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The difference between What Cause and What Purpose .

  1. Dec 1, 2003 #1
    The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    The aim of Philosophy is to pursue knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (usually in that order). There are many branches of Philosophy, and each branch has it's own limitations, which are not usually limitations of the whole of Philosophy, but merely of that one branch.

    Science is a branch of Philosophy, and as such must also have its own limitations that are not shared by the whole pursuit of Philosophy. One of these limitations, I think, is that Science cannot answer "why" questions.

    Science is very good at answering "what", "where", "when", "which", "how", and many other kinds of questions, but it always fails at "why" questions, because it's not designed to deal with them.

    The reason I say it's not designed to deal with them is because it is entirely based on Inductive Logic (that which happened in case A, B, C, and D will happen in case E). The Scientific Method requires that a certain experiment be repeatable, in order for it to "prove" an hypothesis, but this (again) is induction. Now, Inductive Logic is based on the idea of Causality. If there were no cause-and-effect then there could be no assumption that case A, B, C, and D were in any way related, so as to assume that case E (which occurs under exactly the same circumstances as the previous cases) will have anything like those results.

    Now, the reason that the title of the thread is "The difference between 'what cause' and 'what purpose'" is because there are indeed "why" questions that can be answered by Science, but these take on a different form then the kind that I was referring to by previous mention of "'why' questions". You see, "what cause" questions can be phrased as "why" questions (though they can also be phrased otherwise, and so Science never really has to answer a question in the "why" format), but Science is still equipped to answer them. For example, if I ask, "why does the Earth revolve around the Sun", Science can answer "because inertia is keeping the Earth moving, while gravity keeps it from leaving the Sun" (Note: This answer can be re-phrased as "this effect is caused by the combined effects of inertia and gravity").

    However, the "why" question of the form "what purpose" cannot be re-phrased, and can also not be answered by Science. As an example, after my having answered that inertia and gravity keep the Earth in orbit around the Sun, one could as "Why does gravity exist?". This is a "what purpose" question, and is meaningless in Science. The scientist would probably answer "it just works that way" or "that's just the way it is", since anything further explanation of their purpose would require something outside of the Inductive system(be it belief, faith, credulity, or whatever else).

    In summary: Science, due to its Inductive nature, is bound to Causality, and thus cannot be used to answer "why" questions of the form, "what purpose". Science can answer "why" questions of the form, "what cause", but these can always be re-phrased into something other than "what purpose" (i.e. "Why does the Earth revolve around the Sun?" = "What causes the Earth to revolve around the Sun?" or even "How does the Earth stay in orbit around the Sun?").
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 1, 2003 #2
    Another point about "purpose".

    Purpose, as I've mentioned numerous times in the past, doesn't exist except after having been assigned by a conscious being. A box, it would seem to us (conscious, sentient, beings), is "for" (it has the purpose of) carrying things inside of it. However, if I were lost in some cold wilderness, I would probably start a fire with the cardboard of this box, and thus the purpose of that box would not be to carry something, but to fuel my fire. Thus, purpose is not an intrinsic property of anything, but is assigned by conscious beings.
  4. Dec 1, 2003 #3
    Overall this is a good clarification. I see people getting confused by the use of the "how, what, where, why" distinctions all the time. Those are really just sloppy ways to make distinctions but they sound good so people use them.

    But when thinking upon your comments above in conjunction with everything else you posted, it sounds like you would conclude that all other branches of philosphy (except for science)deal with the gathering of knowledge about non-intrinsic properties. One of the reasons why I never thought of things in this way is because I never thought of science as a branch of philosophy but rather, a tool of philosophy. So science as a tool can be used by any of the branches of philosophy to answer all relevant questions. Philosophy is actually concerned with all of the above mentioned questions, including the "why" question.
    I can't think of a single "branch" myself that wouldn't be interested in the "what" question that science answers; except for maybe ethics. Also I'm not sure these questions fully represent the level of responsible that philosophy has in relation to science. For example, it is within the scope of philosophy to decide what method is best for answering the "what" question. The scientific method is the result. But what question did philosophy answer here? All of these questions are inquiries into a single object; "what" is an apple?, "How" does an apple grow?, "where" do apples grow?. Philosophy would not just consider "Why apples?". It's scope is beyond the object itself but also in the methods of inquiry.
  5. Dec 2, 2003 #4
    Interesting points, Fliption. As I had seen it, Science is another branch of Philosophy, which cooperates with the other branches. Mathematics and Logic are also "tools" as you describe, since they can be used by any of the branches, are are very essential in the modern formulations of many of these fields; however, I had believed (though I'm not so sure now) that these were just another example of branches of Philosophy working together to acheive greater knowledge.
  6. Dec 21, 2003 #5
    Re: The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    In terms of "why" questions, let us turn to Richard Dawkins and his book "River Out of Eden".

    From P. 96-98:
    (I have underlined some text, its a few of the more important passages.)

    That is only a small portion of the significance of the "why" question. I think it can all be boiled down to this:
    Do make sure your "why" question appropriate to ask.

    I suggest you read anything by Richard Dawkins, you'll be glad you did.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2003
  7. Dec 22, 2003 #6
    Cause Purpose

    Heh. A reason is either a cause or a purpose. "Why does this happen?" can be rephrased as "For what reason does this happen?". Cause deals with the past "This happens because it was CAUSED by this." Purpose deals with the future... Purpose always deals with the future. "What is the purpose of life?" really means "What does life cause?". Cause is what event caused the current event (what event's purpose was the current event). Purpose is what event will the current event cause (what is the purpose of the current event).

    Meaning is a little harder to define. Its definition depends on our definition of Value. If things are always valuable for their effects (purposes), then meaning is simply another word for purpose. If there is something that is valuable for itself (and other things are valuable for the purpose of achieving the truly valuable thing), meaning is the total value of an event/thing in terms of the event/thing that is valuable in itself.
  8. Jan 2, 2004 #7
    Re: Re: The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    Stephen Jay Gould made a similar statement once, in an interview. He said that such questions as "what is the purpose of life?" (which is, btw, another way of asking "why am I alive?") are "unanswerable questions" that waste peoples' time, since the end-answer is invariably a reflection of the asking one's personal biases or preferences.
  9. Jan 3, 2004 #8
    Re: Re: The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    Isn't that simplistic?
    Maybe the essential (priority) questions are a valorization of:
    (1) Is 'THIS' a danger?
    (2) Is 'THIS' useful for my procreation?
    (3) Is 'THIS' food related?
    Why-questions are the result of secondary observations in a secure surrounding. But essentially a screwdriver in the hands of an enemy can kill you (strong level 1) or can hurt you (weak level 1). Even in a 'save' (why) surrounding you will always know that a mal-use of the screwdriver can hurt you.
  10. Jan 3, 2004 #9


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    Is the theory of sexual selection to be considered a scientific theory?

    Q: Why (for what purpose) is a peacock colored so brightly?
    A: In order to attract mates.
  11. Jan 4, 2004 #10
    Was the discovery of pheromones a scientific fact that influences and changed the theories about the sexual selection? Yes.

    Maybe a better question would be:
    Q: How (by what systems) mates attract others?
    (1) By the productions of pheromones.
    (2) By outside (genetic-based) visual properties/signs such as colors (your peacock colors), size, harmonic shapes, etc. from which certain can be adapted (cf. chameleon)
    (3) By expression or behavior such as gesture, attitude, moves, sounds ...
    (4) By other (hormone) based systems
    (5) ...

    IMO 'How' is stronger than 'Why'. Why is on the level of Trivial Pursuit. 'How' covers all mechanism involved. But hypnagogue, this interpretation may be due to my Dutch language in which 'how' is stronger.
  12. Jan 4, 2004 #11
    Re: The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    The why-questions are more related to 'existential' questions. This is called in psychology 'rationalizations', how people tends to look for a reason behind events. If there is no explanation they will create one.
    But when we answer a why-question it starts almost always with: "Be-CAUSE" ....
  13. Jan 4, 2004 #12


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    My intent was just to show that science does indeed endeavour to answer at least some "why" ("for what purpose") questions, specifically in the field of evolution. In evolutionary theory, any biological adaptation can be seen as serving the purpose of propogating genes.
  14. Jan 4, 2004 #13


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    Since I just asserted on another thread that science does not answer, or ask, why questions, I suppose I am bound to reply to you here.

    The theory of evolution does not answer or ask a why question, but a how question (quomodo). How does complexity arise without prior design? As all of the active researchers in the area have always maintained, it does not at all address any question of why complexity should arise, what good it would serve, et cetera. These are non scientific questions.

    No, it just has the result of propagating genes. Neither the genes nor the mechanism of variation and selection has any more purpose than water running down hill.
  15. Jan 4, 2004 #14
    Good point. But we still can ask if genes change for a certain reason, such as as a serious change in essential surrounding systems which may contain a danger for survival.
    The How-question would be: How is it noticed?
  16. Jan 4, 2004 #15


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    I see what you are saying, but I think there is a distinction that might yet be made. A purpose can be seen as a goal toward which a process is directed. A dictionary synonym of purpose is intention, which can be defined as "An aim that guides action; an objective"; note that this definition does not require purpose / intention to be a consciously motivated process.

    Accordingly, propogating genes is the purpose of biological adaptations insofar as propogation of genes is an 'aim' or 'goal state' that guides the evolution of biological features through selective pressures; there is a certain directivity in the process towards a certain end.

    I do not think there is an analogous 'directivity' for water running downhill, although one might object that there is a sense in which running water is simply 'guided' by the 'aim' to satisfy the laws of physics. However, water running has the flavor of an absolute necessity as dictated by the laws of physics, whereas evolution has the flavor of a conditional search for optimal solutions to a given problem.

    In this way, there is a sense in which the guidance of adaptation via selective pressures can succeed or fail to satisfy the goal state of gene propogation-- achieving the goal state is not assured by lawlike necessity. There is no analogous goal state in light of which the guidance of running water via the laws of physics can be seen to succeed in spite of the possibility of failure, or at least I can't think of one. Thus there seems to be a subtle distinction in the 'guidance' occuring in each case, and thus grounds for a claim that one process has 'directivity' in a sense in which the other does not.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2004
  17. Jan 5, 2004 #16


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    I just can't buy this. I think is misrepresents the whole idea of evolution, and I don't see that it's necessary at all. Genetic combination happens. Then the phenotypes experience nature. Time and chance happen. Subsequently the distribution of genes in later populations is different from what it was before. That's all that that happens, purpose is not required.

    Going to the dictionary and finding a definition to your purpose happens not in the world where things evolve but in your mental world where you think about things. I believe you are projecting your own sense of purpose on a purposeless process.
  18. Jan 5, 2004 #17
    This is not correct. There is no scientific purpose for the peacock to have been colored brightly. However, there is a cause. If you rephrase the question as "What causes a peacock to be brightly colored?", then the answer is a greater probability of attracting a mate that has thus continually propogated the "colorful feathers" gene throughout his ancestry.
  19. Jan 5, 2004 #18


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    I meant purpose in this context just to be the end towards which a process is directed. Obviously there is a semantic difficulty here-- purpose is usually associated with a conscious mental objective. But if we allow the use of purpose as I have been using it, I believe my argument holds-- unless you are saying that propogation of genes is not an end towards which biological mutations/adaptations are naturally directed.
  20. Jan 5, 2004 #19


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    This has the flavor of a chicken/egg paradox. In any case, I would argue that the property of "a greater probability of attracting a mate" can very naturally be seen as a certain directivity (greater probability) towards a goal or purpose (attracting a mate).
  21. Jan 6, 2004 #20


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    Re: The difference between "What Cause" and "What Purpose".

    Of course, what you are saying presupposes that there IS a cause. You state that "Science...is bound to Causality..." which can be a big assumption, and I don't think it is warranted in many cases. In other words: if causality is false but you assume causality anyway, then naturally you will end up in the spot in which you can't answer certain questions.
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