A while ago, a popular mass-produced beer had some commercials that revolved around the line, “Why ask why?” While most beer commercials seem on the stupid side to me anyway (one brand’s only selling point seems to be “coldness”), those especially bugged me. Actually, as I recall, the commercials were pretty cute; it was the idea that asking Why? is pointless that bugged me.
I believe that asking Why? is a uniquely human trait. Animals accept existence; humans question it. And while there is a certain important Zen-like quality to accepting existence, I believe the questions are also important.
Science is really nothing more than the process of asking Why?
[My science inclinations showed up early. “Because I said so,” was never an answer that sat well with me as a child. But by then I’d already figured out that authority and truth were separate things.]
It might be more precise to say that science is the process of first asking, “Huh?!” The next step is asking the more constructive question, “What (is going on here)?” And then, of course, comes the question, “Why (is it like that)?” But on some level, the first two questions are just opening acts on the ultimate question: “Why?”
There is another trait that I think is uniquely human: we tell stories. And there is an interesting connection between our stories and asking, Why? Many of our stories, certainly many of our earliest ones, seek to explain the world’s whys. (We often call these “Just So” stories.) Many, perhaps all, older cultures are rich with ancient explanation myths.
As a side note (pun intended!), music spans not just from beasts to humans, but also across human modes. Birds do it (bees do it). Coyotes bay at the moon. Many animals make noises that could, for them, serve some of the purpose that music does for us. In other cases, the sounds they make are more akin to language and intended to communicate ideas.
Like humans, animals may even make sounds that mean celebration. Music for humans is often times a celebration. It begins when we celebrate the successful hunt.
Music also communicates mood, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all that it does the same for some animals (in which case it’s picture-like worth thousands of words).
But for humans, music also tells stories. Music can definitely be on the spectrum of storytelling. Sometimes, as with musicals and opera, the story is distinct and clear. Other times, as with many symphonies, it is more poetic and communicates mood and suggests, rather than tells, a story. Of course, once you add words, it’s about the Blue Suede Shoes.
Basic communication is a trait we share with our animal friends. Any higher animal can communicate its basic mood and desires, and some communicate very clearly. When your dog brings you her leash or stands by the door, she’s clearly saying she wants a walk or to go outside.
But we humans — and only we humans — take it to the next level. We ponder the nature of reality, and we ask, Why?
Given that asking, Why? is uniquely human, and given that science is the process of asking, Why? we can say that science, too, is a uniquely human trait. Only humans have science. Only humans seek the reasons why things happen.
So shame on those who seek to deny or undermine science. They oppose one of the most basic of human characteristics. They — quite literally — oppose humanity. They would prefer we remain in some dark, animalistic state of ignorance.
Which is not to say that science shouldn’t be bounded by philosophy and ethics. Far from it. This, to some extent, is the message behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Science allows us to discover powerful tools, and most powerful tools — from chain saws to A-bombs — can be useful or very destructive.
But that doesn’t mean we shy away from it! Science is the human activity of trying to figure out our world. Scientists are those who observe reality and try to find patterns and explanations for what they see.
Mathematics is the science of figuring out how numbers work. Computer science is the process of figuring out computation works. (Therefore, computer science is a branch of mathematics. It pre-dates actual physical computers and in many ways isn’t actually about them at all.)
Earth sciences seek to understand the earth. Space sciences, astronomy and cosmology, try to understand the universe. Physicists attempt to find the basic rules that govern reality. Social and political sciences look at the behaviors of societies and politics.
Philosophy is the science of trying to understand existence and thought, and as such is one of my favorite sciences, since those topics fascinate me. They have always been a big part of what I hope to discuss a lot on this blog.
[I once referred to one of my favorite science fiction authors, Terry Pratchett, as a “philosopher,” because of his keen observation of human behavior in his Discworld books (possibly my favorite SF series of all). I was (rightfully) corrected. In the true definition of a philosopher — a scientist in the field of philosophy — Pratchett is only an observer (who is obviously very well-informed about philosophy and physics and science).]
The idea that science is at odds with spirituality is an unfortunate one, since I believe one is Yin to the Yang of the other. But (at the risk of offending some), science probably is at odds with most established religions to the extent that those religions insist on a view of reality that doesn’t jibe with physical facts.
If science is the activity of figuring out the nature of the real world, spirituality is the process of trying to figure out the nature of the metaphysical world — a world that may, or may not, even exist. Religion narrows the scope to a specific metaphysical world, the reality of which is even more uncertain.
I’ve written several posts on this blog that explore the Yin-Yang of science and spirituality. No doubt I will write others. I’m not going to get into it today — for now, you can refer to those previous posts if you want more.
In closing, a riff on the idea of “dumb” questions:
In various places I’ve seen two engaging plaques addressing the idea of “dumb” questions. One reads, “It’s not a dumb question if you don’t know the answer!” The other asserts that, “Dumb questions are better than dumb mistakes.” Those two ideas are slightly different from each other, but both are intended to enable the asking of questions.
That’s not to say there are no dumb questions, although a better term might be lazy questions. I find that sometimes people ask questions when they could easily find out the answer for themselves — it’s just easier to ask. Keeping in mind the first aphorism above, if you don’t know the answer, asking is a-okay.
The question about those questions that I have is whether you might not be better served by the exercise of researching the answer yourself. For one thing, if someone just gives you an answer, how much do you trust it to be right?
There is also the idea of giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish. If you depend on others to answer your questions, you’re constantly begging for fish. If you learn how to fish, you become more self-reliant.
But people are funny.
I once got in trouble at work for teaching someone to fish. They had sent an email to scores of people (probably everyone in their address book) asking if anyone had the address of an employee who had since retired.
It took me, literally (and I mean “literally” literally), under a minute to find the answer on Google.
I replied with both the address and the idea (politely stated — at least I thought it was polite) that such questions could be easily and quickly answered online, so here is both a fish and a fishing pole.
Keep in mind this person used up a few moments of time of every employee who read that email. I was potentially saving the company from future time wasting by helping train an employee.
Of course, Corporate American strongly supports the modern idea that if you are offended, then someone must have legitimately done something to offend you (and they need to be stopped). I didn’t find out that person had complained to my boss until my annual review when that one thing was used to counter-balance all the good I’d done that year.
They always find something to ding you with.
Just one more reason I got the hell out of Corporate America ASAP!