I’ve long suspected the words “Why” and “How” might be the most powerful words in human language. They’re the words we use whenever we try to expand our understanding of the world around us, and unlike their other question-heading friends (who, what, where etc), Why? and How? are rarely satisfied because there’s almost always a deeper level you can dig to with them.

They’re so powerful even a child can use these words to gain access to an adult’s limits of knowledge (and patience). Remember when you were a kid and loved to irritate the hell out of your elders by repeatedly asking “but why?” over and over until they would slam down their newspaper with some bullshit response like “because I said so”? This scenario is so familiar for many of us because that’s when we first discover the power of asking why. It’s the ultimate tool of curiosity, and who is more curious and hungry for knowledge than a child?

The why? game can still be useful to play as an adult too whenever you’re feeling curious (also note that it’s pretty interchangeable with How?). You can play the game alone or with friends, and use it for anything from knowledge expansion to investigating the root of deep personal issues. Its only real limits are that of your creativity and your current knowledge of the world. What this means is that if you keep digging down with creative questions, you’ll hit some kind of barrier eventually, but if your knowledge or Googling skills are strong enough, you can keep on digging until you get to reach the really fundamental questions – the current limit of collective human knowledge.

And by fundamental, I mean the enigmatic, mind-bending Really Big Questions (RBQs) about the nature of existence itself. The murky realms where physics, maths and philosophy start merging and minds start to melt.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a couple. First, something utterly mundane like:

“Why is your car purple?”
“Because I chose that colour”
Why? “Because I like it”
Why? “Because I find it aesthetically pleasing”
Why? “Because something about my personality identifies with the colour”
Why? “Because the electrical impulses in my brain respond to purple in a way that releases some kind of physiological response in me that makes me feel good”
Why? “Because early human brains evolved to invoke responses that were best adapted to their survival”
Why? “Because otherwise they’d have died and not passed on their genetic code”
Why? “Because natural selection favoured those humans best adapted to their environment”
Why? “Because the laws of probability state that they were most likely to survive and therefore exist”
Why? “Because that’s how probability works”
Why? “Because the mathematical laws that govern our universe work that way”
Why? “…..”

Urgh, even writing this got me frustrated at my inner child. My poor parents.

Nonetheless, you can see that the game reached its end when we hit my personal knowledge-floor, which in this case the underlying mechanism behind the laws of mathematics. Fundamental stuff.

What’s so cool about this game is that there are multiple points on that questioning chain where the answerer can take it off in a different direction. For example, you could have answered “Because the manufacturer decided that purple cars will sell” or “Because purple cars are rare and I like to stand out from the crowd”. As long as the answerer replies to each why? with the truth, you will find it ultimately converges back to some fundamental RBQ.

Now for one a bit more high-stakes:

“Why are my partner and I fighting so much right now?”
“Because we disagree on things more often than we used to”
Why? “Because something has changed in our relationship”
Why? “Because one, or both of us have changed in some way”
Why? “Because we’ve experienced life events that have affected us”
Why? “Because as time passes, events happen”
Why? “Because there are many variables in the world that can fluctuate as time passes”
Why? “Because most things in our world are made of matter, and matter is affected by tiny quantum fluctuations”
Why? “Because quantum fluctuations happen over time”
Why? “Because Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle means that conservation of energy can appear to be violated, but only for short times.”
Why? “…”

I’m going to stop here, because a) I don’t want to lose you forever and b) my physics knowledge beyond this point gets rather fuzzy. But be assured human knowledge has gotten further, and is currently hovering somewhere around postulations of multiverses and strings and superstrings and all that jazz.

And because why the hell not, let’s use this starting question and see if we can get it back to the same fundamental RBQ as the car example:

“Why are my partner and I fighting so much right now?”

Why? “Because one, or both of us have changed in some way”
Why? “Because emotions often fluctuate as time passes”
Why? “Because events happen that affect emotions”
Why? “Because humans are sensitive to their surroundings”
Why? “Because if they weren’t, they would have died out”
Why? “Because the laws of probability state that they are most likely to survive and therefore exist”
Why? “Because that’s how probability works”
Why? “Because whatever created the mathematical laws that govern our universe made them that way”

Now of course, you don’t have to limit this game to just asking Why? or How?. When using the game to break down a tough issue and it’s obvious a “What” or “When” would be more helpful, then absolutely use it:

“Because one, or both of us have changed in some way”
When? “I guess I first noticed a change around 6 months ago…”

With each of these games, you’ll notice how each answer I gave tended to be a small, incremental jump from the one before – while it makes the process slower, this is especially important practice when tackling something personal that’s likely to have emotions involved. Remember, it’s very important to answer with with as close to the objective truth as possible and never with assumptions (more on this later).

If you can’t confidently answer with a fact that is based in hard evidence, then you’ve reached your knowledge floor on this topic, and have now identified an area that needs further examination. For example, if I’d answered that first question with something like “because he/she is utterly crazy” or “because they suck” then that’s clearly an unhelpful assumption, and I’d have to circle back and break that down further. And of course, in the unlikely event it turns out said partner is truly some horrendous monster that you need to escape, at least you’ve gotten to that conclusion rationally!

Try some more random starting questions of your own, play the why game and see where you end up. Just remember that if you get to a point where you genuinely can’t go any further, then you’ve simply reached your knowledge floor and that’s fine. It’s a great excuse to jump on a wikipedia spiral and learn something new.

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