Lately, I’ve taken to watching old talks and lectures by Richard Feynman when I’m cooking or in need of background noise that is also stimulating. This usually turns into imaginary dialogue, which has him explaining something like the magic of boiling water as I dump the spaghetti in. Feynman gets easily excited, which is contagious, and leads me to start thinking too hard about the atomic structure of food items and the exciting complexity of human digestion, making it difficult sometimes to finish swallowing.
Yesterday, I listened to Feynman talk about magnets. Magnets are things I think are underutilized — wouldn’t more things in life be better with magnetization? I also think magnets are things that can get non-scientists excited about science. We can feel the power of physical forces in a tangible way. When opposite poles push apart it feels almost mystical, more so than our experience with gravity, and we want to know “why.”
In one of Feynman’s discussions on magnets, he is being interviewed by BBC, and the interviewer asks in regard to magnetic poles pushing each other apart: “Why does that happen?” Feynman’s look in response to this question would make me shrink in my chair. Feynman responds: “How does a person answer ‘why’ something happens?” He continues on a tirade of why “why” questions should be avoided.
The point Feynman is making is that “why” questions necessarily make assumptions that the questioner and the questionee agree on and a “why” question is almost always asked with the assumption that a proximate answer will be given rather than an ultimate answer. He uses the example of a woman going to the hospital and a friend asking “why.” Feynman finds we are asking only the superficial question of what is wrong with her rather than more ultimate questions of why the ice she slipped on is slippery and why water expands when it is frozen. Asking “why” leaves ambiguity in what we are asking.
I never had a problem with “why” questions until someone asked me a similar question this past week and I started to feel the way Feynman seems to feel about them. A woman asked me: “Why do we get parasites?” and I think I may have given her a look like Feynman did in his chair. What do you mean “why?” There are a lot of ways to answer that question. I started to think about Feynman’s point. Is this person waiting expectantly on an answer to a question that could require me to explain 4.5 billion years of evolution? Or could she be equally expecting an answer on how the immune system works? Or what selects for “cheating” vs. “cooperating” ? Or maybe she wanted me to say something about not washing our hands? It made me start thinking about how I ask questions and the power minor word changes can have in shaping the answers we get and the efficiency of conversation. When I’m asking why in my own work, what am I really asking? Hows, whats, and whens can define the problems a lot more clearly than one why, but I disagree slightly with Feynman. If “why” is a tool that leads us to asking the deeper, ultimate questions, “why”s can be good places to start.