How and why

There are a number of ways to look at behavior. A bird selects material to make a nest. One person might say that the bird is looking for twigs of a particular size because those can be woven into the shape of nest that the bird wants as a snug place to lay eggs. This implies a certain amount of thinking, remembering, learning and motivation on the bird’s part. We are looking at the bird’s behavior similarly to how we look at our own. Or it might be that the bird has an instinctive program to build a nest. The bird is doing what feels ‘right’ to the bird. Again this is similar to how we view our own instinctive behavior. These are how explanations. They are concerned with how the behavior gets initiated in the brain.


But there are also why explanations. It does not matter whether the behavior is a product of reflex, instinct, drive or cognition – the why explanation will be about the evolution of the animal, its traits, its niche and the environmental problems it faces. It is about the strategy that the animal uses to stay alive and have descendants. The same evolutionary explanation could be used with very different how explanations. The opposite could also be the case one how used with many whys.


It is confusing enough when talking about animals – why explanations are often heard as how ones with the implication that the animal knows about things and thinks about things that are not credible for that animal.


When we talk about people it becomes very difficult. This is because people tend to work on the assumption that they know how and why they decide to do things. They are not working in the realm of neuroscience (how) and genetic/social evolution (why) but working in the folk psychology realm with a very different how and why. They think that all is transparent to them, they have direct knowledge of their minds but a more realistic view is that almost nothing is transparent to them and they are guessing about the workings of their minds. It is disturbing to be told that you did something for reasons and by processes that you never dreamed of. Whose mind is it anyway?


Still to many people it is also fascinating to understand the brain. I often think that this field is going to be confusing until people forget ‘I think therefore I am’ and start looking at ‘I am therefore I think’. I know I exist so I don’t need a philosophical proof of that. What I don’t know much about is my thinking and for that I need a scientific understanding – a neuroscience how and an evolutionary why.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *