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Why Are Things The Way They Are?

One of the most fundamental questions that science or philosophy can pose is, “Why are things as they are.”

The answer that science would give us is that there exist immutable laws that shape the universe. These laws are uniformly applied throughout the universe and are invariant over time. But that avoids the question that the inimitable Professor Julius Sumner Miller would have asked, “Why is it so?”

Many of the religious believers among us would say there was an original creator of the universe who made the universe as it is and it was the will of this creator that established the rules by which the universe works.

Still others would argue that the universe is a collective illusion. They would argue that we have all bought into a façade that we collectively propagate as being real.

It would seem that there is a growing belief that there is a stream of consciousness that can exist apart from a body and that this leads to a fascinating area of inquiry about the types of reality that might exist apart from the material world.

Western scientists largely believe that there are natural laws that govern our universe. They believe that these laws are abstract rules that shape our world and are not created by our minds, but are rather discovered by us. This begs the question (seldom asked) of where do these laws come from? Do they exist in some higher order realm of reality that transcends our material world? According to this way of thinking, these laws notionally describe how nature behaves and allows us to understand its behaviour – they actually dictate that behaviour.

In ancient times myths were created to help us to understand the natural order of the world. There were creation myths that helped us understand the beginning of things and myths about sun gods and whatever that assisted human beings to understand the daily cycles of day and night and the seasonal variations. For example in Egypt it was believed that the Sun God Ra journeyed over the fair God Nut’s body (representing the sky decked with glittering jewels representing the stars and planets) during the day to return at night through the underworld waters. These myths became the source of many of the world’s religions. Often these myths were taken literally but they often had a deeper meaning which was hidden in the allegory of the tale.

Our modern western way of thinking was initiated by the Greeks. They came up with the notion that nature was governed by laws that human reason was capable of perceiving and was no longer the exclusive provenance of the gods.

Aristotle sought to understand the behaviour of natural systems by looking for an ultimate reason or purpose, for the way they worked. He developed a theory of causality that was premised on four basic types of causes; material, efficient, formal and final. For example, he would answer the question “Why is it raining?” by distinguishing the material cause, which is the physical emanation of the drops of rain, the efficient cause, which is the condensation of water vapour into raindrops, and the formal cause: rain falls to water the plants and provide sustenance to the living creatures that need water for survival. Similar notions are to be found in the writings of Epicurus, Lucretius, Archimedes and others.

The notion that the world is governed by natural laws was advanced with the development of the monotheistic religions. Religions like Christianity and Islam relied on the idea that God is separate from his creation. God ordered his universe through his imposition of the laws of Nature. These laws were no longer seen to be inherent in the physical systems themselves but were imposed by a supreme being.

The Renaissance scientists such as Kepler and Newton, believed that the natural order reflected a divine plan and they were exalting the glory of God by revealing it. Western science has always been driven by the belief that the universe is orderly and therefore predictable. The task of science was to discover those laws that enabled mankind to understand and then predict the phenomenon of the physical world.

Interestingly, in the East, for example in China, where many discoveries were made in advance of the West, eg gunpowder and the compass, there was no systematic study of the laws of Nature. It has been speculated that because the Chinese did not believe that the world was created by a god who handed out laws, there was no incentive to look for any!

Buddhism, on the other hand, has a radically different approach. It believes that the physical world is illusory. However we can discover laws that develop and express our understanding of the apparent reality of the world. But it is contended that these laws have no inherent existence. That is to say they are also a manifestation of the illusory physical world. They have no existence in their own right.

But in terms of conventional reality Buddhism accepts truths that can be demonstrated or arrived at through logic and that such truths are not arbitrary. However Buddhists don’t believe such truths emanate from a supreme being nor do they subscribe to teleological thinking – that is that there must be a purpose behind the way things are. But most importantly, even though they accept that the physical world is governed by laws and that this world is illusory, absolute truth lies beyond such illusion.

Matthieu Ricard in arguing this point of view quotes the Buddha using poetic images comparing our perception of the physical world with dreams and illusions:

Like a flickering star, a mirage or a flame,
Like a magical illusion, a dewdrop, or a bubble on a stream,
Like a dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud
See all compounded things as being like these.

In contrast with traditional scientific method which tended to be reductionist, Eastern thought has been more holistic. In such a scenario the world is seen to exist as a whole comprised of separate, but interacting parts. Thus the whole can never be understood by dissecting it into its component parts. Modern science has tended to support this hypothesis. This is not to say traditional science has not provided us with a lot of useful knowledge, but it does lead us to understand that we will never arrive at the absolute truth through this method because of the complexity involved in trying to understand how everything impacts on everything else.

As the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan explains:
“If it weren’t possible to understand a small part of the universe without also understanding everything else, science wouldn’t be able to progress. I’d be unable to function effectively as an astrophysicist if I had to study the gravitational interactions of all the stars and galaxies in the universe in order to understand why the earth revolves around the sun. To advance in my work I don’t have to solve all the problems of the universe in one go!”

The Buddhists argue that there can be no object in the universe governed exclusively by local influences. They maintain that if such an object did exist that was totally independent of the rest of the universe than it necessarily could not be of the universe and therefore to all intents and purposes could not exist.

Traditional scientific method worked well for phenomena that are linear and regular and which consequently are easily depicted mathematically. But such phenomena are limited. To give a small example if I take an iron bar at room temperature and heat it so that its temperature increases one degree centigrade, its length will expand a small amount. If its temperature is again raised by a further degree a similar expansion will occur. But I can’t do this indefinitely because eventually the iron will melt. Thus there is a discontinuity. Many of the phenomena we observe in nature are not regular or linear. We have often approximated these phenomena with linear, regular mathematical equations in some of the ranges in which they are observed. But as the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has observed, “Clouds aren’t spherical, mountains aren’t cones and lightning doesn’t travel in straight lines.” This spurred Mandelbrot to create fractal geometry which assists in explaining irregular, non-linear phenomena.

Also when we look at things on the scale of the minute, subatomic levels or at the macro scale of the universe, traditional science does not apply very well. Indeed this was the motivation for the development of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics supports the Buddhist concept above, to the degree that the very act of observation has an impact on what is being observed.

The fact that the physical universe can be so well described mathematically has intrigued many mathematicians and scientists. The British mathematician, Roger Penrose has written:

“There often does appear to be some profound reality about these mathematical concepts, going beyond mental deliberations of any particular mathematician. It is as though human thought is, instead, being guided towards some external truth – a truth that has a reality of its own and that is revealed only partially to any one of us.”

Buddhism however would assert that mathematics consists of human concepts applied to natural order and this order is itself a reflection of interdependence and the laws of causality of which consciousness is part.

But why do we, generation after generation, ask the question that we started with, “Why things are as they are?” It is a manifestation of our consciousness that we seek to find meaning and purpose in our lives. The quest for meaning is begun again and again by every human intellect. It is to the human consciousness what a fingerprint is to the body: shared by all but unique to every individual.
Even though the path may be unique to each of us, there seem to be three principal categories of response to the question.

1. There is no meaning to existence. There are just the laws of nature which have always existed to fashion our universe and our part in it. Our particular path is just a random selection from the infinite available.
2. Things are as they are because there is a creator god who fashioned the universe and set down the laws which shape the way the universe operates. Our lives are made meaningful by responding to the dictates of this god, who then grants us special status and (generally) a future beyond death.
3. There was no creation. The universe and its laws have always existed but it is an illusion and the absolute truth can only be ascertained when this is realized. In the main (Hindu and Buddhist) versions of these beliefs we have to live our lives over and over (samsara) and we can only escape the cycle by attaining enlightenment by training our minds which enables us to see through the illusion of the physical universe and put aside the afflictions of suffering and decay.

There are of course many variants and subsets of these categories. I hope you are able to find your own path in a way that makes sense and gives you comfort. However, as I cautioned in a recent blog, beware of blind faith! It is too important an issue not to have given substantial thought to. The path you choose will provide you the answers to the three philosophical questions formulated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant:

• What can I know?
• What should I do?
• What may I hope for?

Whatever your path I trust it does provide you with hope and a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

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  1. 5 Comment(s)

  2.   By Father Robin on Dec 30, 2010 | Reply

    A stupid question.

    Things are what they are.

    Not things are what are important.

  3.   By Father Robin on Dec 31, 2010 | Reply

    Eternal beats transient.

    “In time the Rockies will crumble
    Gibralter will tumble
    They’re only made of clay
    But…”

    George and Ira Gershwin

  4.   By Father Robin on Dec 31, 2010 | Reply

    If you look at the original manuscript they actually misspelled “Gibraltar”

  5.   By Father Robin on Dec 31, 2010 | Reply

    However we must be patient with our trans-pacific brethren.

    Perhaps one day they may learn English.

    Just don’t hold your breath.

  6.   By Father Robin on Jan 3, 2011 | Reply

    The prime example of a ‘not thing’ is Love.

    When science comes up with a ‘Lovemeter’ which doesn’t involve a dollar coin in an arcade machine then I might take interest.

    Ergo, to science, Love does not exist.

    However…

    I beg to differ.

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