“surrealism photography of person reading news paper in fire while sitting on stool” by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

The Futility of Asking Why

In my training as a therapist, I had to learn to stop asking people “why?” Asking why tends to send a client into a spiral of thinking, taking their attention away from the immediacy of what is happening into a multi-layered and complex story about what seems to be happening, what seems to have happened, or what might happen.

Why am I writing this article in this particular coffee shop? Because I like the coffee here. Because it’s close to where I live. Because I felt inspired to write this morning. These responses are part of a story of how I ended up in this coffee shop, but they don’t actually answer the question of why.

In fact, when the question why is asked, there is always an implicit and subtle seeking for some fundamental cause of the way things are, but the only way the question can be addressed is by assuming that what is really being asked is “how” or “how come.” So then the story begins.

With a question like “Why am I writing in this coffee shop?” The story of it being near home and my liking of the coffee here seems to be satisfying enough. Phew, it’s not completely arbitrary that I find myself here. I even have a story about how I got here: I remember driving my car here. Good, everything fits together so far.

In reality, the question of why is often asked about what seems like much more substantial things, such as “Why don’t you leave your abusive partner?” In other words, why are things the way they are even though we all agree that we have free-will and choice, and even though we all agree on what should be happening? There are actually two illusory presuppositions buried in that question: the concept of choice and the concept of reality being anything other than what it is (i.e. how it should be).

So then the story begins, “If I leave him then he might hurt me and my children.” Phew, that makes sense. Reality has been vindicated. Things are the way they are because of fear, apparently. We can stop there, assuming that reality should be different while also, paradoxically, believing that we know why it is that way.

But the question why never, ever satisfies. It usually never satisfies because it falsely presupposes that there is even such a thing as meaning. For example, why does the sun rise in the East and set in the West? Immediately, the mind grabs a bag of concepts and starts constructing the story:

The Earth is spinning in space as it orbits the Sun and because of its direction of rotation, the Sun appears to rise from the Eastern horizon and fall below the Western horizon. Lovely. You get a gold star and the middle-school science prize.

But the question remains unanswered. Why does the Sun rise in the East and set in the West? This question is synonymous with why does Earth spin? and why does Earth orbit the Sun?

Ah, you say, both the rotation of Earth around the Sun and the rotation of Earth around its axis are vestiges of the angular momentum of the cloud of debris that coalesced into the ancient solar system (I had to google that). Well done! You get another gold star and you get to do more homework.

But we still don’t have any kind of meaningful answer to why the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, just as we have no meaningful answer to why any of those other phenomena are the way they appear to be. It’s not that we’re looking for some kind of esoteric, nonsense thing that is unscientific. It’s not that science trumps meaning.

Even if the story is that “God makes the Sun rise in the East and set in the West,” there is no real answer for why that happens. We could then ask, “Why does God do that?” And the answer is (usually), “He just does!”

The concept of a God that makes decisions about things can be a shortcut to tracking the apparent cause and effect of anything back to the big bang (or before) to discover that there is actually no real answer to the question of why anything whatsoever is the way it is. Both science and religion offer us a false sense of security. There is an illusion that everything has some kind of fundamental meaning. When we actually look for it, however, we find that the illusion of meaning is like a sand-castle built in the air: it has no foundation.

It’s blatantly clear, even though terrifying, that everything is absolutely meaningless. There is no true meaning behind this laptop, or this table, or those trash cans outside the window. There is no meaning or purpose behind this body, or that coffee cup.

There is no truly satisfying answer to the question of why you are in a relationship with your girlfriend or why those flowers are blooming or why I am writing this. Everything is clearly and obviously completely devoid of meaning.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how it seems to be. It also doesn’t seem to change anything. It’s not like discovering this leads to mass chaos and mayhem. It’s not that everyone goes AWOL. Absolutely nothing changes. Reality just keeps showing up in all its glorious, unfathomable meaninglessness.

And you might remember this article next time the word “why” arises in conversation.

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com

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