Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 W - Why


Why: Request for an explanation.

There is a tendency to distinguish between questions asking how and questions asking why, that usually comes with a tendency to insist that the former are scientific questions and the latter metaphysical ones, but that seems mostly a prejudice, since grammatically everything can be questioned as every statement can be turned into a question why such and such is so.

What is true is that not all questions that can be grammatically posed can be rationally answered - or at least that some questions can only be answered by the observation that they have no rational answer.

One example is the question Heidegger was so fond of: 'Why is there anything at all (rather than nothing)?', that was also posed by Leibniz and Voltaire, and indeed will be posed eventually by anybody who keeps stubbornly asking 'Why?' to any explanation that is given.

For this fact, that there are some very general and as it were ultimate questions that have no real sense, in that they have no rational answer, there are two reasons.

First, embarking on an obvious infinite regress of questions will not answer anything: To answer a question one needs in the end make some form of assumption or insist on some observation of fact.

These assumptions or observations that answer the question may be mistaken or unfounded, and may perfectly well be rationally questioned by 'But why would I believe that?', but this is a request for specific evidence rather than for a yet more comprehensive explanation.

Second, 'Why is there anything at all?' invites some explanation, that must propose something - "God willed it"; "It's a chance occurence: a quantum flux or Epicurean declination"; "There must be a training ground to decide who deserves to go to hell", "So that this and other Why-questions can be posed" or whatever - and therefore does not answer the question.

And here it must also be remarked that the religious answer to 'Why is there anything at all?' - say: The universe exists because God willed it - makes very little sense, firstly because it can be perfectly reasonably questioned ('Pray, why then does God exist? Who made Him, and wherefore?'), and secondly because in the normal supernatural form it makes no sense, as it then involves an argument like 'There is everything that exists, and that is nature, and besides that there is ...' for this is a contradiction.

Finally, another observation that must be made about Why-questions is that they are personal, in the sense that they depend on some particular person's particular combination of ignorance and knowledge. A why-question generally arises because a person knows enough to know that he does not know the explanation for something that he would like to see explained in terms he can make sense of with his knowledge.



See also: Abduction, Natural Philosophy, Question, Theory



 Original: Feb 11, 2007                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top