Why in Science and Religion

by V.V. Raman

The question "Why does something happen?" arises in science as well as in religion. However, the meanings attached to the question are implicitly different in the two contexts. Suppose you are asked, "Why are you reading this now?" Two types of answers are possible (a) "Because I always read discussions on science and religion." (b) "Because I wish to find out what is said here."

Note that answer (a) refers to the past, to a built in system in which the event takes place, the rules by which the phenomenon occurs, etc. Generally speaking, science interprets why in this way when it tries to answer why-questions. The question actually means here: What is the cause of what happened? This may be called causative why.

The answer (b) refers to something that is yet to happen, actions directed toward a goal, etc. This is tele (teleological) why. Generally speaking, religion interprets why in this way when it tries to answer the question. In most European languages (French pourquoi, Spanish porque, German Warum) the second meaning (for what, to what purpose) is implicit. In Tamil one distinguishes between én (causative why) and edarkâga, teleological why. This is not as clear in the English word why.

When religion tries to answer why in the causative sense, it comes into conflict with science. Normally, modern science does not interpret why in the tele-sense, except when some biologists talk of entelechy. Physicists hold that interpreting why in the tele sense, as Aristotle did, is a fruitless exercise. So they conclude — rashly perhaps — that the question in that sense is meaningless. Nevertheless, since the formulation of the Anthropic Principle the tele why has crept back into cosmology.

Consider the questions: Why is the sky blue? Why does water boil when heated? Why do planets go around the sun in elliptical orbits? Why does hydrogen emit particular wavelengths? Why does a projectile follow a parabolic path? These and a thousand other why's are answered routinely by science in the causative sense of the word, and not in the tele sense. But questions like: Why did the world emerge? Why should one be kind to others? Why is monogamy a virtue? are all taken up by religion in the tele sense.

Recognizing that science can be successful in answering one type of question, and relegating to others (religion, philosophy, poetry) the other kind, may be wise. It would also be good if religion gracefully concedes to science the responsibility of answering why in the causative sense. The following poem throws light on this:

I once asked a scientist why the sky was so blue,
He was not sure if the answer he knew.
"I thought you knew it all," in surprise said I.
"Your why isn't clear," he gave as reply.
"If you wish to know the reason, why blue is the sky:
Blue waves are scattered, and reach the human eye.
For what purpose is it blue, and it is not green?
That I know not. You see, what I mean."
I asked a man of religion why the sky was so blue.
He said in the Scriptures there was for this a clue:
God made us and the world, this of course is true,
And to give us more joy, He made sky so blue.

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is emeritus professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's written many books including Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections.