The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins is a very smart man, but there is one thing in particular that he said in his debates that makes no sense to me. However, I heard a viewpoint recently that made sense of it all, and I wanted to share that with you.
In this strange debate featuring many people including Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig (at 32:15), Dawkins talks about a colleague, Peter Atkins, who was lecturing one night. At the end of the lecture, someone asks, “you scientists are awfully good at answering the how questions, but what about the why questions?” Peter Atkins responds, “sir, the why question is just a silly question.” Dawkins has use variations of this phrase in some of his debates.
I really did not know how Dawkins could say this. To me, “why” questions seem to be the most important we can ask as humans. Dawkins goes on to say that children ask more of the why questions, and then grow up and think more in terms of the “how”. For example, a child would ask the question “why does that rock exist?” and answer “so the rabbit can itch its back.” An adult would ask “how did that rock form?” and then describe the geological process for rock formation.
Dawkins is right here to an extent, but I think he takes it too far. Some why questions may be silly as he described, such as the example above. However, that example by no means extends to all why questions we can ask. Saying that questions such as “why is the world the way it is?” and “why do people have a sense of morality?” are silly questions cuts off consideration of perhaps the most important questions in life. They seem to be natural for humans to ask, and I would bet that Dawkins does not completely exclude himself from asking them.
Although I had no idea why Dawkins would say this, I heard something that really made this quote make sense in light of the way Dawkins views the world. He sees everything from a naturalistic viewpoint. In other words, everything can be explained through natural processes. And for the most part, questions are answered through scientific research. Based on this viewpoint, the “why” questions could be considered a category error.
What I mean by category error is a question that is framed in the wrong way so that it no longer makes sense. For example, the question “How many pennies is the color purple?” is a category error.
From a naturalistic standpoint, it seems that why questions are a category error. If everything has always occurred through natural processes, then we can ask how things came into being (i.e. How did humans come into existence? Through small genetic changes from a less complex ancestor over a long period of time?). We can also ask what is right now (i.e. what is the temperature of that flame?)”.
However, asking why things happen does make much sense if everything can only be explained through nature and scientific inquiry. In this viewpoint, everything must be explained through material things (things that can be experienced through the five senses). However, scientific study is limited in scope and cannot be used to attempt answering certain types of questions. See my post on this issue here.
So, when Dawkins’ world view restricts him to only to naturalism and scientific inquiry, the “why” questions that Dawkins refer to cannot be taken into consideration. To him, these questions are just as useful as asking “How many pennies is the color purple?”
However, humans have the capability of asking “why?”, and to come up with sensible answers to those questions. And as I will likely explain in another post, these types of questions are the most important humans can investigate. I think Dawkins is completely wrong on his objection to “why” questions, but I now see why he makes that objection in light of his view of the world.
On a side note, Dawkins is debating Rowan Williams on the topic, “Does religion have place in the 21st century?” tonight. It should be very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not streaming live anywhere, but it will surely be on Youtube within the next few days. Here is a link of their previous discussion.