The question why inspires reverence. It’s considered to be the very stuff of great minds, of curiosity, of what drives us to know more. But it seems to me not just a silly question but a dangerous one.
Why assumes that there is motivation that lurks behind experience, within the heart of the phenomenon, that drives it and explains it. Why assumes the great prejudice of Judeo-Christianity, that there is a soul that lurks within our bodies, a driver that steers action. Experience, it seems, is never enough. We always have to add something else, something outside of experience — as if life needed any justification other than itself.
Why assumes a cause. But life has no cause; life happens. Cause and affect is a local relationship that we use for practical purposes. On a cosmic scale, there is no cause, there’s just happening, allatonceness, a network of effects.
But even from a local empirical perspective, why is the wrong question. Think of the absurdity of asking why when I spin a bucket of water, the water doesn’t fall out. To say it’s centrifugal force is not to say anything at all. It’s to offer a tautology (pace Nietzsche). We spin a bucket; the water stays put; we say there’s a force. It’s hilarious and absurd.
To ask why of empirical events leads to an infinite regress — Why does the water stay put? Why is there centrifugal force? Why is there gravity? Why are there bodies? It’s why ad infinitum until we finally say, Well, uh, God. God is why. Stop asking. God: a primal mover that puts an end to the inquiry. This is the ideology of why: it is the nihilism of belief in God, of something outside of everything that explains everything — as if nothing could explain all this.
Colloquially, we use why when we mean how. I say to my friend, You’re being silly. She furrows her brow and asks: Why? And the pedantic schmuck that I am, I reply, I have no idea but I can tell you in what way you’re being silly.
Or we ask something like, Why does an elephant have a trunk? And then we explain how elephants use their trunk to their advantage. This doesn’t answer the question why because to ask why an elephant has a trunk is downright absurd. If it didn’t have a trunk, it wouldn’t be an elephant! Duh. But by using why rather than how or in what way, we suggest that evolution is actually not random, that there’s motivation and reason within the arbitrary generation of species. To ask why an elephant has a trunk is to put God back into evolution and efface Darwin completely.
Why is nihilistic. It looks backwards, away from events, from what’s happening, away from life. Why wants to remove all this silly life to get at some truth. Which is why — that is to say, how or in what way — why is so dangerous, so violent: it tears at life itself, seeks to efface it, erase it, debase it.
Life happens. There is no alternative. Elephants have trunks; there’s no reason to it. It’s just the way it is. There may be possible worlds, possible lives, things that might have happened had you gone there, done this, kissed her (or not). But to seek an alternative to life, to try to brush it away to get at something better, is to miss life all together. The trick is not to ask why but to enjoy what’s happening right now. Who cares why you did it (whatever it is)? If you want to do it again, do it again. If you don’t want to do it again, don’t do it again. Asking why will only bury you deeper in a pit of misery. You are what you do, not why you do it.
So much of Western philosophy has been driven by one question: Why is there something rather than nothing? That is a nihilist’s question. It begins with the assumption that there is such a thing as nothing. But there is no nothing. The world is filled to the brim, always and necessarily. There are no blank spaces. And, more importantly, there is nothing else, no other way that it could have been.
And no other way that it should have been. Should is partner to why, wishing life to be other than it is. Our crappy religions and silly moralities proffer what should be — which has us doubt our lives, judge our lives, compare our lives to something that is not. But all there is is all this.
The philosopher’s question should not be Why is there something rather than nothing? but How is there this (and not that)? That question begins with life and life’s most generative function: differentiation. This is a question that doesn’t ask why, doesn’t probe under and behind life, doesn’t look backwards. This is a question that looks at life actually happening, wishes it no other way, and then makes sense of how difference comes to be, how something declares itself this!
Of course, the wise one — rarely the philosopher — doesn’t ask any questions at all.