How, why, and “am I right?”

Humans have an almost irresistible urge to categorize things. Personally, I have always hated being “put into a little box,” such that someone could say anything fixed and static about me. It feels limiting. At the same time, I acknowledge that it comes, to a certain extent at least, naturally for me as well. And part of the initial instructions any infant’s brain comes equipped with is the natural tendency to categorize, to extract statistical regularities in the environment and create “natural kinds,” sets of objects and rules: things that are more similar than dissimilar, and transitions that are more likely to occur than others. How else are we supposed to survive if not by having some kind of model–or at least an inkling–about what is happening.

Having said that, I hope you will all forgive me. Equally as I do not approve of others putting me into little boxes of “how I am,” it just occurred to me that one way to “tell people apart”–that is to say to make a rather more than less useful distinction between them–is to ask whether they are How, Why, or “I’m right” people, or a combination thereof, and which aspect wins. What do I mean by that? Let me start by making a few observations…

Just as children have the almost super-natural capacity to learn without being actively taught, simply by engaging in and interacting with an environment–or can you actually remember how you learned your very first language without even having one to begin with?–they come, so it seems, filled to the brim with the desire to answer two fundamental questions in life.

The first one is really the most natural to ask: how do things work? I would describe this kind of curiosity as a necessity in such a way to be able to improve control over one’s environment. If I know how plants transform light into storable energy, I can try to mimic the mechanism, and if I know how people react to certain comments, I can slip them in at just the right moment–or not–to produce an effect. In short, answering the how question allows me to lead a better life by improving my chances of making correct predictions about the future, and I would call asking and correctly answering this question as being a model scientist.

The second big question comes just a little later in life, but, once it awakens, is probably even more daunting: why do things happen and people do the things they do? Even if I know all the mechanisms in the world–which, by the way, I would argue I never can or will, given that all thoughts and ideas can only ever be models, and not reality itself–I have this one nagging question remaining in my head, why? And this question can be asked already when I have no idea of a mechanism at all. And sometimes the question can be relatively trivial at first, such as for instance, why my mother decided to stop smoking during her pregnancies. But in the end, I believe, it always leads to the fundamentals: why am I? And why do I feel so lonely, lost, and in pain? Asking and at least attempting to answer these questions I would call being a model philosopher.

Unfortunately, children are often discouraged. They ask too many questions, some of which seem too hard to answer, either because we don’t know yet–how does gravity really work? How does evolution jump not gradually between species? How is it that I can only keep 6 or 7 words in working memory, but you still know, I hope, how I started this very blog post?–or because the answers can be painful to contemplate–why can’t we all be more peaceful? Why does evolution need to be so violent? And why do I have to die at all?–and so adults, the very same people who once themselves asked so many questions, often will say: “Because!”

It seems that the only alternative left is to then become what I call an “I am right” person. What do I mean by that? Well, in the absence of asking either how or why questions, it would seem that our minds still need to be doing something. Given the fact that we are extremely prodigious at categorizing, it would also seem a very great waste of resources not to make use of that capacity. And I would argue that our brains are simply propelled to be judgmental. And instead of attempting to make judgments that help–i.e. improve my ability to maneuver myself through an inexplicably complex reality–I form judgments that hurt.

The most fundamental and probably quite frequent judgment then would be, of course, “I am a bad person.” In light of all the things we are constantly being denied, we would love to ask the question, why? Why can I not have this or that, and why does this person not treat me the way I want to be treated? But asking those questions is no longer an option, and in the absence of an answer, it seems almost inevitable to conclude that I must be unworthy. And with that general background attitude, everything becomes a battle, a war. And instead of seeking to improve not only my but all lives, the motivation of self-preservation against the omnipotent enemy of self-doubt propels people to engage in some of the most self-destructive behaviors possible: suicide, homicide, or genocide.

As some final thoughts, I would say that (almost) all of the characters in stories that I love and admire are How or Why people; they are fearless, and non-judgmental. They take the risk of being wrong, because that’s the only way to learn anything. And they take things with enough humor. How do real people become (or maybe just stay) this way? I think by experiencing that being wrong is bliss, that making mistakes is just a natural part of existence, and that as long as we ask questions, we make progress.