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August 11th, 2020
Questions take a few basic forms. These forms are the journalists’ mantra: the who, what, when, where, why and how?
Each word heralds a different cognitive realm regarding how we make sense of the world. The form of each family of questions are vastly different. For example the question that begins with the word “who” is really a subdomain of the form of “what”. To demonstrate we can ask: What caused the accident? The answer can be, that guy over there, which also answers the who. But this can’t work in reverse. If you ask What caused the accident? And the answer we get is, the foundation gave out, well then this answers the what, but we’re still left in the dark regarding who might be involved or at fault. This is because who refers only to people, whereas the word what can refer to everything and anything, including people. Obviously.
Evidently, the word what automatically refers to a larger pool of answers than who, and this is by default. Regardless, both questions seek to pin down nouns for the most part. They refer to actual things.
The question about when does mush the same thing. We define time fairly rigidly and with great precision, and we synchronize this precision across the globe. The possible answer for when something occurs is inherently narrow. Whatever it is, it can either be pinpointed to an exact moment, or the beginning and the end can be, thereby defining in time quite narrowly when something happened.
How something happens begins to broach a much larger range of territory. Suddenly we are launched into the realm of constructing a mechanical narrative. The task is one that casts us in the position of a Sherlock Holmes. Suddenly we are gathering all the pieces that we can ascertain by asking what happened, and reanimate these pieces in reverse, and engineer the history from a backwards perspective. I hold the last domino, now which of these other dominos was the one that hit it? And so forth and so on we track a string of interlocking events and pieces until we arrive at the start just before everything happened. With the introduction of how we have moved far from present reality which neatly contained the what and the where, and the who. With the introduction of when, we are flung into an imaginary territory to track exactly how things happened.
But after the entire cognitive exercise of assembling the moving puzzle through time is finished, we are left with a final imaginative trial: why?
Why is simultaneously the most useful and most difficult question to answer. It’s no wonder that children zero-in on the utility of why so quickly. If an adult can actually answer their question about why, then their curiosity gets the most bang for its buck. If we get a solid answer to the question of why then it leapfrogs the need to sift through the who, what, where, when, how. The answer to why inherently involves and subsumes all of these. No correct answer to why is going to leave out the important aspects that one needs to discover slowly by asking who, what, where, when, how. At the same time, the answer to why may dispense with needless details contained in the answers to those questions.
The problem with why however, is that it can be difficult to know where and when to stop when you’re digging for the answer. The question of why someone did something can quickly branch into details of genetics and environment, which ultimately requires examining parental genetics and the legacy of environment through time. By asking why over and over, the bounds of when are breached and the reasons for anything occurring at all begin to ramify backward into the past until we start skimming along the domino of reasons citing, because this person’s grandparents originally met in this town, which was settled ten years prior, because these people moved into this part of the continent, because of European exploration, because of civilizational density, because of agriculture because of evolution of man, because of the evolution of mammals, because of the evolution of eukaryote cell, because the formation of the earth, because of a yellow dwarf we call the sun because of coalescing gasses and galactic formation… all the way back until we can say: why did it happen? Well because there was a big bang, apparently.
When a child asks over and over why something happened, each response an attempt to get at a deeper reason, the final reason at the bottom of this recursive hole really is something like: the big bang. But then the proper answer to any question about why something happened is a careful and ridiculously complicated narrative that starts with the big bang and ends with the results in real time that are being questioned. And even then, if a parent or a teacher attempts the tour-de-force task of threading that string of narrative, a child, or anyone can turn around again and ask: why did the big bang happen? At which point everyone should be forgiven for throwing up their hands and saying, I don’t know.
The whole point of wandering around in the ramifications of the question why is to highlight the enormous difference in the size of answers that different questions hint at. Questions like what, and when are quite easy, and they are easy because they are specific. We are tasked less because the steps required to get to the answer are few. We can unknowingly wade into mental quicksand if we ask why something happened in a way that isn’t tightly bound.
An example is: why are things so unfair?
This is simply an impossible question to answer effectively. Any answer we do come up with also isn’t going to be all that helpful. But compare that use of the word why to this one:
Why wasn’t I able to hit my usual amount of reps during that exercise at the gym this morning?
This use of the word why is far more bounded. We can track back pretty quickly, analyzing how we can end up with low energy, examining the previous 24 hours and then identifying a really bad night of sleep as the cause, which perhaps was in turn caused by a huge meal and perhaps a few too many drinks.
While Why has the potential for having the largest, most complex and most difficult answer to pin down, the scope and complexity of this answer can be hugely narrowed by the way we cage and frame the question that uses the word why.
Interestingly, why can also self-destruct in a very helpful way.
For example, when you realize that you’ve been stuck trying to answer a bad question, you might wonder:
Why aren’t I asking myself a better question?
The answer to this question ceases to matter the moment the question is asked -it self destructs- because by that point, you’re already fishing around for a better question, one that doesn’t keep your head in the past, but one that might actually help you move forward.
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