Created | Updated Jun 7, 2002
It has long been clear that why questions are not as easily answered as their how and what relatives. There is something in a why question that ensures that, while they may be answered correctly, such correctness is only in the mind of the perceiver. Questions such as 'What is a dog?' or 'How does an aeroplane fly?' have real world answers and these answers always have some degree of objective truth in them. We all agree, for example, that what constitutes a dog is well defined. We may not simply refer to anything as a dog because the word 'dog' has a normative meaning. If I call a cat a dog, I am simply wrong. Similarly, how questions usually have real world answers that describe interactions or processes. Often, the answers to how questions can be expressed mathematically or systematically. To answer the question 'How does a plane fly?' we can appeal to physics for an answer in terms of velocity, pressure, mass, and so on.
The Nature of Why
What then is different about why questions? Well, why questions do not actually necessitate objectively true answers. An infinite number of answers may be posed for any why question, all of which may be true. This sounds a little odd, but let us look to an example for some clarification.
Question: Why did Paul shout at Karen?
Answer: Because she annoyed him.
Answer: Because he is unable to control his anger.
Answer: Because his upbringing did not teach him to control himself.
Answer: Because his father was unable to control himself, and this trait was passed on to Paul.
All of these answers may be subjectively true. Each one contains an explanation of a reason for Paul's loss of control, yet each one is different. This is true of all why questions. They require subjective interpretation of the circumstances leading up to an event. Where one places the boundaries, sets the limits of responsibility, is an individual choice and this cannot be objectively determined. Our first conclusion is that why questions prompt subjective answers.
The boundary conditions for an answer to a why question, as we have noted, are subjective. The reason for this lies in a property of the question that children use with devastating effect against adults. Many have been the times when children, prompted by imagination and an insatiable appetite for knowledge, have caught us all in an interminable why loop.
'Why does water flow downhill?' they ask, innocently. 'Due to gravity,' we reply, knowledgeably. And this is the key point, where they spot what we have done and turn it against us. This is the point where they see that we have not answered the question at all. We have just given them a new word, hoping that that would suffice. Clearly, however, they don't recognise this as an answer and probe for an expansion on the topic of gravity.
'Why does gravity make water flow downhill?', they respond. But what do you say to this? Some might appeal to physics for an answer, some admit, more honestly, that they do not know. But the truth of the matter is that no matter what we say, the child will likely ask 'why' again... and again... and again. Until we are forced into the position of submission and we say:
Because that is just the way it is.
From this simple but familiar example we can draw a new conclusion: why questions prompt regressive answers.
Why and Causality
There is a concept that needs to be introduced to better understand the nature of why and its origins. This concept is 'causality'; a particularly tricky customer in the philosophical world but an essential one in the world of physics. Causality is best expressed as the idea that an event can be the cause of another, and that all events have a cause rooted in another event. This concept is clearly regressive. If every cause is an event and every event has a cause, we cannot help but regress back in time if we try to analyse a chain of explanation. Causality, then is not the events themselves but the relation between them.
Why is related to causality. It is, in fact, the vocal expression of causality. A why question requires a causal answer. Actually, the language construct that supports why is redundant, unnecessary. All why questions are merely rephrased how or what questions. For example; 'Why does water flow downhill?' means 'What causes water to flow downhill?'. This reveals the dependence of why on causality and explains its regressive nature.
Why and the Sciences
With such large emphasis on science in the modern world, it is no surprise that science is often heralded as the answer to all one's questions. Unfortunately, science has some major limitations in this area. There is a large set of questions that science is necessarily prevented from answering. And it is the set of why questions.
There is a simple reason for science's inability to answer why questions, and that is that science assumes causality as its most fundamental premise. In the case of gravity, for example, it assumes that there is a causal explanation for mass-mass attraction. It further assumes that this lies in the relationship between the two masses concerned. Unfortunately, it cannot tell one why this is so as it has already assumed that it is so. What science does produce, however, is a model of how the causal relation manifests itself in the world. It provides equations to predict future events. The so-called Laws of Nature that physics is supposed to uncover are mathematical rules of how things work and reveal nothing about why they work. All knowledge that can be derived from science - although, philosophically speaking, one cannot actually derive knowledge from science - is of how and not why.
It must be noted that if science is not capable of answering any causal questions, that it is a dangerous and unfulfilling quest to look for such answers in the sciences. Moreover, it is not only science that suffers from this fatal flaw, it is all of humanity. There are no answers to why questions which will ultimately satisfy the inquirer.
Why and the Human Condition
Why questions have a peculiar subtlety in their interpretation that is unique to them. This is because one can mean two different things by why and the difference between the two is often overlooked. It arises from a tacit agreement to one of two juxtaposed world views. When one asks why, one can mean 'what was the reason for...', which implies a purpose. There is a world view called teleology that was prolific up until Darwinian times. Teleology states that every event happens for a reason, that everything can be explained from the top down. For example, grass is for the grazing animals, the grazing animals are for meat and milk. This purpose-led view was very much tied in with the religious persuasions of the time. In order to uphold a teleological explanation, one had to subscribe to a belief in a separate, omnipotent, controlling intelligence - a deity. This allowed every event to have a purpose, a reason which was rooted in God. Furthermore, if one was sceptical about God's logic, the church could easily respond that one should not presume to know or question the mind of God. In this way all one's whys were answered, providing one believed in a deity.
However, since Darwin's evolutionary theory and the massive breakthroughs in science generally, there has been a shift towards the opposite. The common world view is now reductionist; everything can be reduced to what physicists call 'first principles' and explained from the ground up. This evolutionary-consistent world view is now the norm, and, when one asks why, one often means 'what caused...'. Attempting to resolve such questions with causal answers can lead us into problems. As we have seen, no one can ever get the bottom of why anything happens as it does. So long as there is always a before, there will be always be another why. And, as the mind is incapable of conceiving of a time at which there was no before, the mind cannot ever find the root of why. This has caused an insecurity in mankind that has needed to be addressed. In our everyday lives we are content to make do with approximate whys and wherefores for our everyday tasks. We never ponder too deeply on why our toast always lands buttered-side down or why our clothes need washing. But on the rarest of occasions we are given cause to ask huge, life-changing whys. Why war? Why pain? Why love? Why joy? Without an absolute, these questions can never be answered. Some people still find solace in religion, others find that they are unable to silence their questioning intellect.
However, when a question cannot be answered, it may be better to ask whether or not the question is worth answering. The notion of causality would tend to suggest that there are, in fact, no answers to why questions. Perhaps in the absence of answers it is foolhardy to persist in looking for them. If peace of mind is what you craves, then you need to stop asking such questions. Is there even a need for rhyme or reason? It was noted earlier that the why construct was redundant; maybe it is time to do away with it all together.
In closing, here is a question that is worth your time in pondering.
If one must ask why, then ask only why one is asking why.