No one has all the answers, so I’ve decided to write on a question instead.
The word “why” first appears in the English language in 888 A.D. in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, the question is asked in reference to a woman.
Of course this raises the point that “why” has generally been the domain of philosophers.
For Descartes, the first dualist, the mind and the body became separate entities: “I think, therefore I am.” Why? Because the senses are capable of deceiving the mind, the only truths must come directly from the mind, unhindered by the senses and the outside world. In fact, Descartes often struggled with the idea that his entire life was nothing but a dream. In fact, he attributed his progress in philosophy to the fact that he was sick as a child and did not attend to his lessons because it was difficult to get out of bed. This makes him a man after my own heart.
Diametrically opposed to Descartes was John Locke. Why? Because Locke believed that the mind was a clean slate that could only be developed by experience, which is gained through the senses. Since each person has a unique set of experiences, the answer to the question “why” may be different for each person. Locke is also famous for his political philosophy, which includes the idea of the “social contract” and the notion of “checks and balances.” Both of these concepts allow a government to respond to the unique desires of its citizenry. A breach of the social contract is grounds for a revolution. After beginning his career as King Anthony’s personal tutor – a king who was later overthrown – Locke was diligently sensitive to fickle changes in Britain’s political climate. Perhaps he would have made a good A.S. candidate.
David Hume attacked the idea of “why” altogether by throwing out the concept of causality. He claimed it is impossible to prove an effect is the result of a cause. His father, a wealthy Scottish landowner, sent him to Edinburgh University to study law. This was short lived. Instead, he moved France to study philosophy and then to Britain to become an author. At least his parents asked him, “why?” It’d be interesting to know what he told them.
Jeremy Bentham, invented the philosophy of utilitarianism. Why? Because he thought that the solution to all ethical dilemmas is to attempt in every situation to make as many people happy as possible. It is amusing, then, that he spent the last 40 years of his life writing 15 pages of philosophy every day; a task that would eventually please a few philosophy scholars and horrify large numbers of undergrads.
For Freud, the things that make us happy are the ones that are unmentionable. So we suppress them. Why? So we can live normal, healthy lives in harmony with our mothers and neighbors. Occasionally the pressure adds up and we snap like a cheap watchband.
“Why?” is a question that occupies everyone at one point or another. Not all of us will attempt to exploit it to the point of making a living at it. But as for this column – I ask you: why not?
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science editor. Why? Because he took the job.