Probing into ‘the why of it’ can feel like jumping into a bottomless well of mystery. Certainly, this qualifies as the epitome of quixotic quests. Not content to stop there, I need to share what I stumble across by posting my observations. I know these are palatable to only a very few people. The irony here is that these few people, more likely than not, will already intuitively know what I’m saying. Unsurprisingly, I ask myself, “What is the point?”
What’s the Point?
First, there is the survival reward of seeing ‘it’ as ‘it’ actually is — the truth — or as close to that as humanly possible. Exploring the why of it promises a glimpse of nature’s secrets. This is the joy of science. Deeper down however, from a symptoms point of view, all the answers our observations deliver reflect more about ourselves than about anything ‘out there’. We begin by looking ‘out there’ and end up looking ‘in here’. Second, the need to share whatever we stumble across is simply due to social instinct; it’s either gossip or words of warning.
Coming home to instinct
Research at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, a.k.a., The Baby Lab, offers some clues as to what’s ‘in here’. This is another step toward alleviating ourselves from our immense ignorance — the myths, misinformation, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations that we have hauled around throughout history. For video reports, YouTube: Born good? Babies help unlock the origins of morality. For still more, Google: The Moral Life of Babies, Are Babies Born Good?
‘How’ vs. ‘Why’
Wondering what, when, why, who, or how are the ways we peer into life’s mystery. Of these, ‘why’ and ‘how’ are the most cognitively intense, and as such, the most uniquely human. Of these two, why is the ‘innermost’. Somehow, how is always tethered to why. How is more active, practical, and closely tied to ‘just do it… here’s how’. Adults know how to deal with children’s how questions much easier than their endless why questions. Why asks, why do it? All my life I’ve noticed wide spread resistance to questioning why. Religion, politics, and other cultural institutions all emphasize how we should do life a certain way, not why. Cultural institutions, whether mainstream or cultist, have a very low tolerance for why. Why?
‘Why’ easily sows the seeds of rebellion, heresy and anarchy. ‘Why’ endangers the hierarchical social structure and threatens authority (1) at every level. ‘Why’ challenges the status quo, whereas ‘how’ helps sustain a status quo. ‘How’ is mechanical, easy, habitual, routine—it shelters us from the void and the fear that the unknown engenders. We educate people to know ‘how’, not ‘why’. We feel ‘why’ just opens a can of worms, i.e., more questions. Despite any lip service to the contrary, educational infrastructure is almost by definition set up to discourage seeking out the why of it..
Wondering ‘why’ is the essence of childhood, not adulthood—adulthood clamors more for ‘how to’. ‘Why’ is also the essence of science—pure science anyway. Life, in the realm of ‘why’, constantly evolves and adapts to changing facts on the ground. Keeping as closely connected to ‘why’ as possible helps me to practice what I preach. I have known ‘how’ for many decades, it is only through an unrelenting concern for ‘why’ that I am able to ‘walk the walk’ to any meaningful degree. Chapter 16 maps this journey…
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness,
…..this means answering to one’s destiny;
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant,
…..knowing the constant is called honest.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
(1) Note: I am not referring to any specific “authority” out there. It is not ‘they’; it is ‘us’. This dynamic applies to every human that has ever lived; it is social instinct. It plays out in varying degrees for each of us depending on our personal genetic makeup and on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
In the wild, none of this would pose a problem; it is natural, or at least an emergent property of what is natural for any social species. It is problematic for us because our clever innovative minds tend to favor the ‘how’ side of inquiry because that is where survival advantages lie (i.e., increases in comfort and security). This results in an out-of-balance situation, which we ironically attempt to correct with more ‘how’, and never seriously address the ‘why’.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. Many of us do begin asking why as we age. But the process begins late and we die off before having much influence on culture. A youthful culture will always be more interested in ‘how’ to do it, than ‘why’ to do it. Over all, age and experience are prerequisites for any serious inquiry into ‘why’.