On the question of why?

2 minute read

There’s this random movie on YouTube with Richard Feynman and a reporter. The reporter asks the physicist: Why do two magnets repel or attract one another?, Feynman, instead of directly schooling the audience about magnetism, electricity, electromagnetic fields, electrons, ferromagnetic materials, why? not, Maxwell Equations, goes on a small tirade about Aliens and Aunt Minnie going to the hospital.

How does a person answers Why something happens?

For example, Aunt Minnie is in a hospital, why?, because she slipped. She went out and she slipped on the ice and broke her hip. That satisfies the people, (…), but it wouldn’t satisfy someone who came from another planet, and knew nothing about it.

So first you need to understand why when you break a hip, you go to a hospital. How do you get to the hospital when the hip is broken? Well, because het husband seeing the hip is broken called the hospital up and sent someone to get her.

All that is understood by people.

Now, when you explain a why? you need to be in a framework that would allow something to be true. Otherwise you are perpetually asking why?. (…)

If you want to follow something up (n.a. by asking why?) you go deeper and deeper in various directions.

The video continues to split in its beautiful directions; I recommend you to watch it in its fullness as an intellectual exercise.

And then I realized something every parent is aware of (or frustrated with): the endless chain of whys a young kid asks. Nothing stops them. They will continue digging (why?-ing) deeper and deeper until the only answer you can provide them doesn’t (even) satisfy you; it becomes impossible to address the question without losing in burdensome details or diverging from the original ask.

So, in a way, kids, by joining and assimilating into this world, are similar to Feynman’s aliens. They lack connection with the meta-framework we adults have inherited and are perpetuating, so they are constantly testing its malleable boundaries. They learn from us when to stop. For the mathematically inclined, remember the chain(ing) rule for computing annoyingly complex derivatives. As you get closer to the solution, a residue lurks to be calculated. So it is.

Raising a curious child is an exercise in becoming humble. From their honest questions, we can realize how much we don’t know and how many things we take for granted. For the kids, I suppose it’s not (even) curiosity but nature’s onboarding process in a strange new world waiting to be conquered and understood (maybe the two concepts are the same).

Parents with kids have a second chance to re-evaluate their surroundings through another pair of eyes, not their own, but of their own. Nature shows some mercy to the parents. It puts them in a position to share moments of exuberant curiosity with their offspring. It schools them so they don’t fail the class again.

And then I had a second epiphany; the real question was never how?. A limited set of answers for how? is already hardcoded in the biology of most animals. Animals (and even plants) know enough how? to survive and perpetuate. Look at them respectfully; we share the planet with some of the most ruthless and well-adapted biological organisms that ever lived (except for the panda bears).

Since our ancestors decided to look at the sky, the question that made us human in the first place was always why?. Revolutions start with why?, and then they are corrupted by people who only care about the how?.