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The Big Why - The Pursuit and Communication of Understanding

Updated: May 29, 2019

Alongside my work in Video and mass communication, there has always been a passion for the grand quest to uncover the way the world works. This post explores some of my latest thoughts.

"What?" "How?“ and especially "Why?" "Why is the world the way it is?" "Why does it matter?" "Why am I asking why all the time?" That constant questioning, it’s enough to drive you nuts. Or at least, if not actually certifiably insane, it’s enough to have a negative impact on your confidence, your ability to interact with people and to take action.

Inside it felt like there had to be some upside to this. Somehow, somewhere, all that thought, all those questions would have value to someone if only I could just break through.

After working through religion, quantum physics, evolutionary biology, cosmology, philosophy, psychology and massive chunks of sometimes stultifying, sometimes sublime Ordinary Life, I amazed myself by coming up with an actual answer.

One of those questions, “Why am I asking why all the time?” Or rather “Why do we ask why?” turned out to be the key to everything else.

Why do we ask why? Evolutionary biology suggests that the simple reason is that it confers advantage. Why is that bush moving? Is it a predator? Why is that plant growing there? Can I find water nearby? But these kind of questions seem to be of a different order to “What is the purpose of suffering?” Or “Why do we ask why?”

We can maybe look at the way we have out-competed every other animal on the planet and say “We harnessed fire, made tools and wheels. There’s your proof bigger questions gave us an advantage”

I return to the mantra, “Why do we ask why?” It is such a glib phrase yet if we engage with it there is a huge depth there with multiple layers of abstraction from the practical world; a situation where the framework that supports the ability to conceive of the question in the first place is simultaneously dismantled by the fact that we have noticed the framework. And look at some of the other questions we ask: What is the meaning of life? How does the sense of self appear from neural activity? Can quantum weirdness be explained if the world is really information?

What is the evolutionary driver for even having the capability to ask questions such as these?

I would like to propose a radical alternative.

The reason we ask “why?” is that it is programmed into us. Not by any outside agency; not by aliens, or a supernatural being, or a plot by the illuminati, the CIA or China’s Ministry of State Security. Not by subliminal blipverts or an education whose purpose is to turn us into dissatisfied citizens and hence neurotic serial consumers, but by the fact that we are part of the universe.

The key idea is that the universe came into existence, probably as a result of something along the lines of what we currently term the Big Bang, and with it came the Big Why. What is the The Big Why? I couldn’t tell you. I’m pretty sure my limited biological capabilities, my time-bound human perceptive and cognitive faculties are only capable of comprehending a tiny fraction of it, and however many times cleverer than me you are, however many books on the multidimensional mathematics of quantum loop gravity you’ve written, however connected you are to the oneness of existence, you too are limited to a tiny fraction of it.

We come along, probably through a long, long series of random events and as part of the universe, insignificant though we are, we reach a level of complexity where we are able to ask “why?” ourselves. We can’t help it. We are programmed that way, simply by being part of the universe.

Despite the bookful of compelling argument I could present, it probably isn’t true, this idea. But after driving myself even crazier for some time, I realised that it still has value.

Just take a step back for a moment, imagine you are an alien scholar on a field trip and observe humanity. What are they all doing? There are all kinds of answers you could come up with. They seem to be obsessed with a few processes, these humans. The process of exchanging value. The process of communicating. They are especially obsessed with the process that leads to reproduction, your plasma entity alien scholar alter-ego reports back to its thesis supervisor. Yes, yes, replies the plasma entity professor, but what is the output of humanity? Initially upset by the cool reception to what it thought was a pretty incisive report, your alien alter-ego plasma entity scholar sits down, brews itself a nice cup of disassociated quarks and in a flash of inspiration, realises that the output of humanity is understanding. All that exchanging of value, communicating and obsessing about the process of reproduction produces - answers.

Your alien scholar plasma entity alter-ego, and your actual self too, should you wish, has a sudden realization that all of science, technology, communication and the economic and cultural structures that support them can be seen as the means to find answers to the Big Why, or at least the bits of it we can access. And we have found some pretty impressive answers, even though those answers open even greater vistas of ignorance to explore.

The concept that the purpose of our collective existence is to find answers to the Big Why is a vastly powerful idea despite the lack of any hard evidence supporting it.

It is vastly powerful for the same reason religion is powerful, for the same reason liberal democracy (or for that matter communism, feudalism or tribalism) is powerful, for the same reason money is powerful.

It is vastly powerful because as individuals, and especially as cultures, we don’t operate rationally. We operate narratively.

And the fundamental difference between the World That Is and the narrated World As We Describe It is that in filtering out all the stuff that isn’t relevant to what we are engaged with, we are always making choices about the descriptions, the narratives, we operate by. It’s just that most of the time, we don’t realise we are making choices. The Big Why gives us a crowbar to lift the lid on this process and hopefully learn to make it work for us. Think of it as a reframing tool. A tool that helps you choose a narrative to operate by.

Out of the competing mass of ideas floating around, from nationalism to fundamentalism, the narrative I would rather operate by is an idea that looks forward with boldness and an open mind rather than backwards with blinkered fear. The narrative I would rather operate by is an idea that has the findings and advancement of science at its core. The narrative I would rather operate by is an idea that is based on the highest achievements of mankind’s co-operative capabilities.

This is not some fanciful Utopian dream. it is happening now. Look around. Look past the posturing politicians, the dysfunctional social structures, the waste of human potential and see what we have done: We have space telescopes, the Large Hadron Collider, gravity wave detectors. We are on the verge of reaching another planet. What I am suggesting is that we consider the scientists, engineers, administrators and politicians who have brought these astonishing tools of discovery to fruition, along with the industrial, economic and cultural structures that enable them, to all be operating in pursuit of The Big Why.

If you are thinking “What’s the point? Why give it a name? It’s just what people do”, then that is the point. It is what people do. The reason it needs a name is because we fumble along in the name of Progress, but we have no sense of the direction we are progressing in. In the name of “Progress” we have brought our small, vulnerable planet to the brink of environmental catastrophe. In the name of “Progress”, children toil in factories for 12 hours a day. In the name of “Progress” freedom loving superpowers rain bombs on families who daren’t even dream of freedom.

The Big Why is a way of describing a benign, deity-less, science-led grand purpose for mankind. A purpose that transcends any division between people, a purpose that seeks truth and values curiosity, a purpose that is open to discussion and to doubt yet gives us real, observable results.

The Big Why provides a perspective, a way of seeing the world, our place in it and even the actions we take, not just on the distant level of humanity as a whole but on the individual, personal level. If the world sometimes seems like a crazy, overwhelming mess then The Big Why provides a solid place to stand.

Phil Eastabrook

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