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Hows and Whys

David Cowles

May 29, 2022

How vs. why... Science stands in the present and looks back in search of causes. Religion stands in the present and looks forward in search of reasons.

Science and religion – are they complementary disciplines or mutually exclusive world views? Prior to 1700, science and theology for the most part complemented each other; even Newton was a theist. Stephen Hawking, the Newton of our time, though an atheist, ‘stood on the shoulders’ of this giant.

(Of course, the matter of Galileo is a glaring and tragic exception for which the Catholic Church has too late apologized).

  1. Parmenides (5th century BC), sometimes called the father of Western philosophy, is also called the father of Western astronomy…even the father of Western science.

  2. Plato (d. 347 B.C.) wrote the Timaeus, probably the first attempt by a Western thinker to produce a TOE (Theory of Everything).

According to British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, all Western philosophy after Plato is nothing but a series of footnotes on the Timaeus.

  1. Aristotle (d. 322 BC) wrote both the Physics and the Metaphysics.

  2. Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) was generally regarded as the leading Western scientist and mathematician of his day.

But with the 18th century came the dawn of the so-called ‘Enlightenment.’

May I beg the reader’s indulgence for a very brief detour? To encourage emigration, the Vikings named the huge island just east of North America, ‘Greenland,’ in contrast to the much smaller, more southerly island already known as ‘Iceland.’ The irony, of course, is that Iceland is green for a good portion of the year, while Greenland is icy almost year-round. Apparently, the Vikings were the world’s first travel agents.

While historians disdainfully named the four centuries from the Fall of Rome and to the Coronation of Charlemagne, ‘the Dark Ages,’ we decided to call the two centuries from 1700 to 1900, ‘the Enlightenment.’ (Self-effacing modesty has never been our strong suit.) Just as ‘Iceland’ and ‘Greenland’ are misnomers, so are ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Enlightenment.’

The so-called Dark Ages was a period of enormous intellectual and cultural ferment, leaving us a treasure trove of great art (and architecture), theology, and philosophy. This was the period during which ‘giants’ (i.e., Augustine of Hippo) worked out the details of Christian theology, and new forms of social organization (e.g., the feudal system and monasticism) were successfully tested.

On the other hand, the so-called Enlightenment was a period of enormous, but ultimately superficial, scientific discovery…and not much else. From Laplace through Marx, Enlightenment thinking tends to be ‘mechanical’ rather than ‘organic.’ (Of course, Charles Darwin, albeit late 19th century, is a shining exception!)

To understand the Enlightenment, it is only necessary to take note of Harvard College’s 1896 commencement address. The soon-to-be graduates were told in no uncertain terms not to pursue careers in the physical sciences because “we already know almost everything there is to know about the physical universe.” Wow! Talk about hubris! Just a few years later, the whole world came to the startling realization that it knew next to nothing about the workings of the universe. Our fundamental model had not changed since 1700 (Newton), but as of 1896 it was ready to explode!

One of the many unhappy characteristics of the Enlightenment is the deep antipathy between science and theology. No wonder these two centuries have also been called the ‘Age of Skepticism!’ Take the origin of the universe, for example. Ask a scientist and she’ll likely talk to you about “The Big Bang Theory” (cosmogenesis, that is, not the eponymous 21st century sitcom). Ask a theologian, and you might hear the creation narrative from the Book of Genesis.

At first glance, these two ‘explanations’ appear to have absolutely nothing in common; in fact, they seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. But nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that these two narratives tell the same story, using different vocabulary and different images, of course, as appropriate to their respective eras.

(Sadly, this is not the subject of this essay…perhaps we will address it in appropriate detail in some subsequent Issue of AT Magazine.)

Stephen Hawking is famous for saying, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” I imagine he was referring to Newton, Einstein, et al. I doubt Hawking recognized that he was also standing on the shoulders of the author of Genesis. What happened after 1700? A complete analysis of the culture shift in Europe in the 18th century could fill a library…and it has. I will not repeat that here. Instead, I’ll focus on one very simple distinction, the difference between ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’

Prior to 1700, intellectuals understood that these were ‘two different, but equally important,’ questions (sounds a bit like an episode of Law & Order). Science sought to give a detailed description of the world as it is and then asked how it came to be that way. Religion was more likely to accept the current state of the world as a given and ask why it came to be in the first place and why it came to be the way it is.

How vs. why! Science stands in the present and looks back in search of causes. Religion stands in the present and looks forward in search of reasons.

By asking ‘how,’ science searches for efficient causes. By asking ‘why,’ religion searches for final causes. “How?” can only be answered by reference to a process that originated in the past; “why?” can only be answered by reference to a process that culminates in the future. It is the how/why dichotomy that divides the timeline into past/future.

Contemporary physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss made a similar observation in his anti-theistic book, A Universe from Nothing: “…In science we have to be particularly cautious about ‘why’ questions. When we ask ‘Why?’ we usually mean ‘How?’ If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes.”

I would go one step further. Most of the West’s intellectual traumas have resulted from theologians attempting to answer ‘How?’ or from scientists attempting to answer ‘Why?’

How does this apply to real life?

It’s Christmas Eve and Junior has finally fallen asleep. Marge and Henry tiptoe downstairs and begin wrapping the presents that will go into Junior’s stocking and under the tree. They are almost done. All that remains is Junior’s ‘big gift,’ a bright, shiny red fire engine he has been asking for, well, forever. As Henry picks it up, he notices something he failed to see when he bought the toy. In huge letters, the side of the box announces, “Assembly Required!”

Crestfallen, Henry opens the box and, sure enough, Junior’s bright, shiny fire engine is there…but in a million pieces. Fortunately, though, the box also contains an instruction manual. The manual spells out a process ‘guaranteed’ to turn these disorganized pieces into the fire engine of Junior’s dreams. Methodically, Henry follows the steps, and 90 minutes later, et voilà, a fire engine. In some vastly overly simplified sense, the pieces and the steps outlined in the instruction manual, taken together, constitute the ‘efficient cause’ of the fire engine. It is how the fire engine came to be.

On the other hand, you could look at this chain of events from the other end. The fire engine is the goal. Without that goal, the steps outlined in the instruction manual would have no meaning, and Henry would have no reason to perform them. Looked at this way, the fire engine itself is the ‘final cause’ of the events that precede it. The fire engine is why these events occurred, but even the fire engine is not the final ‘final cause.’

Looking even further down the road, Junior’s excitement on Christmas morning, and his enjoyment beyond, is the ‘reason’ for the fire engine. How and why both successfully account for the end product, a fire engine. However, they are not symmetrical. Only the teleological (why) perspective can account for Henry’s motivation to undertake the 90-minute assembly process on Christmas Eve.

Without that ‘why,’ that goal, that purpose, the pieces would remain in the box, unassembled, and the fire engine would remain an unrealized potential latent in those pieces. A ‘why’ may provide the motivation, the purpose necessary to generate a ‘how,’ but a ‘how’ can never generate a ‘why.’ It is why that gives meaning to how. Nonetheless, this dual analysis works fairly well when we’re dealing with an intentional process like making a toy fire engine.

Plus, as ‘Enlightened’ human beings, we tend to think of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. Therefore, the idea that our actions are our response to final causes makes sense to us.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Determinists, behaviorists, psychoanalysts, and deconstructionists would all question the extent, if any, to which our lives are a function of freely formed intentions. They are interested in the real ‘how’ that culminates in our actions, not the illusory ‘why’ that appears to motivate them. But what happens if we apply our ‘toy engine’ logic to events that are, apparently at least, much less intentional?

Consider an earthquake, for example. It is caused by plate tectonics and seismic activity beneath the earth’s surface. It doesn’t seem to have a purpose, a goal, or a final cause. It certainly has a ‘how’ but apparently no ‘why.’ But that is not necessarily true! Earthquakes relieve geological stress and thereby actually protect the planet from more severe catastrophes. Earthquakes are a homeostatic process that helps keep the earth balanced. According to Gregory Bateson, homeostasis is the basis of what we call ‘mind.’ At the risk of resurrecting the disastrous mind-body dualisms of the past, we might suggest that everything, that is, is both mind and body. Mind is the aspect of the entity that is responding to final causes, while body is the aspect that responds to efficient causes.

Earlier we mentioned in passing British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (d. 1947). He is generally considered the father of modern ‘process philosophy.’ He argued that every event, every ‘actual entity,’ has two ‘poles’ – a mental pole and a physical pole. As an event shapes itself (causa sui), it prehends (feels) some things physically and other things conceptually. Physical prehension contributes efficient causation; conceptual prehension contributes final causation. Ultimately, it is possible to analyze any event from a determinist perspective (efficient causation) or from a teleological perspective (final causation).

Some modern Christian thinkers (i.e., Teilhard de Chardin and Gregor Mendel) cared deeply about how the world works; others find such inquiries boring and ultimately irrelevant. Who cares how the world came to be as it is, the real question is why! On the other hand, most modern scientists reject out of hand the religionist’s search for ‘why:’ the very subject is considered absurd. In fact, the question itself, and any proposed answers, are often considered meaningless.

These scientists reject the concept of final causation per se; they reject the notion that events can even have an ultimate ‘purpose.’ For them, things just are, and that’s an end to it. An event may be explained, at least in part, by things that went before it, but things that will happen in the future are totally irrelevant to whatever is happening now.

In the 1920s, a school of philosophy known as Logical Positivism equated ‘meaning’ with ‘verifiability.’ Propositions have meaning only to the extent that they have been or may yet be ‘verified’ according to the Scientific Method. There are few Logical Positivists practicing today; nevertheless, their doctrine has cast a very long shadow. Just as positivists are entitled to question the meaningfulness of teleological propositions, so religionists are entitled to ask whether a world view based entirely on efficient causation can adequately account for the world as we experience it.

In sharp contrast to the Logical Positivists, Whitehead (above) proposed that events (‘actual entities’) only occur in response to a perceived disequilibrium between a set of values (‘eternal objects’) and things as they are (‘actual world’). Events (causa sui) ‘assemble’ their own pasts out of the ‘superjects’ of prior events, which they ‘prehend’ physically. They designate their own ‘efficient causes’ in accordance with the unique ‘subjective aim’ of each. They appropriate (‘prehend’) selected material from prior events and incorporate that material as they strive to transcend those prior events in the direction suggested by the eternal objects.

Events also designate their own ‘final causes;’ these are the values, the qualities, the ‘eternal objects’ that stirred these ‘actual entities’ into being in the first place. Teleology is not a determinism. We are free to select our own final causes, our own eternal objects. Each novel entity configures a unique pattern of eternal objects, which it prehends conceptually. That pattern is the final cause of the event in question. And the final cause in turn influences the entity’s choice of efficient causes.

So, let’s return to Marge and Henry. Ultimately, it is the idea of the fire engine and the image of Junior’ smiling face on Christmas morning that motivates. Without those ‘final causes,’ there are just pieces in a box, now, on Christmas morning, and for ever after. An ontology that does not recognize the importance of final causes, an Enlightenment ontology, for example, makes no sense. It is meaningless.

Applying this domestic lesson to the matter of the universe, it is clear that without final causation, without values and purpose and meaning, there would be no universe. The energy and order needed to form events, and so to form a universe per se, requires hope (‘eternal objects’) that the world can be better, and faith that it ultimately will be. But we don’t need to wade through Whitehead’s Process and Reality to understand teleology and the religious perspective. Jesus taught the same thing 2,000 years earlier…and in a much more accessible format:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


David Cowles, editor-in-chief, Aletheia Today magazine

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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