As any engineer or scientist will tell you, understanding “Why” things work is what makes you good in your field. It’s what allows you to answer important questions that help you solve problems in your job, create elegant solutions or advance your science.
Answering “Why” implies you have acquired a deep understanding of the underlying structure of the system you are studying. It means you can analyze and deduct and apply reason.
To put it simply: it means you must clearly know your shit.
However, ask “Why” repeatedly and you’ll soon find yourself in uncharted waters. You’ll be battling with the great unsolved philosophical questions of all time — many posed by my own ancestors — and will soon find something that makes you think long and hard and still unsure about whether your answer is the right one.
It was this kind of thinking, during what you could call the finest of summer evenings during my holiday this summer, that led me to think that “Why?” — this simple 3 letter + 1 symbol question — must therefore be the greatest question of all time.
We should kneel down before it and hail it as the limit of our minds. We should simply give in and give up.
If you have a young child, I am sure you have probably given up already.
Yet, as I found myself indulging in these thoughts, the nice sea breeze, a pretty damn good cocktail, and the light fading into the night, I realized this is not so.
Admiring the greatness of “Why”, I found myself asking:
“Why is why the greatest question of all time?”
And then, almost like someone creeping up behind your back, I heard a voice in my mind saying: “Why Not?”
It took me a few seconds to realize what had just happened… I downed the rest of my drink to make sure. Wait… did it… what… no way…
Could I really have stumbled upon an even greater question? Could “Why Not” be beating “Why” in its own game? Blasphemy!!
And yet, the king was dead. Long live the king!
You see, “Why Not” does not just ask you to follow the same mental exercise we have praised that “Why” does — which by itself would make it its equal — “Why Not” steps all over it and dances on its ashes.
And just to be clear, here’s the kind of “Why Not” I’m talking about:
“A: You damn fool. People can’t fly on heavy metal machines. Gravity, doh.”
“B: Why Not?”
“Why Not” forces you to answer and disprove each and every other explanation to the “Why” question. It forces you to single-handedly beat each and every opponent, one by one and all at once, beyond a shadow of a doubt. You must go through each possible “why” that — by the way — pre-exists, prove it wrong, and continue on to the next one.
Now, you may think — if you’re still following this far, that is — this is straightforward to do, but would just take more time. Say there are 10 possible explanations, I’ll just spend 10 times the time of each why and I’ve got myself a “Why Not” under my belt. Hey, are you an engineer/scientist, by any chance? : )
What you’ve just ignored — and THIS is the big fat cherry on the cake — is the sociological phenomenon that “Why Not” forces you to go against the flow.
Go against what you know and take for granted. Go against what is taught in schools, what you’ll find in books, what you’ll hear on TV (ok, bad example, you should always go against that anyway), what your parents will tell you, what the scientific community accepts, what the society believes and even go against how nature seems to work.
On the other hand, if you starting asking “Why Not”s, chances are you will be simply ignored, put to the side, not promoted, made fun of, not hired, be ridiculed, not accepted, not have many friends and frustrated.
And this, dear reader, is why “why not” is hard — and also great. Because it’s not just a brain exercise. It’s because the people who dare to ask “Why Not” know they will be breaking society’s (or their profession’s, or their science’s) rules. They know they will be swimming upstream and be the black sheep in the herd. It’s because “Why Not” is so demanding that it can consume you.
And yet. For me, “Why Not” is hope. Because despite all the above, there are people who do it anyway and take humanity one step forward with them. And there are people who are open-minded enough to follow them.
Minority? Sure, but how many friends do you need anyway ?