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Lack of clarity about the uses of the word why is responsible for confusion on a number of philosophical fronts. In this entry we shall confine ourselves to two groups of topics where greater attention to the proper and improper behavior of this word might well have avoided the adoption of misguided theories. There is, first, the contrast, or the alleged contrast, between the "how" and the "why" and the view, shared by writers of very different backgrounds, that science can deal only with how-questions. Second, there are certain "ultimate" or "cosmic" questions, such as "Why do we exist?" or, more radically. "Why does the world exist?" or "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Some, like Arthur Schopenhauer and Julian Huxley, regard these questions as unanswerable; others, like Étienne Gilson and F. C. Copleston, believe that they can be answered; but whether these questions can be answered or not, it seems to be widely agreed that they are very "deep." These questions, in the words of the British astrophysicist A. C. B. Lovell, raise problems "which can tear the individual's mind asunder" (The Individual and the Universe, New York, 1961, p. 125). Speaking of the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?," Martin Heidegger first remarks that it is "the fundamental question of metaphysics" and later adds that "with this question philosophy began and with this question it will end, provided that it ends in greatness and not in an impotent decline" (An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 20).

How and Why

The contrast between the how and the why has been insisted on for two rather different reasons. Some writers have done so in the interest of religion or metaphysics. Their position seems to be that while science and empirical research generally are competent to deal with how-questions, the very different and much deeper why-questions are properly the concern of religion or metaphysics or both. Thus, in a widely read book the British psychiatrist David Stafford-Clark insists that the confusion between the how and the why is the "fundamental fallacy" behind "the whole idea that science and religion are really in conflict at all" (Psychiatry Today, Harmondsworth, U.K., 1952, p. 282). Sigmund Freud in particular is accused of committing this fallacy in his antireligious writings. Stafford-Clark is not at all opposed to Freudian theory so long as it confines itself to the how of psychological phenomena. Psychoanalysis cannot, however, "begin by itself to answer a single question as to why man is so constructed that they should happen in this way" (p. 287). Although he repeatedly expresses his own fervent belief in God, Stafford-Clark unfortunately does not tell us how religion answers the question why man is "constructed" the way he is. Perhaps he would answer it along the lines in which Isaac Newton answered a similar question about the sun. "Why is there one body in our system qualified to give light and heat to all the rest," Newton wrote in his first letter to Richard Bentley, "I know no reason, but because the author of the system thought it convenient" (Opera, London, 17791785, Vol. IV, pp. 429ff.).

Similar views are found in the writings of many professional philosophers. Thus, writing of Newton's work on gravitation, A. N. Whitehead observes that "he [Newton] made a magnificent beginning by isolating the stresses indicated by his law of gravitation." But Newton "left no hint, why in the nature of things there should be any stresses at all" (Modes of Thought, New York and Cambridge, U.K., 1938, pp. 183184). Similarly, discussing the limitations of science, Gilson declares that "scientists never ask themselves why things happen, but how they happen. Why anything at all is, or exists, science knows not, precisely because it cannot even ask the question" (God and Philosophy, New Haven, CT, 1959, p. 140). For Gilson the two topics mentioned at the beginning of this entry appear to merge into one. The why of particular phenomena, he seems to argue, cannot be determined unless we answer the question "why this world, taken together with its laws is or exists" (p. 72).

Among those who have asserted that science can only deal with how-questions there are some who are not at all friendly to metaphysics or religion. These writers usually add to their remarks that science cannot handle why-questions the comment that no other enterprise fares any better. This "agnostic positivism," as we may call it, goes at least as far back as David Hume. We know, he writes, that milk and bread are proper nourishment for men and not for lions or tigers, but we cannot "give the ultimate reason why" this should be so (An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, Sec. IV, Part I). Hume seems to imply that this unhappy state can never be remedied, regardless of the advances of physiology or any other science. Several writers in the second half of the nineteenth century advanced this position under the slogan "The task of science is to describe phenomena, not to explain them." Ernst Mach, Gustav Kirchhoff, and Joseph Petzoldt were among the best-known figures in central Europe who advocated this view. In England, Karl Pearson, its most influential exponent, conceded that there was no harm in speaking of "scientific explanations" so long as explanation is used "in the sense of the descriptive-how " (The Grammar of Science, Everyman edition, 1937, p. 97). We can indeed "describe how a stone falls to the earth, but not why it does" (p. 103). "No one knows why two ultimate particles influence each other's motion. Even if gravitation be analyzed and described by the motion of some simpler particle or ether-element, the whole will still be a description, and not an explanation, of motion. Science would still have to content itself with recording the how. " No matter how far physics may progress, the why will "remain a mystery" (p. 105).

It is important to disentangle purely verbal from substantive issues in all of this. Insofar as the various writers we have quoted merely wish to assert that causal statements and scientific laws in general are contingent and not logically necessary propositions, little exception could be taken to their remarks. However, they are, or at least they appear to be, saying a great deal more. They all seem to agree that there is a class of meaningful questions, naturally and properly introduced by the word why in one of its senses, which cannot be answered by the use of empirical methods. Writers belonging to the first group claim that the answers can be obtained elsewhere. The agnostic positivists maintain that human beings cannot obtain the answers at all.

It is this substantive issue which we shall discuss here, and it is necessary to point out that there are numerous confusions in all views of this kind. To begin with, although this is the least important observation, how and why do not always have contrasting functions but are in certain situations used to ask the very same questions. Thus, when we know or believe that a phenomenon, A, is the cause of another phenomenon, X, but at the same time are ignorant of the "mechanics" of A 's causation of X, we indifferently use how and why. We know, for example, that certain drugs cure certain diseases, but our knowledge is in a medical sense "purely empirical." Here we would be equally prepared to say that we do not know "why" the drug produces the cure and that we do not know "how" it does this. Or, to take a somewhat different case, it is widely known that cigarette smoking is causally connected with lung cancer. It is also known that sometimes two people smoke the same amount and yet one of them develops lung cancer while the other one does not. In such a case the question naturally arises why cigarette smoking, if it is indeed the cause at all, leads to cancer in one case but not in the other. And we would be just as ready to express our ignorance or puzzlement by saying that we do not know how it is as by saying that we do not know why it is that smoking produced cancer in the first man but not in the second. In all such cases it is clear that science is in principle competent to deal with the "why" no less than with the "how," if only because they are used to ask the very same questions.

It is undeniable, however, that in certain contexts how and why are used to ask different questions. This contrast is most obvious when we deal with intentional, or more generally with "meaningful," human actions. What seems far from obvious, what in fact seems plainly false, is that empirical methods are not in principle adequate to determine the answers to why-questions in these contexts. Let us take as our example the theft of the Star of India sapphire and other gems from the Museum of Natural History in New York. We can here certainly distinguish the question why the burglary was committed from the question how it was carried out. The latter question would concern itself with the details of the acthow the thieves got into the building, how they immobilized the alarm system, how they avoided the guards, and so on. The why-question, by contrast, would inquire into the aim or purpose of the theftwere the thieves just out to make a vast amount of money, or were there perhaps some other aims involved, such as proving to rival gangs how skillful they were or showing the incompetence of the police force?

Now, the aim or purpose of a human being is surely not in principle undiscoverable, and frequently we know quite well what it is. The person himself usually, though not always, simply knows what his aim is. An orator, for example, who is advocating a certain policy, ostensibly because it is "for the good of the country," may at the same time know perfectly well that his real aim is personal advancement. It used to be said that in such situations a human being knows his own purpose by means of "introspection," where introspection was conceived of as a kind of "inner sense." This way of talking is not inappropriate to situations in which somebody is confused about his own motives, for then special attention to his own feelings, resembling in some ways the effort to discriminate the detailed features of a physical scene, may well be necessary in order to ascertain his "true" aims.

Much more commonly, however, a human being simply knows what his aims are, and it would be much better to say that he knows this "without observation" than that he knows it by introspection. In order to find out the purpose of somebody else's action, it is in countless instances sufficient to ask the person a direct question about his aim. Where the agent's veracity is suspect or where a person is the victim of self-deception, it is necessary to resort to more elaborate investigations. In the former type of case one might ask the agent all kinds of other questions (that is, questions not directly about the purpose of his action), one might interview his friends and acquaintances and other witnesses of his conduct, one might tap his telephone and employ assorted bugging devices, and one might perhaps go so far as to question him after the administration of "truth" drugs. In the latter type of case it may not be possible to ascertain the real purpose unless the person undertakes psychiatric treatment. While the practical difficulties in the way of discovering the purpose of an action are no doubt insurmountable in many cases of both these types, empirical procedures are clearly in principle adequate to this task.

We also contrast how- and why-questions when the latter are not inquiries into the purpose of any agent. Here, however, how has a different meaning from any previously discussed. In all examples so far considered, how-questions were in one way or another causal questions"How did the thieves carry out their plan of stealing the Star of India?" is a question about the means of achieving a certain goal, and "How is it that smoking produces cancer in one man but not in another?," although not a question about means, is nevertheless about the processes leading to a certain result. These causal "hows" should be distinguished from what one may call the "how" of "state" or "condition." "How cold does it get in New York in the winter?" "How does the decline in his powers manifest itself?" "How is his pain nowis it any better?" are examples of the "how" of state or condition, and it is how-questions of this kind which we contrast with nonteleological why-questions"Why does it get so cold in New York in the winter?" "Why did his powers decline so early in life?" "Why is his pain not subsiding?"

It is sometimes maintained or implied, as in the remarks of Stafford-Clark quoted earlier, that why-questions are invariably inquiries about somebody's purpose or endif not the purpose of a human being, then perhaps that of some supernatural intelligence. This is clearly not the case. There can be no doubt that why is often employed simply to ask questions about the cause of a phenomenon. Thus the question "Why are the winters in New York so much colder than in Genoa, although the two places are on the same geographical latitude?" would naturally be understood as a request for information about the cause of this climatic difference, and it is not necessary for the questioner to suppose that there is some kind of plan or purpose behind the climatic difference in order to be using the word why properly. In saying this, one is not begging any questions against the theory that natural phenomena like the cold of the winter in New York are the work of a supernatural being: One is merely calling attention to what is and what is not implied in the ordinary employment of why in these contexts.

Let us briefly summarize the results obtained so far: In some situations how and why are naturally employed to ask the very same questions; when we deal with intentional human actions, we naturally use why to inquire about the purpose or goal of the agent and how to learn about the means used to achieve that goal; finally, how-questions are frequently used to inquire about the state or condition of somebody or something, while why-questions inquire about the cause of that state or condition without necessarily implying that any purpose or plans are involved. In all these cases it appears to be in principle possible to answer why-questions no less than how-questions, and this without the aid of religion or metaphysics.

The Theological "Why"

Let us turn now to what we earlier called "cosmic" why-questions. Two such cosmic "whys" need to be distinguished, the first of which, for rather obvious reasons, will be referred to as the theological "why." Here the questioner would be satisfied with a theological answer if he found such an answer convincing in its own right. He may or may not accept it as true, but he would not regard it as irrelevant.

Gilson, whose remarks on the limitations of science were quoted earlier, immediately supplies the answer to the "supreme question" which science "cannot even ask." Why anything at all exists must be answered by saying:

[Each] and every particular existential energy, and each and every particular existing thing depends for its existence upon a pure Act of existence. In order to be the ultimate answer to all existential problems, this supreme cause has to be absolute existence. Being absolute, such a cause is self-sufficient; if it creates, its creative act must be free. Since it creates not only being but order, it must be something which at least eminently contains the only principle of order known to us in experience, namely, thought. (God and Philosophy, p. 140)

There is no doubt that many people who ask such questions as "Why does the universe exist?" or "Why are we here?" would also, at least in certain moods, be satisfied with a theological answer, though they would not necessarily accept all the details of Gilson's Thomistic theology. It should be emphasized that one does not have to be a believer in God to be using why in this way. The American playwright Edward Albee, for example, once remarked, "Why we are here is an impenetrable question." Everyone in the world, he went on, "hopes there is a God," and he later added, "I am neither pro-God nor anti-God" (New York Times, January 21, 1965). Albee's question "Why are we here?" evidently amounts to asking whether there is a God and, if so, what divine purposes human beings are supposed to serve. He does not definitely accept the theological answer, presumably because he feels unsure of its truth, but he does regard it as very much to the point.

It should be observed in passing that people frequently use the word why to express a kind of cosmic complaint or bewilderment. In such cases they are not really asking for an answer, theological or otherwise. This use of why is in some respects similar to the theological "why" and may not inappropriately be referred to as the quasi-theological "why." A person who is and regards himself as a decent human being, but who is suffering a great deal, might easily exclaim "Why do I have to suffer so much, when so many scoundrels in the world, who never worked half as hard as I, are having such a lot of fun?" Such a question may well be asked by an unbeliever who is presumably expressing his regret that the workings of the universe are not in harmony with the moral demands of human beings. Even when believers ask questions of this kind, it may be doubted that they are invariably requesting information about the detailed workings of the Divine Mind. In the deeply moving first-act monologue of Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin reflects on the inevitability of aging and death:

I well remember a girl
Who came fresh from the convent to be forced into holy matrimony.
Where is she now?

How can it really be,
That I was once the little Resi
And that I will one day become the old woman?

How, she exclaims, can something like this be? She is far from doubting the existence of God and proceeds to ask:

Why does the dear Lord do it?

And worse, if he has to do it in this way:

Why does He let me watch it happen
With such clear senses? Why doesn't He hide it from me?

The Marschallin obviously does not expect an answer to this question, not, or not merely, because she thinks that the world's metaphysicians and theologians are not quite up to it. She is not, strictly speaking, asking a question but expressing her regret and her feeling of complete helplessness.

However, let us return from the quasi-theological to the theological "why." The difficulties besetting an answer like Gilson's are notorious and need not be reviewed here at length. There are the difficulties, much stressed by recent writers, of saying anything intelligible about a disembodied mind, finite or infinite, and there are further difficulties of talking meaningfully about the creation of the universe. There are the rather different difficulties connected not with the intelligibility of the theological assertions but with the reasoning used to justify them. Schopenhauer referred to all such attempts to reach a final resting place in the series of causes as treating the causal principle like a "hired cab" which one dismisses when one has reached one's destination. Bertrand Russell objects that such writers work with an obscure and objectionable notion of explanation: to explain something, we are not at all required to introduce a "self-sufficient" entity, whatever that may be. Writing specifically in reply to Gilson, Ernest Nagel insists that it is perfectly legitimate to inquire into the reasons for the existence of the alleged absolute Being, the pure Act of existence. Those who reject such a question as illegitimate, he writes, are "dogmatically cutting short a discussion when the intellectual current runs against them" (Sovereign Reason, Glencoe, IL, 1954, p. 30). Without wishing to minimize these difficulties, it is important to insist that there is a sense in which the theological why-questions are intelligible. The question can be answered for such a person if it can be shown that there is a God. If not, it cannot be answered. Albee and Gilson, for example, do not agree about the truth, or at any rate the logical standing, of the theological assertion, but they agree that it is relevant to their cosmic why-question. There is thus a sense in which the questioner here knows what he is looking for.

The Superultimate "Why"

The theological "why" must be distinguished from what we are here going to call the superultimate "why." A person who is using why in the latter way would regard the theological answer as quite unsatisfactory, not (or not just) because it is meaningless or false but because it does not answer his question. It does not go far enough. For granting that there is a God and that human beings were created by God to serve certain of his purposes, our questioner would now ask "Why is there a God of this kind with these purposes and not another God with other purposes?" or, more radically, he would ask "Why was there at some time God rather than nothing?" The biblical statement "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," Heidegger explicitly remarks, "is not an answer to and cannot even be brought into relation with our question." The believer who stops with God is not pushing his questioning "to the very end" (An Introduction to Metaphysics, pp. 67). (It is not certain how somebody pressing the superultimate why-question would react to the rejoinder of those theologians who maintain that God exists necessarily and that hence the question "Why was there at some time God rather than nothing?" is illegitimate. In all likelihood he would support the view, accepted by the majority of Western philosophers since Hume and Immanuel Kant, that it makes no sense to talk about anything, natural or supernatural, as existing necessarily.)

There are times when most people would regard these superultimate why-questions as just absurd. Stafford-Clark himself speaks with impatience of the "rumination" and the tedious and interminable speculations of obsessional patients. "'Why is the world?' was a question to which one patient could find no answer but from which he could find no relief" (Psychiatry Today, p. 112). Yet, at other times, most of us are ready to treat these why-questions as supremely profound, as riddles to which it would be wonderful to have the answer but which, because of our finite intellects, must forever remain unsolved. It is true that certain philosophers, like Friedrich von Schelling and Heidegger, who have frequently been denounced as obscurantists, have laid special emphasis on superultimate why-questions; but it would be a total misunderstanding of the situation to suppose that more empirical philosophers, or indeed ordinary people, are not given to asking them or to treating them with great seriousness. It is almost unavoidable that any reasonably intelligent and reflective person who starts wondering about the origin of the human race, or animal life, or the solar system, or our galaxy and other galaxies, or about the lack of justice in the world, the brevity of life, and seeming absolute finality of death, should sooner or later ask "Why this world and not anotherwhy any world?"

The scientist Julian Huxley is as far removed in temperament and philosophy from Heidegger as anybody could be. Yet he also speaks of the "basic and universal mysterythe mystery of existence in general why does the world exist?" For Huxley it is science that "confronts us" with this mystery, but science cannot remove it. The only comment we can make is that "we do not know." We must accept the existence of the universe "and our own existence as the one basic mystery" (Essays of a Humanist, London, 1964, pp. 107108). Ludwig Büchner was a materialist and an atheist, and yet he repeatedly spoke of the "inexplicability of the last ground of things." Nor are superultimate why-questions confined to those who do not believe in God or who have no metaphysical system. Schopenhauer was supremely confident that his was the true metaphysic, but he nevertheless remarks in the concluding chapter of his main work that his "philosophy does not pretend to explain the existence of the world in its ultimate grounds. After all my explanations," he adds, "one may still ask, for example, whence has sprung this will, the manifestation of which is the world. A perfect understanding of the existence, nature, and origin of the world, extending to its ultimate ground and satisfying all demands, is impossible. So much as to the limits of my philosophy, and indeed of all philosophy" (The World as Will and Idea, 3 vols., translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, London, 1883, Ch. 50)

Similarly, Voltaire, who was a firm and sincere believer in God and who never tired of denouncing atheists as blind and foolish, nevertheless asked, at the end of the article "Why?" in his Philosophical Dictionary, "Why is there anything?," without for a moment suggesting that an appeal to God's creation would be a solution. William James, too, although he repeatedly defended supernaturalism, never claimed that it provided an answer to the question "How comes the world to be here at all instead of the non-entity which might be imagined in its place?" Philosophy, in James's opinion, whether it be naturalistic or supernaturalistic, "brings no reasoned solution" to this question, "for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge" (Some Problems of Philosophy, New York, 1911, pp. 3840). "The question of being," he observes later in the same discussion, is "the darkest in all philosophy. All of us are beggars here, and no school can speak disdainfully of another or give itself superior airs" (ibid., p. 46).

Having pointed out how widespread is this tendency to ask and take seriously the superultimate why-question, it is necessary to explain why, in the opinion of a number of contemporary philosophers, it must nevertheless be condemned as meaningless. It is the mark of a meaningful question, it would be urged, that not all answers can be ruled out a priori; but because of the way in which the superultimate why-question has been set up, it is logically impossible to obtain an answer. It is quite clear that the questioner will automatically reject any proposed answer as "not going back far enough"as not answering his why. "All explanation," in the words of Peter Koestenbaum, an American disciple and expositor of Heidegger, "occurs within that which is to be explained so the question applies to any possible answer as well" ("The Sense of Subjectivity," p. 54), that is, there cannot be an answer. If, however, a question can be put at all, to quote Wittgenstein,

then it can also be answered doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.5 and 6.51)

It must be emphasized that the superultimate "why" does not express ignorance about the "early" history of the universe. Büchner, for example, had no doubt that matter was eternal and that nothing which could be called "creation" had ever occurred; Voltaire similarly had no doubt that the physical universe was created by God and that God had always existedyet both of them asked the superultimate "why" and regarded it as unanswerable. No doubt, some who have asked superultimate why-questions would, unlike Büchner and Voltaire, declare themselves ignorant of the remote history of the universe, but it is not this ignorance that they are expressing by means of the superultimate "why."

Those who insist that the superultimate why-question is meaningful do not usually deny that it very radically differs from all other meaningful why-questions. To mark the difference they occasionally refer to it by such labels as "mystery" or "miracle." Thus Koestenbaum remarks that "questions of this sort do not lead to answers but to a state of mind that appreciates the miracle of existence," they call attention to "the greatest of all mysteries" (op. cit., pp. 5455). Heidegger writes that the question "is incommensurable with any other" (An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 4) and subsequently observes that "not only what is asked after but also the asking itself is extraordinary" (ibid., p. 10).

Calling the superultimate why-question a "mystery" or a "miracle" or "incommensurable" or "extraordinary" does not in any way remove the difficulty: It is just one way of acknowledging that there is one. If it is granted that in all other situations a question makes sense only if an answer to it is logically possible, one wonders why this principle or criterion is not to be applied in the present case. If the defender of the meaningfulness of the superultimate why-question admits that in the "ordinary" sense the question is meaningless but that in some other and perhaps deeper sense it is meaningful, one would like to be told what this other and deeper sense is.

The point of the preceding paragraphs is sometimes expressed in a way that is not totally satisfactory. It is maintained that a question does not make sense unless the questioner knows what kind of answer he is looking for. However, while the fact that the questioner knows the "outline" of the answer may be a strong or even conclusive reason for supposing that the question is meaningful, the converse does not hold. One can think of examples in which a question is meaningful although the person asking it did not know what a possible answer would look like. Thus somebody might ask "What is the meaning of life?" without being able to tell us what kind of answer would be relevant and at a later time, after falling in love for the first time, he might exclaim that he now had the answer to his questionthat love was the meaning of life. It would be much better to say in such a case that the question, as originally asked, was not clear than to say that it was meaningless. It is not objectionable to condemn a question as meaningless on the ground that the questioner does not know what he is looking for if in the context this is a way of saying that he has ruled out all answers a priori; and very probably those who express themselves in this way do not mean to point to some contingent incapacity on the part of the questioner but, rather, to a disability consequent upon the logical impossibility of obtaining an answer to the question. It is similar to saying that it is inconceivable that 3 plus 2 should equal 6 when we do not mean to assert a contingent fact about a certain incapacity on the part of human beings but, rather, that "3 plus 2 equals 6" is a self-contradiction.

The conclusion that the superultimate why-question is meaningless can also be reached by attending to what has here happened to the word why. A little reflection shows that in the superultimate question "why" has lost any of its ordinary meanings without having been given a new one. Let us see how this works when the question is put in the form "Why does the universe exist?" and when the "universe" is taken to include everything that in fact exists. In any of its familiar senses, when we ask of anything, x, why it happened or why it is what it iswhether x is the collapse of an army, a case of lung cancer, the theft of a jewel, or the stalling of a carwe assume that there is something or some set of conditions, other than x, in terms of which it can be explained. We do not know what this other thing is that is suitably related to x, but unless it is in principle possible to go beyond x and find such another thing, the question does not make any sense. (This has to be slightly modified to be accurate. If we are interested in the "why" of a state of x at a certain time, then the answer can certainly refer to an earlier state of x. This does not affect the issue here discussed since, in the sense with which we are concerned, reference to an earlier state of x is going beyond x. ) Now, if by "the universe" we mean the totality of things, then our x in "Why does the universe exist?" is so all-inclusive that it is logically impossible to find anything which could be suitably related to that whose explanation we appear to be seeking. "The sense of the world," wrote Wittgenstein, "must lie outside the world" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41), but by definition nothing can be outside the world. Heidegger, who avoids the formulation "Why does the universe exist?" and who instead inquires into the why of das seiende (the official translation of this term is "the essent," but Koestenbaum and others quite properly translate it as "things"), nevertheless makes it clear that das seiende here "takes in everything, and this means not only everything that is present in the broadest sense but also everything that ever was or will be." "Our question," he writes a little later, presumably without seeing the implications of this admission, "reaches out so far that we can never go further" (An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 2).

For anybody who is not clearly aware of what we may call the logical grammar of why it is very easy to move from meaningful why-questions about particular things to the meaningless why-question about the universe. This tendency is aided by the picture that many people have of "the universe" as a kind of huge box that contains all the things "inside it." Voltaire's article "Why?," from which we quoted earlier, is a good example of such an illegitimate transition. Voltaire first asks a number of why-questions about specific phenomena, such as

Why does one hardly ever do the tenth part good one might do? Why in half Europe do girls pray to God in Latin, which they do not understand? Why in antiquity was there never a theological quarrel, and why were no people ever distinguished by the name of a sect?

He then gets more and more philosophical:

Why, as we are so miserable, have we imagined that not to be is a great ill, when it is clear that it was not an ill not to be before we were born?

A little later we have what may well be a theological "why":

Why do we exist?

Finally, as if there had been no shift in the meaning of why Voltaire asks:

Why is there anything?

It should be noted that the argument we have just presented is not in any way based on an empiricist meaning criterion or on any question-begging assumptions in favor of naturalism. Anybody who uses the word universe in a more restricted sense, so that it is not antecedently impossible to get to an entity that might be the explanation of the universe, may be asking a meaningful question when he asks "Why does the universe exist?" Furthermore, even if universe is used in the all-inclusive sense, what we have said does not rule out the possibility that God or various divine beings are part of the universe in this sense. The point has simply been that the word why loses its meaning when it becomes logically impossible to go beyond what one is trying to explain. This is a matter on which there need not be any disagreement between atheists and theists or between rationalists and empiricists.

It will be well to bring together the main conclusions of this entry:

(1) There is a sense in which how and why have roughly the same meaning. In this sense science is perfectly competent to deal with the why.

(2) There are certain senses in which how and why serve to ask distinct questions, but here too both types of questions can in principle be answered by empirical procedures.

(3) One of the cosmic "whys"what we have called the theological "why"is used to ask meaningful questions, at least if certain semantic problems about theological utterances are disregarded. It was pointed out, however, that this does not imply that the theological answers are true or well supported.

(4) Some apparent questions introduced by "why" are really complaints and not questions, and for this reason unanswerable.

(5) What we have called the superultimate "why" introduces questions that are devoid of sense, whether they are asked by ordinary people in their reflective moments or by philosophers.

See also Explanation; Gilson, Étienne Henry; Heidegger, Martin; Hume, David; Mach, Ernst; Newton, Isaac; Pearson, Karl; Petzoldt, Joseph; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Whitehead, Alfred North; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Wittgenstein returned to a discussion of cosmic why-questions in a lecture given in 1930 which was published for the first time under the title "A Lecture on Ethics," in Philosophical Review (1965). He makes it clear that although he regards the questions as nonsensical, he "deeply respects" the tendency to ask such questions. The complete text of Voltaire's article "Why?," sometimes called "The Whys," is available in the six-volume edition of the Philosophical Dictionary published in London by J. Hunt and H. L. Hunt in 1824. Views similar to those expressed in the last section of the present article are defended in John Passmore, "Fact and Meaning," in Thinking and Meaning (Louvain and Paris, 1963). Jean-Paul Sartre appears to reach similar conclusions in the final section of Being and Nothingness, translated by H. E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956).

Heidegger's fullest discussion of the superultimate why-question occurs in Ch. 1 of Einführung in die Metaphysik (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1953), translated by Ralph Manheim as An Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959). Koestenbaum's treatment is contained in his "The Sense of Subjectivity," in Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry 2 (1962): 4764. Max Scheler discusses the superultimate why-question in his essay "Vom Wesen der Philosophic und der moralischen Bedingung des philosophischen Erkennens," in Gesammelte Werke, edited by Maria Scheler, Vol. V (Bern: Francke, 1954). His position seems to be very similar to that of Heidegger and other existentialists. Scheler concludes that "he who has not, as it were, looked into the abyss of the absolute Nothing will completely overlook the eminently positive content of the realization that there is something rather than nothing" (pp. 9394).

The only detailed attempt to reply to arguments such as those urged in the present entry and to show that the superultimate why-question is meaningful, although it is in principle unanswerable, is found in M. K. Munitz, The Mystery of Existence (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965). Clearly theological uses of "why" occur in Ch. 7 of Richard Taylor, Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963) and in F. C. Copleston's remarks in his debate with A. J. Ayer, "Logical Positivism," in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, 2nd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1965). There are some interesting remarks on what we have here been calling the quasi-theological "why" in Ch. 14 of S. E. Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1950).

The general topic of what makes a question meaningful has only very rarely been discussed by philosophers. Rudolf Carnap, in Der logische Aufbau der Welt, Part V, Sec. E (Berlin: Weltkreis, 1928; 2nd ed., Hamburg, 1961), and Moritz Schlick, in "Unanswerable Questions?," in Philosopher (1935), reprinted in his Gesammelte Aufsätze (Vienna: Gerold, 1938), propose empiricistic meaning criteria and conclude that questions that cannot even in principle be answered must be condemned as meaningless. However, as was pointed out in the text, this conclusion does not depend on the adoption of an empiricistic meaning criterion. Thus the phenomenologist Oskar Becker writes that "according to the principle of transcendental idealism a question which is in principle undecidable has no senseto it there corresponds no possible state of affairs which could supply an answer" ("Beiträge zur phänomenologischen Begründung der Geometrie und ihrer physikalischen Anwendungen," in Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung 6 (1923): 412. There are numerous suggestive remarks in Ch. 20 of Friedrich Waismann's posthumously published The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965).

On how and why, in addition to the works quoted in the text, mention should be made of James Martineau, Modern Materialism (New York: Putnam, 1877), where the view is defended that science cannot deal with the "why." Agnostic positivism is defended in E. W. Hobson, The Domain of Natural Science (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1923). A J. Ayer in the debate with Copleston supports the position that science can handle why-questions so long as they are intelligible.

When we ask why a person acted in a certain way or why he holds a certain belief, we frequently ask for an explanation in terms of reasons. It has been argued by a number of recent writers that such explanations cannot be regarded as a species of causal explanationat any rate in the sense in which we habitually search for causal explanations in the natural sciences. This topic has not been discussed in the present entry since it is treated at some length elsewhere in this encyclopedia (see the entry Philosophy of History).

Paul Edwards (1967)