Oft times you will hear someone say this:
“We don’t know HOW something works, we just know that it works.”
The examples given can be almost anything…whenever someone doesn’t fully understand the operation of something they will frame it as knowing it works but not knowing how. It could be something profound, like consciousness or gravity, or, as I heard this weekend, sin. But the “what” is a broad category…doesn’t really matter. One might say “I know my car works, but I don’t know how it works.” The “how” you don’t understand could be related to something as mundane as a fountain pen.
Normally, there isn’t any problem with this kind of assertion. It makes sense on some superficial and ostensible level in everyday parlance…people know what you mean. You’re not mechanically inclined, so you don’t know about cars. You’ve never watched a YouTube video on how pens are made. Last night I watched a video on how Red Wing boots are made….up until then I couldn’t have told you a thing about the process other than that leather is cut and sewn to a sole. Which isn’t half of it.
But, when we really examine the assertion, is it actually true? Do we really not know HOW the car, or the pen, or gravity, or sin, or consciousness works? Is that really a correct way of putting it, when we get down to the logical roots of the assumption behind the claim.
I submit no, and here’s why:
I don’t believe it’s rationally possible to claim that you know a thing works but that you don’t know how. What does it mean…”how”? It simply means that whatever the thing is in question is able to accomplish a particular objective as it has been defined by the user…that is, you and me, and also the maker, because the maker is also in essence a user. That is, the maker has a specific obejective for the thing being made.
To observe the car achieving the objective of getting you from point A to point B is not only to know it works but HOW it works. Simple empirical observation is all you need to explain how a car works. You get in, use the wheel to steer it, the pedals to start and stop it, and it takes you to your destination. If you can observe the car achieving the objective for which you have intended it, you can explain how it works. Because the “how” is nothing more than the job for which the tool is designed. Period. How does the hammer work?
It drives the nail into the board when you hit the nail repeatedly.
How does gravity work?
I makes things hit the ground when thrown or dropped.
How does sin work?
It reminds the individual that there is no morality under law, because the Law is a legal ethic, not a moral one, and it stirs in man the desire to reject the Law, because he knows innately that the Law condemns him anyway.
Well…that last one is a biggie, and is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, that’s my take on “sin”.
At any rate, that’s HOW those things work. They do a thing. That’s how. They are a cause that produces an effect, which man then can use to either increase his understanding of his environment, or to achieve a specific practical objective, or both.
What people really mean when they say they don’t know HOW a thing works, is that they don’t know WHY. I don’t know WHY when I push the car’s gas pedal the wheels rotate and move me from here to there. I don’t know WHY gravity made the football hit me in the eye when it was thrown. I don’t know WHY sin moves man to reject the law, necessarily, and innately.
Now, how and why are not entirely separate…in fact I would submit that they are not at root separate at all. They are, in an intellectual sense, corollary. If something accomplishes an objective (HOW), then there must be process…and this process is the why. When we are speaking philosophically or theologically or even scientifically to an extent, the process is the root metaphysics behind the issue. WHY DOES IT MATTER? WHY is man inherently involved?
Now, practically, “why” and “how” may indeed be distinct. I don’t need to know why the car works to know that it works. I don’t need to know the process of the internal combustion engine to know how a car gets me to the store. And like I said at the beginnning, conflating “how” and “why” is not often irrational…people get what we mean when we say we don’t know how a car works. But if we are talking about things much more existentially profound, like “sin”, or “consciousness”, well, I think we really do need to be clear on the distinction. We know that there is “sin’, and we know that there is “consciousness”, and we know how they work…otherwise, we could not see the effects and define these things at all. But we cannot stop there. We cannot reject or ignore the “why”; we cannot pretend the process doesn’t matter when it comes to forming our root understanding of the nature of reality and determining our understanding of Truth and Goodness. Even worse, we cannot assume or assert that the process is unknowable; that the “why” doesn’t have an answer. If we say that consciousness works, but that the “why” is non-existent or unknowable (which, practically speaking, there isn’t any difference between the two) then we cannot actually claim that it works at all. And if we cannot claim that it works then we cannot claim that it exists.
To say that something works but that there isn’t a process, or that that process is unknowable, is to make that thing effectively a function of…well, magic, I suppose. Supernatural intervention. The grand Divine Will, or however else you want to label the pablum. It becomes a fantasy, and moves man out of reality and into the realm of wishful thinking and hope-over-reason. And we all know where that leads us. Intellectual disaster, eventually becoming real, physical, and visceral disaster.
In summary, when we are considering the profound scientific, philosophical, and theological issues of our day, or of any days past, let’s not conflate the “how” and the “why”; and for humanity’s sake let’s not assert one without also asserting the other. To fundametally understand how IS to understand why. Without both—an intellectual distinction of a practical corollary that gives real meaning and purpose to the issue—there is no understanding at all.