How Why What?
Here is a mental exercise. Consider any assertion that you believe is true. It doesn’t matter what you pick. Now form a “how”, “why”, or “what” question from this assertion that essentially asks “How did you come to this conclusion?” And from the answer you present yourself, ask another “how” or “why” question. And from that response do the same. Keep doing it until you get stuck. Here is an example:
- Assertion: The sky is blue.
Question: How do you know that the sky is blue?
- Assertion: My eyes tell me that the sky is blue.
Question: How do you know that your eyes know what blue is?
- Assertion: Because I trust my eyes.
Question: Why do you trust your eyes?
- Assertion: Because my life experience tells me that they are correct most of the time.
Question: How do you know that the experience that your eyes give you is the “correct” one?
- Uhhhhhh….Isn’t it obvious?
Here is another example:
- Assertion: Thieves should be punished.
Question: Why should thieves be punished?
- Assertion: Because theft is wrong and wrongdoing should be punished.
Question: Why should wrongdoing be punished?
- Assertion: Because if we don’t use the threat of punishment then wrongdoing will run rampant.
Question: Why do we need to stop rampant wrongdoing?
- Uhhhhh. Isn’t it obvious?
What you will usually find is that you get stuck at a point where your internal reaction is: I don’t need to ask additional questions because my conclusion/assertion is obviously correct. So it feels like proceeding further is simply a waste of time; it is playing mental gymnastics for no good reason.
But there is a good reason. Unless we are prepared to defend the “obvious” points, we aren’t prepared to debate anything with anyone.
We Argue to Convince
Everyone engages in debate over something on some level. We all attempt to persuade. The reality is that at the root of virtually all of our disagreements is a point on which one or both of us believes that “the truth is obvious”, and yet, we disagree on that very point that seems so apparently obvious to one of us. When this happens our thinking short-circuits and we get angry at the other person for their inability to see something that is “so obvious”. And what might have been a very cool reasonable discussion up until this point collapses and becomes a hateful childish exchange of personal attacks.
But we have to defend this point of “obviousness” to make progress in persuading the opposition.
And so unless we are prepared to defend those points that “are obvious” to us, we aren’t actually prepared to defend our position. More importantly, we aren’t prepared to convince others. And if we aren’t prepared to convince, why argue?
There is another good reason to play How-Why-What.
We Value Truth…
Nobody feels good about being incorrect. Everyone wants what they believe to be the truth. Discovering that we believed something that was untrue is painful. The longer we believed the fallacy, the more painful it is to let it go. Most fallacies are based on an unquestioned assumption that was, at one time, “obviously true” to us.
The earlier you question your assumption and determine why you believe it, the less painful it will be to let it go when you realize that it is wrong.
(Of course, if your determine that your assumption is correct, and you now know why, the better prepared you are to convince another of your perspective.)
…But Do We Value Comfort More?
Your willingness to play How-Why-What says something about you. If you value truth above all else, you have to play it. And you have to play it frequently in all kinds of scenarios. But many people refuse to play it. And the reason they refuse to play it is because they value the comfort they derive in their existing conclusions far far more than they value being correct.
Are you willing to play?