WHY? WHY? WHY?

For me, philosophy started when I saw an episode of the TV show called The Prisoner, called The General, when a super-computer is presented as the show's main protagonist. The villains believe the computer can answer literally any question put to it, but when this is tested out by The Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan) asking it the question 'Why?' the computer self-destructs trying to answer it. It was an assumption in the days before Bill Gates that computers would explode rather than just say 'does not compute' or 'insufficient' data.

I was turned on to the idea of answering the great unanswerable question ever afterwards.

Some of you may assume that the question is easy to answer. Why? Because! There; that's out of the way with. But 'Because' is no answer at all. The computer could easily come back with 'Because what?' Or 'why because?' The question would therefore be no nearer to an answer.

The answer? There probably isn't one. That is actually a heresy in philosophy. The process of 'reasoned argument' presupposes that there is a reason, for everything. Rational thought presumes that there is a rational conclusion to be drawn. Philosophy assumes that the reasoning process of enquiry can ultimately give a valid, logical response to all before it. Why? May elicit many more valid responses other than 'because!' Answers might be, 'No particular reason,' 'Why not?' or even 'just because'. The latter is different to 'because' in that it is similar to the mountaineer's reply to the question of why he nearly kills himself conquering Everest. 'Because it's there.' It's ultimately a dismissive, unsatisfactory, non-answer. A bazooka, and an elephant might be there, but that doesn't compel us (I hope) to use one to destroy the other just because the potential exists.

In many ways, 'Why?' is a question of cause and effect. We assume that X happens because something either caused it to happen, or because X is something that needs to occur to result in the consequence of something else happening.. If a murder is committed. We rightly ask 'Why?" This presupposes a motive, (a cause involving certain desired consequences), premeditation and deliberation, or an aberrant, irrational impulse, (an alternative cause, compulsion rather than planned motivation). We don't consider that the murder simply occurred. The 'why?' question along with who? what? where? when? & how?, are essential to the investigation of the crime.

Strangely, we often take the why? For granted. The earliest joke we all hear is 'Why did the chicken cross the road? The reply 'To get to the other side' seems to satisfy us as kids even though it actually explains nothing, and isn't actually funny either. The chicken is simply moving to a set course, from A to B, one side of the road to the other. Why? We don't have sufficient data to know that.

Philosophy attempts to answer the question posed at its outset by Thales; "What does the entire Universe consist of?' Philosophy has the arrogant conviction that we can actually answer the question. Had Thales's contemporaries said 'no idea, mate' or 'who cares' the history of philosophy would have been very short indeed. Humans have a compulsion and a motivating drive inside them to answer every question put before them. We naturally come up with many answers. On the question of the origins of the Universe there are those who cite God as the cause, and others who cite The Big Bang. Each come up with various logical, reasoned, arguments in favour of their viewpoint, and no doubt passionately believe their view to be nearer the truth. I side with the scientists in the matter, personally, but it is worth noting how every watertight argument forwarded by any philosopher is torn asunder by the next generation of thinkers. Mill's Utilitarian argument that the happiness of the majority is all important has been largely quashed by those who say that Utilitarianism is in danger of creating a tyranny of the minority by the majority.

It is terribly dangerous to assume that we can answer a foundation question like Why? For one thing it might be that we can't answer it at all, or that b/. Our answers might convince us and others that they are right when in fact we are barking up the wrong tree. Look at how many books have been written on the JFK assassination. Every theory is considered. Oswald worked alone. There was a second, third or a multitude of other gunmen. The CIA did it. Cuban Communists did it. The Mafia did it. Somewhere amidst the sea of literature on the subject of JFK's death, someone has probably hit on the right answer, but the swamp of other material on the subject automatically puts the true answer in doubt. Ask 'Why' and you don't get one answer; you get thousands and an invitation to take your pick.

In 1987, I was given an essay assignment at college entitled 'Discuss the influence of Existentialism in John Fowles's novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman'.

Unorthodox as ever, I wrote to Fowles personally to ask him his view. After a few weeks, expecting no reply, and finding deadline for submission of the work pending, I did the essay, found dozens of reasons in the text for concluding that Fowles was a hardened Sartrean philosopher, handed the work in and got a very good mark for it. Then he replied. "Sorry for the delay. I've been on holiday, but in response to your question, the influence of Existentialism on my work is minimal..' I handed the letter to my tutor, who found it as amusing as I did.

Why? Lots of reasons really. Why? Could you be more specific please? Why? Why? Don't know. So; over to you - WHY?

Arthur Chappell