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Why not why? Language and such. May 22, 2009

Posted by Ian in Miscellaneous.
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Welcome to my relatively direction-less rant about “why”, definitions and language in general… 🙂

Why?

There are two uses of the word and they are quite distinct from each other.  Unfortunately in the delightfully woolly way that the English language works they are frequently conflated and this causes problems.

The first use is asking how something works or came to be as it is.  For example asking “why is the sky blue?” in this sense could be reasonably answered by discussing light wavelengths and nitrogen gas. 

The second use is about asking a seemingly deeper question about the motive or purpose of something.  The difference is subtle but important.  For example asking “why am I here?” is not a request for the biological reasons but a plea for someone to indicate a motivational reason for their existence.

It is my contention that this second use of the word is nonsensical.  For starters I do not think there is any satisfactory answer to such a question as “why am I here?” in the second sense from earlier so at the very least it is unanswerable.  There are a couple of reasons for this including the infinite regress of finding a why to each why.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  I don’t think the notion of “why” in that philosophical sense even has a meaning.  When you really press someone about what they mean with why questions they either boil down to a “how” question (which can then be answered, at least in principle) or it turns into looking for someone to “blame” for the way things are.  The latter is simply an evasion of a how question in my opinion.

A key implication of this is that arguing supernatural things must exist because they provide an answer to “why” questions becomes redundant.  You do not need a god to answer the question “why am I here?” when you realise the question itself is meaningless.

Language

One of the curious features of human language is that sentences, claims and ideas are not restricted by logical validity or accuracy.  One can happily talk at length about square circles, the living dead or omnipotence without these terms being even remotely meaningful.  We can even develop remarkably complex ideas that are utterly nonsense but still linguistically perfectly valid. 

The implications of this are profound because it means there is no intrinsic bullshit detector in the primary form of human communication and by extension, human cognition.  Anything is valid as a statement even if its real world application is nonsensical. 

The most important thing is that just because a notion can be said has no bearing on whether that thing is even remotely meaningful.  In my view to ask “why am I here?” in the philosophical sense is indistinguishable from asking “what is a square circle?”. 

One of the biggest traps for religion is, in my opinion, to fail to realise when more subtle examples of this trap are at work.  Some examples include various adjectives used to describe the characteristics of god:

  • God is omnipotent(/omnipresent/omniscient)
  • God exists outside time
  • God is love

All of those statements make as much sense to me as saying “god is a square circle”.

A common tactic to try and wriggle out of this is to redefine terms to mean something slightly different but this is fuzzy thinking.  Specific definitions are crucial for incorporating the meaning of something into all the other bodies of knowledge we have. 

For example a spiritual healer might claim to manipulate the positive and negative energy within a person to achieve healing.  In scientific discourse energy has a specific meaning, which is basically the property of mass times distance squared divided time squared.  In this sense it is like the healer saying they manipulate your positive and negative velocity to heal you.  Now it may well be (although I doubt it) that such healers do manipulate something to heal people but whatever it is, it isn’t energy.

I’ll end that rather direction-less rant here and see what comes of it 🙂

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Comments»

1. Dale Campbell - May 22, 2009

hehe. Seems like grammar itself doesn’t force one to either believe or disbelieve in a god – one can ‘open’ or ‘close’ words in whatever way necessary to make their view sound rational 🙂

2. Ian - May 22, 2009

Indeed, ironically discarding rationality along the way 🙂

3. Simon - May 22, 2009

Dale is completely correct here, I think. How are we to decide which rational-sounding words are correct/better/best? I think the ability to predict is the arbiter of what views are better.

4. Ian - May 22, 2009

Agreed and before we can even argue view a or view b predicts better, we’re gonna need a very clear description of precisely what a and b means such that the comparison is both unambiguous and decisive. It all comes back to definitions.

5. Dale - May 22, 2009

yes, and the most basic definition of ‘God’ is the ultimate cause-er/creator ‘behind’ (note: ‘behind’ is not meant in a literal spacial sense – duh) ‘all things’ (the universe, multiverse, etc.). This is basic and easy enough to understand – even if you disagree.

It also makes perfectly normal and basic sense that this being/agent would (duh) therefore not be limited by the ‘all things’ which were created (though still –at least in principle– able to relate to, act within, etc.).

One can quite easily understand the concept – even if they don’t agree. This is not hard.

6. Ian - May 22, 2009

This actually illustrates one of the key points of this post rather nicely: “Creator of all things” is linguistically a very simple concept, just like a square circle. But in reality it is about as far from a simple notion as it is possible to get and certainly not easy to understand – at least not for me. We are after all talking about things for which we have no ability to experience, in circumstances we have no ability to conceive. You’re facing an uphill battle to convince me that’s simple.

7. Dale Campbell - May 22, 2009

I didn’t say you could ‘experience’ the concept of ‘creator of all things’, I simply say it is a basic concept and not hard to grasp. The fact that your complaints (can’t experience/conceive/etc.) are specific show that you have some concept in mind.

Grammatically odd as it may sound, we have to at least have a rudimentary conception even of conceptions for which we say we can’t conceive. 🙂

8. Ian - May 23, 2009

My point was that we have no real world experiences that would be analogous to what is suggested by “created all things” making it a very difficult concept to grasp. The same applies to square circle.

Understanding such concepts in such a way that they can be applied to the real world is a lot harder than grasping them linguistically and I’m sorry but the notion of a being/thing/unthing that can create everything is far beyond my ability to comprehend, and I’d suggest far beyond anyone elses either. It is anything but a simple concept.

9. Dale - May 23, 2009

I’d actually want to say that it’s a concept which is always both simple and complex, always easy to apprehend and never easy to comprehend, an obvious thing and a mysterious thing. Children can ‘get it’, and philosophers/theologians (believing or not) waaay smarter than us can continually and endlessly conceptualise about it.

10. Rev 24/7 - May 24, 2009

This compulsion to keep asking why and how are essential for growth, but people who say they know that they were created by god have to be excluded from the debate, because it’s not possible to know god exists.

Beliefs founded in the metaphysical are redundant.

11. Ken - May 24, 2009

I wonder if you have got this the wrong way around: “One of the biggest traps for religion is, in my opinion, to fail to realise when more subtle examples of this trap are at work.”

It seems to me rather than falling into this trap, religion actually tries to set this trap. Consequently the claim for expertise on “why” questions – and don’t they always present them in mysterious ways. And, of course, the “expertise” is shown to be a sham by the complete lack of any comprehensible answers.

Most of us now are used to a language or approach of science which is understandable, logical, rational. These characteristics probably arise from the fact that scientific ideas are mapped against reality – reality is what keeps us honest.

In contrast religious language is confused, “mysterious”, ambiguous, “metaphorical” – you get the idea. Debating with this is like jelly wrestling. And I suspect that is purposeful. I get the impression that religious training concentrates to a large extent on “logical” debate (in contrast with science relying on evidence) – and we know well such debate is usually rationalising rather than rational. Redefining terms, changing definitions mid-stream, telling non-theist what we really mean or really believe, etc., etc., All aimed at “winning” an argument or “justifying” a position rather than getting at truth.

Maybe this arises from the fact that religion does not really deal iwht reality, with evidence. But more and more I am coming to the conclusion that, for some apologists at least, it is an almost conscious attempt to confuse issues.

12. Dale - May 24, 2009

As I’ve said many times, these sorts of issues don’t just get settled in one comment thread. they take patience, willingness to give definitions, provide concrete examples, work at understanding what the other person means, etc., etc. Yes, words are misunderstood sometimes. So what? That shouldn’t hinder discussions between people who are patient and willing enough to work at it.

13. Dace - May 25, 2009

Hello Ian.
I have to disagree with you about the meaningfulness of a ‘why?’ question. It’s a plain non-sequiter to argue from the unanswerability of a question to it’s meaninglessness. For example, “Is the Republican President of the US a Christian?” is not meaningless simply because it appears to have no answer, rather, it is a meaningful question that suffers from a failure of presupposition. Similarly, the extremely broad ‘why?’ question presupposes a teleological end or ‘final cause’ and becomes unanswerable for anyone who will not accept the presupposition. But the presupposition could’ve been true, we just have no reason to believe that it is. So, I think the correct response to a ‘why?’ question is not to dismiss it, but to ask for an argument in favor of the presupposition.

14. Dale - May 25, 2009

Dace,
Flippin excellent comment! Indeed, if it is presupposed that there is (‘at bottom’) no goal/’telos’ to anything, then (quite literally) all ‘why’ questions are deemed irrelevant and can only be ‘how’ questions masquerading as ‘why’ questions.

15. Ian - May 25, 2009

@Ken:

It seems to me rather than falling into this trap, religion actually tries to set this trap. Consequently the claim for expertise on “why” questions – and don’t they always present them in mysterious ways

Interesting point. I actually wonder if the success of religions is that those within them don’t realise that this is exactly what they are doing?

@Dale.

As I’ve said many times, these sorts of issues don’t just get settled in one comment thread. they take patience, willingness to give definitions, provide concrete examples, work at understanding what the other person means, etc., etc

I agree entirely – we should do that one day lol.

16. Ian - May 25, 2009

@Dace

It’s a plain non-sequiter to argue from the unanswerability of a question to it’s meaninglessness.

I agree entirely. That wasn’t really my argument though.

For example, “Is the Republican President of the US a Christian?” is not meaningless simply because it appears to have no answer, rather, it is a meaningful question that suffers from a failure of presupposition.

This is a question of fact though so it can be answered in principle. I would argue “Why is the Republican President of the US a Christian?” is a meaningless question. In principle we can discuss how he/she became a Christian and perhaps the motivations that got him/her there but I don’t think it is a meaningful question to ask why in the broader sense.

Similarly, the extremely broad ‘why?’ question presupposes a teleological end or ‘final cause’ and becomes unanswerable for anyone who will not accept the presupposition.

I think my point is deeper than that – does it even mean anything to talk about this sort of question? Does it actually relate to something real or is it simply a linguistic artifact that confuses things? My gut feeling is that it is more likely to be the latter.

So, I think the correct response to a ‘why?’ question is not to dismiss it, but to ask for an argument in favor of the presupposition.

I agree entirely with this. In fact indirectly I guess that was the point of this post – can anyone actually build up an argument that justifies asking the question why? I am not anyone can but I am open to being shown the light lol.

17. Dace - May 25, 2009

@Dale
– Thanks, but I wasn’t arguing that anyone presupposes that there is no telos for the universe. I don’t think this is what Ian is doing; instead he’s making a challenge to anyone to come up with a good reason to believe in a telos.

@Ian

This is a question of fact though so it can be answered in principle. I would argue “Why is the Republican President of the US a Christian?” is a meaningless question. In principle we can discuss how he/she became a Christian and perhaps the motivations that got him/her there but I don’t think it is a meaningful question to ask why in the broader sense.

In principle, yes, the question could be answered, if the presupposition of a Republican president were true. But the same goes for your ‘why?’ question – if the presupposition of a purpose to the universe were correct, then this question would be answerable too – and if answerable, then clearly not meaningless.

I think my point is deeper than that – does it even mean anything to talk about this sort of question? Does it actually relate to something real or is it simply a linguistic artifact that confuses things? My gut feeling is that it is more likely to be the latter.

How do we distinguish between what you call ‘linguistic artifacts’ and what might pass for a genuine question or statement? Contradiction, sure, but it is not obvious that the question contradicts itself. You suggest that vagueness is a problem, and I could go along with this, although I don’t think being vague is sufficient for meaninglessness (“heap” is vague, but not meaningless). So perhaps the ‘why’ question is insufficiently precise, and it is this that is objectionable.
Yet I do not think the question is vague after all, just abbreviated. I’d consider it to be the same question as “for what end am I placed on this Earth?”, which is at least clear enough that we can see an end of some sort is being assumed, an assumption which is highly questionable.

So why would the question always be abbreviated like this, if it could be said more clearly, and therefore, with a better chance of being answered? Well, I notice that the question is often raised as a justification for a belief in God, and seldom makes an appearance elsewhere in such a broad form. So my hypothesis is this: the question is vague precisely because the presupposition can’t be easily argued for, and so it is better left concealed, when it is being used to justify the theist’s conclusion. Sometimes this is intentional, but often it’s not – I imagine many people simply repeat what assures them of their beliefs without really knowing why what they say has this effect.

18. Dace - May 25, 2009

Dammit. How are those quotes, italics, etc. done on this thing?

19. Dale Campbell - May 25, 2009

Dace,
I think you and I agree about how teleolgoy relates to the why/how distinction. The next thing I’d want to address would have to do with the nature of knowledge (epistemology), including different kinds of knowledge, and which kinds of knowledge we use for different things.

20. Dace - May 27, 2009

I’m not sure if that’s relevant Dale, but go ahead if you feel it is.

21. Dale - May 27, 2009

Dace,
Epistemology is immediately relevant when it comes to what kind of ‘knowledge’ is necessary to warrant/justify ‘belief’ in a telos. What kind of knowledge is required to justify someone to live/behave/believe as though there is a purpose to things?

Nobody lives their life purely based on the immense wealth of descriptive knowledge which we get from science. Sure, we want all the help that science can give us, but we actually live our lives based on a significant amount of prescriptive knowledge, which is revealed to us via tradition, reason, experience, etc.

For a theist, it’s not a matter of ever being able to ‘prove’ God’s existence or claim some kind of omniscience of what God’s desire is or the telos for things, but rather is a matter of using all tools of knowing (both ‘objective’ tools like ‘reason’/’logic’ and ‘subjective’ tools like ‘experience’/’feeling’) to discern things. The theist sees a reasonable-ness and a fitting-ness to things – a resonance that gives confirmation that his/her beliefs make sense.

22. Ian - May 27, 2009

Dammit. How are those quotes, italics, etc. done on this thing?

For Quotes use “blockquote” in “<" brackets, italics uses "em". I edited your post to fix it 🙂 (and this one about 4 times lol)

23. Ian - May 27, 2009

In principle, yes, the question could be answered, if the presupposition of a Republican president were true.

Ahh I think I see where you are coming from. Is your point that in saying “why are we are here” is meaningless I am assuming that such a meaning doesn’t exist? I.e. that the question would make sense if I assumed such a meaning did exist?

If so, I think my position is more basic than that. I don’t think the notion of why/purpose is actually meaningful in itself – i.e. I don’t think when we ask “why is the sky blue” that we we could even in principle answer that question. We could break it down into lots of “how steps” and potentially even discuss the motivation behind a creator to make the sky blue, but we still wouldn’t have an answer to “why”. The same applies to any “why” question I can think of.

So I think the difference in opinion here is that you think “why questions” can be answered with sufficient specificity while I think “why questions” cease to be “why questions” with sufficient specificity – is that a fair comparison?

So my hypothesis is this: the question is vague precisely because the presupposition can’t be easily argued for, and so it is better left concealed, when it is being used to justify the theist’s conclusion.

I think this is a really important point and I agree with it entirely.

24. Dace - May 27, 2009

Ahh I think I see where you are coming from. Is your point that in saying “why are we are here” is meaningless I am assuming that such a meaning doesn’t exist? I.e. that the question would make sense if I assumed such a meaning did exist?

Yes, that’s it.

So I think the difference in opinion here is that you think “why questions” can be answered with sufficient specificity while I think “why questions” cease to be “why questions” with sufficient specificity – is that a fair comparison?

Well, sort of. I think ‘why?’ questions can be answered, but I’m with you in thinking that a ‘why?’ question cannot be answered exhaustively, which is what I think you mean ‘sufficient specificity’. To be more clear, if the ‘why?’ question is understood as the continual challenge which two-year olds like to make, then sooner or later, there will be no telos which answers to the question, and the presupposition will fail. It fails in a naturalistic worldview, but even if one believes in God, there will be no answer to the question of why there is a God (in a telological rather than an epistemological sense).

25. Ian - May 27, 2009

Well, sort of. I think ‘why?’ questions can be answered, but I’m with you in thinking that a ‘why?’ question cannot be answered exhaustively, which is what I think you mean ’sufficient specificity’

Not quite – by sufficient specificity I mean sufficient to actually answer the question at which point it necessarily (I think) becomes a mechanistic question rather than a teleological one. In other words I don’t see how it is possible to answer a “why question” without reducing it to a mechanistic “how question”.

A thought just occurred to me – perhaps “why questions” are really just placeholders for when we don’t know what “how question” to ask?

26. Dace - May 27, 2009

@Ian – Thanks for the tip and correction.

@ Dale – I take it you want to defend the presupposition of a telos, but it seems to me that you ask the question but you do not answer it.

Nobody lives their life purely based on the immense wealth of descriptive knowledge which we get from science. Sure, we want all the help that science can give us, but we actually live our lives based on a significant amount of prescriptive knowledge, which is revealed to us via tradition, reason, experience, etc.

It is true that nobody lives their lives based purely on science, since science doesn’t provide us with any values which would make one course of action preferable to another. But this fact doesn’t imply anything at all about the acceptability of non-scientific propositions. The limits of science cannot be used to justify our prejudices elsewhere.

For a theist, it’s not a matter of ever being able to ‘prove’ God’s existence or claim some kind of omniscience of what God’s desire is or the telos for things, but rather is a matter of using all tools of knowing (both ‘objective’ tools like ‘reason’/’logic’ and ’subjective’ tools like ‘experience’/’feeling’) to discern things. The theist sees a reasonable-ness and a fitting-ness to things – a resonance that gives confirmation that his/her beliefs make sense.

But ‘resonance’ doesn’t actually give confirmation to beliefs, since ‘resonance’ is not a kind of evidence. What you are describing here is an internal experience which explains why a theist believes, but not why the theist is justified in believing. This is psychology, and not epistemology. If you want to do the latter, you’ll need to expand how the theist uses his ‘ tools of knowing’ to reach his conclusion.
Also: I don’t think the theist needs to prove God, in the sense of constructing a proof which has the certainty of formal mathematics. But this does not mean the theist is released from the demand that God must be more likely than not, if his belief is to be rational.

27. Dace - May 27, 2009

@Ian
If it were asked “Why did Jones kill his wife?”, and the answer came “Because his wife was having an affair”, wouldn’t this answer the question adequately? There are a great many questions which could follow this one up, but I still think it counts as an answer. Presuming that the questions which follow up are part of the original question, seems an absurd position to take:
Suppose I ask ”why do you write this blog?’, you reply “it allows me to develop my opinions” and I follow with “why?”. Doesn’t my last question actually mean “why is important to develop your opinions?”, or something of that nature? A question always questions something, even if what it questions is left implicit, to be figured out from the context. But if this view is correct, and if every question contains within it those questions which follow it up, then we get the result that what a questioner says in the original question will include information drawn from the answers of the person he questions before they have even been said. This is a problem.

28. Ian - May 27, 2009

If it were asked “Why did Jones kill his wife?”, and the answer came “Because his wife was having an affair”, wouldn’t this answer the question adequately?

The answer is really an answer to the question “what was the main motivation for Jones to kill his wife?” so if that was what I wanted to know when I asked the question then yes it would answer it adequately. However we still don’t really have a proper answer to “why”, do we? To answer more specifically we’d need to ask more specific questions and I think that would just reduce it to more “how questions”? The same applies to your second example.

Perhaps the next step is to figure out if there is a “why question” for which there is actually a direct answer, even if just in principle?

A question always questions something, even if what it questions is left implicit, to be figured out from the context. But if this view is correct, and if every question contains within it those questions which follow it up, then we get the result that what a questioner says in the original question will include information drawn from the answers of the person he questions before they have even been said. This is a problem.

And this is kind of my point I think. Answering “why” questions almost always requires you to reduce it to a “how” answer meaning you never really answer the actual question asked. It is in this sense that I think why questions are meaningless (or at the very least poorly framed but I think it is more than that).

29. Dale Campbell - May 27, 2009

The ‘confirmation’ of ‘resonance’ is analogous to simplicity of a scientific theory.

(Gentlemen, have fun – I’ve got to finish a significant assignment or two!)

30. Dace - May 27, 2009

@Ian
I still don’t really see why you think ‘why?’ questions must reduce to ‘how?’ questions. But I do think you’re making the point that ‘how?’ questions give better, more satisfying answers than ‘why?’ questions, and with this I completely agree. Science shows us just how much richer a physical explanation of a phenomenon is as opposed to one in terms of agents.
So perhaps you feel that any decent answer to the ‘why am I here?’ question is going to bottom out at a physical description of the universe and how it works. And again, I’d agree. But others do not share our preference for brute physical facts over brute intentional facts, and it would be an error to construe their ‘why?’ questions as really being ‘how?’ questions. I don’t think we are justified in supposing that they would be satisfied with the kind of answer we are satisfied with, nor supposing that answers which do not satisfy us would not satisfy them. But that is what seems to be assumed in your reduction, and the dismissal of the ‘why?’ as meaningless.

@Dale
That doesn’t rely help – Occam’s razor makes simplicity a virtue in scientific theories, whereas I know of no equivalent principle which transforms resonance into a justifier for belief. Good luck with the assignments.

31. Dale - May 27, 2009

Dace,
I actually think it’s self-evident that when various lines of reasoning converge (i.e. like the ‘theory of everything’ being sought after), we see a ‘resonance’ or ‘coherence’ or ‘harmony’ or ‘lack of contradictory-ness’ that confirms that we’re ‘on the right track’ so to speak. Unless we think contradiction is a measure of truthfulness!? 🙂

32. Ian - May 27, 2009

I still don’t really see why you think ‘why?’ questions must reduce to ‘how?’ questions.

The main reason, I think, is that I can’t think of a direct answer to any why question, even in principle.

But others do not share our preference for brute physical facts over brute intentional facts, and it would be an error to construe their ‘why?’ questions as really being ‘how?’ questions.

I would agree with this if I could imagine what the direct answer to any why question would actually look like, but I can’t so the only way I can imagine to deal with them is to convert them to how questions and it is for this reason that I am not sure it actually means anything to directly ask “why”.

33. Dace - May 28, 2009

@Dale
‘Resonance’ is not the same as coherence, harmony, or consistency,
since the former is emotive but the last three actually deal with the relationship between propositions or beliefs. Yes, coherence, harmony , and consistency are (mild) indicators of truth, and resonance can be a response to these features, however, resonance can also be a response to the confirmation of one’s own prejudices. For this reason, resonance is not reliable enough to be an indicator of truth, and the features of coherence etc. should be investigated instead..

@Ian
Ok, then, we’ll agree to disagree. I thought I had given you an answer to a ‘why?’ question with the Jones thing, but you’re clearly looking for something more.

34. Ian - May 28, 2009

I thought I had given you an answer to a ‘why?’ question with the Jones thing, but you’re clearly looking for something more.

In my opinion the answer wasn’t a direct answer – it was an interpretation of what why meant into a different question and then answered indirectly. In other words the “why” aspect wasn’t really useful in getting to the answer given.

I guess my point really boils down to the fact that if the word why was removed from the English language, would we lose the ability to describe or ask anything?

35. Dace - May 28, 2009

If I am right, the ‘why?’ is a question which seeks an agency and an intention for an answer. We would therefore lose the ability to ask after this. We could still answer every question, and completely describe the world, I agree (though we couldn’t have know this a couple of centuries ago), but it would make matters needlessly complex. I could how it was that Jones came to kill his wife, with neuroscience, but I would have to know alot, and I couldn’t help but be verbose. I’ll keep my naive ‘why?’ questions and answers for now :).

36. Ian - May 28, 2009

I am happy enough with the loose use of the word to refer to agency + intention but when you try and nail down what it precisely means, particularly in religious discourse, the word loses all meaning, at least in my humble opinion 🙂


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