A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Did You Mean to Do That?

Purpose vs. Side Effect

A lot of times, and for no good reason, folks will get tied up thinking about whether outcomes they observe were intentional or not -- whether something was an "accident" or "by design".  The heavy weight title match of this dichotomy is the question of our very existence, of course.  How we came to be who we are.  Was it evolution or creation?  And if it was evolution, could evolution have been set into motion on purpose?

I am not interested in this particular question right now -- though the line of reasoning I am exploring will eventually weigh in with some very interesting considerations for the big questions of the universe (no, really) --- but rather I would like to explore what is the difference between "by accident" and "on purpose" and why do we care?

Why Ask Why?

You might think for most of the world that surrounds us, the question "how?" would be perfectly engaging.  Yet we often seem to get into a spiral of inquiry centered around the question, "Why?"

We have each of us encountered at least once in our life that precocious three or four year old that never tires of asking, "Why?"   And no matter how many times we answer the next question is always the same -- "Why?"  But this is usually our fault.  Because without knowing it we automatically answer each questions with "how" not "why".  Case in point:

Q: Why is the car moving?
A: Because I am pressing the gas pedal which tells the car to move.
Q: Why?
A: Because when the engine gets more gas it goes faster.
Q Why?
A: Because when gas burns it moves the wheels and when more gas is added, the wheels move faster.
Q: Why?
A: Because gas expands when it is burned and more gas means more expansion.
A:  Because it, uh, well it has to go somewhere and it gets too crowded and moves out of the way.
Q: Why?

At this point "A" is tempted to trot out some of his high school physics just for fun and say something about how PV=nRT, but he is beaten and he knows it.  "Just because" he says finally.  And the judges award him five points for staying in the fight five rounds.

But it's A's own fault.  He never once answered any question with "why" it was all just "how".   And that is how most of us lose this game.  The four year old could care less about car engines.  What she wants to know is why she is alive.  Everything she sees around her is a puzzle, not of how it must work, but why it exists.  PV=nRT will not tell her that.

A religious minded person might think that the answer would be to talk about God.  But anyone who believes the mere mention of God will quiet the existential awakening of a young mind has another thing coming.  The concept of God raises as many questions as it answers.  If it did not, no one would have ever bothered to ask if God could create a boulder that he could not lift.  Or if unbaptized babies go to heaven.  (The Catholic Church recently changed its mind about this.  Don't ask me how they can do that, but it's true.)  Or could Hitler get to heaven if he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior with his dying breath.  (That question might be particularly offensive if you're Jewish.)  Or, well, you get the idea.

Being told God is the answer is a little like someone leaning in and telling you the answer for number 34 across on your half completed crossword puzzle is "apiaceous".  In the first place, you don't know why they know that and you don't.  In the second place you don't know if you can trust them since you have not discovered it for yourself.  And in the third place you are not even sure what it means.  There is nothing intrinsically satisfying about being told that "God is why." (Not to get too far off topic, but for clarity sake I should say -- The point I am making has nothing to do about whether God exists.  But rather even if God is indeed "why" being told that is not sufficient.  You must discover "Why" for yourself.  And if you conclude that God does not exist, well then, you're right back where you started anyway.)

There is no right answer for the why's of a three year old.  But saying, "No one knows why anything is the way it is, but wondering about it can be really fun"  is one entertaining approach.  And then if the child insists on asking why again, the proper response is to say, "I'm really not sure.  What do you think?"

Some children will shrug and look away.  Others will insist "I don't know" in a kind of "what are you crazy, I'm like 3 and a half" kind of tone.   Some will spin their own theories.  (Kids all behave differently, almost like they are individuals or something.)  But in most cases the child will stop asking you "Why?" at least for a time.  Of course, they won't believe your answer that no one knows and they will move on to asking others.   And 98% of the answers they will receive will be about "how" and not "why".

Lots of folks will take issue with some of my assertions, choosing to view kids questions as "active learning", but I stand by my opinion that in most cases, the question "why" is really an existential one.  Kids learn the power of "no" around the age of two and use the word to define their boundaries and help form their own identity.  It is no surprise to me that fast on the heals of identity comes the question of existence.  It seems a normal progression to me from "I am here" to "Where is here?"

I'm not insisting that each child is experiencing explicit angst about their place in the universe.  Probably very few are actively wondering why they exist.  But the number of times they ask a question with the word "why" instead of "how" is instructive.  They want to know what things mean. And forming meaning, as we recall, is merely the act of context construction.  Just as children need to learn the limits of saying "no" they need to learn the limits of asking why.  That is, in order to put a frame around their experiences they need to know where they have to draw the line.  At what point is it meaningless to keep waiting for extra data to put everything into place?  Where is the outside limit of the biggest all encompassing frame they can imagine?  That is the outer edge of their reality.  That is the limit that defines their universe.  So "no" defines the limits of identity, and "why" defines the limits of the external world.

It Doesn't Matter

As fascinating as existential questions can be, they are usually an obstacle to developing understanding about how things work.  Because as long as we appreciate the real difference between "how" and "why", we realize that we can rarely (if ever) answer "why" anything happens and can much more often answer "how".

"Why" deals with the intent of an action or event (or lack of intent).  "Why is the window broken?" is a very different question from "How did the window break?"   The "how" is easy.  The window broke when a baseball flew through it at 40 miles an hour.  "Why" is a different story.

"The window is broken because we wanted to finally beat the guys from the next street over at something just this once."

"The window is broken because Tommy was playing first base and he is really good so I was trying to hit away from him and shifted my feet to hit down the third base line."

"The window is broken because it rained last night and we had to move home plate."

Now most "how's" can spawn a new question.  Things like "How does glass break?" and "How fast can a baseball travel before it breaks the window?"  But these questions all become increasingly rooted in physical science and become, at least down to a certain scale, MORE answerable and less vague as we go.  No so with "Why's".

"Why" questions become increasingly abstract and lead us away from immediately useful knowledge about the matter at hand.  "Why was it so important to beat the other guys from the neighborhood?"  "Why is Tommy so good at playing first base?"  and even "Why did it rain last night?"   The further we pursue this line of inquiry -- like the persistent 3 yr. old -- the farther away we get from the original point, namely, "I'm looking at a broken window and I want to know what's going on."  A lengthy discussion about how "an occluded front moved in from the gulf states on Wednesday and brought the rain that caused us to move home plate and  made a foul ball more likely to hit the window" is not usually helpful in this circumstance -- and even if it were it still says nothing about WHY we have weather at all.  It is all still about how the weather happened.

Why Did You Do That?

The question why is all about intent.  There is no "why something happened" without someone meaning to make it happen at some point.  That is why many creation stories have an active participant who decides to create the universe (or man or what have you).  If you say the Titans were born out of the foam between heaven and earth (like the foam that forms at the edge of the sea between earth and sea), then you have explained HOW the Titans came to be, but not why.  You need an actor who has intent to answer the question "why".

But interestingly we are discovering that even our own intent is not something that is set in stone.  In some sense "intent" is just an excuse that our mind invents to match who we think we are.  Timothy Ferris' book The Mind's Sky, refers to a study where participants were given a post hypnotic suggestion to leave the room upon a certain verbal cue -- such as when a particular subject is mentioned.  The results of this study were fascinating to anyone who thinks he knows why he does anything.  Upon the cue, each subject would get up to leave the room.  When asked by the interviewer why they were leaving, none of the subjects knew it was because they had been hypnotized.  But the fascinating part is that they all offered answers anyway.  "I am thirsty and going to get a soda" they would say, or "I think I left something in my car."

What happened was the mind invented the reason, based on whatever evidence it could find, for why the body it resided in was standing up to leave.

How can we reconcile this with our popular conception of who we are and what it means to have a mind and to intend to do things?  Well it appears there is not really "one mind" in our head, but several distinct thought centers all functioning like different parts of a factory.  Each mind component has its own central task to worry about and is not necessary in synch with the other components.  So we have (at least) one mind component that seeks to unify our identity and coordinate all the competing activities and interests into a cohesive unit.  This would be the "control room" of the factory.

Or picture that your mind is like a small congress.  Each representative has its own constituency.  It has its own thing it must answer for, its own sense of how far it will go to preserve what it believes in, and its own limits for just how much it will compromise with other members of congress to pass its legislation.

It is often said that "Politics stops at the water's edge" and this suggests that in matters of national security, congress will unify and stand together in order to present a "united front" to the rest of the world.  Well our identity is the same way.  We seek to present a "united front" to the outside world.  Our mind works tirelessly to sew together all of the competing interests and compulsions into a unified identity that we can display to the outer world.  And in some sense this is a genuine cohesion.  Just as the nation can really be united in matters of national defense, so too the mind can be genuinely committed to a given identity which is expressed to the outside world.    But to ignore the fact that this identity is the result of a number of competing and often downright contradictory interests is to oversimplify what it means to be human.

So when queried about why it was standing to leave the room, the speaker of the house polls the room and looks for suggestions.  The representative from physiology reports he is thirsty.  The representative from craving says her people want something sweet.  So they co-sponser a bill that suggests they go for a soda.  And there you have it.  The speaker of the house reports, "Where am I going?  Oh I am just going to get a soda."  Only what no one knows is that the compulsion to leave was invented before the rationale for leaving!

So Why Does Anything Happen?

It does not look good for the question, "Why".   If we can not reliably establish our own intention at the time we act, how are we supposed to ascertain why anything external to us happens?  This seems like quite a conundrum.

Fortunately, the answer is to suspend discussions of intent and simply look at HOW things happen, or have happened.  While we can ultimately revisit the big Why's of the world, we can make more progress by ignoring the concept of intent and simply seeing how things take place.  The creation of our own sense of why -- our context -- is an important part of this, but we can approach the concept more productively if we set aside explanations that require intent and simply focus on what is.

This will have interesting implications for everything from conspiracy theories to exploring outer space.  Let's start with a return to conspiracy theory...

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