‘Why’ is a difficult question.

(Transcript by Grognor)

Limits of a Metaphor

When you explain something ‘real’ with a ‘metaphor’, you essentially trade ‘information’ for ‘understanding’.

Imagine an artist at work. They usually begin with the outline of a subject. Starting with a free hand- using broad strokes to make vague forms. Then, the details. Ending with precise- measured strokes.

A novice will often find outlining difficult. How to proceed? To observe while squinting.

Details disappear. Only a blurry shape remains.

Putting it another way, the ‘metaphor’ is a lossy-compressed-version of the real thing. Trying to retrieve lost information, from just the metaphor, is absurd. (1)(2)

Slavoj Zizek has said, “Examples always subvert what they are examples of.” I think he’s referring to this loss of information.

Similarly, using a metaphor for an idea-it-wasn’t-intended-for is, almost always, a bad idea. It’s like trying to go beyond the available map in a video-game. It simply doesn’t exist.

Metaphors can, too, be engineered to perfection. Simple, self-contained and often self-limiting. These can explain an additional idea or two. Nothing more.

Questioning without Assumptions

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

If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions. And so you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications.


If we don’t make any assumptions, more questions arise with every answer. Science, as a whole, works this way.

but, why?

To develop a deeper understanding.

Story Time

Richard Feynman wrote of a time Niels Bohr(& his son) held private meetings with him. This was during the Manhattan Project, to discuss ways to improve the bomb, when Feynman was a nobody. Others were too respectful of the Bohrs’ authority to criticize them. (An exaggerated example of Elizier’s “Argument Screens Off Authority”) (3)

Now for another relevant Feynman story. It’s about how he helped others with their research. When beginning such a discussion, he would ask “dumb” questions; to doublecheck-and-verify information. In addition, he always asked for a relevant example- a real-physical-phenomenon, to follow the math better. So, when a mistake happens to get lost in the math, Feynman would notice it instantly. (4)

A version of the Feynman-stories relatable to the high-school me, would be:

  • reading a question at least twice
  • reading the question again while trying to answer it
  • trying to visualise/find a physical model/substitute 0,1 for x
  • double-checking the +/- signs on a math/science test
  • neglecting the ‘authority’ of the teacher (to favour logic when teaching contradicts ‘standard’ textbooks)

In A.P.J Abdul Kalam’s autobiography, he mentions that he was often described as carrying a ‘surgical knife’ (-metaphorical) to design reviews. He attributes this to his mastery of the proofs to equations-of-aerodynamic-flow. It must have allowed him to question designs at a deeper level- thus find the ‘true’-action-node of a design flaw. (5)(6)

This story in a form relatable for the high-school me, would be:

  1. try to plug-in a derived-equation(non basic) in a question from H.C. Verma’s Concepts of Physics
  2. fail to get the answer
  3. think long and hard
  4. try again- correct silly mistakes here and there
  5. fail to get the answer given, again
  6. switch to more basic/universally true formulas
  7. find the correct ‘spaces’ to plug them in
  8. get an answer of same form as the correct one, but with wrong constants
  9. finally get the answer on the 17th try

Why is ‘why’ a difficult question?

  1. Metaphors make a big chunk of religious scripture. When priests try to retrieve more information- from just the metaphor, they yield corrupted-information. This is what happens in most churches on a Sunday.
  2. Good orators use metaphors the opposite way. They find full-scale models to expand upon the metaphor. Historical events or current scenarios- in near complete detail. Why does detail matter? ‘Specifics’ force the orator to address the complexity of truth.
  3. Los Alamos from Below- Feynman on his meetings with the Bohrs
  4. Would you solve the Dirac equation? – Feynman on research discussions with others
  5. Surgical Knife – A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
  6. Nate Soares says something similar-(about true-action-nodes) in “Where Coulds Go”. Take two points, ‘A’ & ‘B’. Let point-A be where a ‘problem’-becomes-apparent. Point-B where factors causing-‘problem’-to-develop are located. Often, point-B is obscure; laying somewhere upstream of point-A. (Here, Nate is talking about productivity.)

I think that most people’s “coulds” are broken because they put the action nodes in the wrong place. They think that the “choice” occurred at turn 347 of Civilization(video-game) when they decided to continue playing one more round (and at each following turn between midnight and 4:00 in the morning).

But that’s not where the choice occurred. If you have to force yourself to change your behavior, then you’ve already missed the real choice node.

The actual choice occurs when you decide whether to play Civilization or not, at the very beginning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: