“Why?” Questions

I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

—Richard Feynman

I’m fascinated by “Why?” questions! When I start following a well-framed question down chains of causality, I often find that the answers end up cycling among some combination of the following points:

  • Fundamental forces and physical constants and math

  • Probability

    (Derived forms include entropy and habit; combine with energy gradients to get evolution.)

  • Uncertainty

    (See also: the uncertainty principle, Planck scale, quantum foam, and Shannon entropy)

  • Computational irreducibility

    (See also: unpredictability and chaos theory)

  • Mutual causality

    The Buddhist idea of paticca samuppāda, or interdependent co-arising. Explored at length in Joanna Macy‘s book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. (See also strange loops.)

  • Game rules and social agreements

    This last one is less of a stopping point and more of a placeholder, signifying “If you aren’t willing to follow the rule, you can’t keep playing the game.” If it’s a multiplayer game like “Romantic Relationships!” or “Capitalism!” the limiting factor is often other people’s willingness to continue playing with you. In retributive justice games, rule violations can carry a risk of ostracism, exile, imprisonment, or other inconvenient punishments such as execution. In restorative justice games, social agreement violations may require extensive processing to repair empathetic connections before the player is allowed to rejoin the game.

    If it’s a single-player game like “Life!” or “Consciousness!” the limiting factor is more like, “If you don’t go along with the rules, it might undermine your ability to continue exploring the game space.” These conventions are very situation-dependent, but share a common feature: violations can carry a risk of impeding your access to the energy gradients necessary to maintain the homeostasis that supports the wetware that’s running your consciousness [to the best of our knowledge].

    These game rules are something like Sheldon Cooper’s shorthand for “non-optional social conventions,” but are they really “non-optional”? If we want to avoid getting stuck in a local optimum of awesomeness, important followup questions include: “Can this game rule or social convention be hacked or optimized?” and “What are the potential consequences of hacking it?”

    Some games may not be “worth the candle,” meaning the experience isn’t worth the energy expenditure. (For other games, “the only winning move is not to play.”) Perhaps the best question of all: “Can we find a better game to play?”

(This classification system is somewhat similar to a system proposed by Robert Anton Wilson in The New Inquisition, “in which propositions can be assigned one of 7 values: true, false, indeterminate, meaningless, self-referential, game rule, or strange loop” [source].)

These points can interact in interesting ways. If you ask, “Why are the fundamental forces and physical constants the way they are?”, potential answers could include:

  • Because if the forces and constants were sufficiently different, the universe could not support life and/or computation, and there would be no one around to ask the question. (See also: various flavors of the weak anthropic principle) [Physics + Mutual causality]
  • Because if the forces and constants were sufficiently different, the universe could not support conscious observers, and there would be no one around to collapse the wave function of the universe. (See also: the participatory anthropic principle) [Physics + Uncertainty and/or Mutual causality]
  • Because, if universes in the multiverse reproduce through black holes (or unimaginably advanced intelligent life), then seemingly “fine-tuned” universes will predominate through cosmological natural selection. [Physics + Probability]
  • Because we’re living in a simulation, and it’s been optimized for good computation. (See also: this SMBC comic) [Physics + Computational irreducibility]

More resources about “Why?” questions:

Dissolving the Question

More information and discussions from Less Wrong

SMBC Comics on “Why?” questions

(click thumbnail for full comic)


Dinosaur Comics on “Why?” questions:


Richard Feynman on magnets and “Why?” questions


Why are barns red?

How the price of paint is set in dying stars

A meditation by Yonatan Zunger, via BoingBoing

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