Whether a person’s disposition is religious, scientific, or philosophical, it seems that the root of all that we are inherently begins with this simple question: Why?
One may argue, given the uniquely human characteristic that is complex language, that the very ability to ask and/or answer any question is a singularly human trait, and, regarding the literal act of formulating a question, I am inclined to agree, but answering most questions is a basic function of instinct. Instinct informs the animal kingdom what is edible and what is suitable shelter. Instinct distinguishes who is a suitable mate and who is a threat to the individual or group. Where to find food and shelter, or where to migrate or mate are also perfectly plain to creatures driven by instinct. When, though a torturously complex notion in human society, is, in the end, simply a function of the earth’s relation to the sun, and there is no doubt that both flora and fauna are tuned to the cycles of light and season.
How deserves special attention. The scientific minds among us might point out that good old-fashioned “know how” is a higher function. The ability to question the workings of a thing and develop the means to manipulate or repurpose our environment is certainly a feature most developed in human society, and it would be intellectually lazy to claim that how is simply a matter of function and not really a question at all. It is certain that finding new and more complex answers to the question of “by what means”, or, more succinctly, how, is a distinctly human endeavor. While sophistication of function and means, and the division of labor such sophistication necessitates is apparent throughout nature, i.e. insect colonies, in humans it is less a biological imperative of genetic disposition and more an intellectual imperative guided by culture and educational opportunity. Culture is not a function of how but instead a function of that all important question: Why.
For the Ancients, how and why were conflated concepts. Early notions of cause and effect inevitably boiled down to the will of spirits or, later, pagan gods. Humanity, even as we learned new and more efficient means of exploiting nature, remained at the whim of these other-worldly movers. Western society, undoubtedly self-assured by technological progress and the written word, a vastly superior means of data storage and transmission, crafted a new culture: monotheism. No longer did humanity feel as though we were at the whim of many outside actors, but instead a single Prime Mover. Over time the single Prime Mover, the monotheistic God of the ancient Near East, instilled in humanity a sense of genuine purpose and the notion that there was some underlying order to the physical world. How and why began to differentiate. How became a matter of understanding basic structures and functions, deducing through observation, trial, and error The Architect’s design. Why became a question of purpose, the reason for a given action. How became the realm of science and further human “progress”, while why was left to stagnate in the metaphysical and “unpractical” realms of religion and the liberal arts.
Just as monotheism delivered us from the “superstitious” past and gave birth to a greater sense of purpose, modern science claims to free our minds to bypass the sacred altogether, but if the sacred is nothing but “superstition” then what is the point of all this? In other words: Why bother?
Sacred or not, the magic of why has not simply passed away; it has not been replaced by a cold and rational universe. Human beings still cling to this most cherished trait, this notion of purpose. The inspirational and invigorating power of purpose, the power of why, has lost its transcendent luster. Why now rears its head in the most grotesque of human activities: the formation of ideologies. Not only does why fester and spoil in racism, nationalism, sexism, et cetera; it has even turned on its traditional master, religion. Though history is rife with acts of ignorance and violence from those claiming to obey this or that godhead, for the majority of people religion was once a source of education, culture, and momentary transcendence. Divorced from the prevailing zeitgeist by an overzealous and myopic intelligentsia, religion has become a breeding ground for all sorts of virulent purposes: Christian doctor slayers, the commercialization of Eastern philosophies, Muslim terrorists, a cacophony of neo-Pagan hucksters and charlatans, and glad-handing celebrity cults, not to mention the vapid hero-worship of celebrity itself.
Science and technology provide the means for a healthier and more efficient lifestyle, the how of survival. Science also provides the means of humanity’s possible, dare I say likely, destruction. There is only a razor’s edge between these two outcomes of science, and without why, without a defined purpose, destruction, either accidental or deliberate, becomes the far more likely scenario. Divorced from religion’s great purpose, science has freed itself to make poorer and poorer decisions: atomic weapons, bio-chemical warfare, a medical establishment that profits from and proliferates disease, dependence on a plethora of destructive chemicals and processes. Science has become the religion of why not? Self-indulgent technocrats have become high priests and “great minds” of the past their pantheon. Without why, without purpose science becomes a murderous paganism.
Why? Without why there is no rational purpose. Without a rational purpose, we will create irrational purposes. Without purpose there is no goal. Without goals and the will to achieve them we are nothing more than animals. Like an inquisitive and precocious child repeat the mantra: Why? Why? Why?