Saturday, August 8, 2009

Abusive Cosmology: the poverty of the "how/why" distinction

I recently read a post over on Daylight Atheism where one of the stupidest and most obvious mistakes was committed by no less a figure than astronomer Allen Sandage. According to Ebonmuse, "In this essay, Sandage states that science is extremely effective at answering 'how' questions, but not 'why' questions (i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?), and he finds that theism answers these questions satisfactorily, although it cannot be proved by the scientific method." In the spirit of Randall Munroe's Abusive Astronomy, I am going to yell at morons until they stop hammering on this idiotic non-argument.

OK, look, it's time to learn some fucking philosophy of language, goddammit. Words have meaning, and these meanings are many and varied. Bill Clinton got yelled at for asking people to define the word "is," but that's a valid point and anyone who doesn't get that is a leotard: there are two words in English, both of which are spelled and pronounced "is." These words are "the 'is' of predication" and "the 'is' of identity." For example, two plus two is four, and this is "the 'is' of identity" at work: "two plus two" is exactly equal, or identical, to "four." The two are interchangeable. However, "My bra is black and lacy" shows "the 'is' of predication" at work: not everything that is black and lacy is my bra, and my bra is not all that is black and lacy. My bra certainly fits the criteria of being black and lacy, but "my bra" and "black and lacy" are not interchangeable. In short, "two plus two is four" in a different way than "my bra is black and lacy." What sort of inbred fuckwit can't understand this shit?

So we've got two different senses of "is," and as it turns out, there are also different senses of how and why, and pretty much any other fucking term in any goddamned language you'd care to pick! Shit! At root, this is no more an Ivory Tower concept than "language is complicated." I mean, for fuck's sake, didn't we all learn about synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and heteronyms in fucking grammar school?! (Judging by the page on antonyms, or opposites, I guess not.) Who forgets that shit? (Apparently, many people.)

There are three senses of "how," viz1:
Howq: The quantitative "how." This concerns matters of "how much." If I say that you're stupid, and you ask how much, I'll respond with an IQ below 100. That's the quantitative "how" at work.
Howc: The causal "how." This concerns matters of "how come." If I say you're getting stabbed, and you ask how come, I'll respond with a story about how your stupidity has caused my stabbing. That's the causal "how" at work.
Howr: The rational "how." This concerns matters of "how so." If I say you deserve to be punched in the jeans, and you ask how so, I'll respond with a rationale about how being leotarded deserves jean-punching. That's the rational "how" at work.
There are also two senses of "why," viz:
Whyc: The causal "why." This concerns matters of "why come." If I say you're getting stabbed, and you ask why, I'll respond with a story about how your stupidity has caused my stabbing. That's the causal "why" at work.
Whyp: The purposive "why." This concerns matters of "why for." If I say you need to give me fifty dollars, and you ask why, I'll respond with an explanation of how your fifty dollars will help me get a knife for to stab you. That's the purposive "why" at work.
OK, now that we've sorted that shit out, let's get down to brass fucking tacks. Howr and whyp are very close in meaning, but they are in fact distinct: howr presupposes a chain of reason, and whyp presupposes an intended purpose. There can be a chain of reason with no intended purpose for miles in any direction, and vice versa (so long as one conscientiously divorces one's purpose from reason). More importantly, howc and whyc are identical: both presuppose an antecedent causal chain, which means that howc and whyc are synonmous terms. Howc is whyc ("the 'is' of identity" being used here).

Now wait! Stop! Right there where you are, just STOP! This is the important part: "how" and "why" share territory, but are also distinct in some contexts. When someone trades on the former characteristic while ignoring the latter in order to slip something past you, this is known as conflation. When someone trades on the latter characteristic while selectively ignoring it (presenting it as though the former were all that mattered while not telling you what difference the latter part makes), this is known as equivocation. Both of these are serious argumentative missteps, and setting things straight is simply a matter of sitting down and rigidly defining your terms. Let's do this right the fuck now, shall we? Let's shall.

OK, now we're going back to the beginning, with the claim that "science is extremely effective at answering 'how' questions, but not 'why' questions (i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?)." We're going to first break down the "how" stuff, then the "why" stuff, and then we'll talk about the relationship between the two. Motherfucker (because I haven't cursed in a few sentences).

Science, as noted, is fucking fantastic at answering all three forms of "how" questions, viz:
Howc is there something rather than nothing? (Read: How come something exists, rather than nothing existing at all?) Proximally, because of the Big Bang, moron! Generally, we don't know2. But don't go making shit up!
Howq is there something rather than nothing? (Read: How much of something is there, rather than nothing being there at all?) An amount equal to the total mass-energy in the Universe. Fucking duh.
Howr is there something rather than nothing? (Read: How do you figure that something in fact exists, rather than nothing at all actually existing?) Well, by asking that question, you're presupposing that I am able to answer it (or at least understand the question, and in order to do so, I must first exist), and that you exist to both ask the question and be answered (again, for this to make sense at all, you must also exist). So if you don't agree that something exists rather than nothing, yet still ask this question, then you're leotarded.
Now let's sort out the "why" questions:
Whyc is there something rather than nothing? (Read: Why come there is something rather than nothing?) See Howc, above. God fucking dammit.
Whyp is there something rather than nothing? (Read: What is the purpose of there being something rather than nothing?) You stupid asshole, you've assumed that there is a purpose to the Universe in the first place. This is an open fucking question. For the uninitiated (if you didn't understand that last sentence, then that's you), this means that it has not been established whether or not there is a purpose to the Universe. If you think that there is, 'splain how. If you don't, congratulations! You've embraced the null hypothesis and are therefore scientifically-minded - at least in this context. In other words, you need a fucking reason to accept something before you believe it, up to and including comfy-cozy propositions such as "the Universe has a purpose."
That's it. Game Over. Science, by which I mean metaphysical fucking naturalism, wins hands-down. The reason for this is that, for any given context, scientific answers are equal to or better than religious answers. This will require some unpacking.

OK, so now we have to lay some fucking ground rules for our argumentative discourse. This means that both sides will, as in a game of Chess, accept that they are both subject to the same rules for what qualifies as answering a question. You have to be coherent, of course: you don't win by answering "Gleeble gonk zork, therefore I win." Only a dipshit would accept that as an answer. You also have to accept one particular version of the "meet or beat" question - this is a borrowed gaming term, where "meet or beat" refers to what a challenger must do to succeed against a defender. "Meet" and "beat" should be obvious terms, and what is of interest is whether merely "meeting" succeeds, or only "beating." In games where a victor must be established, the challenger must either merely "meet" to succeed, or must "beat" to succeed; consistently applied, this results in a clear victor regardless of the particulars of the situation. In an argumentative context, however, a stalemate is a perfectly acceptable option - sometimes there is simply no clear argumentative victor, and the question remains open in a robust sense. In fact, this supports what I am arguing: science consistently meets or beats religion. There are in fact stalemates where no clear victor can be established; however, in all contexts where there is not a stalemate, science is the victor. Time for a demonstration!

We've already established in the inspiration for this post that science wins in the "how" department. I'll be reviewing things here simply as a formality. For howq questions, science answers with comparative quantitative analysis: by measuring things in terms of numbers within a context of established relationships that allow those numbers to be meaningfully compared to one another. Five pounds, forty meters, twenty lumens, a hundred seconds, these are all quantitative terms that have specific meaning. With science - by which I mean looking at the world rigorously - we have specific and unambiguous meanings for all of these. Religion has contributed zero to comparative quantitative analysis. Science beats religion. For howr questions, insofar as the question is an empirical one, science also wins hands-down: with the scientific method (and centuries of application), humanity has ventured into every field of inquiry and proposed at least passing explanations for anything you'd care to imagine. With that, we may explain by way of observation and inference what the rationale is behind any particular scientific principle. Religion's only answer to howr questions, always and everywhere, boils down to "goddidit." That's where it stops: you'd have to ask God, and good luck getting that fucker to answer. Probing the mind of God is always a sticky matter. I will unnecessarily concede a point to religion by noting that sometimes a divine rationale is proposed which makes some manner of fucking sense, in stark contrast to the norm, and in this sense religion sometimes meets science. That's when we've got a stalemate. In all other contexts, however, science beats religion.

Now we're treading into "why" territory, because howc and whyc mean exactly the same thing. Here, again, science meets or beats religion every single time. What most people gloss over, however, is that whether or not an infinite regress may be appealed to must be applied consistently. Either there is such a thing as an infinite regress, or there is not. In each worldview - one with infinite regresses, one without - we have separate contexts for answering questions. Let's start by allowing infinite regresses.

When we allow infinite regresses, we are saying that the Universe goes back forever. There is no "first cause," no irreducible starting point from which all flows forth. It just keeps going back. Religion posits God as the infinite regress, and says that God is eternal and goes back forever, and is the source of all that we see today. If we are allowing an infinite regress, then science may also put something in the God-spot, namely the Universe itself. If things can go back forever, then they can go back forever with or without God. It is not a permissible argumentative move, absent a clinching argument based in empirical observation, to say that the Universe can't go back forever but God can. Try that, and you lose, whether your opponent manages to convince you of the fact or not. If religion can answer the infinite regress, then so can science, The End. That's really all there is to it.

When we don't allow infinite regresses, we are saying that the Universe does not go back forever; it has an irreducible starting point, a "beginning." Religion posits God, science posits reality itself. But... wait... when we try to explain all that exists, i.e. "all of reality," appealing to God does not work if God exists (or "is real"). Really? Yes. Look: if what we're trying to explain is where everything started, then God is part of everything. If God is not part of everything, then God doesn't exist, period. If "everything" requires explanation, then so does God; if not everything requires explanation, then the Universe does not require explanation (if you'd like to say otherwise, then 'splain how, goddammit!). This looks like a stalemate: science says that existence itself is the irreducible starting point, religion says that God is the irreducible starting point. But there's one highly distinguishing mark between the two: science's irreducible starting point, reality itself, clearly exists. There is such a thing as existence. Religion's irreducible starting point, God, is an open question. We have not verified whether or not a god exists. Science wins.

So science meets religion on howc/whyc matters when we allow infinite regresses (more accurately, both fail equally hard), and science beats religion on howc/whyc matters when we don't allow infinite regresses. Now let's take a look at whyp questions. If psychology and neurology are accepted as legitimate fields of science, then so long as it is established that there is in fact a purpose behind something or other being the case, that purpose may be found out by science. We may also use the purposive "why" as part of a language of convenience, for instance by asking why a platypus has venomous spines on its hind flippers (answer: for to poison potential predators). This is a question of function, however, and is really just a howc/whyc question in disguise - specifically, it is a howc/whyc question directly pertaining to a context of "usefulness," which, while involving purpose, is not necessarily the same thing as having a purpose3. The fact that a platypus uses its venomous spines to poison predators does not establish that there is in fact a purpose to those spines, it simply establishes that the spines may in fact be used, and in what context. For the spines, or anything for that matter, to have a purpose, it must be established that there was some conscious intention behind them; and this, when we take it back to God, is another open question. In order to ask what the purpose of something is (and to have that be a pertinent question), one must first establish that there is such a purpose in the first place, and absent some demonstration of that fact, one may respond as one likes. So, simply respond, "I see no need for a purpose." Religion can spout all the purposes it likes; science will always meet or beat it (meet when purpose is not established, since asking after one is begging the question; beat when purpose is established, since science can reference psychology and neurology and religion cannot). The End.

All right, we're fucking done. At last. Now whenever someone tries to slip the how/why distinction past you, you can fucking jack them in the face, because they fucking deserve it.

1. Viz is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, videre licet, which means "it shall be seen" and is used interchangeably with "namely" or "specifically." It is not interchangeable with i.e. or e.g., which stand for (respectively) id est and exempli gratia. The former means, literally, "that is," and is interchangeable with the same phrase in English. The latter means "free example," and is interchangeable with "for example" or "such as." Dumbfucks who don't like to look up words before using them get these mixed up all the time, because they're dumbfucks. (OK, yeah, sometimes people get bad explanations, or have good reason for picking up a private definition which just so happens to be wrong; and language is a fluid thing anyway, so who cares, and yadda, yadda, yadda...)
2. Science, as a discipline and method of question-answering, yields three possible responses: "because this (so far)," "not because this (so far)," and "we don't know (so far)." Science either posits an explanation, rules out an explanation, or admits ignorance (which, point of pride though it may be, is of no shame in a laboratory setting). Note that all three responses are qualified with "so far." This is because science is provisional. That means something could happen which changes the context of our knowledge. No abuse here, this is a fucking tough concept for some people to grasp, and that's because it's a tough idea, not because of any personal failings. No scientific proposition - none of them, zero, not a single one - is ever solved once and for all, forever and always. That just doesn't happen. It is always the case that some such observation or other could come along and turn any scientific principle upon its head. It's possible. It might happen. Until or unless it does, we'll stick with what we've got - with the proviso that if something convincing enough comes along, we'll change what we've got. This is, fundamentally, what separates science from religion, rationality from faith. With science/rationality, anything and everything is subject to change, pain in the ass though it may be to go and do all that revising. With religion/faith, you've got the truth and that's that. The End. Needless to say, for mortal beings with imperfect knowledge and unreliable truth-generators (i.e. our brains), this is a supremely stupid thing to think.
3. If that confused you, then here is the difference between "use" and "purpose," as the terms have been used in that paragraph. For people who don't believe in coincidence, nothing will have a use without also having a purpose tied to that use (because "usefulness" cannot be coincidental). However, let's say that I flip two coins: if they land both heads or both tails, I may say that this illustrates the ultimate congruity of the Universe, that it is a sensible place where things are amenable to our attempts to understand them (or some such happy horseshit). If, on the other hand, they land mis-matching, I may say that this illustrates the ultimate discord of the Universe, that it is a stage of perpetual conflict where we must fight to uphold our values against the forces of reality itself (or some such happy horseshit). In both cases, I have used the toss of a coin to the same purpose: to spout happy horseshit. But I have used them in different ways - whether matching or opposed, the results of the coin toss had different use but identical purpose. Use, in other words, is a potential to follow after some end; purpose, by contrast, is the end to which things are used. Purpose requires conscious intention; use simply requires action.


Kallan.G said...

Definitely a much needed debunking.

Next challenge: find a way to explain to the theists why they've got the anthropic principle arse backwards because I'm getting tired of trying to explain why causal links are logically only one way.

D said...

"...and this is how Abusive Cosmology became an ongoing series..."

Man... OK, probably not, but that was my first thought when I read your comment. Thanks!

Soulless Wolf said...

I enjoyed this post quite a bit, even though we had discussed the core of it already.

Without ranting too much, I am a little disappointed with the whole "leotarded" thing.

D said...

Thanks again for the vote of confidence, Wolf. I'm taking Kallan's suggestion from above, so stay tuned!

As for leotards and their being leotarded, well... without ranting too much myself, I'll simply say that I think it's dumb. But fun. And also very, very dumb. Yet still rather fun. So I'm doing it.