Why the Why of the What is the Key

Here’s one that’s got on my nerves a lot recently – there’s no simpler way to express it than the ‘what versus why‘ conflict. It’s facts versus know-how. It’s assumption versus theory. Plot versus story – text versus subtext. It’s knowledge versus understanding. It’s human categorisation versus human progress. Acceptance versus examination. Memorizing versus learning. Passive versus active. And at it’s core (I would argue) it’s death versus life. Wow, that’s a lot of conflict… but I don’t understand all this waffle? Sound about right?

Here’s an example most people might empathise with showing this dichotomy in action. Remember learning sciences at school? Or maybe maths? Did you ever think at any point, “All these fancy words for made up things, I don’t see how it all fits together? What’s the point of this? WHO MADE THIS UP? WHY?!”. Maybe you didn’t and I was just a curious cynic (and not very bright), but if you ever did have this thought, that’s likely a result of only being told the what and not the why. Still not getting it? Bear with me.

Lets get fundamental. What can we know to be true? What can we sincerely put our faith in as being ‘a fact’ in our lives? A ‘what’? Perhaps that we are alive and that we perceive time as passing… but that’s really about it. Many of you might be screaming, “But I know my name and my birthday and my favourite musician!” (I’d argue that we can’t even be certain of these, but I’ll save that for another day). What about the shape of your country? What shape is the Earth? Our solar system? Our galaxy? The Universe? Do aliens exist? Did Jesus? Perhaps we are fairly confident in the shape of our country and planet based on trusting what we’re told and shown, but for the other questions for some reason we grow skeptical of other people’s answers… they’re too diverse. Who to believe? The further down that list you go the more and more you realise that to answer ANY question most of us rely completely on the answers – the whats – of other people. And it’s fine to trust other people’s whats if you know the why as well… but what’s a why you ask?

The why, dear reader, is everything. The why of the what is the key to learning itself. The why is the theory, the thought, the logic, the understanding, the hours spent considering and thinking to achieve something. The why is what we must all train ourselves to actively seek and create. Imagine a time before the first flight in to space and the first photograph of the Earth was taken: If we take our whats as being the shape of countries, the relative size of each and the shape of the Earth, then the whys are the years of dedication, of debate, of formulating theories, of proving and disproving, of measuring and combining facts, of using whats to calculate the previously incalculable, of perceiving the world and asking why things are as they are and drawing conclusions from it. But the why isn’t proof of a fact, it’s just a placeholder until someone comes along with a better why to replace it.

To name it ‘curiousity’ is an over-simplification of an absolutely essential process we all need to learn. It’s thinking independently. It’s not stubborness, it’s just checking other peoples math in case yours adds up better than their’s does. It’s seeking the progress of humanity by asking one simple question. To slightly twist Darwinian thought: survival is adaptation. And the quicker you learn the why of a thing, the quicker you can understand the thing and adapt to it to make it your own. Don’t be satisfied with just a what. You can spend a lifetime memorizing other people’s whats and walk out your front door and realise you’ve learnt nothing and disagree with everything you’ve been told. And who knows, you might be that special person that comes up with better whys and changes our understanding of the world.

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