Answering “Why”

by: Andrew S

October 3, 2012
WhyWolves: Creatures possessed by the spirit of inquiry...and bloodlust

Not wherewolves, whywolves.

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:

Why?

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?

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11 Responses to Answering “Why”

  1. Mike S on October 3, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    OK. I’ll take a first stab. This is a very interesting post that cuts to the heart of human existence. And the answers aren’t easy.

    Why do you think we are here?
    I think we are here to become better people – to show that we can choose good just for the sake of being good. This is at the heart of essentially all religions. The details differ in the rituals and peculiar rules, but the core is the same.

    Why do you believe that?
    I was raised Mormon. My earlier viewpoint was the more simplistic thought: We are the one true Church, all others are wrong, only we will “make it”. As I’ve gone through life and studied widely, both in my own faith and in others, I’ve realized that many things that a given religion emphasizes at any given time are, in reality, temporary. Our own faith is included, as many of the things that define me to the world as a “Mormon” are just fads of the current iteration of the church.

    Ultimately, at their very core, the basic principles of all religions I have studied are the same. Fundamentally, the goal is to help us be “good” people. Different religions emphasize different things. We emphasize priesthood and ordinances. Buddhism emphasizes truly examining yourself and experiencing truth. Hinduism emphasizes seeing God in everything and in every action. May Christian denominations emphasize faith and grace. And so on. The details differ.

    But … fundamentally, if all people truly and fully followed the tenets of their own religion, we would all act nearly identically and the world would be a better place. To me, this suggests that THIS CONCEPT is the basic truth, deeper than any denomination.

    Why are you satisfied with that answer?
    I’m never fully satisfied. I would like to KNOW, whatever that means. But at the same time, I think that that would break the concept. I think that “knowing” defeats the purpose of earth, despite what we hear every Fast Sunday.

    I think that we need to prove, largely to ourselves, that we can be good just for the sake of being good. We shouldn’t do it because of some promised reward. We shouldn’t do it our of obligation. We should just be good.

    I can’t prove any of this. I’m sure this interpretation is unique to me, and that each person has their own answers to these questions. But it works for me.

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  2. graceforgrace on October 3, 2012 at 6:06 PM

    I like the thought provoking questions. Here are my answers:

    Why do you think we are here?

    I feel that we are all here to progress. In life we have the choice daily to move forward in love towards others, increase in love towards God, increase in knowledge, and increase our talents. I feel that if we are doing these things, we are fulfilling our purpose in life.

    Why do you believe that?

    I believe this because I know what it feels like to digress spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I do not like that feeling and I feel that when I am trying to progress that God steps in and helps me.

    Why are you satisfied with that answer?

    Personal experiences have led me to these beliefs. I am satisfied with the answer because I have experienced it.

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  3. [...] This week at Wheat & Tares, I have taken a look at the question “Why.“ [...]

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  4. Julia on October 3, 2012 at 11:30 PM

    Why do you think we are here?

    My answer is similar to graceforgrace. I think we are here to learn to be joyful, and to learn, through experience, the difference between short-term *feelings* of happiness and the long-term peace and satisfaction of true joy. I think that the process of finding joy takes many divergent roads.

    Why do you believe that?

    (I hope I am not stealing from graceforgrace too much.) I have had experiences that fall in a variety of categories, and even the most horrific have taught me something about peace and joy. I believe that the contrast between experiences is what allows us to find the nooks and crannies that deposits of joy are hidden in. I also see the same process in the lives of those I am close to.

    Why are you satisfied with that answer?

    I find that the idea of synergy and find joy in the clash of ideas and experiences allows me to engage with people, no matter how different our backgrounds, in a respectful and loving way. It allows me to recognize that perfection isn’t a requirement for joy, and it allows for continual growth and progress, without requiring others to follow the same path. It allows me to see myself, and my fellow travelers, as imperfect and transcendent from birth until death, without requiring me to enforce my choices on others. It also allows me to reach out to others, in love, and challenge them and their ideas, without either of us being deprived of the chance to find joy in the messy process of learning and growing.

    This understanding that joy comes from the messiness of an imperfectly lived life is something I believe everyone can find, without being forced into a proscribed mold or formula.

    Does this make sense? Is there a huge hole in my thought and heart reasoning I am missing? In many ways I hope that discussing it will at least bring me new insight and joy. The repetition of accepting my own faults and infallibility, while still finding joy in the process, is what leads me to believe that my thoughts, feelings and emotions are teaching me this principle.

    By my own thoughts/theory, I may be terribly wrong, and when I see that wrongness, I am likely to find new truths, and new joys.

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  5. Andrew S on October 4, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Sorry I didn’t get a chance to respond earlier…

    re 1

    Mike,

    I guess I can see that “becoming better people” is a pretty standard goal, when you get down to it…I guess I would wonder why it is that we all have that…but in addition to how you stated that we have different rituals and rules, sometimes we have different definitions at the core of what “better” is.

    I’m not so sure that if everyone were truly and fully following the tenets of their religion, then we’d see everyone acting nearly identically…I mean, even if I accept some commonality at the core of each religious or philosophical tradition, I don’t think that the differences all vanish.

    re 2

    graceforgrace,

    I wonder if, when you got down to it, everyone’s answer to these questions would drill down on things that you have mentioned — what we have felt and experienced personally.

    re 4

    Julia,

    To bounce of what I said to gfg, instead of thinking of it as ‘stealing from,’ what if it’s just that two folks independently had experiences that led you to similar conclusions?

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  6. Julia on October 4, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Andrew-

    That was kind of my point. (I really have to get my ability to use irony and have it recognized as such. Wonder what font irony should be in. ;-) Gotta think on that.)

    “This understanding that joy comes from the messiness of an imperfectly lived life is something I believe everyone can find, without being forced into a proscribed mold or formula.”

    That really is what it all comes down to for me. I think everyone can find joy in the messiness and “opposition in all things,” but it is probably easier if you are at least on the look out for it. In “Mormon” that would translate into being sensitive to the Holy Ghost, for others it might be finding the balance between Yin and Yang. I certainly haven’t made a comprehensive study of all religions or theologies, but so far I haven’t learned about one that doesn’t have some idea that combines physical pain and sorrow with some form of transcendence.

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  7. Andrew S on October 4, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    re 6,

    Julia,

    haha, I’m just totally oblivious to anything more subtle than truth and trolling.

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  8. FireTag on October 4, 2012 at 7:26 PM

    We need to create an official “snark” icon for the subtle-impaired. :D

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  10. Justin on October 8, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    I’ve read that adults on the autism spectrum have difficulty reasoning “teleologically” about “why” significant life-events happened (article about that research here).

    They were less likely to say, “God did it” — and more likely to describe physical causality [e.g., "I was ill because of a virus I contacted."], or just re-describe the event using different words [e.g., "My wife and I met because we went to the same place at the same time and I talked to her."].

    I thought, when I was reading about this research, that it appears there’s no difference between “whys” and “hows” for people who think this way.

    The research even compared against [otherwise neurotypical] atheists — to make sure this wasn’t an effect of just not believing in a Supernatural Agent in the universe. And there was still a difference.

    Athesits would reason “anti-teleologically” — stating things like, “There’s is no reason ‘why’. Things just happen.” Suggesting that they are capable of thinking in teleological terms, but then choose to reject it.

    The autistic adults, though, were characterized as “non-teleological”. Meaning, it wasn’t even in their mental-repertoire to have considered some “external” purpose [fate] or Agent [God] “driving” or “having a hand in” their life events.

    And I feel similarly. When asked, “Why?“, I tend to begin by thinking “How?“. So I think the trick is — how do I answer “why“, while staying independent of answering “how“? And what value are “whys” anyway?

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  11. Andrew S on October 8, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    Justin,

    I have read of that research before…thanks for bringing it up here.

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