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Zeuglodon's Avatar Jump to comment 113 by Zeuglodon

Comment 111 by susanlatimer

Comment 110 by Schrodinger's Cat

Let's not get confused here. There are three separate issues being conflated regarding this "Why" question, and it would help all of us if we separated them.

The first and most obvious use of "Why" is indeed a straightforward explanation for a given observed phenomenon, as SC points out. If I ask why humans exist, an explanation would indeed be one that made reference to evolution and to the history of the hominids as they evolved from apes; say, that apes evolved larger brains for Machiavellian intelligence or for more refined abilities of planning and problem-solving as part of an extremely omnivorous lifestyle. It need not be restricted to ape-hominid evolution - in principle, every evolutionary split is part of the explanation - but this is the most obvious place to start. In this sense, "How" and "Why" are different ways of phrasing the same question.

The second use of "Why" is an implicit assumption of purpose imposed by a conscious mind. "Why do humans exist?" in this sense might be answered with reference to a deity's plans or goals for us, akin to asking why tools or useful domesticated animals exist. This is the problematic one because it assumes that such a mind exists from the get-go, so a religionist invoking it is making an implicit circular argument.

The third use of "Why" is a comparison between two states: "Why do humans exist as opposed to not existing?" More broadly, it's a subset of the question "Why does anything exist (as opposed to not existing)?" The problem with this one is that "nothing" is a concept mostly used on Earth to mean a vacuum, a negation of something that does exist within space-time (in the sense of dividing table from "not-table", which is practically everything else apart from the table) or a place filled with air. It's hard if not impossible to say what metaphysical nothingness would even be like, or if it could, paradoxically, "exist". As there's no means to even establish that the alternative is possible outside of our imaginations, this question is unanswerable to everybody (scientist, religionist, philosopher), so no one achieves anything by invoking it.

Sun, 05 Aug 2012 14:53:33 UTC | #950411