Why Things Are the Way They Are

The Modern Survival Guide #90

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am fascinated with the way our world works — it’s why I’m writing the Guide in the first place. More to the point, I have particular ideas on why our society works the way it does, and this article is the last part of a mini-series on the topic of understanding society.

This is the big one, because today we’re talking about why things are the way they are. Not really in a philosophical sense — this isn’t an article about the meaning of life (although I’ll definitely write one of those). This is about the mechanics of causality.

In the past we’ve discussed the impacts of individuals, institutions, culture, incentives, and history on why things are the way they are. Today I’m building on those themes. Today is the meta, the big “why,” the final piece of my explanation for why societies are the way they are. Ready? Here we go:


Ok, we’re all done!

Oh, that isn’t a satisfactory answer? That’s reductionist and trite? You actually want the real answer? Ok fine, we’ll do it the hard way…

Wheels in Motion

Let’s start with a quick recap. In the past few articles we covered a concept that I call the Society Wheel, and it looks like this:

Society, in a nutshell

This is a very, very simplistic picture of how the different forces that make up society interact, and I’ve already explained it to death. If you want to know why I think this is how things work, and what goes on in each box, go read the other articles. Or don’t and just muddle through here, you glorious rebel.

I think that this is how society does its thing, most of the time. I’m not saying this is the only way the arrows point, but I think this is how the process flows in general. Incentives prompt individuals to action, individuals use or create institutions to take action, institutions create or reinforce culture through action, and culture spits out a new or reinforced sets of incentive structures. Rinse. Repeat.

In the past I’ve referred to this as the Wheel “turning.” All that means is that this sequence of actions iterates — the sequence occurs over and over again, and it grinds out a piece of society. This could be something commonplace, like which side of the road you drive on, or something specific, like a variable-rate home loan system. But you can trace just about everything that happens back to a sequence of events that tends to follow the pattern on the Wheel.

Now for the tricky bit: there’s never just one Wheel turning. Sometimes you have a Wheel that is arguably composed of lots of smaller Wheels, like this:

Sometimes you have situations where one Wheel iterates over and over again until it changes form, like this:

Sometimes the turn of one Wheel directly impacts a piece of another:

And sometimes it’s impossible to determine whether or exactly how one Wheel impacts another. There’s an element of chaos in all of this — not because these interactions can’t be tracked or extrapolated, but simply because there are far too many Wheels turning at any given point to factor all of them into a single picture.

Society is made up of millions upon millions of Wheels turning at the same time and interacting together. Every time you go to the grocery store, you turn the Wheel for how society works with regard to food distribution. Every time you go to the doctor, you turn the Wheel for how society works with regard to medicine. Every time you talk about the weather in an elevator to make small talk, you turn the Wheel for how society works with regard to small talk in elevators.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Everything affects everything else. You can play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon all you want with this stuff, and it just gets more and more complex the deeper you look, until we start to run the risk of developing this into a “turtles all the way down” scenario.

So… how is this helpful? If everything is so vastly interconnected that any given event can’t be easily isolated, how do we actually use this information to our advantage?

Simplifying the Wheels of Society

When we try to figure out “why are things the way they are,” we’re generally not asking that question about all of society. For example, if I wake up one morning and look at my ceiling and think to myself, “Why do I live in a house, of all things?” I don’t have to go and investigate every single piece of society to answer that question. I can focus on the relevant pieces.

I know, I know, I just got done saying that everything is interconnected and can’t be separated, and that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t tease out proximate causes.¹ If it’s raining and you’re standing outside, you don’t have to comprehend every single thing about Earth’s weather patterns to understand why you’re currently getting wet.

So, if I ask why I live in a house, I don’t have to understand every single possible living situation that humans have ever dreamed up in order to answer that question. I simply have to look at the proximate causes of home ownership culture, incentives, and institutions in my society, and the Society Wheel is an extremely useful tool in that regard.

Proximate Cause and the Three Whys

Once upon a time there was a man in Japan named Sakichi Toyoda, and he developed an engineering concept called the “Five Whys.” This is an investigative technique used to develop a deeper understanding of a problem by asking “why?” five times in sequence, as in:

Problem: A car will not start. Why? The battery is dead. Why? The alternator is broken and didn’t charge the battery. Why? The alternator belt has broken. Why? It wore out. Why? The vehicle was not maintained on a regular service schedule.

The idea is that after asking the five whys, you’ll know what was causing the problem, or at least have a better idea.

We can use a version of this, but I think we can get it down to three whys for our purposes. Any more than three in the context of understanding society and you’re probably not looking at a proximate cause, you’re starting to become a historian.

If you are looking to answer a question of “why are things the way they are?” use the Society Wheel and roll it back three rotations — three “whys” — and if you can do that, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea about why something is the way it is. You will also almost certainly uncover a bunch of other questions. That’s just the nature of the quest for knowledge, I’m afraid.

So start by working backwards. I accept that I have received an incentive (or possibly multiple incentives) to do a thing, and I work out what that might be. Then I step back and figure out where this incentive is coming from in my culture. Then I look to the institutions that are propping up that aspect of my culture. Then I look to the individuals behind those institutions, and their incentives. I continue that cycle three times, or until I find an adequate explanation.²

We don’t have to understand all of the Wheels in society. We just have to understand the proximate causes of the things we’re interested in.

Everything Happens for a Reason

If there’s one thing you take away from this, remember: no part of society emerges spontaneously from the ether; everything happens for a reason. It’s not always a good reason, but there’s always a proximate cause for why some part of society is the way it is. Everything is what it is because a combination of forces made it that way.

That insight gives you power. That’s why this is a topic for a series called the “Modern Survival Guide” — sometimes going with the flow simply is not good enough. Sometimes we have to change things. If you know why things are the way they are, if you know what incentives are driving which people to use which institutions to affect which parts of our culture… that means you have all the tools you need to start figuring out how to change things.

That’s not to say it’ll be easy. It’s also not to say that you’ll be right — either about your understanding of the issue or about your proposed change. You’re going to have to get past that particular existential knot and make peace with it. Life does not wait quietly for us to achieve a state of perfect certainty. You will have to make changes in your life, they will affect you, and the consequences for inaction will be severe. The best you can do is to make the change that seems best at the time.

So it’s worth your while to ask the three whys. It’s worth your while to work your way back around the Wheel to see what’s going on. It’s worth your while to figure out where changes can be made to things that you don’t like. It’s not easy, but once you figure out why things are the way they are, you can work towards how to make things the way they should be.

That’s a noble enough goal, I think.

¹Proximate Cause: I’m stealing from legal terms. A proximate cause in this sense is an event sufficiently related to another event that it can be said to be the cause of that event. Lightning strikes a tree, therefore the tree catches on fire. I buy a ticket, therefore I participate in the lottery. You slap a Saguaro cactus, therefore you have proven to be a dumbass. That sort of thing.

²You don’t have to start at the “individual” box either, you can pick any of the boxes as a starting point. That’s the beauty of cyclic processes.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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