“Why?” is a popular question with children as soon as they learn the word to express their yearning for answers. The standard answer to any why question often brings on the followup question: “Why?” To which the philosophically sophisticated adult will soon respond that every why question can be answered but it can be followed by another why question about its details; and the linguist will chuckle, and tell his story, concluding with, “It’s no use pursuing it further; it’s turtles all the way down.”

There is an answer, though it is not absolutely satisfactory for the standard a philosopher would demand, and that is to discover the precursors to the how of the existing observed situation. What are the things which must exist in time and space before the thing observed can exist? The why question becomes replaced with a how question. The response to the how question can observe the preexisting conditions and demonstrate the how of the following interactions that will bring about the effects observed in the original situation which brought about the original, “why.” The problem instantly arises and becomes more complex because every one of those preexisting conditions has its preexisting set of whys and hows. It’s not a single turtle standing on the back of some preexisting turtle, but every turtle standing on a great width of turtles as well as everyone of them standing on a depth of turtles.

The how question becomes answerable if we limit ourselves to a very limited number of preexisting precursors. In scientific endeavors we try to limit the preexisting one to the absolute minimum set which will proceed to produce the effect we were hoping for by some hopeful theory. Some bold people might then claim they do have an answer as to why a certain thing exists as it does. Obviously this is true only in the limited situation which they have carefully controlled, but they have ignored the complexities which preceded their experimental test of reality. It may be true that each of the identifiable things could be subjected to the same careful control, and perhaps the things preceding those also could be controlled. However, the mass of interactive complexity soon grows to multiple infinities.

We may be comforted by the knowledge that the things of this world actually do work and may safely assume that although we don’t understand the details of how they actually work we know by empirical observation that in the aggregate they do function consistently. So, although we can’t ultimately know all of the hows, we can depend upon them to function, and we can’t know the whys either but we can depend upon them too, if they are based on a stable set of hows.

The “how” question seeks a descriptive theory of how things came to be as they are and behave as they do. It can never be answered in an absolute way but it can be answered in a conditionally affirmative way which has been observed to always work in certain defined situations.

We can answer why questions only if the preexisting described conditions are accepted.

About these ads