Monday, April 28, 2008

On the questions of Why? and How?

I'll admit it, I'm into semantics. I like analyzing what I say and what others say. I like looking at word and phrase choices. I'm nerdy like that, but so what. With that in mind, I'd like to propose that people ask "Why" entirely too much. I believe they should be asking "How" instead. For example, say the following thing to yourself: Why are we here? Good, Now say this: How are we here? It's plain to see the two questions are not asking the same thing. Example A asks an anthropomorphical type of question, by the use of the word "Why", whereas example B asks an empirical sort of question by the use of the word "how".
We all know the six common information-gathering questions we regularly use to communicate with each other. They are "Who", "What", "When", "Where", "Why" and "How". Most of us have been familiar with these questions since childhood and The funny thing is, they are much more complex than any of us think. Let's look at them one by one.

The word "when" shows up if we want to ascertain the place in time a particular event has happened or will happen. It appeals to the concept of time (as defined by us and divvied up by us into seconds, hours, days, years, etc). Time is not an entity. It has no consciousness to speak of. It cannot decide to alter events which take place within it's flow. It is rather like the surface of the ocean, in that it is in constant motion and it carries actions and events along with it, but has no bearing on the manner in which those actions or events will take place. As such, we do not attribute any personification to the words "day" or "nanosecond". Those words are only measurements made of the fourth dimension.

The word "who" shows up in fields of unfamiliarity. We see a fellow human whom we have either never met or have forgotten and we are curious about them, or we remember a particular event involving someone but cannot remember the someone and again we become curious. The word "who" appeals to memory and curiosity, animalistic traits that are within the confines of our organic brains. Unlike the word "when", "who" is inundated with personification. Indeed, it exactly asks about a person(s). However, like the word "when", which appeals to the human notion of time, "who" also appeals to a human idea, in this case memory. We do not appeal to anything outside of our selves (other than our trusted friends or authority figures)) for the answer to our question of "who".

"Where" looks to the commonly agreed upon geographic boundaries for it's answer. Whether GPS satellite locators, or good old-fashioned maps, or even a good sense of direction, the question of "where" makes its appeal to the questioner's acceptance of mutually-defined borders and regions, definitions which were born in the mind of people (or the people's friends). The answer to "where" like "who" and "when", does not lie outside the realm of humanness.

"What" asks for clarification from other people. Unfamiliarity with some object or behavior impels us to look for a source of understanding about the unknown. "What in the heck is that thing hanging from that tree over there?" To answer such a question, we either must observe it more closely (go look at it), we must go ask someone who might know what it is (we think), or we must research it ourselves, without petitioning a factor outside of ourselves for the answer.

This only leaves two questions, "Why" and "How". I think these two questions are grossly misused much more often than any of the others listed above. I think they are often reversed. A person will ask why, when they should be asking how, or vice versa.
The question of "how" is a direct appeal to the empirical process of discovery and understanding. It looks to at least a form of the scientific method. It is a way of finding a path to the destination. It asks what is necessary for the goal to be accomplished. It simultaneously states the need for all essential knowledge and the requested path to attain that basic knowledge. For example, " How is it that I cannot play a high B-flat on my trombone?" This question is the pertinent question. What is required, which I am not doing? Oftentimes, asking the question "How" will lead someone to answer the question (accurately) themselves by simply thinking about the topic of dispute. Now ask the same question a different way "Why can't I play this High B-flat"? Notice the absence of a request. There is no plea for a method for accomplishment. The questioner does not ask for a path to the destination. They only ask for absolvement from personal responsibility. There must be some other reason for my inability to gain this skill. I can't be held responsible, because if it were up to me, I could do it.

Of course, I'm being glib to illustrate the point that, although, most people really don't wallow in self-misery over the question of why, they are not actually asking what they think they are asking! They are looking for an answer, but the question they ask is not designed to elicit one. It is more adequately illustrative of the complaints they have over their confusion or frustration, feelings all of us have in our everyday life experiences. By-the-by, it's interesting that the fact that people will often ask "why" instead of "how" can be indicative in some ways of why competition is so prevalent in civilization. Competition relies heavily on some asking how and some asking why. The Whyers are inevitably going to fall short, while the Howers will get the job done. Competition, however, is not the subject of this blogpost, so I'll save it for another day. In the meantime, ask yourself this question: Are you a Whyer? Do you wonder what the reason is for your successes (and failures)? Do you expect the answer to be divined somehow? If so, perhaps you could try asking yourself "how" next time instead of "why".

The word "why" contains an implication that the author (you) believes there is some outside (of you) force, factor, entity, whatever, which holds power over you to render decisions which effect your life in a tangible and not always positive way. "There must be some reason for what happened. Since I didn't want this to happen, and it happened anyway, there must be a reason I'm not seeing, and that means there is something in charge of what happens to me besides me". All of this is contained in that little question of "why". We ask authority figures "why" all the time. Why did I get a ticket, officer? Why can't I go to the movies, Mom? Why won't this stupid door shut? etc... If you look at the first two questions the plea to an outside force is obvious, but look at the third question and ask yourself what or who is the questioner appealing to? The Door? Certainly not. Their Neighbor? Probably not either. But there is a definite sense of fatalism in the question. "The door won't close, and I don't know why. Will somebody please tell me why this door won't close".
I see asking the question of why as primarily a waste of time. It would be more prudent to ask the same question with "How" instead of why. Here's how it would go.
" How is it that this door will not close?"
Asking the question this way, opens the door to finding an answer that will alleviate the problem. The solution may not be found, but an attempt to actually search for it is embarked upon by simply changing the word we use in the question. Instead of "revelling in our abandon" to borrow a lyric from Tom Petty, we should be after answers by asking real, valuable questions.

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