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Why should we ask why?

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By John Pawlak

There’s an old story about a philosophy professor who presented the students with a test asking a single question ... “Why?” 

As the story goes, the only person who received an “A” was a student who submitted the answer, “Because.”  Another version of the story has the student answering, “Why not?”

The story is of course a classic academic myth, a folk legend promulgated on the premise that philosophy defines its own worth and that the value of questioning the questions is itself in question. 

Myth or not, the story does underscore a related question that merits answering, “Why ask why?”  Why should anyone seek an answer if there is no obvious value to having the answer other than simply to have it? 

Why is the sky blue and the sunset red? 

Why does a refrigerator get cold?

Why does a stick of butter float in water?  There are a lot of things in this world that people don’t know, but that’s OK.

How many people really need to know why the moon changes its shape? Is one’s day-to-day life easier when one knows why hurricanes spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere?

Or why you should never mix bleach and ammonia?

If curiosity killed the cat, does a cat that never wonders anything live longer?  Why are people so willing to accept what they’re told and not ask why?  If we stick our heads in the sand and cannot see the things we fear, are we safer? 

If ignorance is bliss, you would think that this world should be a much happier place.

Of course, I do digress, but only to make a point. 

It’s been more than seven years since the 9/11 attack and most Americans still don’t know why it happened. Our nation invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and yet after spending nearly a trillion dollars to kill and occupy an “enemy of freedom,” most people can’t tell you why we did it. 

They simply wave a flag and shout out patriotic slogans to justify all the deaths, and discount any value to answering “Why?”

During a news special in which they were interviewing Muslims in a prison in Afghanistan, a prisoner was asked, “Would you kill an American if you had the chance?”

The prisoner immediately replied “Yes, of course.” The show left its viewers with a clear understanding of one thing ... these guys hate us. But it never answered the simple question, “Why?”  

Why do they hate us? And sadly, I would guess that most people who watched the show didn’t even notice that the question was never asked.

Why do Israel and the Hamas hate each other so much? Why is the slaughter in Darfur tolerated?  Why are Shiites and Sunnis so willing to kill each other? 

Why do white supremacists thrive in our own nation? Why all the hatred? Where does it come from?

The atrocities of mankind over the years overwhelm us and so we never seem to ask why they happen. Given the state of the world, why do we even continue to use a self-contradicting word like mankind?

We live in a dangerous world with very real enemies and we do need to address problems with swift and direct actions. We have nations that hate us, allies that mistrust us and our own citizens can’t have a civil debate without threatening a riot.

We are threatened by predators on the internet, financial meltdowns, global instability, nuclear proliferation and more and more sophisticated terrorist organizations who bide their time as we slowly go bankrupt. 

Oh yes, it’s a very dangerous world. But unless we start asking why, unless we demand that our leaders ask why, we are doomed to deal with the far more dangerous effects of ignorance and shortsightedness.

Oh, by the way, if you don’t think knowing why has any value, you should at least learn why you shouldn’t mix bleach and ammonia. It releases huge amounts of chlorine gas, which can kill you.

Now, why does it release all that chlorine? Uh ... well ... uh ... because!