Sunday, January 08, 2012



There is an old joke / urban legend that circulates among students and faculty in North American Universities and it goes as follows.

A student is taking a philosophy exam, which consist of just one, one word question.

The question is “Why?”

The exam is for three hours and our intrepid student sitting amidst his / her brethren feverishly writing away just sits there thinking and puzzling as the minutes and then the hours drift by.

At 2 hours and 55 minutes in the exam our student simply writes “Why not!” and sets down his / her pen. The Prof gives the student an A+.

I’ve heard many variations of this story when I went to University and many people assured me that the story was true, but they never seemed to be able to remember who, what, where, when or why with the story so it seems to be just a urban legend.

However it does seem to be a good way start thinking why there is something rather than nothing and of course the rather personal question of why you exist rather than not exist.

The bottom line is that although Science can explain how something came to be it cannot and will never explain why something is rather than isn’t. This is because of the very nature of the why question. Why is a question concerning intrinsic normative essence that cannot be empirically verified and has such it has a built in paradox in it in that each why question can be responded to by another why question in a never ending chain, hence the paradox.

Thus the infamous child asking “why the sky is blue”. After an explanation the child then asks “why”, until the parent in exasperation tells the child to shut up and / or simply terminates the whole discussion.

Of course the question of why? also helps bring in the question of “God”. As we learn more and more about how the Universe operates there is less and less room for “God” to act. Of course this assumes that “God” is not acting through natural forces or that such forces acting is in fact “God”. But since such forces overall seem to operate in and of themselves it would seem that although “God” acting is not excluded “God” is not required.

However all of this merely answers the question of “How” the Universe it does not answer the question of “Why?”, in fact the question of “Why?” is probably in the end impossible to answer because it leads only to more “Why?” questions in an infinite paradox. If that is the case than “God”, who I happen to believe in for completely personal and irrational reasons, is as good as any as an answer to the question “Why?”

Of course the response to the Answer “God” is “Why God?”, and then you go can co0ntinue to go back into a never ending paradox. Of course the main problem with all “Why?” questions is that all answers to such “Why?” questions can be responded to by another “Why?”, and where you stop is arbitrary.

Of course the great existential question of why there is something rather than nothing will of course end up with the paradox of an endless secession of “Why?” questions and no final resolution. The bottom line is that Science answers the question of “How?” not the question of “Why?” and is in fact incapable of answering such questions.

So perhaps the best answer to the question of “Why?” is indeed “Why not”.

Pierre Cloutier

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