On How and Why Questions, Cosmic Solipsism, and Emily Dickinson

I have been reflecting for the past week or so on the difference between asking why and asking how, especially as the distinction relates to our various beliefs, especially those we might label “spiritual.”

Greek coffee in a hand-crafted mug . . . the mug was a gift years ago . . . the coffee a gift only the other day . . .

What are the effects of asking one question rather than another?

Over the past twenty years or so, I have become a fairly competent bread baker. I have read a number of classic texts on baking bread, experimented with dozens of recipes, dialogued with other bakers and made a lot of bread. Nobody would confuse me with an expert or an artisan, but the loaves I make are always eaten quickly. Nobody complains.

Say that you are interested in baking bread. You want to adopt a baking practice of your own. You want to talk to me about my experience. Let’s imagine you can ask me only one of the following two questions:

1. Why do you bake bread?


2. How do you bake bread?

Which would you ask? Why?

The suggestion here is not that one question is better or worse than the other, or that one answer is absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. The suggestion is merely that the two questions yield vastly different types of answers, and noticing the difference matters.

If you ask the first question, we will have a long discussion about the women who raised me (mothers, grandmothers, and one aunt), 1970s hippies in western Massachusetts, especially the rural hilltowns where I grew up, and Zen. Absent the confluence of those influences then, I would not bake bread now. Ours would be a far-ranging conversation, equal parts biography, social commentary and half-assed eastern theology.

If you ask me the second question, I will give you my detailed basic recipe including ingredients and steps, and share with you the formal recipes from which that formula has been adapted. The dialogue will be pragmatic and concrete, befitting, perhaps, the craft of baking bread.

I don’t know which answer would be more helpful to you. It depends, really, on where you are at in the learning process, how committed you are and a host of other variables I can’t even imagine. That is why I don’t say one question is more valuable than other; they are different. Their value is subjective and contingent.

What happens if we turn this analysis in the direction of spirituality?

Instead of Sean baking bread, say instead we are talking about Sean yoking A Course in Miracles to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices.

What happens when we ask: why do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?

What happens when we ask: how do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?

If you try this on your own – I mean really stop reading for an hour or so and look into this on your own – what happens? Think of a fundamental belief you hold and then ask yourself: How do I believe this?

I happen to find “why” questions relatively easy. I can go deeper faster; I don’t lose my self doing so. Thus, when I started to ask “how” questions, things felt . . . unstable, untenable There was a sense of having reached that part of the map that reads “here there be dragons.”

Naturally, others have a different perspective. Again, the point is not to claim the status of right or wrong here but simply to explore the nature of our thinking in order to get closer to its source, and to better understand its mechanics so that we can – in ACIM terms – look at the problem where the problem actually is.

For a while, faced with “how” questions, I tried to pretend they were just poorly-worded variants of “why” questions. The speed with which we leap back to familiar interior ground – often without noticing we are doing so – is remarkable. I’d pose a “how” question and answer with “why am I asking that question” and actually believe I was getting somewhere.

Here is the thing. For me, “how” prompts answers that are – not unlike in the bread-baking example – more pragmatic and concrete than the abstract and argumentative nature of answers to “why” questions.

“How” questions move me into the body and into the world; they move me out of idealizing bread and into both recipe and ingredients. It’s the difference between musing on the nature and evolution of transportation and actually popping the hood of a car to see how it works and actually make it go.

Husserlian bracketing was incredibly helpful with this step: it allowed me to set aside certain questions in order to focus on experience as experience. Later I began to try and sort through the various ways of describing what was happening (as a prelude to responding to, or being in dialogue with, what was happening), and this led me away from A Course in Miracles specifically and religion/spirituality generally and towards material that, while its proponents tend to be frighteningly smart and educated, is actually (for me) much more straightforward.

Take, for example, this comment by Amanda Gefter, in a comment thread attending her essay “Cosmic Solipsism.”

. . . while common sense would suggest that we all live in a single universe and that different observers’ perspectives are merely different descriptions of one and the same reality, the latest advances in theoretical physics suggest otherwise. That is, we can assume . . . that there is one single reality occupied by several observers, but in doing so we actually violate the laws of physics (we clone information, for instance). Put another way, the laws of physics only make sense within a single reference frame at a time. This, to me, is both shocking and profound.

“Shocking and profound” is one way to put it. Another is to admit to a full-fledged existential crisis. Gefter again:

Sure, there are things like shadows and rainbows that only exist in a given reference frame, we thought, but there also other things, real things, like tables and chairs, stars and galaxies, things that exist out there, in the universe, the ontological furniture in the common room of existence. Only now we’ve discovered that the common room is empty. There’s nothing out there. The common room — the universe — doesn’t exist. You’re left with a splintered, illusory, solipsistic reality . . .

Yet oddly – at least for me – once you’re out there in the “splintered, illusory, solipsistic reality,” or once you’ve adapted to being out there, you notice that while the nature of your experience is different, its content is . . . more or less the same. You keep on living, and your living is not so unlike what it was before you stumbled into the empty common room.

Gefter characterizes her own experience of this reality as follows:

My mind is splintered, duplicated, repeated, cast out into universe after universe where it will live all these invisible lives, lives I will never know, a silent echo, and I’ll just be sitting here, in my own solitary world, straining to hear.

For me, it is closer to how Humberto Maturana sees it in his book The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love.” Maturana proposes a “relational space transcending the molecular dynamics that make it possible.”

And we human beings do so in the unity of body and mind through the integration of our emotions and our doings as we live our existence of loving languaging relational-reflective beings, conscious of the nature of our humanness in the deep desire of an ethical coexistence.

It has not stopped mattering to me – exciting me, inspiring me, inflaming me – that however deep the isolation, however terrifying the fractures – love is literally always still there, still functioning as a sort of hefted lantern. It’s like saying the common room can’t be empty because . . . I’m there. And I’m talking to you from within it so . . . perhaps you are there, too, somehow, in a Maturanan “relational space” transcending the banal ontology implied by physics.


I think thinking this way moves us somewhat into the domain of what Emily Dickinson was getting at with her famous poem “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” Whenever I teach it, I literally fall to my knees. Sometimes I prostrate myself. The students laugh but not nervously; they know my worship is not faked.

In the poem, Dickinson notices how when you take away the light suddenly, our eyes adjust slowly to the resultant darkness. We stumble a little, but as our vision clarifies to the circumstances, we “meet the Road – erect.”

And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

How shall we learn to see, you and I?

For me, the move towards “how” has instantiated new ways of seeing experience – or experiencing, if you like, or, to adopt the Dickinsonian mode, learning to see experience – that seem to naturally beget greater degrees of happiness. The darkness does seem to alter, or perhaps we are meant somehow to dwell in uncertainty, and recognizing this allows us to be calmer, quieter, gentler, mellower . . .

Life, it seems, does seem to step “almost straight.” And it does so naturally.

Dickinson again, in another poem from approximately the same time period:

Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –

To which I can only cry out: but how Emily? But how?

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