Thinking about Why

The following quote comes from the introduction to Diogenes Allen’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology  (Westminster John Knox Press, 2nd ed 2007):

The ancient Egyptians said that the Greeks were like children because they were always asking ‘Why?’ . . . [I]n ancient Greece the practice became a matter of principle.

Children tend to ask ‘why’ questions of two things: social situations (‘Why do we eat with a fork at the dinner table?’) and of nature’s workings (‘Why are there rainbows after a night of rain?’) and flustered parents have long resorted to two kinds of answers to shut down such questions:

  • Appeals to authority and tradition. “We eat with a fork because mommy and daddy say so and that’s just how it’s always been done.”
  • Etiological narratives. “The reason we have rainbows after a rain is because God was mad at humanity and put a global flood on the earth. After that flood had cleaned all humans but Noah and his family off the face of the earth, he put rainbows in the sky as a sign of his promise never to do such a thing again. God now just kills people locally, one at a time, not globally and all at once. So smile whenever you see a rainbow. You’ve ducked a bullet.”

Oh.

This works for the mildly curious and timid. But what about the especially curious and the bold? One day somebody (perhaps a Greek) asked the ultimate why question, the why question that unsettles all apple carts. Here it is:

Why should I believe what you say?

In other words, the first person who said “Why should I believe what you say?” was asking the person addressed to do two things:

  • define your claims; and
  • state your supports for those claims—your good reasons for making them (so that I can evaluate their adequacy). 

Why should I believe what you say?  That’s the question that makes ‘why’ a virtue. It’s inherently democratic, it implies dialogue and appeals to public evidence, and it’s vigilant: conversations are kept going on principle. They do not yield to proclamations guarded by mystery and followed by obedient silence. ‘Why should I believe what you say?’ is a question committed to truth.

Behold a democratic and thoughtful man. He recognizes that it’s a virtue to ask him why. He’s a national treasure and I hope we keep him.

Obamasademmanueldunandafpgetty

Of course, there is another question that has long been used to try and shut down any person who asks the ‘Why should I believe what you say?’ question. It’s an epistemic rejoinder grounded in an accusation of hubris or naiveté:

Why should you trust your unassisted reason to arrive at reliable conclusions?

It’s the response of all those committed to ‘Father Knows Best’ ideologies: reduce people’s confidence in dialogue, the evidence of their senses, reality testing, and their capacities for reason. Then remind them that they are mortals with a very small window on the big picture of their existence. Also recall for them that they are the food of worms. Then declare the ‘truth’ to them. And hope they stop asking why.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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