Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That Damned Why


Continuing to watch episodes of Through the Wormhole, I sense a pattern. The science described mainly speculates about the how, rarely about the why. That might be increasingly insufficient as we get closer to the inner workings of the universe.

Science continues to embrace the Aristotelean principle of cause and effect – something making something else happen – but since the dawn of the industrial revolution, research has more and more been done with the object of putting to knowledge to practical use. Like investment in pursuit of profit.

This modern science has led to spectacular changes in society. Airplanes fly around the globe, radio waves fill the atmosphere with all kinds of entertainment, complicated machines pop out of factory assembly lines in a beat similar to that of disco music. There's no denying that science during the past 200 years or so has changed society and life in it more than even visionaries imagined beforehand.

It has been accomplished by substituting “why” with “how” in most research. How do things work, and how can we improve them for our benefit? That's all fine.

But our quest for truth about the universe and about ourselves – that demands a different perspective. We need to follow why to its root. Like children do when pestering their parents with a new why after each answer. We need to drill ourselves down to the core, although it's utterly frustrating.

The ancient cause that Aristotle and others speculated about was something with an intention. The cause intended the effect and aimed at it, as if by a will of its own. That was the nature of the cause. The primary cause, at the beginning of the long chain, was often described as some kind of divinity, a will behind the emergence and workings of the universe.

Today, though, we see cause more like a mechanism that just happens to have this and that effect. The universe is seen as a machine, because we live in the age of machines. Surrounded by a multitude of machinery, our minds are trapped by their limited cause and effect, and we think the whole world must be the same, somehow. It might be true, but we should avoid taking it for granted.

Maybe there's even reason to question the very idea of cause and effect, something happening because of something else. It may be true for the machines we make, but they are the results of how we think, so they may be anomalies to the normal working of the universe. Artifacts.

Could it be that everything in the universe behaves as it does, because of itself? Or all things just relate to all other things without any one of them being the initiating force? They're just engaged in a cosmic dance where no one leads and no one follows.

I have no idea. The thought just keeps popping up in my head that we're still thinking inside the box, taking things for granted that need to be questioned. Maybe also the question why is irrelevant, and should be replaced by something less restrictive, like: What's really going on?

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