Why fascinates me. I don't know why. It just does.
Is there a problem with that? I respond "no." But asking that question belies the answer. Better to say, "sometimes there's no why, just is."
Reasons lie on a sliding scale, though.
In some areas of science causes and effects can be determined in amazing detail. If such wasn't the case, I wouldn't be able to type this blog post on a computer and publish it on the Internet where you can read it. Nor would space probes be able to reach the most distant planets in our solar system with such impressive accuracy.
Even in physics, though, causal interrelationships are so complex, a simple understanding of what makes such-and-such happen quickly unravels under a more penetrating gaze. And when we ask the Big Question, why does anything exist at all?, both science and religion are clueless.
That said, let's get closer to home with our why'ing. Why do we do what we do? Seemingly this should be a fairly easy question to answer given that we have direct access to the brain/mind that directs our thoughts and actions.
But neuroscientists have learned that the reasons we offer up for why we did something often aren't reasonable. Our conscious self likes to fashion a compelling story that explains events in our lives. Religion is popular because it offers up satisfying, though unprovable, answers to "why? questions.
God's will. Karma. Fate. Lesson from the universe. When reasons aren't apparent, religion steps in to feed the answer-starved brain.
So I'm increasingly convinced that a key to happily withstanding the allure of religiosity is to go on a "why?" diet.
Not when it comes to scientific, mechanical, and other questions where causes and effects can be linked successfully, but with existential, relationship, and personal questions where why did this happen? can't be fathomed -- only embraced as a glorious it-is-what-it-is mystery.
I'm not a terrific practicer of what I preach, judging from the results of a Google search for "why" I conducted on my two blogs. Wow. The blog posts just went on and on. Obviously I love why.
More so in the past than now, though. I'm less inclined to wonder why I like something or want to do something. I don't second-guess myself as much, because I no longer believe so strongly that my first guess was under my control.
This gets us into some muddy philosophical and scientific ground where debates over how much free will we humans have, along with what "free will" means, are mucked about. (This Nature piece, "Neuroscience vs. philosophy: taking aim at free will," provides a good overview of the subject.)
But like I said in my previous post, much, if not most, of the causes for what we do, think, and feel flow from mindsprings beneath our conscious awareness. So we can ponder, introspect, meditate, contemplate, and analyze all we want. We'll never perceive the depths where the person psychologist Timothy D. Wilson calls the "stranger to ourselves" lives.
Here's some excerpts from his book with the same name, pluralized:
People's behavior is often determined by their implicit motives and non-conscious construals of the world. Because we do not have conscious access to these aspects of our personalities, we are blind to the ways in which they influence our behavior.
...We experience a thought followed by an action and assume that it was the conscious thought that caused that action. In fact a third variable -- a nonconscious intention -- might have produced both the conscious thought and the action.
...A sense of conscious will cannot be taken as evidence that conscious thoughts really did cause our behavior. The causal role of conscious thought has been vastly overrated; instead, it is often a post-hoc explanation of responses that emanated from the adaptive unconscious.
...There is a final puzzle about people's explanations of their own responses. Why don't we realize that our explanations are confabulations no more accurate than the causal reports of strangers? One of the major points of this chapter is that people's reasons about their own responses are as much conjectures as their reasons for other people's responses. Why, then, don't they feel this way?
One explanation is that it is important for people to feel that they are the well-informed captains of their own ship and know why they are doing what they are.
...Another key, I suggest, is that the amount of inside information we have produces a misleading feeling of confidence, namely the sense that with so much information we must be accurate about the causes of our responses, even when we are not.
Well, maybe the ancient Taoists should be listened to.
Drifting with the currents of life isn't only wise, it is inevitable, given the deep mental currents that direct us here and there uncontrollably. And knowing less can be knowing more if information is more prone to lead us astray, than guide us rightly.
2nd half of article is thought-provoking, but on the other hand does the Taoist approach add anything other than a passive acceptance of self-imposed limits?
Also, if the currents of life are inevitable, then everything is deterministic and natural, even unnatural thoughts. There is nothing unnatural, and one cannot go against nature, so there is no need for a taoist mindset since whatever we do is natural. A large paradox.
Also, there is no ways of knowing what we can know from what we cannot - and this is the real problem of taoism, mysticism and religions, which is a revelry for the unfathomable and ineffable. In fact, almost a revelry in its vagueness without attempting to explain it. God is uknowable, he works in mysterious ways, etc.
Perhaps Taoism, mysticism and religion brings peace in that it is accepted that there are certain aspects of reality that can never be undersood. Perhaps this is true, and yet as soon as one limits oneself, the search stops, and worst of all we have no idea whatsoever what we might or might not be able to know since we've simply limited ourselves at source.
Science, if nothing else, is about discovering things that were previously unknown. While it accepts the unknown, it does not limit itself, but looks for answers.
Posted by: George | November 18, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Relax. The answer to every "why" question you could ever dream up is not only available, but inevitable. You want it now? Well then...get yourself a .357 or .45 caliber pistol, fill it with bullets, place in properly in your best hand with your index finger on the trigger, and make sure the safety is off. Then, open your mouth, insert the pistol in your mouth with the barrel pointing upwards, and then make a fist with both hands. Reality will become starkly obvious. (Actually, it is already)
As for me, and as of right now, I prefer to wait. But I am still dying to know "why".
Posted by: Willie R | November 18, 2011 at 06:48 AM
"As for me, and as of right now, I prefer to wait. But I am still dying to know "why"."
lol....yes, you're 'dying' to know why, but you still prefer to wait on the fist making.
"God is unknowable, he works in mysterious ways, etc."
--I like playing with the 'non-knowable' term. Unknowable, seems to indicate that one day we we will finally discover how 'he' works those mysterious ways. I reserve the right to be wrong. My views are falsifiable.
Posted by: Roger | November 18, 2011 at 10:50 AM
George, you're right: science continually expands the boundaries of the known. I guess what I was referring to are certain seemingly unpassable boundaries, like why existence is, and what the human unconscious is like experientially. If we can never experience something, of if that something is beyond the bounds of knowledge, then accepting the mystery of it is all we can do.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 18, 2011 at 11:44 AM
yes i too think there are limits, but we don't really know what those are.
You talk about experential limits, but perhaps one day the brain will be understood in such detail that we can hook-up to virtual reality programs that give us new experiences, simulate the experiences of others, and even perhaps give us some idea as to how other animals might experience the world.
Perhaps one day, there will be an entire model of the brain by which we can understand our hardware, unconscious and consious mind.
AI, or an artificial brain that displays the properties of human consciousness with the full range of human feelings and emotions, could very well put the final nail in the coffin of not only religion, but pantheism and spiritualism too.
If humans have no soul, and the self and ego are understood, and we are purely flesh and blood, however complex, then whats left?
If Copernicus drove the first nail and darwin drove in the second, seems to me that if they can explain human consciousness and how organic matter evolved from inorganic matter, you aint got a lot left from an mystical or esoteric point of view. No wonder science is so reviled, it could be a very bleak picture.
Posted by: George | November 19, 2011 at 01:19 PM
George, I agree that those attached to a supernatural or mystical conception of humanity will be disappointed by the advances of neuroscience.
But a lot of territory remains to be explored. After all, the brain is said to be the most complex entity in the known universe.
How we fashion meaning, knowledge, creativity, love, and such out of the "meat" of our neurons and electro-chemical communications between them -- that's an fascinating inquiry that will continue for a long time.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 19, 2011 at 01:28 PM