Is it possible to have evidence that something exists without having an explanation for why the thing exists?

  • 2
    It would help greatly if you could clarify what you mean by the conception of "explanation" and the type of reasons you mean by "why the thing exists." Depending on your definitions, this could turn out to be circular and vapid or an interesting question in epistemology.
    – virmaior
    Oct 13, 2015 at 5:01
  • This seems quite broad. However, consider your appendix. There's no question that it exists, but explanations as to why are still in the hypothetical stages at best.
    – aroth
    Oct 13, 2015 at 5:04
  • I am starting to think that one sentence questions should be closed immediately. If the author elaborates they can be reopened. But in most cases they never do, and even if they do by that time there is a thread of answers that are all over the place.
    – Conifold
    Oct 13, 2015 at 17:29

4 Answers 4


Yes, it is possible, with a very simple example:

It is trivial to have evidence that humanity exists. Why humanity exists is an open question in philosophy with no universally accepted answer.

  • I would look for an answer to the question Why humanity exists? along the lines of the theory of evolution. Or do I miss the point because you consider it a philosophical question?
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 13, 2015 at 8:48
  • @JoWehler I intended the philosophical question, because it is even harder to answer, but approaching it from an evolutionary perspective is effective too. Assigning causality in evolutionary systems is famously difficult to do. The only "reason" for anything in evolution appears to be "because it happened, and it turned out to be beneficial."
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 13, 2015 at 15:20
  • The theory of evolution is based on laws of causality, e.g., existence of mutations of the genotype, selection depending on the phenotype. What is missing, is the predictive power. The laws are deterministic. But due to the sensitive dependence on environmental events one cannot use them to compute many steps in time. This property is called deterministic chaos. The most well-known paradigm is the weather forecast.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 14, 2015 at 10:00
  • @JoWehler I'm a fan of that line of reasoning. I use it a lot. However, in this case, with words like "why" being used, I elected to use a meaning of "why" which is more typically used than the one you are using. The lack of predictive power means no valuable information is provided by claiming a "why" that relies on deterministic chaos. All it does is prove that no metaphysical force influences the world, but that was assumed as part of the mathematical model of the chaotic world, and can never possibly be proven.
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 23, 2015 at 22:14
  • Usually answers to a "why" question also provide some information on "why not" for contradictory postulates. It's all semantics, so there's plenty of room to disagree, but I would be very disappointment if the answer for "why am I a boy" did not provide any helpful information for "why I am not a girl." Such an answer would suggest to me that the person conveying this wisdom to me has a different meaning of "why" than that which I typically recognize.
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 23, 2015 at 22:19

Yes, it is possible and reason for it depends on the temporal nature of existence and "why".

To empirically find that something exist would require a less temporal scale as compared to find why that something exist. The question of why can go on way too far in the past or way too far in the future. So basically you can find the existence in very small time scale whereas "why" would require much larger time scale to get answered.

For example: You could come to know the existence of something on your table as soon as you look but to reason why it exist would require you to spend more time as compared to "just looking at it". For some moments you will know the existence of the object on the table without knowing why.


Take the cosmos: I assume that we all agree on its existence. But no generally accepted answer is known to the question Why does the cosmos exists?

Enclothed in philosophical terms it is Leibniz' question Why is there something rather than nothing? But one can also doubt whether that is a reasonable question.


I'll answer a broad question in a broad way, and say yes, you can have evidence that a thing exists without knowing why it exists.

To argue otherwise it's necessary to make a couple of assertions, which must both hold true:

  1. Every single thing that exists has a purpose behind its existence; purposeless things categorically do not exist.
  2. The purpose behind any thing in existence is something that will be readily apparent and comprehensible to human intellect.

The first assertion appears to be an appeal to the notion that there must be a divine intelligence which has created and ordered the entire universe towards some ultimate purpose (as how else can you get an entire universe in which not even a single atom is misplaced or "purposeless"?).

That's very difficult to prove, in and of itself. And also infinitely recursive, because if such a divine intelligence exists that intelligence itself must have its own purpose for existing, in an even larger context. And that larger context must also have its own broader purpose.

And so on. If any context exists without a discernable purpose and a larger context around it, the original premise is disproven as there would then exist at least one thing which has no purpose.

And the second assertion is no less problematic. It essentially requires that human beings be omniscient, able to divine the true purpose of anything they might observe at the moment they observe it. Which is manifestly untrue. Though even slight untruth is sufficient to disprove the premise that anything that exists must have a known/knowable purpose for existing.

One could argue that perhaps everything does have a purpose, but without human omniscience that purpose may be so deeply buried that mankind has no chance of ever finding it. Or so blue and orange that we'd never comprehend the purpose even if we found it. Which still fails the original premise.

  • Two thoughts. First, I think you're falling for a trap with respect to the meaning of the word "why." There's other forms of explanation that fall completely outside the assertions you suggest. For instance, "why can you read this?" might be answerable with respect to how an LCD monitor works rather than any question of purpose. Second, there's no recursion problem with respect to the first assertion for most theists because "divine intelligence" is taken to be ipso facto the final explanation (per Aristotle's metaphysics which is where the cause language comes from).
    – virmaior
    Oct 13, 2015 at 9:40
  • I think your first example conflates "how" with "why". There's a physical explanation of how an LCD screen manipulates pixels, how an OS coordinates the colors of individual pixels, and how a brain interprets the colors into coherent information, yes. But I think it's a stretch to say that physical explanation is also the answer to "why". Perhaps the OP is unclear and meant to ask if it's possible for something to exist without any physical explanation, but I think that's a separate and very different question. For my answer, "why" implies a purpose, not merely physical justification.
    – aroth
    Oct 13, 2015 at 12:25
  • For the second example, I think what you're alluding to is that many would hold that any divine intelligence is by definition unfathomable to human intellect. And yes, I think that's fair enough. However the fact that many might make that assertion doesn't make it logically consistent or defensible. Merely popular. If divine intelligence exists and is by definition its own final explanation, the only logically consistent conclusion is that yes, a thing can exist without a corresponding reason why.
    – aroth
    Oct 13, 2015 at 12:32
  • For your answer, "why" may imply a purpose, but my point is that it's not clear that's the why the OP means by why. The word is less clear than you're taking it to be. I don't think it's a stretch at all to use "why" with respect to "physical explanation". Why don't we float off into space? = Gravity (doesn't it?). It's not our job to mind read.
    – virmaior
    Oct 13, 2015 at 12:42
  • For your second comment, No, that's not at all what I'm alluding to (with respect to unfathomability). I'm instead referencing Aristotle's Metaphysics and the point that "divine intelligence" is also taken to be divine precisely insofar as it terminates the circularity problem. But really for the purposes of this question, it doesn't matter, because the bigger problem is you've assumed a particular definition of why as in purpose, which the OP has not made clear is the intended why OP (considering they ask for "explain" and surely a physical explanation explains why something is the case).
    – virmaior
    Oct 13, 2015 at 12:44

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