Though it was, admittedly, many years ago, I recall vividly the very first seminar I attended as a Freshman in college. This was a real seminar, where the students were expected to carry the ball; not a “seminar” where students sat and listened to an “expert” talk at them. We had been reading Homer’s Illiad and about midway through the two-hour seminar I made what I thought was a salient point about the reasons Hector dragged Achilles’ body three times around Troy after killing him. Almost immediately another student looked at me and asked “why?” I was stunned. I thought the point was obvious. Why should I have to give reasons for what otherwise was as obvious as the proverbial nose on your face?
My blogging buddy Keith recently mentioned that his daughter, a college Freshman, was praised by her professor for writing a paper in his class in which she took exception to what the author had said. She was praised because she was one of the few students who disagreed with what she was reading and being told. She had asked herself the question: “why?” She was praised because she was one of the few who had done so.
Little kids ask the question “why? repeatedly out of their natural curiosity. Their fathers and mothers answer until they are finally forced to say “because I said so.” Perhaps this stops the question, but not for long. The child soon begins again: “Why Daddy?” “Why Mommy?” Eventually they stop asking the question. And the schools rarely encourage students to ask the question, so the kids stop asking questions and increasingly believe what they are told — even by chronic liars who couldn’t tell a fact if it came up and bit them in the butt.
Why is this? I never stopped asking this question after that first seminar. In fact, we had four years of seminars twice a week in which students were constantly asking the “why question.” It led me to philosophy where I have continued to ask the question ever since. Indeed, I wrote an ethics book that centers on the question “why?” in an attempt to encourage the students to ask that question at every turn — just as they did as little children. The “why question” requires that reasons be given for claims being made. One doesn’t simply accept as fact the things people say or write. One demands evidence and argument support — even in ethics, where we too frequently dismiss complex issues with the lazy response “who’s to say?”
Complex issues demand thought and the refusal to stop asking the why question until we have reached a point where the answer seems to be staring us in the face. When the weight of the evidence seems to have provided the answer, it is time to stop (subject to further review). But we never know when we have reached that point until we have examined the issue from both sides and have eliminated all possibilities. It is an exhausting process, but it is what makes us think when we might otherwise allow our mental faculties to sleep and simply accept as true a claim that is blatantly false. You know, the kinds of things that certain politicians say all the time.
There has never been a better time than the present to ask the “why question,” and we should not stop until it seems pointless to ask it any more. And that point cannot be reached without persistence and determination to know what is true and separate the true from the false, the absurd from the plausible, the reasonable from the unreasonable. We will never know where that point is until we have reached it. And it is best to have someone asking it with us, because two heads really are better than one — as I learned lo those many years ago in that seminar.