On Why, Ontology, and How

For  at least two thousand years keen human minds in many cultures explored,
discussed, and debated why the universe came about, why humanity is there,
why there are patterns in the world, why there is good and evil, why there
is beauty and ugliness, why there is pain and pleasure, enjoyment and
suffering, and many other such why’s.

The fruits of those inquiries are enshrined in the religious lore and wisdom
of humanity. With all their richness and deep insights – and these questions
continue to be explored in our own times – the proclaimed answers have not
achieved any unanimity in the human family. Occasionally, they have led to
divergences and rifts that have been more harmful than helpful.

Staring again in antiquity philosophers have been seriously wondering about
the nature of human knowledge and the reality of Reality. Their sharp
analyses and unrelenting probes have resulted in abundant volumes of
fascinating perspectives, but with very little success in calming the
turbulence of verbal exchanges among the gladiators in the area of
metaphysics and epistemology. If the past is any indicator, such exchanges
are likely to persist unabated for two thousand and more years, assuming the
species will be on the plane of reality for that long.

But then, by the sixteenth century it occurred to some that one should
perhaps explore the how of natural phenomena than the why of existence, and
this was the point de départ of what was to blossom as modern science.
Unlike reflections on the why and on the ultimate nature of reality, which
rely largely on insight, intuition, revelation, pure rationality, and
speculation,  investigations into the how of things are carried out at
several  overlapping levels: logical, observational, experimental,
instrumental, mathematical, conceptual, modeling, etc. These ingredients
have contributed immensely to the power and prestige of science which are
the envy of all who wonder seriously about human knowledge. Modern science
pleads ignorance as to the why of the world, and may respect those who
engage in that pursuit. Modern science  may not be able to coherently
formulate a list of moral injunctions for personal behavior from its own
resources, much less assuage a grieving heart or uplift a dejected mind, but
these are not its goals. Even with this constraint, it has much to boast
about its achievements in answering the how of natural processes, which
remain to this day unsurpassed by any other mode of inquiry.

None of this is to say that we should switch our minds off to questions
relating to the why of things or to the nature of reality. No thinking mind
can easily do that. But it may be useful to recognize the role and relevance
of scientific, philosophical, and spiritual pursuits.

February 2, 2010


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