Why Asking Why Isn’t Enough

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 answer 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 Julia 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.!)

Video below the fold:
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