Most of the time when people ask why, they mean how. If they don’t, they are leaping out of the realm of the provable and into guesswork. A why question asks for an opinion on something unknowable. An answer to a why question is a matter of faith.
There aren’t really reasons for things. Not provably. If you ask why the sky is blue, I can give you a long winded ramble about light refraction, atmospheric conditions, the properties of light and particles. If you ask someone cleverer than me, they’ll even give you an accurate description of how that all happens. To the best of our knowledge about the observable world, it is possible to answer the how of blue sky.
But at no point has anyone really given a why. Irritating and curious children, who respond to every answer with a why, realise this. Somehow we grow up and forget that. You’ll never get a satisfying answer to a why question about the world. It can always be deflected with another why. Why does light act like that? Why do particles bend light?
Eventually you end up with an exasperated ‘because that’s how it is’, or something like ‘God made it so’. Both of which are generally unsatisfying (without a leap of faith of some sort, which is fine, but you should at least acknowledge you are making that leap).
The other type of why question is about our reasons for doing things. A similar impasse is present. Psychological testing appears to have indicated for a long time that we make decisions before we make our justifications for them. Personal observation shows me that I’m capable of building a structure of reason for any path I want to pick. If I want to do something, I can argue for it. If I try and argue both sides, I get stuck. We aren’t strictly rational, and our reasons for acting are hidden from us. We have to make do. I have a million answers to most of the ‘why are doing x’ questions I get asked each week. I don’t know which are true, to the point where I believe none of them.
But I think there is something to learn from why questions; particularly from this skeptical point of view. We don’t know why things are the way they are; we don’t know why we are the way we are. That’s fine. If we’re aware of that, we can recognise a certain type of freedom.
I am allowed to choose the things that are important to me. If I want to have faith in a certain system of universe, I can. If I want to pursue a certain set of reasons for doing the things I do, I can.
We can choose our whys, as long as we’re aware if their weaknesses. It’s a fundamental way we can shape our lives and worlds.
Our whys are who we are.
And we can choose them, which makes us immense.
Illustration by Emma