Levels of “Why” - by Kenny Collins


In the past (maybe as a kid), you may have wondered about certain aspects of the world. Why is the sky blue? Why do people pay taxes? Why can't I have ice cream for every meal?

There's one example in a book where a boy asks his teacher why the Aztecs were so powerful. The teacher explained that it was because they were always taking over other lands, and the boy asked why that was. The teacher stuttered that it was because the Aztecs were greedy, but after the boy asked "why?" again, they had no response.

When you think about it, it seems like there are many things you can't explain, and all it takes is a few simple questions that could be constructed by a five-year old ("why?") to get to a point where your understanding is insufficient. This world of deeper levels might leave you a bit uncomfortable. How can there be so many things we don't understand? How can we continue to function in our everyday lives when we clearly don't comprehend the complexity that is present in the universe we live in?

The answer I would give (and will try to demonstrate) is:

  1. It is impossible to understand all the levels of "why" of the rules that govern our existence.
  2. We don't need to.

It is impossible to understand all the levels of "why" of the rules that govern our existence

Richard Feynman puts it like this at 1:39 in this great video:

When you explain a 'why', you have to be in some framework where you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you're perpetually asking 'why'.

What Feynman is saying is that any answer to a "why" question (or any question) is only satisfactory if there are axioms that are agreed upon (by the explainer and the explainee).

Even if you had the knowledge to tell the five-year old how the code worked in a smartphone, how the transistors worked with the code, and how the transistor atoms behaved, you would still not be able to explain why those atoms act in the way that they do. You're inevitably going to reach a level that you can't explain, so don't feel bad about it.

There has to be a point where the answer is "self-evident" enough for the people to be happy with the explanation. Whether that's "I'm satisfied with knowing that the phone is run by code, since I know what code is" or "I'm satisfied with knowing that the phone is run by code which is run by transistors which is run by atoms and fundamental forces, because I know what atoms and forces are from my physics class". None of those are the "true" final answer (since that would go on for infinity layers/levels), but they are satisfactory as long as we start from an assumption (e.g. I understand how code works).

To reach conclusions, logic is simply not enough. We require assumptions about the world that we can then utilize our logic on. And it depends on what assumptions you're prepared to make (do you have a five-year old/average person/programmer/physicist understanding?), but explanations will only make sense once you and your interlocutor decide on what level you start on.

We don't need to

Should you feel bad about not understanding the totality of a realm of knowledge? Not really - we just discussed how that is impossible. But also, that information is often simply not required. This goes back to a concept about truth vs. usefulness. There are many simple examples we can think of that having a better understanding of the truth is totally useless for your personal life. Using a water filter, driving a car, etc. - these are things you have a high-level understanding (how to use it) and don't need a low-level understanding (what is it powered by, how to build it).

Should you feel bad that you utilize a smartphone and don't understand the code behind it? Surely not- you use it every day with great success (to call/text your friends, to get directions, to browse mindless social media pages, etc.) so why worry yourself with some "better understanding"?

In fact, there are even times where a deeper layer of understanding (believing something that is more in line with reality than before) can lead you to act in ways that are less beneficial to your life. Some of these cases are explored in The Parable of the Simpleminded Gamer, where a higher level of understanding (a simplistic Layer 1) offers solutions/actions in line with a lower level of thinking (a comprehensive Layer 3), but those that are different from the middle level of understanding in between them (Layer 2).

To temper the thesis of that last section a bit, note that this does not mean that you should be haphazard about your actions/statements just because everything depends on things you cannot prove. For example, when your neighbour asks you "Why are you playing trumpet outside my house at 3am?", you shouldn't think that "I'm relying on the assumption that late-night music is a good thing." is a satisfactory answer. Because that's a bad assumption, as per the standards held by the neighbour (and the standards held by the police soon to arrest you).

And don't make the mistake of being too strict with the idea of "usefulness", either. Personally, I love thinking and learning about things that are totally irrelevant in my everyday life - just because they're interesting and fun to ponder. A quote from scientist Henri Poincaré reads: "The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful." The utility of science to a scientist (according to Poincaré) is the personal enjoyment of discovery/research - not the tangible outcomes. Just like how you are likely reading this article because you thought you might find something interesting that would invigorate your mind, and not necessarily because you would derive some sort of monetary value, career advice, life hack, etc. from it.

Another necessary point is that even obscure and esoteric knowledge can come in handy in situations you might not expect. Mathematician G. H. Hardy famously said "I have never done anything "useful". No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world." It seems clear that he subscribes to Poincare's ideas as well - that domain experts often pursue the fields for reasons (such as personal interest) other than deriving practical conclusions. However, Hardy's work absolutely did contribute to useful contributions to the world - such as in thermodynamics and population genetics - which just goes to show that lots of knowledge (even if it seems useless) can come in handy.

Why does the world have to be so complicated that even the fact that it's complicated is complicated?