It’s probably the most frequently asked question of all time.
Children can’t stop asking it.
In education, asking “why” is frequently encouraged. Some say that you should ask at least five whys to get to the root of an issue. Asking why is the starting point for philosophy and its wildly popular offspring, the modern scientific method, which seek to answer why things are the way they are, by means of rational arguments or empirically testing hypotheses. Asking why extends to all areas of life. Why is something right or wrong? Why do I exist?
St. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Aristotle, who famously enumerated four types of causality, which correspond to the four ways in which one can answer the question why. Aristotle wrote, “We do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause,” and the fullest knowledge of a thing is knowledge according to each and every cause that makes a thing what it is.
I was therefore rather surprised to hear Richard Dawkins, a leading biologist, boldly state during a televised dialogue with Cardinal Pell that it was silly to try to pursue knowledge of a thing through certain types of causality. The cardinal then explained that different methods are needed for exploring different types of causality. Their dialogue follows:
Cardinal Pell: “[Modern empirical] science tells us how [and by what mechanisms certain] things happened [in terms of material and proximate efficient causality]. Science tells us nothing about [final causality or purpose, such as] why there was a big bang or why there was a transition from inanimate matter to living matter… [or] why be good?”
Dawkins: “Why, in the sense of purpose [end, or final cause]… is not a meaningful question. . . . What you can say is what are the [material and efficient] causal factors that lead to the existence of mountains, the same with life, the same with the universe.”
Cardinal Pell: “It’s part of being human to ask why we exist. Questioning distinguishes us from the animals, to ask why we’re here. Science has nothing to say about that. Whatever it might say about mountains it can’t say what is the purpose of human life.”
Dawkins: “It may be a part of human nature but that doesn’t make it a valid question [audience laughs]. What’s funny about that? The question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered. . . . Why is a silly question. . . . ‘What is the purpose of the universe’ is a silly question, it has no meaning.”
“Why” is a silly question which has no meaning? I would argue that “why,” in this sense of purpose, is the most important question of our lives!
But for people like Dawkins who embrace scientism, because the scientific method doesn’t address questions of purpose or final causality, purpose and final causality must not exist! So, they say, stop asking such questions!
In addition to pointing out that lack of sufficient time, effort, methods, or tools in a discipline has never caused anything not to exist, I must note that without understanding the purpose of our existence, our lives seem to become pointless, meaningless, and valueless, drifting to nihilism.
Dawkins mentions the consolation he tries to find in a life without a given purpose. “We therefore have to make up our own meaning in life. We have to find our own purposes in life.” Dawkins imagines such a life as a choose your own adventure story, which is free and fun.
In addition to noting the many people with seemingly unlimited resources who have come to utter ruin by this approach to life, the monstrous consequences of ideologies and organizations that choose the wrong purpose, and the universal human experience of questioning in the midst of suffering, I would point out that Dawkins himself can’t help looking for a purpose for life: “We have to make this planet as good as we possibly can.”
But what makes a planet, person, life, society, or the universe good? I must ask what the nature and purpose of a thing is in order to judge whether it or my intended action for it is good. One doesn’t help a fish by leaving it out of water, or help a plant grow by keeping it “safe” indoors away from sunlight.
The things we most desire in life—freedom, love, and happiness—also require a knowledge of nature, which includes purpose. If I want to love someone, which is to intend what is good for them, I must understand what is good for them. If I want to be free to be truly happy, I must know what human flourishing is.
Major challenges in our society, such as confusion over what marriage is and a great deal of unhappiness, stem from a failure to understand the purpose of human life. Dawkins and others who refuse to acknowledge that anything has purpose seem doomed to fail in finding the answer to the most important questions in life, society, and the universe.
Fortunately, on the first anniversary of his canonization, St. John Paul II reminds us of a key passage from the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light… Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (§ 22). The Pope immediately identifies this Christ as “the Redeemer of man” (Redemptor hominis § 8).
Jesus is the answer to our deepest questions, even the questions we are afraid of or refuse to ask. And in this, despite our weakness and ignorance, lies our hope: Jesus Christ, the Way to God the Father, the Truth who gives us true freedom, and the Life in whom we find our ultimate happiness, does not wait for us to ask the question but instead he, the answer, seeks us.
Jesus Christ, redeemer of man, save us!
St. John Paul II, pray for us!