The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

The quest to fail: “And what happens in this case?”

But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? — Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

Today I was reminded of an interview in which Richard Feynman describes the nature of why questions. In his unmistakable way, Feynman highlights how the question, as well as the answer, depend on the context in which they are used. We will only perceive a match between question and answer if the context of each correspond.

Feynman describes this as follows:

When you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking why.

Meaning that if the framework of the person who asks the question is different from the one the person has who answers the question, both allow something different to be true. In such a situation they need to start by finding what can be true for both. Taking the example of magnetism as used in the interview in question, then one way to find that common framework is to determine what the person who asks the question knows about magnetism and answer the why question starting there. Or said simply: a physics student probably knows more about magnetism than a seven-year-old child and wants a different explanation.

The situation I noticed today had a similar dynamic, I was giving an example to explain one step in a process and found myself questioned about the variables used in the example instead of the described step. To be able to believe in the general principle described, questions popped up questioning as many cases as possible in a quest to find a situation in which it would fail. This questioning could go on forever as the only way to find a satisfying answer then becomes to find a situation in which the principle described in the example fails.

Instead of looking at how things can work, the situation reversed itself to finding when it fails and thus possibly also, why that process is a bad solution.

A solution to interrupt the dynamic in such a situation is to clarify the difference of objective of both approaches: describing a principle describing when something works aims at learning how to do something in general, possibly without considering exceptions. Searching when something might not work is there to gain an understanding of when exceptions might need to be allowed in a process.


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