Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Ask Why

I was involved in a very common discussion the other day, dealing with the fundamental question of the purpose of life (also known as “Why am I here?”). As I listened to one of the most widely-held and theologically-based arguments, that the universal need to ask the question is itself evidence of a purpose (and by the same theological theory, something God has placed in all of us to draw us into a search for Him/Her/It), it got me to thinking about the purpose of the question, rather than the question of the purpose, so to speak.

This need is, to me, eminently and empirically explainable by the very nature of sentience. All sentient creatures share a common characteristic: Curiosity. Among less advanced sentient creatures, this curiosity is limited to simple, substantive, survival-based questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Mostly fight, flight, eating (survival of the individual), and procreation (survival of the species) related questions driven by primal urges (boredom and entertainment also factor in, especially as the level of sentience rises). These are things not needing language or abstracts to ask or investigate. Such questions are easily answered by a rudimentary semblance of the scientific process: investigation, of the trial and error variety. 

Creatures with greater levels of sentience begin to develop abstract questions, and consequently develop communication tools, namely complexity of language, in order to articulate and answer these questions. As a small aside, this is why I am such a ridiculously obsessed advocate of the importance of the acquisition of superior language skills above all other academic endeavors.

A human child is an excellent example of the gradations of sentience. It starts out relatively primitively, asking first the basic survival questions (Is the stove hot? Can I eat this crayon? How do I get over there?), and then later, as its brain and communication skills develop, more abstract and intelligent questions (Where do babies come from? What is love? Where does the sun go at night? And of course, the big one, why?). 

Inherent in curiosity is a desire for knowledge. Lower level creatures seek simple answers to simple questions, and are usually satisfied with not fully knowing, so long as the basic survival imperatives are properly answered (It doesn't taste good. It doesn't run from me. It doesn't chase me. Hey! what's that over there?). Credibility, the natural partner of curiosity, is established in that the item or situation in question either falls within the parameters of a small, mostly survival-based array, and is acted upon accordingly, or it does not, and is subsequently ignored. A wolf has learned that a large rock is something that cannot be walked through, but likely has no interest in why the rock is there in the first place, or even what, exactly, a rock is, having ruled out the possibility that it will attack him, or that it is suitable for eating or mating purposes. 

As the aforementioned child develops, its ability to generate and articulate more esoteric curiosities outstrips its ability to grasp the more complex answers. But its corresponding need for the other component of higher-level, intellectual curiosity, credibility, does not, for the most part, allow it to be satisfied with simply not knowing. For that reason, humans have developed a variety of fables, fairy tales, and simplistic place-holder answers to assuage the child, temporarily, until it is developed and experienced enough to fully understand the complete answer. 

The dilemma is, however, that even for a fully formed adult, there are questions that defy concrete answer. Over the development and collective experience of our species, those questions have ranged from simple things like what is beyond a large body of water, what are the smaller elements that make up larger things, and how those things are interconnected, to even more complex and abstract queries about whether there is a purpose to things in general, and if so, what that purpose is. 

The basic divergence of theology and science is simply that the former uses a postulated theory (faith) of the largest of the unknowable abstracts (the greater purpose) to explain the intervening questions back to the known (sort of a reverse engineering process), while the latter uses the known to extrapolate ever widening theories about the next layers of the unknown, and seeks to prove or disprove those extrapolations through rigorous, measurable investigation, leading to a larger portion of the known, and an ensuing extrapolation of new theories to measure and investigate. 

Science accepts the unknown as undiscovered territory that can be eventually discovered factually through the progression of the scientific process. While not always true individually, science is collectively able to discard or modify previously held theories in light of new evidence. It seeks to prove and disprove theories (themselves based upon evidence) by further gathering of evidence, and holds any theory (no matter how long or widely believed that theory is) true only so long as it conforms with all known evidence. It is a journey toward an unknown destination (or perhaps an endless journey in an somewhat unknowable direction), by means of an ever more complex and accomplished system of trial and error. 

Theology assumes a knowledge of the "end" issues, and postulates a wide divergence of purposes and reasons to the unknown between the tangibly known and the faith-based and inviolate end. As such, it is inherently susceptible to confirmation bias, that being a pre-disposition to rank and believe or disbelieve evidence based upon how it conforms to the original belief, as opposed to how that evidence stands both on its own merit and in conjunction with the other evidence at hand. It is a journey toward a known (or at least believed) destination, by means of trial and faith. 

In the end, neither science nor theology can give us proven answers to everything, especially the question about life's purpose. It is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that science will never discover any ultimate purpose. It is also possible that any or all current theological explanations could be wrong, or worse, simply place-holding fables designed to salve our curiosity/ credibility dilemma, thus enabling an inability or unwillingness to grasp newer or more complex possibilities. So the fundamental question is not really so much what our purpose is, but instead how important (and why) it is for each of us to have a satisfactory answer, the level of certainty required for that satisfaction, and what standards and methods we find credible in our search. Implicit in this is a knowledge that if we pre-suppose even the origins of our search, we are not really involved in a legitimate, completely open-minded search at all, but rather a search for confirmation of biases already held.

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