There's a popular distinction between the "why" and "how" questions (especially popular nowadays in popular science) - the main argument is that while "how" questions can give us not only meaningful, but practical answers, "why" questions always presuppose a reason for things to happen (and the main criticism as far as how I understand it is that this reason is always claimed to be extrinsic, so we always presuppose something that simply doesn't have to exist).

Now I'm not going to get into the debate of whether or not this statement is true, but rather I'll ask this: if we do take on this criticism against "why" questions, can we build a philosophy theory that builds upon only "how" questions? In other words, can a philosophical "why" question be fully replaced with a set of "how" questions? Answers can discuss either a certain region of philosophy or just generally philosophical questions (preferably the latter).

Edit: what I'd like to add to the question, based on the comments and the answers, is - can/should science answer "why" questions? Or is that only related to the field of philosophy?

  • Didn't you already ask about instrumentalism? The problem is that the distinction between "why" and "how" is relative and context bound, it is meaningless in the "global" sense you have in mind.
    – Conifold
    Feb 19, 2018 at 20:01
  • @Conifold I fail to see the relation to instrumentalism. And I'll take what you said about global sense into consideration, I'll edit the question tomorrow and try to clarify the question. Feb 19, 2018 at 22:23
  • Colloquially, people would say that positivism and instrumentalism only care about "how" and not "why", about describing and predicting but not getting into the "reasons" for things, about empirical or pragmatic adequacy but not the truth, etc. Of course, instrumentalists would rebut that "why" is merely "how" in disguise, "how" embedded into a wider picture, and not anything essentially different. This is the conclusion of unificationist explanation theories, for example: "why" is just unified "how".
    – Conifold
    Feb 19, 2018 at 23:56
  • 1
    In what way is the answer to a 'how' question 'meaningful'? Algorithms have purposes only if you already had the purpose in mind when you derived the algorithm. On their own, they do not respond to needs -- the need has to exist already. If you think the answer to a 'how' question accomplishes something, then there is a 'why' question you are just stepping over and ignoring.
    – user9166
    Feb 20, 2018 at 18:48
  • 2
    This feels at least superficially similar to "is" vs "ought."
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 23, 2018 at 0:18

2 Answers 2


1 'Why ?' questions do occur in philosophy. 'Why should there be something rather than nothing ?' This obviously you concede and it motivates your question. One way in which we could build a philosophy only on 'How ?' questions would be if we had the syntactic or other apparatus to convert - reduce - every 'Why ?' question to a 'How ?' question. I can't see that 'Why ?' questions are irreducible in principle to 'How ?' questions but I don't have or know of a reductionist theory by which to do this. You might try your hand btw at reducing ''Why should there be something rather than nothing ?' to a 'How ?' question. Or perhaps you would decline the task because you do not regard 'Why ?' questions as being in good order; you plainly don't like that they involve 'extrinsic reasons'. Does this rule them out of court ?

2 A wide range of philosophical questions are straightforwwardly 'How ?' questions already :

a. How can we have free will in a deterministic universe ?

b. How can there be causal relations between Descartes' two substances, mind and matter, when mind is thinking and unextended and matter is extended and unthinking ?

c. How can there be evil in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly beneficent God ?

d. How can we have necessary a posteriori knowledge ?

e. How can know whether memory is reliable ?

Don't put the questions at my door ! They're culled from the literature. I might add the great Kantian question, 'How is knowledge possible ?'

But a mere list doesn't show or suggest that any 'How ?' list could exhaust the whole range of philosophical questions, present and future. For that we need to go back to 1 and the need for the details or at least the outline of a reductionist method of redefining 'Why ?' questions as 'How ?' questions.

Fascinating question !

  • Thank you for the answer. So from 1 I understand that you consider every "why" question as replaceable by "how" question. Is that correct? That's interesting. I won't try and give an example to contradict this conclusion, but I'll try to ask more theoretically - do you think that "how" questions, no matter the quantity, will be able to grasp the full idea of a "why" question? I know this is pretty vague, but let's consider the example you gave - "why should there be something rather than nothing". [next comment] Feb 19, 2018 at 22:36
  • I can replace it with a)"how can there be something", b)"how can there be nothing", c)"how can we justify that (a) is 'more rational' than (b)". I can say this will suffice to replace the "why" question. But I feel like it still misses something here - a reason. (c) will give probably give us a plausible explanation that can replace the "why" question, but it won't give us a reason for that to happen. Now, one could easily argue that such reason simply doesn't exist, but when we do this we effectively remove the possibility that a reason would even arise. At least that's how I see it. Feb 19, 2018 at 22:36
  • @Yechiam Weiss. I'm not sure I want to get rid of 'why ?' questions. I'm perhaps too much of a Leibnizian : no event ever occurs without there being a sufficient reason for it to have happened rather than anything else. Which easily rephrases as 'why it happened rather than anything else'. In my answer I was simply trying to see how far one might get, and how, with your hypothetical project of replacing all 'why?' questions in philosophy with 'how?' questions. You set a problem I hadn't thought of.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 20, 2018 at 10:05
  • yeah, personally, I don't want to get rid of why questions at all, I'm just trying to understand the other side, if it's even possible. And I'll totally accept it if you consider it to be "as far as one can go" with how questions. Just wanted to try and stretch the limits here. Feb 20, 2018 at 10:08
  • Probably better for chat but it strikes me “how can...”-forms are whys-in-disguise
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:53

So, let's back off from the previous answer and focus just on Wittgenstein, and just on language.

Wittgenstein gives a good argument that language holds itself together through 'games' that allow individuals to determine meaning by choosing usage, taking agency to deploy it, and getting pushback from the other agents involved.

Meaning, usage, and agency are three entirely separate but interdependent things, and no one of them can be entirely explained by any combination of the other two. (That is, other than the totality of all of those plus all the rest of itself, a collection which is infinite in both content and detail.)

Wittgenstein himself was focussed on Logical Positivism, so he emphasized the degree to which meaning and usage are circularly dependent, and yet not complementary. So you cannot determine either from the other; neither is directly traceable to the other; nor is one the absolute product of the other, because there is a third component present.

So, you cannot answer How questions entirely in terms of Who/What/When questions or the reverse. Without actual engagement and negotiation, it is impossible to learn rules correctly by observation. And one cannot communicate an abstract underlying picture of the world through surface behavior, corresponding internal models have to arise in the person being taught, and then they have to be shaped through interaction. (This is the early Wittgenstein's 'ladder' analogy - at crucial points in the learning process, we cannot deliver the most important concept, we have to provide a ladder up to it, which is partially fiction, and will be discarded as misleading when the necessary foothold appears). This destroys the notion of a single recordable kind of truth in terms of direct facts, and derails the LP enterprise.

Your question is the same question as LP was asking, only about How and Why questions. The whole structure is symmetric, so you can just complete the remaining analysis by parallels.

The argument instead of 'LP fails', is basically, 'B.F. Skinner fails'. You cannot determine actual motivation entirely from behavior. You have to guess the internal furniture of the individual's worldview, and you can't. The information is incomplete and we are not psychic.

To the extent you can actually relate, the internal structure of meaning is basically impossible to put into a usable form, even with their participation. So there are Why questions about this person that you can never answer with How answers unless you have his whole library of associations. This is not just history, but the internal idiosyncratic framework of reasoning and symbology that the first arm of the argument says we cannot determine.

So even if you have all the How answers, you would have to guess all the What answers to answer many Why questions. Just the way the primary argument shows LP cannot be done, this cannot either.

If this does not work in just one part of experience, language, it does not work at all. But the same analysis and principles apply far beyond language.

As for the edit. What science exists -- what questions we do and do not have answers for -- is determined by 'why' questions. So, in order to choose where and when to study what phenomena, scientists must answer 'why' questions. Sciences do not ask or answer pointless questions as a matter of course. People will only devote their resources to questions that inspire in them some sense of meaning.

Also, in choosing axioms and paradigms, science anchors itself in metaphysics -- only the models that are blessed by a current paradigm are going to mean quite the same things to current working scientists in a domain. So during periods of revolutionary science, or of initial paradigm formation, science also falls back on philosophical answers to 'why' questions, and turns them from mere insights into solid models usable by real people.

Things like Everett's Many-worlds model, or the Copenhagen rules are oversimplified metaphysics that help ground the concepts of quantum physics. So are the notions of a light 'wave' or an 'elementary particle'. But they make up a body of metaphors that allow people to get traction so that they can be inducted into the paradigm. They played major roles in the evolution of the science during the paradigm shift from classical to quantum mechanics. But as science, they are actually meaningless. They are neither testable, nor quantitative. They give us a metaphorical framework of 'why' answers on which all the real, scientific 'how' answers will be built.

The same kind of thing can be said for the concepts of line, point, etc. from Euclid, or of set and function. We capture the metaphor in axioms, at which point all of it becomes actual math. But we retain the metaphor itself, which is by nature a metaphysical, ontological or epistemological theory simplified for everyday use.

  • I understand I must read Wittgenstein (never liked the positivism view, but I know it's necessary to study either way). Any book recommendation? The classic "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"/"Philosophical Investigations"? Also, if you've already rewritten your answer, would you mind also answering the edit in my question? And, this is the most important part, does what Wittgenstein says applied to natural scientific investigations too, or just human sciences? Because from what I see from your answer, the human subjectiveness is what's keeping the "how" questions from replacing the "why"s. Feb 24, 2018 at 17:11
  • The finished concept gets pulled out in the Philosphical Investigations. But the development of the ideas is clearer in the Blue and Brown Books, since those are delivered to students, in process, rather than as a finished product.
    – user9166
    Feb 26, 2018 at 16:42
  • There is no difference, natural science is a human process wither it is physics or sociology. "The theory-laden-ness of observation and definition" constitutes exactly the same problem: We decide what to explain, we propose an explanation, and we try to back it up with observations -- this is the same game of "agency, meaning and usage" with broader terms. The why (what needs explaining) determines the how (some predictive theory, with given computations) and that determines the what (observable measures with stable definitions), which gives a different meaning to the why...
    – user9166
    Feb 26, 2018 at 16:45
  • So perhaps the better explanation to read is someone in the Philosophy of Science who respects the intervention Wittgenstein into Logic, such as Kuhn or Lakatos, or the part of Feyerabend's argument against them (The first half of the analysis of the success of Galileo in first section of "Against Method") that starts with an elucidation of what they mean. The latter is actually fun to read. I would work backward from there.
    – user9166
    Feb 26, 2018 at 16:55
  • thanks! In the recent month I understood how much I wanted to read exactly those three (Kuhn Lakatos Feyerabend, along with Polanyi who's also of great interest to me), so what you say just makes me want to grab one of their books already :) May I ask, what would you say for the opposing argument (the philosophers of science that would reject Wittgenstein's logic)? (I'm not exactly sure if there's any, but it makes sense to me) Feb 26, 2018 at 17:28

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