natural language examples which correspond to questions in either science or metaphysics. Third, "why" questions might lead to metaphysics if pursued too doggedly (like the way in which the child in this comic uses them), but used intelligently, "why" questions allow scientists to embrace a curiosity about nature which is an important part of the agonistic method of science which dates back to the ancient Greeks (see the writings G.E.R. Lloyd for an exploration of the "agonistic method" of science).

In short, the question is this: Are "'why' questions" (broadly understood) useful in or applicable to the study of science? I tend to think that they correspond to a sort of Kuhnian "revolutionary science" which challenges - or at least prods - widely held assumptions implicit in established theories, but many of my physics compatriots disagree. What do you think?

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Are Why-questions "fundamentally metaphysical in nature"? No. Bas van Fraassen is a prominent example of a recent philosopher who understands scientific explanation as answering Why-questions, and who is also an fairly strict empiricist, meaning that he does not think science has access to nature beyond what is observable. See his The Scientific Image for this empiricist, anti-metaphysical account of scientific explanation. In various writings he applies this account carefully to explanation in recent physics.

Your other question is "Are 'why' questions" (broadly understood) useful in or applicable to the study of science?" Certainly, yes, and there needn't be anything revolutionary about them. There is a massive philosophical literature on scientific explanation which develops a very large number of accounts of what an explanation is, but approximately all of them understanding it as addressing Why-questions. (See Jim Woodward's SEP article for an introduction.)

I think you give a fine account yourself of some of why Why-questions are different from How-questions. For instance, I think "Why do bird have wings?" is not entirely synonymous with "How do birds have wings?

  • Thank you for your eloquent and insightful answer. I didn't want to "accept" it right away lest it stymie other people's interest in answering, but I am more than happy to do so now that the activity has more or less stopped. – Geoffrey Dec 21 '13 at 0:19
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ChristopherE has already given what I would consider the correct answer, but let me give a particular example of science answering a why-question: why do birds have wings? Because, given the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere, wings allow birds to fly; and with our present environment, flying gives a significant fitness advantage (albeit with sizable costs also).

You can get very far with answering why-questions in this perfectly scientific manner. There are also why questions that are fundamentally metaphysical in nature ("why is there randomness"), and questions that can be taken in either a metaphysical or non-metaphysical sense ("why am I me and not Adam").

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Actually, I am a bit disturbed. I thought that science is mostly concerned with "why" questions. For, before I can examine "How" something is happening, I must first establish or at least assume that it is in fact happening.

For example, first, we experience that the climate is getting warmer, then we ask what the cause of this warming is. (Note that this is equivalent to the questiuon "Why is the climate getting warmer?") Then we formulate some hypothesis, and test it. Finally, if everything goes well, we have the fact "it is getting warmer", the cause "because of certain properties of the air" and the how like "If CO2 doubles, then - c.p. - temperature will raise by x degrees."

Note again that the "How" could not be answered without knowing the cause, i.e. the "Why".

  • This is similar to an observation made at the english.se mirror, namely that "how" questions can usually be formulated with more exactitude but generally require more fore-knowledge as well. I've begun toying with the notion that testable hypotheses come in the form of tightly focused "how" questions. For example, once I've determined that the climate is warming, if I want to figure out the cause of the warming I'll need to ask questions like "How does CO2 affect the global temperature?" (1 of 2) – Geoffrey Dec 18 '13 at 0:59
  • Implicit in questions like that are the hypotheses that we wish to test (like "CO2 contributes to warming"). If we didn't think that there was some connection, we wouldn't ask how that connection behaves. Nevertheless, I agree that the first step is generally a "why" question, but I think that perhaps we answer that "why" question with testable "how" questions. – Geoffrey Dec 18 '13 at 1:02
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Its depends on what kind of why question is being asked. When that why question is seen in the context of a systematic body of knowledge then it is not a metaphysical question, but a dogged chase like your comic illustration shows leads to a point where no answers available. This is where the second kind of why question is understood.

Now, this question may still be asked using the unstated terms of that body of knowledge so it orces the development of knowledge.

But, one may go further, and this is where a dogged chase, as your comic illustration shows, leads; and this is third form of the question why. This examines presuppositions.

An example of such a presupposition is 'the physical universe is ordered'. Once can of course question this. Perhaps there could be a physical world without laws. But a little reflection shows that I have simply put this in words - and that is actually impossible to imagine a world without law. This is a point that Wittgenstein makes in his Tractatus.

This is thus a metaphysical question.

So, why questions can be both - and much depends on the intentions of the questioner and the preoccupations of the answerer.

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    Even if Why-questions take us — as in the comic — to the limits of our knowledge, why suppose that what is beyond what we know is necessarily metaphysical? Indeed, there are certainly things we don't know that aren't metaphysical, in the sense that they are in principle observable. Like, why do human beings have Neanderthal DNA? – ChristopherE Dec 15 '13 at 23:31
  • @ChristopherE: Thats a misreading of my answer. What I'm offering is a typology of different kind of why questions that can be asked. 'Why do human beings have Neanderthal DNA' is an example of the first kind of why - that is seen in the context of a systematic body of knowledge. Given though, your example, this first why can be split into two cases - evidence available, potentially/not conceivably available. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 17 '13 at 20:46
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Nice question. Should science be concerned with "Why" questions, insofar as (it is assumed) they don’t result in measurable observations? As to your initial question:

a. “Are "'why' questions" (broadly understood) useful in or applicable to the study of science? I tend to think that they correspond to a sort of Kuhnian "revolutionary science" which challenges - or at least prods - widely held assumptions”

I agree – “Why” drives scientists to start, and “How” drives science. Taken to its limit, if you’re right, “Why” would be necessary to satisfy the scientists who apply “How”. Moreover, it could be one reason for Kuhnian sorts of revolution (along with, of course, the failure of previous paradigms to account for new experimental results, etc.).

Then, your bases:

b. YOU: First, "why" questions cannot always be reformulated as "how" questions (which appear to be taken as the 'correct' alternative to "why" questions by many at physics.se) without losing the meaning of the question.

Agreed. There is probably a transformational grammar, or table of categories, which might be useful here. Too big for this string, but I’ll make a start below.

c. YOU: Second, it is a false dichotomy to claim that "how" questions are scientific while "why" questions are not: both have natural language examples which correspond to questions in either science or metaphysics.

Agreed. The implicit bias and dichotomy is rather between science and metaphysics. Those “Why” questions which lead to metaphysics are excluded… your third question.

d. YOU: “Third, "why" questions might lead to metaphysics if pursued too doggedly, but used intelligently, "why" questions allow scientists to embrace a curiosity about nature which is an important part of the agonistic method of science which dates back to the ancient Greeks (see the writings G.E.R. Lloyd for an exploration of the "agonistic method" of science).”

But (a necessary condition for your “c”) not all “why” questions lead to metaphysics in a classical sense (Greek or later) – e.g. “Why is there something instead of nothing?” has incited some lively debate in quantum physics… But to avoid confusion, metaphysics ought to be clearly defined, as the example I’ve just given allows for multiple interpretations, including the classical. And maybe spontaneous exclusion of it ought not to occur too hastily. The borders of the two are not cut and dried: that quantum fields are probably unstable and result in “something” still raises the issue of the meta-laws by which that occurs. It creates a border, and both metaphysics and science apply themselves here.

Unless, of course, one takes a strong empiricist line. A confession: I don’t buy that. To paint it as a caricature: Nobody “observes” atoms being split in any conventional sense, but we sure benefit from the nuclear power that drives the PCs of those who disagree. Cutting out the borders to focus on what we know doesn’t really help progress. Not a question to answer here.

This carries over to philosophy. The logical positivist, making claims to science, would exclude “Why” questions as having no meaning, in order to attempt to exclude metaphysics. But clearly the question has meaning, because logical positivists interpret it in order to then discount it; their answer does not account for every sort of meaning. Just so, that “Why” means something to scientists allows for giving the question meaning. Unless one wants to exclude meaning from science. That, for me, would be a pretty poor science.

Note, however, that my claim is normative. I’m just pointing out that it might be worthwhile to follow the “Why”… even in science alone.

So, and next, we could go around for ages on this sort of topic without progress, unless we take a more systematic approach. Herewith some thought-starters:

  1. The beginning of systematic address begins with clarification. First, “Why” allows for more subdivision than “How”.

Broadly put (and “I put forward for consideration” is implicit in all my declarations): “How” brings the terrain squarely to causality in particular transitions (How does x cause y), and to scientific method when considered as meta-questions and in general (“How should the “how” be interpreted”).

However,

  1. Second, and my apologies for noting a lacuna in your question. “Why” usually requires “What”, which is as important as “Why”.

Broadly put, “What” constitutes the object of a question (as substantive or intentional), and “How” moves the question to method and causality. They sometimes allow for transformation, often don’t.

Second, “Why” can transform to “How” in some instances (see below), and has standalone value in other cases.

Insofar as “How” moves the question to methodology, it excludes “Why” and “What”. That’s the standard and implicit sense. Too narrow.

  1. So, bref: at the very least, "Why" holds in versions that allow for transition to its counterparts:

    • causal (What is the cause of/How has x been caused…)
    • Logical (What is the justification for.../How is x to be justified)

But “Why” also holds in fashion that do allow transition to “What”, but no easy transition to “How”, as

  • rational (“What is the reason for...”, which could be a principle, motive, etc.) It’s much harder to find a “How” question here.
  • teleological (What is the purpose of X). Again, no easy “How” question;
  • meaning-orientated (What is the meaning of...).

Each of these allows for subdivision, based upon their semantics, methodical applicability, empirical evidence etc. And each of those subdivisions would allow for multiple refinements of what we exclude (e.g. we don't know the cause of the big bang, and causality might not even have existed then)... and also allow multiple answers as to what we include.

So, no easy answer yet. Just a need for systematisation.

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