Why “Why?” is Our Most Fundamental Question

Jim Mason
2 min readMar 17

And what that tells us about ourselves and other thinking beings

Photo by Felipe Simo on Unsplash

We humans have an unusual ability to ask ourselves and others the causes and reasons for things and events that we experience. “Why is the sky blue?” is a familiar example of a question that a child may ask a parent. An answer — whether “God made it that way” or “I don’t really know” or “Because the atmosphere reflects and refracts sunlight in a way that mainly light rays from the part of the visible spectrum that we call ‘blue’ reaches our eyes” — may invoke further questions, such as “Why did God make it that way?” or “How can I find out why?” or “What does ‘refracts’ mean?”

Our search for answers to “why” questions is part of our wider curiosity, expressed by questions of “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and “how”. But while answers to those questions help us to share many beliefs about our environment and ourselves, and thus coordinate our behavior on the basis of those shared beliefs, “why” questions can be self-reflexive in enlightening ways, “Why (do/should we) ask why?” being particularly so.

Answers to “why” questions about ourselves and others can help us to change our own behavior in ways that benefit both ourselves and others with whom we share our lives.

Here is an example monologue to consider:

“Why do I believe what I do?” “Because of what I have experienced and what I have been told by others.”
“But why do I believe what I have been told by others?” “Because I like them and I trust them.”
“But why do you like them and why do you trust them?”
“And why do they tell me what they do?”

Think of Fox News Corporation and Donald Trump for specific current examples of “them” before you consider answers to the last two questions.

Other animals that we know of, and the “artificial intelligences” that we have created so far, seem to be incapable of asking themselves useful “why” questions, particularly ones related to their own behavior. That leaves us humans alone, so far as we know, in our ability to deliberately improve our own individual and collective behavior to our mutual benefit.

Jim Mason

I study language, cognition, and humans as social animals. You can support me by joining Medium at https://jmason37-80878.medium.com/membership