Why and How?

a dialogue between

Rose Pettengell & James Soderholm

Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie? – Der Mensch strebt nicht nach Glück; nur der Engländer thut das.

If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.

—Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Maxims & Arrows, 12

JS: That last swipe at ‘the Englishman’ seems intended for Jeremy Bentham and his ‘hedonistic calculus,’ which Nietzsche clearly thought was an absurd way to think about both ethics and pleasure. But there’s plenty to chew and digest before that remark. Christianity—and all world religions—immediately come to mind as a way of thinking or believing that supplies needy human beings with a sacred ‘why’ that will sort out almost any ‘how.’ In fact, one could easily argue that religion (and God) were invented precisely to give us a reliable ‘why’ and that would make sense and give meaning to any ‘how’ or ‘what’ of our suffering. The Book of Job as a case in point. We are miserable because we are meant to be suffering as a way of eventually getting into heaven or—in the fortunate case of Job—being rewarded two-fold in this life. 

But I take the last three hundred years of human history to be a profound erosion of that ‘why’ as we become more scientific, secular and far less superstitious. The good news: we no longer believe in fairy tales that give us a ‘why’ in life. The bad news: we now have to deal with misery and suffering with no understanding of why they must happen. I’m sure there are many other ways to interpret Nietzsche’s epigram, but this is the first thing that comes to mind. What do you think of the strange pas de deux of ‘why’ and ‘how’?

RP: The ‘why’ and ‘how’ are most unfortunately interlinked. You’re right in saying that religion provided the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ for everyone up until some hundred years ago, but now with a turn towards rational and scientific thought we no longer have the ‘why’or sometimes the ‘how.’ As human beings plagued and blessed with consciousness we need a ‘why’ and a ‘how’ in order for life to have some meaning or sense to it.

I think ‘suffering’ is a relative term to any time period, you talk of us now having to suffer because we are no longer given a ‘why’ and the ‘how’ becomes so much harder. But one must not forget that life during these times was so unforgiving, unpredictable and therefore harder in the sense that in a blink of an eye, you could just die—it was pure luck whether you survived or not. People needed a ‘why’ then more than they do now. Due to environmental conditioning, we have ‘grown up’ because the science that gave us medicine has also taken away the ‘father figure in the sky’ that feeds, as Freud puts it, the 'infantile neediness.’ 

People of rational thought today are given the task of deciding for themselves what their ‘why’ and ‘how’ are. I for one decided my ‘why’ during my childhood but take the ‘how’ as it comes. I’m not sure deciding both is achievable and maybe it should not be? 

JS: Yes, there are many forms of suffering, from being surprised and then mauled by the sabre-tooth tiger to—at the other end of the spectrum—being mauled by nerves, anxiety, ‘stress’ and the tiger of insomnia that produces its own species of suffering. How can one judge which kind of suffering is more horrible? But certainly in all cases, the ‘why’ of suffering makes nearly any ‘how’ of suffering bearable, and we are back to Nietzsche’s main point: suffering must have a meaning or it is intolerable. I think your reference to Freud is perspicuous and accurate and you are no doubt right to observe that science is not particularly good at filling in the ‘why’ vacuum because it deals mostly in ‘hows’ and ‘whats.’  

I am intrigued by the ‘why’ you discovered in childhood. And if you are possessed of a sturdy ‘why’, then the ‘how’ is mostly neutralised, right? I am rather plagued in having it the other way around: I have no reason at all for living another day, no ‘why’ to my existence, and so each ‘how’ that comes along simply racks up the meaninglessness. I am Sisyphus, but not Camus’s, who is somehow happy each time he pivots and walks down the hill to push that damned rock up again. 

Therefore, I am eager to hear more about your ‘why’.

RP: Even though science is less good at filling the ‘why’, scientists often get a feeling of maybe a placebo ‘why’ from their ‘whats’ and ‘hows.’ They may not have an understanding of the greater ‘why’ but the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ suffice to dampen that thirst. People who study philosophy and other humanity subjects are more plagued by the ‘why’ than scientists are. So I have come to the conclusion that actually if one has either the ‘why’ or the ‘how,’ one can survive being without the other. We must remember that Nietzche was of course a philosopher and science in his day had only just begun its journey to what it is today. In relation to the ‘what,’ I think it is up to men and women to discover that for themselves throughout their lives and knowing either the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ aids that adventurous discovery. 

My ‘why’ is concerned with connections between other people and helping them, and you are right, it neutralises the how (even if the how can be overwhelming at times). The only purpose that makes sense as to why I’m here is to help others. I don’t see the miracle of life as what you can take from it, but in fact what you can give. If one can give something to the world (however small) and to other people’s lives, then you’re here for a reason; if you spend your life taking everything on offer and indirectly living off other people’s suffering to aid your own, then there is no point to the things you have taken or to the life you have led.  

JS: I think you’ve hit on an admirable ‘why’ that involves making life better for other people as we all tilt toward the long night of the grave. I think I must be too interior (and perhaps selfish) for that ‘why’ to take hold in my soul, although I do reflexively help out people if they seem to be in dire straits. I won’t cross the street to help someone but I will help someone on my side cross the street if they need assistance.  

I think intellectual companionship provides a kind of ‘why’ because in an important sense I live for these dialogues. Intense curiosity keeps me above ground. If the point of life is nothing more than—as Byron said—‘to see what happens next,’ then I suppose I am waiting to see what my dialogic partner will come up with in her next entry. Dialogues relieve the suffering of intellectual and spiritual loneliness. I also stay alive to absorb great works of art. If I had any genuine talent, I would stay alive to see if I could create at least one work of art before taking a ‘dirt nap’ (death).  

But I do not know if these interests provide a sturdy enough ‘why’ to ‘get along with almost any how.’ I suspect your ‘why’ is far more reliable and trustworthy. It is certainly less self-interested. Life is a kind of evolutionary miracle, although really the only thing required for this particular miracle is one hell of a lot of time. Astonishing what bacteria can do if you give it a couple of billion years. It even can evolve into creatures who are beset by questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’? Will we evolve beyond that? Is it happening now?  

RP: There is no right or wrong ‘why’, but maybe there is a right and wrong ‘how’...? 

Everything and everyone are always evolving. The Darwinian concept of evolution that I believe you are referring to is still happening (so scientists tell us), but the time frame in which it is happening is so great that the notion is almost impossible for us to comprehend. I do, however, believe that our consciousness is evolving and at a much faster rate. The evolution of our consciousness is far more interesting an achievement than the physical evolution of our species because it is the very reason we can think to feel a ‘why’ and/or a ‘how.’ 

I think the ‘why’ and ‘how’ dilemma that we face holds a similar, if not the same, relationship as the heart and the brain do (emotion vs rational thought). But to be able to find a balance between the two means to live in peace with the raging opposites, for as Hannah Arendt says in one of her essays, “man needs a thinking heart.” Human beings have always sort to find the ‘why’ in their lives, but what if consciousness can evolve within us so that we no longer need that ‘why’ and can simply accept ‘any how’? Would we then be supreme beings or just like animals? Is there something God-like about not needing a ‘why’? 

JS: I read or heard somewhere that the creatures evolving from us that will witness the death of the sun in about 4 billion years will be as unlike us as we are to the amoeba. No wonder I can’t sleep with stuff like that to think about!  

I think your final three questions deserve a book but a dialogue is what we have. In his disturbing meditation, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals, John Grey suggests that human beings have arrogantly separated themselves from ‘lower’ animals in order both to subjugate them and aggrandise themselves as nearly god-like beings. Yuval Harari runs with that thesis in Homo Deus. Grey argues that humans alone need aims and purposes (and ‘whys’) in life. Other, healthier animals just float along with ‘hows’ and are not pestered by purposes. Harari’s book closes with the question: 

"What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?"  

I am guessing that those god-like algorithms have transcended ‘why’ and have probably digested ‘how’ as well. Only AI-mathematical ‘what’ remains chugging along, playing itself out: a formula. Is that something to look forward to? Can an algorithm create a work of art, make love, listen to Bach and weep for joy, or write a beautiful dialogue? If not, then how can such creatures really “know us better than we know ourselves” unless we have become more machine than human?  

RP: I agree with you. How can “non-conscious” creatures know us better than we know ourselves? We may not know ourselves very well but a machine cannot look at a piece of art and appreciate it or respond with emotion to another human being. We have not become more machine than human yet, but if the future takes a turn for the worse, that may be our fate; in which case highly intelligent algorithms we may evolve to be. But that society will be the living dead. An algorithm cannot create a work of art, it may be able to technically, but art is an expression of emotion and no machine can ever achieve that because mathematically emotions, such as love and hate, cannot be solved. They do not make sense to a rational mind, let alone mathematically. 

As for John Grey’s comment, we may have “arrogantly separated ourselves from ‘lower’ animals” but given the gift of consciousness to make that decision, we would’ve been foolish to have ignored such a choice (and choice is the key word here). I would much rather be an arrogant God-like human being, than living like the ‘lower’ animals on Earth. As highly creative and intelligent beings, we are able to see and experience more of the world than animals do. Dolphins have no idea what it is like to view the world from 10,000 feet up, lions have no idea what the sea bed looks like and an eagle does not know that lava flows beneath the earth it sees. We can experience everything almost every other animal on this earth does and know more; does that make us a summation of all life on Earth? 

I think without needing a ‘why’ we would become both God-like and animal-like at the same time, and consequently no longer human. Needing a ‘why’ is uniquely human, no other animal, being or machine is able to feel and express emotion in the same way. That can be both a gift and a curse, but then that’s the beauty of it. Because of this heightened sense of emotional awareness, I think we need to give ourselves a ‘why’ and stumble through an ‘how’ in order to live another day without being completely overwhelmed and lost.

JS: I suppose we can take some comfort in knowing that the human brain—even one pickled by decades of boozing—is still by far the most complex organism in the universe. The number of neural pathways is nearly 1000 trillion. If you add cardio-neural synchronisations and other brain-heart synergies, these strongly suggest that the human organism simply cannot be replicated by even the most dazzlingly-complex AI. The ‘thinking heart’ you mentioned may well be matchless and I would defy an AI creature to write a dialogue with us where we could not immediately discern that it was not a human being but an artificial life form (so much for the Turing Test).

I am the kind of person who stumbles, and often falls, through the ‘hows’ of life vaguely in search of a ‘why’ that I suspect is never going to be found, like waiting for Godot. I don’t feel like ‘a summation of all life on Earth’ but I certainly see your point and its distinctive beauty. The evolutionary process that made this very dialogue possibly is so staggeringly-improbable that one should never forgot all the Goldilocks conditions leading up to it. And yet—there is still no ‘why’ in evolutionary biology, only an immensely long chain of ‘whats.’ John Grey would tell me to just give up and to concentrate simply on seeing (understanding) the animality of the human. Why is that so difficult to do?  

RP: But that is where John Grey is wrong, because we are in fact not animals. This thing called consciousness separated us from the animal kingdom a very long time ago and because of it, we cannot just sit back and give into the animality within us; that would mean acting on instinct instead of rational thought and judgement. What would happen to the world if such high intelligent beings as ourselves starting doing things because essentially, we felt like it? The world would literally blow up. “Seeing the animality of the human” is pointless and gets no one anywhere. 

There is no ‘why’ in evolutionary biology because science is only concerned with the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’; we create the ‘why’. If the answer was right there in front of us we wouldn’t need this thing called the mind to think it over and we’d just be like every other animal. 

 I love that I can find so many unexplainable ‘errors’ to our existence and evolution. Doesn’t it comfort you that human beings are so unique?

JS: As you suggested above, that uniqueness is a bewildering blend of gift and curse because consciousness is the most mixed of blessings. It makes us—as Hamlet says—“the paragon of animals…the quintessence of dust.” We are god-like and “noble in faculties” but we are also one of the filthiest, most brutish, nasty, polluting and self-polluting creatures on the planet, and some populations use their religious ‘why’ to fly planes into skyscrapers to kill as many infidels as possible who worship a different ‘why’ or—even worse to them—no ‘why’ at all.  

So, it’s all a bit of muddle. I keep trying to enjoy the beauty of consciousness and all the good it has wrought, but the other side of consciousness and rationality—the abuses of these faculties—is depressing to contemplate. As the author of Grendel (John Gardner) put it—thinking of the violence of human beings—“no wolf was ever so cruel to other wolves.” And as much as I wish I had a sturdy ‘why’ to get me through some long nights of a tormented soul, I also understand that the entire drive to have a sacred ‘why’ has licensed some of the most vile and odious behaviour on the planet. Therefore, human ‘uniqueness’ is, for me, the sharpest and deadliest of double-edged swords.

RP: But isn’t life just “the sharpest and deadliest of double-edged swords”? We may never find and agree on an affirmative ‘why’, but maybe the journey in search of it is in fact the very ‘why’ itself. 

JS: That is pretty much what the existentialists say: the search for meaning is as much meaning as we’re going to get. I have never found that satisfying. It’s a bit like saying ‘you will never cure your cancer but the search for the cure for cancer is what will keep you going.’ Just remain ‘positive’ as the chemo-therapy and radiation treatments reduce you to a vomiting, balding husk. I’d rather just become a Catholic again and pretend that walking into a Cathedral answers all the ‘whys’ at once.  

RP: I often wish I were religious. I wish that all my troubles and questions were answered by a priest or written in the holy book-- wouldn’t life be so much easier? But they’re not and turning to rely on that is, like Freud said, childish. Needing someone else to find all the answers for one’s ailments is a waste of one's mind. 

JS: I tend to agree. And I could no more rest in the upholstery of Catholicism than I could fly to Saturn by waving my arms. As I suggested a bit earlier, my ‘why’ is Byron’s ‘to see what happens next’ and—so far—your lively mind presented on the page has piqued my curiosity over and over to wait to see what you will think next. When the day dawns and that curiosity doesn’t enliven my thinking heart, then it’s time to slip into the mighty Thames.