Why Asking Why Isn’t Enough

by Jesse Galef –

The question “Why?” is an impressively vague word. Used without context, it can be almost useless. I got contacted by the makers of the documentary “The Nature of Existence” whose trailer starts with the filmmaker saying “We all have one thing in common: We exist. But why?” What a nebulous question. It’s met by a stream of responses on completely different topics. When it comes to provoking thought, it’s fine. If you actually want particular information… it’s terrible. (That said, if I can get over my frustration at the ambiguity they’re reveling in, it looks like the film has potential.)

You need to apply some context to the question of “Why?” before it’s even possible to think about as a question. It’s just a request for more information, some information, any information somehow related! “Why do we exist?” is a pretty vague question, so they got a huge range of responses. Let’s take one with a bit more context. When my mom used to ask me “Jesse, why are your dishes still on the living room floor?” sometimes I would answer “Because they lack the capacity to move for themselves.” (Yes, I was an annoying smart-ass. I like to think I’ve gotten over it. Mostly.) I could have also answered “Because gravity is exerting a downward force on them.” From the context of our previous conversations, however, I think the information she REALLY wanted was “Because I forgot about them when I went upstairs. Sorry.”

But even when you know the context, “Why?” can be a frustrating question. Once you have the desired information, that information can be examined. There’s an excellent video of Richard Feynman explaining how tough it is to answer ‘why’ questions like “why do magnets repel?” I think I’ve posted that before, and my sister Julia Galef found a hilarious clip that makes the point. Enter Louis C.K. trying to answer his daughter’s questions (Language slightly NSFW – what did you expect; it’s Louis C.K.!)

You *can’t* answer a kid’s question! They don’t accept any answer. A kid never goes ‘oh, thanks, I get it.’ They fucking never say that! They just keep coming, more questions: why, why, why, until you don’t even know who they fuck you are any more at the end of the conversation! It’s an insane deconstruction!

I just about lost it when he got to the point of saying in exasperation “Because the things that are NOT can’t BE!”

We can push back every explanatory question further, asking “why?” to every answer until we either ignore the problem or call it “God!” and enjoy the feeling of mystery (what Eliezer Yudkowski referred to as the Explain/Worship/Ignore decision.)

To me, the question isn’t “What makes kids keep asking ‘why’?” but “What makes the rest of us accept answers?” I think it’s because we’re asking with a sense of what information will give us the ability to change the situation. If I ask why my friend is late, I accept hearing that he got a flat tire. I have some understanding/experience of flat tires – what causes them to go flat, how they can be prevented, and what to do after they happen. I can take action or made new decisions now. But the poor 2-year old doesn’t have experience of tires. She doesn’t know what information will be useful, she just wants more information. She’ll keep asking “Why did the tire go flat?” and then “Why do potholes cause flat tires?” or perhaps “Why does that make him late?” With no previous experiences or understanding about how these concepts affect the world, answers don’t satisfy the urge to gain a handle on the situation.

Of course, there’s another group who refuses to stop broadening their understanding: scientists. Their job and passion is to further our understanding and figure out new ways to make it useful. They’re like two-year olds, constantly looking for new ways to make sense of the universe. But where toddlers are trying to catch up, scientists are leading us to new places.

Bonus P.S. – SMBC had a perfect comic on this topic I wanted to include, but it was pretty long. Check it out!

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Miko

    From the context of our previous conversations, however, I think the information she REALLY wanted was “Because I forgot about them when I went upstairs. Sorry.”

    I doubt it. It was more likely a passive-aggressive way of pointing out that you hadn’t done it, without intention of getting any information from your answer. I’d encourage parents (and other authority figures, legitimate or illegitimate) not to do this by the way: there’s no reason to pretend that your commands are questions and it creates awkward situations for the other person in which social conventions demand that they provide you with some sort of information despite knowing that you aren’t interested in it.

  • http://www.micahandtattoos.com Micah

    The way I explain it to my creationist grandmother is this- “Why” is a human concept. Nature and science don’t need to know “why” to work. There are reasons why things are the way they are (the laws of nature, etc), and sometimes we know those reasons and sometimes we haven’t discovered them yet. But having an underlying reason that makes sense of it all just doesn’t happen. Because the law of gravity doesn’t need a reason to work. It just does. Reasons and “why” are human.

  • http://stargazing.com Florian

    I happened to watch The Nature of Existence just last night. I enjoyed it altho it wasn’t what i’d call deep or meaningful. I did like the Wrestlers for Jesus parts. ;-)

  • bLaKouT

    I recently saw a sign on a local brake shop which said “A conclusion is a place where you got tired of thinking”.

  • Brice Gilbert

    Why not?

  • Narvi

    Best answer to any question of ‘why’: “Why not?”

    Assuming you’re not interested in the answer, course. If you are, the best answer is: “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”

  • Megan

    Miko: The phrase “passive-aggressive” is just a label with a biased connotation. Are you trying to say that rhetorical questions must lead to awkwardness? I disagree. For example if a boss asked their employee, “why haven’t you finished your work?” they could be communicating their dissatisfaction, but they could also be giving the employee a chance to explain his or her reasons for not completing the work. Maybe Jesse should have said “answer” instead of “information” but at this point it’s just semantics.

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com Arkonbey

    Not being a parent, I wonder if you could turn it around.

    Could you ask the kid “Why do you think it rains?” If they make up something cool, great! Maybe rain is dragons crying because all of the unicorns are gone and they’re hungry.

    Or, if they say “I don’t know” you could ask THEM “why?”!

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    metaphysics are fun. but not much more than that. they annoy me most of the time as purposeless adventures by people with too much time on their hands and not enough in the real world to worry over. and i find the “why” problem akin to the notion that atheists have to also address questions of “purpose” and “goodness” as they correspond to atheism. no, we don’t. we don’t have to assume those are valid, pressing questions all human beings share. all human beings share nothing more than a designation on the tree of cladiography.

  • Drakk

    As a physics student, I’m more interested in asking “how?”

    A great, short explanation I once heard – “why” implies purpose. “How” implies cause, process.

    Per the above example: There’s no “reason” for it to rain, of course. There’s no purpose to it. It happens because of water evaporation collecting in the atmosphere, but that’s a description of process. The earth doesn’t particularly care where it rains.

  • cat

    I don’t know, I have spent entire very informative classes where the questions from students were almost exclusively “what”, “why”, and “how”. Then aqain, that might just be evidence that I have spent far more than average amounts of time with philosophers and philosophy students.

    The only reason that “why” is vague is that it can be used to ask two different question in English. It can mean “what is the physical reason/causal chain for the event” or “what is the purpose or intention”. Even Jesse’s “smart-ass” responses show a knowledge of what the word and question mean. He is simply making a pun with the purpose “why” and the causal why. The problem with religious discussions is that many theists can’t seem to get the notion that the purpose “why” only applies to events caused by the intervention of a conscious agent and that not all events are caused by this. Existentialists love to make this mistake as well. They are simply expressing disatisfaction with the fact that not all things are the result of conscious purpose. They do not want a causal explanation, of any degree of detail. Often, they even do this for question to which the causal answer is known. “Why was I born?” is a question to which they can likely give a detailed causal explanation for that (provided that they know “where babies come from”). They do not want a biology lesson, they want some magic universal purpose which just does not exist.

  • NotYou007

    My daughter has never asked why over and over. She might ask a follow up question but she has never just replied with, why?

  • Jeff Dubin

    Seems to me, God really isn’t helpful with this stuff.

    “Why did God make everything?”
    “Why does God love us?”
    “Why did God only have one son?” Etc.

  • Charon

    I helped teach a college class on the history, philosophy, and development of science for several years, and I learned to start with this “why” thing first. I usually use “why is the sky blue”, go down through quantum field theory (not in detail), and then ask the students at what level they’re going to be satisfied.

    Most people still have a medieval, 100% teleological view of the universe, if only subconsciously, and they’re not happy until their “why?” is answered with a purpose. Indeed, it’s cliché in our society to say that science doesn’t even answer “why”, just “how”. But that’s only true if you’re into teleology.

  • ACN

    I helped teach a college class on the history, philosophy, and development of science for several years, and I learned to start with this “why” thing first. I usually use “why is the sky blue”, go down through quantum field theory (not in detail), and then ask the students at what level they’re going to be satisfied.

    Most people still have a medieval, 100% teleological view of the universe, if only subconsciously, and they’re not happy until their “why?” is answered with a purpose. Indeed, it’s cliché in our society to say that science doesn’t even answer “why”, just “how”. But that’s only true if you’re into teleology.

    QFT. The Feynman video others referred to above makes this point beautifully.

    You can find it here.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    “Why do we exist?”

    Why not?

    A theist asks this question to give the answer “god!” A non-theist doesn’t need to answer it.

  • http://considertheteacosy.wordpress.com consider the teacosy

    “Why do we exist?”

    Why not?

    A theist asks this question to give the answer “god!” A non-theist doesn’t need to answer it.

    Actually, I’d be more likely to say that the theist would answer “god”, whereas the non-theist would be more likely to get into “how?”, or the type of ‘why’ that is more interested in the causal chain of the event than the purpose of it. Getting away from a particular anthropocentric narrative into the really interesting stuff.


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