For more than two thousand years now 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 traditions of humanity. With all their richness and deep insights of our keen-minded ancestors, these questions continue to be explored in our own time. The proclaimed answers, of the past or of the present, have not achieved anything remotely resembling unanimity in the human family. Occasionally, they have led to divergences and rifts that have been more harmful than helpful.
In olden times philosophers were seriously wondering about the nature of human knowledge and the reality of Reality. Their sharp analyses and unrelenting probes resulted in abundant volumes of fascinating perspectives, but with very little success in calming the turbulence of verbal exchanges among the gladiators in the arena of metaphysics and epistemology. If the past is any indicator, such exchanges are likely to persist unabated for two thousand and more years to come, assuming optimistically that our species will be on the plane of terrestrial reality for that long.
But then, by the sixteenth century it occurred to some that one should perhaps explore the how of natural phenomena rather 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 scientists can (thought not all do) 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 from 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.
August 14, 2012