Why ask why?

More and more, I’ve become interested in the (often unspoken) connections between sentences in the same discourse. For instance, when someone says

I’m happy. I passed the exam.

they often actually mean

I’m happy because I passed the exam.

and not, for instance,

I’m happy despite the fact that I passed the exam.

or even worse

I’m happy that a small monkey from outer space told my sixth grade teacher that it would be a lie to say that I passed the exam.

So, why can we imagine / pretend that we hear certain connections between sentences, but not others?

One possibility is that sentences tend to raise certain common (or conventional?) questions, which need not be spoken. Subsequent sentences can answer these questions:

I’m happy. <Why?> I passed the exam.

“Why?” sounds natural after almost any statement (just hang out with your average 3-to-4-year old), but questions like “What might have prevented this?” or “What did a small monkey from outer space tell your sixth grade teacher that it would be a lie to say?” just don’t come up as often. Other common follow-ups are:

  • What happened next?
  • Give me an example.
  • So what? / Why do I care?

This is not really an explanation of the original observation, merely a restatement.  So, at the risk of sounding like a 90’s commercial, why ask why? Why are we so fascinated by causes?

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