Monday 4 September 2017

#240 Thoughts on asking "Why not?" instead of "Why?"

I was having a conversation with an acquaintance earlier and we found ourselves chatting about the usage of a certain type of question. I say "we found ourselves chatting"; I mean I brought it up and she played ball, which is more than I know to expect from many other people when it comes to these types of discussions.

I'd been on an old video game forum earlier in the day and someone had asked me if I wanted to have some fun. I declined, mostly because I liked the irony of the response (why would anyone decline something fun?) and partly because I had no idea why I was apparently being propositioned on a gaming forum. It was what came next though, that got me thinking. The person asked "Why not?"

Why not?

To understand why this type of question gets me thinking takes some explaining. 

When you ask someone why something happened, you assume a normal causal relationship. It happened because of x. However, when you ask someone why something didn't happen, you assume another kind of causal relationship. A fake one. The it would have happened but... relationship (for an explanation of why I hate the word "but", see post #214).

Now... when all is said and done, I'm not saying that asking why something happened is any better. Ultimately none of us knows why anything happens... because you can always add another layer to the inquiry. Ok, so why did that happen? Ah but then why did that happen? We go on and on until nobody cares anymore. 

When something bad happens, if we can come up with a good reason before the level at which we stop caring, we excuse the thing that happened or try to deal with it. If we can't, we call it evil and we blame someone or something for it but that's another story.

At least when we rely on the normal causal relationship, there's some level of truth to it. We can prove that x happened because of y and y happened because of z. We come up with a nice little story.

Can we do that with the fake causal relationship? We can certainly try but I'm not sure it's always worth it. We thought that x was going to happen because of y but x didn't happen, so we ask why x didn't happen... sometimes it's a nonsensical question. To understand why, imagine how many things don't happen all the time.

When we want to know what sandwich a vendor stocks, we might ask them what they have. To ask what they don't have is madness. They don't have almost everything! Why don't they have almost everything? It's a completely bonkers question because nobody in their right mind would ever suppose that they should stock every possible filling.

If it's a really good sandwich shop, they might have thirty different fillings but there'll be millions and millions that they don't have. Grasshopper sandwiches. Great white shark sandwiches. Titanium valve spring sandwiches.

Say they don't have peanut butter though. How come they have all these fillings but not peanut butter? It's a reasonable question but it's not the most reasonable question (it might be for efficiency but I'm focussing on something else here). The most reasonable question is why we thought the shop would have peanut butter in the first place.

In the process of writing this, I think I've come up with a more eloquent way of expressing what I think I'm talking about...

Oftentimes, it is necessary, or more efficient to ask why something hasn't happened but sometimes...

It's like they're looking at a glass half full of water and asking why half of it is empty. 

The glass is half full and they're choosing to focus on the empty half.


Fizzfan said...

Are you in training to be a politician?
And if not, why not?

Profound Familiarity said...

Haha :)

Running on empty said...

We eat shark here. Available in most fish and chip shops. It's called flake.

Profound Familiarity said...

I never knew that. Is it nice?

Running on empty said...

Flake has a decent flavour, but if you can ever have it, try barrumundi.