Friday, October 08, 2004



Today's post is about the philosophy of Why? People ask why something is the case, without understanding what that question means. Today, I hope to cover a little ground about what is meant when we ask why?

More or less everyone has an intuitive understand of the way that events follow one another. The hammer drops, the nail goes into the wall, the plaster cracks, the painting falls. As we grow up, we find we have acquired an understanding of the nature of causation. When we first start to ask why the painting fell down, what we want to know is what the chain of events was that led up to it. The painting fell down because the plaster cracked. The plaster cracked because the nail went into the wall in a particular way when we hit it with the hammer.

I'll get to the point. The order-zero understanding of "Why?" is that we want to know what the direct chain of events was that led up to some particular situation.

We find out that this is simplistic when we start to ask why in a different sense - why did you choose fruit salad for breakfast? In this case, human reasoning enters the picture. Because it is too complex to understand in purely physical terms, why because a question about mental functioning and decision making. We might answer "because I'm on a diet", for example.

I'll get to the point. Sometimes why is asking about a choice, and sometimes it's asking about a preceeding event.

Let's make this a little clearer. The why of causation can break down under the microscope. Why does the hammer keep falling after we set it in motion? Well, we pull out our physics textbooks, and say here is the answer. Stuff just happens that way, it's the physics we live with. But that kind of answer doesn't actually give us any kind of cause. A question like (when we get down to it) why is gravity becomes more and more like a riddle from Alice in Wonderland - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" It is a question that cannot sensibly be understood. The chasing of an event back to a first or principle cause leads us to philosophies about the infinite nature of time, for example. Physics tells us how the world works, and allows us to recreate a chain of events contributing to our final cause, but gives no further answers about why those laws exist.

There would appear to be no antecedant to certain physical behaviours. The uncaused nature of primary physical laws has been used by some as an argument for the existence of God, on the grounds that it's inexplicable without recourse to something that breaks the rules. God, it would seem, allows us to break the chain of events.

For those wishing to maintain an atheistic viewpoint - or simply regard such an escape as begging the question - one is led into situations whereby the event is its own cause. Time, under certain physical systems, is no more privileged that space. The universe is painted as a kind of oscillating bag of stuff, whereby a series of bang-crunch cycles leads to an infinite and self-causing sequence of events. Causation is fulfilled, but one is left with a hollow feeling if you ask how it all came about at all. Every event has a precursor, but somehow the answer as to what caused the existence of the universe remains unanswered. It seems, somehow, that the Universe pulled itself into existence by its own bootstraps.

Another kind of Why is the why of morality. When we look at things like politics and philosophy, those championing the cause are often used to justify themselves. Unfortunately, this kind of why always results in begging the question. Essentially, every philosophy and religion everywhere, when asked the question "Why should I believe you" the answer comes back with a justification in terms of itself. If you ask me why you should study philosophy, I can either give you some unstructured facts that you might consider convincing, or try to convince you of the correctness of my priorities. Unfortunately, it is obviously correctness in terms of my philosophy that I am espousing. Religion is the same. If I ask why I should become Christian, it is according to Christian thinking that any structured answer comes back.

Like the problem of the existence of the Universe, the why of philosophy is one that answers itself by its own bootstraps. The mere act of justification is necessarily context-sensitive.

Fortunately, most people are willing to take the existence of the universe as a given without requiring too much by way of justification. But it is precisely this problem of context which leads people to have such differing views and mental models, whether they are aware of it or no.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. ok... i think your post broke my brain ;) still, found it very intruiging. 'why' is indeed a big question. philosophy, science, religion - none of them are ever going to be able to answer the question to our satisfaction. but guess that doesn't matter, so long as people keep asking 'why'... what's the old adage? 'it's not the destination that matters, but the journey'? something like that.. well, i guess 'why' is the journey.

happy trails :)


10/08/2004 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'why' is just the breakdown or simplification of grounded understanding from our environment and the reasoning it prevails. Our knowledge is handed down successively through a linked network of human understanding/experience, and the why just helps individuals to reason their own level of understanding.

The 'why' only helps to serve the reason for what 'is'


10/14/2004 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I would agree that many times when a person asks, "Why?", an increase in understanding is what they are seeking. If I ask why Howard won the election, clearly I'm just asking for what you think the relevant information is - i.e. I'm just reasoning about it. However, there are also stricter definitions for "why" such as I outlined in my post, and it can be useful to use those stricter definitions when understanding the difference between a choice and a reality, the principle of sufficient reason, first causes etc. In some contexts why is, as you say, simply an expression of the wish to understand, but in others it can be useful to have a more formal meaning for the word. My post was trying to unravel some of the particular meanings of "why".

10/14/2004 10:17:00 AM  

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