Answering “Why”By: Andrew S
I imagine that one evidence for the universality of human experience is experienced by that subset (albeit, a rather large subset) of the human population that has raised children old enough to speak. Without being prompted, without being socialized, without being culturally prompted, these children will all seem to develop one favorite question at some point in their development:
Much to the chagrin of the world’s parental units, past, present and future, Why is a very robust and versatile question. And so, even for the parent that wants to be the Enlightened Cool Mom/Dad who provides reasons and explanations and doesn’t parent by fiat…there will come a day when the “Whys” break them down.
“Because it just is!”
“Because I said so!”
The interesting counterpart to this universality of human experience is the fact that most of the history of the world’s population ends up “growing out” of this phase…after all, I’m 22 or whatever, and I don’t recall asking “Why?” incessantly for quite a few years. In fact, I don’t know when I stopped or…why…I stopped.
It seems to me that I didn’t stop because I was satisfied. No, today, as I revisit the question, it seems that “Why” is just as relevant a question as it was long ago. And just as well, “Why” is just as robust, just as versatile, just as indefatigable, undefeatable, unfeasible a question as it was back then.
What Seeks to Answer Why?
Several people have recognized the question Why as having special properties unlike other sorts of questions. I have heard many people suggest that whereas something like science may answer questions of how and what, things like religion, theology, or art answer questions like Why?
Without getting into details, there are some problems with this particular instantiation of the non-overlapping magisteria hypothesis…even if we grant these different domains, religions so often assert hows and whats in their attempts to answer “why,” and science so often raise new “why” questions to the surface in the attempt to answer “how” and “what”.
But it seems to me that there are even bigger problems. I think that the question “why” is special, but I don’t know if that means that any one thing is better suited to “conquer” it. In fact, I suspect that its special quality is that no one thing can really conquer it.
The first thing I’d ask you, right in the middle of this post, is to consider this: is there any answer to a “why” type question that is not either (1) actually a “how” type answer, and/or (2) reducible/challengeable/regressive to further questioning, ultimately leading to an arbitrary and/or axiomatic and/or “taken for granted” answer?
As I’ve written on my personal blog, I’ve recently been reading some literature from a very different religious tradition. I guess the specifics of the tradition do not matter, except to say that 1) there are some similarities with Mormonism that is pretty interesting, and 2) both the differences and the similarities have brought up my recent fascination with “why” questions. As I wrote there:
I’ve been reading a book over and over for the past few days — it’s a relatively short, quick read, so it’s easy to go through it again and again…and as some folks say, you (at least theoretically) learn something new with every read of a book.
So, here I am, reading this book. And it seeks to describe why things are. It internally ascribes to the idea that both religion and science are incomplete, and while it doesn’t use the exact terms, I infer that one of the book’s raison d’etre is to describe why its brand of spiritual-but-non-religiosity can explain the inadequacy.
And so it does.
The book describes that in the beginning, we all were in the World of Answers. God, like a light, radiated light constantly and fully. We could not help but receive the light of his goodness at all times every time.
And we were not pleased with this.
Because we had not earned this light, and we could not earn this light, we requested that he give us the opportunity to earn light for ourselves.
God complied by creating a World of Questions, in which we would be veiled off from light by our five senses, and by the Adversary.
…as I’ve read this book, I’ve found many things in common with Mormonism, although the book is definitely not Mormon. The book does just enough to throw a twist on things that I might have seen too comfortably from a Mormon lens.
For example, I imagine that many Mormons take for granted that the Adversary is this external being in opposition to God and humans from reaching their goal. Even if Mormons also believe that there must be opposition in things.
But in this book, the M. Night Shyamalanian twist is that the Adversary is Doubt. And Doubt is Ego. Our egos, however, are not really about preventing us from reaching our goal. I mean, yes, they are, in the sense that they prevent us from seeing the light. They are a curtain over the light that obscures that light.
But in order for us to “earn” the light, we need that light to be hidden, and Ego/Doubt/the Adversary is the way that that happens.
In my post, I went on to discuss about truth or falsity, and the problems of truth or falsity.
I think, however, that a question like “Is it true” can be reframed in a far more problematic way: it can be why-ified into something like, “Why should I believe this?”
Why should I believe this?
This is ultimately a question that goes for any religious, theological, philosophical, or economic narrative. And it seems that each religious, theological, philosophical, or economic narrative, when attempting to answer this, will fall into one or both of the things I mentioned earlier — they will actually try to answer “how” questions, or they will answer the “why” question in a way that raises more why questions, and will eventually drill down to axiomatic assumptions.
“Because that’s just the way God works.”
“Because that’s just the way human beings are.”
“Because that’s just how it is.”
Funnily enough, when you throw your hands up and admit that you don’t have certain “why” answers — or that you recognize that your why answers aren’t really ultimately anchorable — people get these horrible expressions on their faces. They take pity in you. Oh, you pitiful, meaningless thing. You nihilist, you. You relativist, you. You directionless person.
(Never mind if these things aren’t even accurate. Recognizing the arbitrariness of your own sets of meanings, and the compass-lessness of your directionality doesn’t mean that your meanings don’t seem meaningful to you, or that you aren’t actually moving in some direction.)
Why do you think we are here?
Why do you believe that?
Why are you satisfied with that answer?