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iamthemob's avatar

What do people mean when they ask "why"?

Asked by iamthemob (17123 points ) September 2nd, 2010

I feel like many people often approach a question asking “why” by answering “how.” This works for smaller questions with practical implications like “Why should I read the boilerplate provisions in a contract,” but doesn’t work for the larger questions. There, the separation between “Why this happens” and “How this happens” become more distinct and I believe should be recognized.

Unfortunately…I often see people answering larger “Why” questions with “How” answers, and trying to argue their point. This can only create frustration, however, as the answer to “Why do we have thought?” answered with something involving the electrochemical impulses and brain structure begs the question “Why is the brain structured that way?” When the how person answers with an evolutionary explanation, the “Why” of HOW that happened is the follow up. This can continue ad infinitum.

So, if you know that someone is asking “Why,” why do you continue to answer how?

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17 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

They answer the ‘why’ with the ‘how’ when there’s no answer to the ‘why’.

Dewey420's avatar

I here that! The how is so much easier to explain than the why.

iamthemob's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir

I don’t think that’s appropriate. If one’s belief that there is no answer means that it’s not worth discussion, don’t answer how as if it is the answer to the why question. If there’s no answer, then the how answer is as much “not the answer” as anything else. That means it’s just for the purpose of being argumentative. That, or there is something flawed with their logic that they think that “how” is the answer.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

I don’t know. Why do you ask? :-)

iamthemob's avatar

That can be answered! :-)

muppetish's avatar

Why “O.E. hwi, instrumental case (showing for what purpose or by what means) of hwæt (see what), from P.Gmc. *khwi (cf. O.S. hwi, O.N. hvi), from PIE *qwei, locative of *qwo- “who” (cf. Gk. pei “where”). As an interjection of surprise or to call attention to a statement, recorded from 1519.”

Answering with the “how” satisfies the second condition of “why?” and is therefore not necessarily incorrect (the other way to answer would be “because…” – which may not always be obvious or known.) It may not be the answer you were seeking, but it is a way to tackle the question. Not all “why?” questions have definitive answers.

iamthemob's avatar

@muppetish

Of course…but as I stated in the explanation, the non-definitive ones are the ones that I’m talking about. You address the situation I’ve already admitted was appropriate. Also, if we’re asking about something where it is uncertain what all the causes are, answering “how” to a certain extent helps to define the parameters, you’re right.

However, I’m asking about the situation where “how” is inappropriate. When people answer “how” to the question “why are we here” when asked of modern day educated individuals, it is generally patronizing – most people understand evolution, for example. If it is not, and is meant to be productive, different story. However, if they start locking horns with the “how” answers…what is the use in continuing the approach?

Thanks for the second condition reference!

jerv's avatar

As a follower of the laws of cause-and-effect, I often find that once I see how, I understand why even when I am not explicitly told. Then again, I am a bit odd in that if you told me why, more often than not I would not understand unless/until I got the how. I tend to have a weird thought process, especially when it comes to causation, so for me, “how” and “why” are a bit closer than they probably are for most people.

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv

I agree that “how” may very well and often is a prerequisite to getting at “why.” But knowing that the “how” is no longer an issue, is there a reason to insist that “how” is the answer in any case where it IS one of the bigger life questions?

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob So ka.
I think that in such cases, the “therefore…” is implied.

iamthemob's avatar

You’d think.

jerv's avatar

I would, but that doesn’t mean everyone would.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@iamthemob I didn’t say it was an appropriate answer.

iamthemob's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir

I didn’t say you said it was an appropriate answer. I said I thought it wasn’t one. :-)

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@iamthemob I thought I was shedding some light on the phenomenon. I think that’s what people do: they have gaps in understanding and they fill those gaps with whatever is knowable even if that’s not the answer.

iamthemob's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir

And I didn’t say your comment didn’t. I think it did said some light, and I responded what I thought. :-)

What do you seem to be assuming was my intent in my response?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@iamthemob Nothing, I was just continuing talking to you. It was more of a musing, anyway.

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