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How far is too far when asking why?

  1. Mar 12, 2010 #1
    If I ask why about something how far should I go before I am happy with the answer I get? For example what if I ask why are magnets repellent of each other? As the a video I was watching with richard feynman where he suggested that some things are just accepted facts commonly known while some things can seem alien. In the video he seemed to be suggesting that asking why too much is a bad thing in the sense that you can get lost or lose the meaning by asking it with too much depth. I however am not so sure infact I would say I would want to keep asking why untill im out of breath.

    So basically what im asking is how skeptical are you and why? What makes the answer you get after asking the whys good enough for you?

    Like I said I myself would want to ask why untill I physically can't even if I got an answer I really really liked I think I would still ask the "why" question just to see if a better answer was around or to get different opinions.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 12, 2010 #2
    You will be much more satisfied with an answer you get if you quit before the person you are asking says "because I said so" or "because that is the way it is"
     
  4. Mar 12, 2010 #3
    See to me that's just a copout the whole because I said so never works for me I have gotta know why.

    So im correct in guessing that you arn't a skeptical skeeter?
     
  5. Mar 12, 2010 #4

    disregardthat

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    In the end, every set of explanations are circular reasoning. Asking why's is merely traversing the connected directed graph of relations between explanations. For each step, the more you intertwine the dots.
     
  6. Mar 12, 2010 #5

    DaveC426913

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    It is never too far to go to get an answer. The issue is to where you go for your answers. Don't pester people.


    I recall wanting to understand how muscles contract. I learned that muscles are composed of bundles of fibres that can contract and relax. Okay... how do the fibres contract? Well, the fibres are composed of individual strands that, when a tiny electrical current is applied to them can shorten. Okay, how do the strands shorten?

    I finally saw an animation that showed the molecules that comprised each strand. I could see how the K, Na and Ca atoms broke, moved and reconnected parallel strands, kind of like you might hand-over-hand on a horizontal ladder in a playground.

    Only then was I satisfied that I had the answer I needed.


    Keep looking for an answer. But you may not be able to look in one place for too long.
     
  7. Mar 12, 2010 #6

    DaveC426913

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    Everyone has their level of acceptance of when a question is answered. Essentially it comes down to the answer referring to facts that the asker is already comfortable with. In my case, that was satisfied when I saw the chemistry. I don't need to know how the chemistry works; I'm satisified that there's no mystery there.

    There is a whole book on how people decide a question has been answered. I read it many years ago, lost it, and have been searching for ever since. Every few years, I ask here on PF if anyone has ever heard of it.

    magpies, you would love this book.



    The book documents an actual experiment carried out in an auditorium of people.

    The curtain rises to show a table upon which sits a tall, narrow featureless box. Nothing happens for several minutes. Then with no preamble, the box falls on its side. End of presentation.

    The audience is given pen and paper and asked to explain what caused the box to fall over. There were as many answers as people in the room, but that wasn't what was fascinating. What was fascinating was how people decided that the question had been satisfactorily answered.

    Some simply said 'an internal force pushed it over', some went a little further, positing plausible ideas such as a stiff breeze or a string pulled by someone offscreen; some made elaborate explanations, filling their page, replete with diagrams and cutaways of levers, or blocks of melting ice. They found answers fell on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 being "it just fell", to 5 including diagrams.

    Sounds like you're a 5. :smile:
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2010
  8. Mar 12, 2010 #7

    lisab

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    Well I'm going to go waaaay out on a limb here and try to explain what Feynman was saying.

    Does physics ever really explain why? Not really. It explains how. That is, we know how gravity works in that we can calculate how fast a ball falls.

    But why does gravity work; why does the ball fall? No matter how you answer that question, you can ask "why?" again. And again, and again. There is no form of answer to which you can not again ask, "why?" Therefore, it's not answerable.

    Science really isn't so much about why, it's about how.
     
  9. Mar 12, 2010 #8

    disregardthat

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    Excactly, using the previous analogy: the purpose of asking why is to connect your newly achieved dots with a larger graph already existing graph.

    I'd say ultimately it's about how, but internally it's all about why and connecting the dots.
     
  10. Mar 12, 2010 #9
    To me science should be about the why more then the how. Whats the point of useing something if you don't understand why it works? Sure the how can get you a new toy particle accelerator but the real thing to me would be having the knowledge so you don't even need to build it to know how its going to work. Of course it is possible that you can not understand the why without first going into the how but I would personally hope that is more often then not not the case.
     
  11. Mar 12, 2010 #10

    disregardthat

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    What's the point of using a computer if you don't know how it works?
     
  12. Mar 12, 2010 #11
    Good question. Who knows?
     
  13. Mar 13, 2010 #12

    disregardthat

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    It is easily answered. The point is that you don't need to know how/("why" is perhaps a better word) the computer works down to its base level if you only want to use it. Same goes with nature.
     
  14. Mar 13, 2010 #13
    You should always question things; it is how we learn. However, it may be a possibility that there ARE some questions unanswerable to humans.
     
  15. Mar 13, 2010 #14


    You were not interested to know why the atoms broke and re-connected again a moment later? I think you've stopped before the best part, the part about the living atoms, or the "emergent phenomena" as they are best known, for lack of any understanding. This is where it seems the long chain of WHY's suddenly becomes - "Because!", and then silence sets in.
     
  16. Mar 13, 2010 #15
    When you make a full circle.
     
  17. Mar 13, 2010 #16

    DaveC426913

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    I know how bio molecules do their thing. I know enough, anyway.
     
  18. Mar 13, 2010 #17
    DaveC are you just saying that you know enough for just for now and will go back to finding more about the why of it later? In that case you would still be asking why but just with a "small" break right?
     
  19. Mar 13, 2010 #18

    disregardthat

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    If you merely ask "why" there is no sensible answer. You must in every case specify what you mean by "why", what context do you want the explanation to be in, i.e. what kind of relation do you wish to draw. If Dave, say, wanted to know the relationship between subatomic particles and the atoms in a chemical formula he could ask "why" in this context. That doesn't mean that chemistry is "based" upon subatomic physics such that not asking further is blindly accepting that "that's just the way it is", there is merely a natural relation. "Why" in itself in meaningless, and any proper question of "why" is never digging to the core of something, it is expanding that something further.
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2010
  20. Mar 13, 2010 #19

    DaveC426913

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    I'm saying I'm satisified with knowing how muscles contract. For me, it was the transition from a macroscopic contraction to an atomic scale interaction that was a mystery. Now that I've seen that transition, I have no trouble accepting the nuts & bolts below that. I accept that that proteins fold; exactly how these ones do it is of much less interest to me.
     
  21. Mar 14, 2010 #20

    "Enough" is relative and subjective and I think it makes it almost useless in science. You do not know why bio-molecules stop behaving like bio-molecules when an organism dies. "Dead" molecules and "living" molecules are as different as they can be, behaviour-wise. The self-organisation and self-sustainability aspects are critical for the differentiation into "regular" and "bio" molecules that have acquired the ability to exchange information, process it, respond to it, carry out tasks and probably bring about the phenomenon consciousness/self-awareness(which in turn controls the molecules you said were breaking when a muscle contracts).

    The whole position that information and the information-processing capability of a living cell is strictly a by-product of atoms and molecules seems to be a dead end. I agree on this with apeiron that this approch is fruitless, something like a top-down approach or a driving principle not yet discovered must be at play. I don't see science making progress on emergent properties while sticking to the old understanding that if you break something apart, you'll understand how it works. And that was essentially my point - that at some point the WHY's meet the wall we call "emergent behaviour". Whether current knowledge is enough is subjective and very temporal even on an individual basis.

    In a wider aspect, the whole notion of answering Why questions is endless. Even if all questions were answered somehow - we could not know why there is an explanation and understanding of something. You could always ask "why is there an explanation for the explanation of the explanation of the expl...". The human way of reasoning doesn't seem to show that it's well suited for discovering deep truths, imo.
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2010
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