Why: An Ode to Richard Feynman

“Toes on the line!”

She was oddly emphatic for a yoga instructor, almost religious in her fervor. For some reason, she considered it crucial for us place our tootsies on a line of white tape, six feet behind another line of white tape, and so on across the room. Line after line of white tape, which – for some mysterious reason – it was important to line up on.

Except I didn’t do it. I couldn’t see any reason for, or benefit of, lining up on a strip of white tape to do half-moon pose. Why? I was plenty far away from my nearest yogi, and in no danger of crimping their standing-head-to-knee poses. What need was there to line up with military exactness? It was yoga, not the marine corps. If yoga isn’t about celebrating our whole-grain individuality, what is?

So I didn’t line up. I deliberately defied the yoga teacher and her lust for conformity, obstinately standing several inches behind the white line, much to the chagrin of my wife, yoguing next to me.

“Why couldn’t you just do it?!” she groused afterward.

Micro-aggression v.s. Micro-conformity

I thought about it for a second. Why not? It’s a micro-conformity, and one which – for some reason – the teacher considered important for all students to observe. What’s the harm in indulging someone, even if the reason behind the request is small or invisible? Why does anyone need to be an individual 24/7?

I only needed to think for a second before answering, but I did so under my breath to minimize further marital friction: “Why would I?”

“Why?” is a powerful word. It’s audacious. It bucks conformity. It keeps us honest. It’s insurance against mindlessness.

Some of the greatest minds in history were renowned for asking why. Newton asked why an apple falls from a tree. Einstein asked why light and matter behave the way they do. Another brilliant scientist – although less of a household name – made a career out of relentlessly asking “Why?”

The Sage from Long Island

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist. He was also a New York wiseass, with a Queens / Long Island accent thick as a brick, who brooked no B.S. He was renowned for his no-nonsense approach to everything from explaining science to investigating the Challenger disaster. His common sense was relentless and much of it focused on asking, “Why?”

Whenever someone tells me I’m being stubborn or obstreperous, I think of Dick Feynman and his shameless pursuit of “Why?” Whenever anyone wants me to conform for no good reason, I think of the brilliant, simple, irreverent genius from Long Island, and his unrepentant individualism, and I ask myself why more people don’t ask “why?” Here was a signal intelligence that gave us insights into sub-atomic particles, who had his paintings hang in galleries, acted, played percussion, wrote best-selling books, and – most importantly – educated (literally) millions. All of it was based on a relentless individualism that bucked authority, probed beneath the surface of phenomena, and relentlessy, shamelessly asked, “Why?”

Why should I believe you? Why are you saying that about those people? Why is that true? Why do want me to do that?

As anyone with a two- or three-year-old knows, there comes a time when asking “Why?” becomes tiresome. Luckily, most adults don’t even come close to asking “Why?” that many times.

Trump, Russia and the Power of “Why?”

In 2018, asking “Why?” is becoming crucial. In a Trump era of creeping authoritarianism, we’re being asked to swallow falsehoods, lies and half-truths without question. Fake news and foreign propaganda increasingly inundate us. “Alternative facts” have become standard. Now, more than ever, we need to ask “Why?” and not just do what we’re told.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems that every week we hear new accusations of cults brainwashing people. One of the defining aspects of cults is an intolerance for questions about the activities of the cult or its leader. In other words, they’re allergic to “Why?” That should tell you all you need to know about the power of that one little word.

My wife still rolls her eyes when I don’t do what the yoga teacher says, whether it’s toeing the line or adjusting my posture (no, holding my leg that way isn’t going to magically unlock my chakra energy; I’m reasonably confident of that.) But my behaviour is more than obstinacy or stubbornness. It’s an assertion, however small, that I’m not going to mindlessly do what I’m told. That starts with questioning and resisting the smallest things.

Unless you can answer the question, “Why?”

The Curious Case of the Thing That Wasn’t There

We’re in danger of losing our world.

An addlepated madman is in charge of the world’s most powerful nation, while the (formerly) most open and progressive nation in Europe has decided to shoot itself in the foot. Countries are rushing to create autonomous death machines while lining up for war with one another. Global warming is now a locked-and-loaded catastrophe that threatens our very existence. In short, everything is unraveling.

How did we get here?

We’re a wise species. It’s how we got our name: homo sapiens, literally “wise (hu)man.” We’re the species that invented writing, space travel, universities and iPhones. We’ve been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. We wrote Hamlet, the 9th Symphony and Madame Butterfly. We may even conquer death this century.

So how did we become so stupid? The answer may be simple: a belief in things that aren’t there.

Donald Trump rode a wave of populism based in no small part on a belief in the sanctity of the white race, and gripping tales of the minorities threatening it. Vladimir Putin enjoys the acquiescence of the Russian people by tapping into their insecurities, allowing them to project their egos onto his image of the archetypal Russian strongman. Chinese leaders continue to channel memories of western domination to legitimize their militarism.

In short, the world is unraveling because of a belief in things that aren’t true, whether it’s the sanctity of a given skin tone, fears of vulnerability, or a belief in the inherent superiority of your civilization. None of these things are real: they’re ideas, and ones that are easily deflated. Race is a construct. Vladimir Putin is not a strongman: he’s an autocrat whose opponents have a habit of dying in suspicious ways. Britain is leaving the European union because of made-up crap. A misbegotten belief in a God that wants you to vote Republican put Donald Trump in power.

Telling you what you want to hear.

How does a species of wise men and women come to believe in things that aren’t true. And what can we do about it?

The answer is that people have a tendency to believe in things that make them feel good, regardless of any reality associated with said things. Want your God to tell you to get rich and carry guns? You’ll find a way to believe that, even though his son came to earth as a dirt-poor pacifist. Think you’ll feel safer the bigger your military? So do lots of other people. Want a father figure to make you feel stronger than everyone else out there? There are no lack of world leaders willing to step up to that challenge.

Unfortunately, the antidote to a belief in things that aren’t there is neither palatable nor easy to swallow. Educating people out of their ignorance is a long process, and not at all guaranteed to deliver results. Humility is a tough sell; being powerful and bullying others can feel a lot better. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and not exactly something nations are willing to embrace.

The solution.

As with all socio-political change, turning our backs on these phenomena will happen only if and when brave souls are willing to step up and challenge the societal norms and authority figures that perpetuate things that aren’t there. Then, after a few decades of broad-based public education, societies stand a chance of developing the maturity and self-knowledge to disavow things that simply aren’t true. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s across America. It set the stage for a defeated and angry post-war Germany to emerge as Europe – if not the world’s – current champion of freedom and democracy.

It can happen. It’s uncertain whether it will.