Q1: If I collected one apple, and I collected another apple, why do I have two apples now?

A1: Because 1 + 1 = 2

Q2: Why is 1 + 1 = 2?

Another example:

Q1: If gravity pulls us downwards, why are we not falling through the floor?

A1: Because we can't fall through completely solid surfaces like wood or stone.

Q2: Why can't we fall through completely solid surfaces like wood or stone?

A2: The surface exerts an opposing but equal force to our weight to sustain equilibrium.

Q3: Why does the surface exert an opposing but equal force to our weight to sustain equilibrium?

A3: Because the cellulose fibers of the floorboards ...


Q11: Why do the particles in the atoms exist?

A11: Because the Big Bang happened, and all particles originated from the Big Bang.

Q12: Why did the Big Bang happen?

Why is it still considered an 'infinite regress' if all lines of questioning like this end up at a point where the line of questioning can no longer continue because the final statement has no known cause or reason. Are there any examples of true infinite regresses? What have I misunderstood about infinite regress?

  • Please provide an extended quote or an explanation of the context and purpose behind calling it an infinite regress. Jan 22 at 19:26
  • 1
    maths and science both end in brute facts and nothing else does? not sure: why is it now? why am i this person? etc,
    – user64361
    Jan 22 at 19:43
  • 1
    Because the point of citing infinite regress is often to show that we must arrive at a why that cannot be answered or to go in a circle, see Agrippa's trilemma. Or, it is immaterial whether the answers are known (or even can be known) to us. Instead, one ponders whether the whys (of some particular sort) can indeed go indefinitely, in principle, or must stop at the "first cause" or some such, see the cosmological argument.
    – Conifold
    Jan 22 at 21:04
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    Without context, no one knows what the infinite regress argument is being used for, so we don't know if it matters if there is a practical end to the regress. For some purposes, a practical end to the regress would counter the argument. For other purposes, it would not. Jan 22 at 21:49
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    Does this answer your question? Circular logical universe versus Infinite Staircase universe
    – Nikos M.
    Jan 23 at 7:52

1 Answer 1


This underscores the proof-of-concept problem for infinitism:

Grant that it’s possible that every element of an infinite series could be comprehensible to us. But what evidence is there that there actually are such series? And what evidence is there that, for at least most of the things that we justifiably believe (or most of the things we know, or most of the acceptable reasoning we engage in), there is a properly structured infinite series available to us?

Or consider the defining proposition of infinitism: "There are infinite series of justifying reasons for beliefs." Is the belief in this proposition supported by a given infinite series of its own? But (exclusionary) infinitism is presented either (A) as inferred from the regress problem itself, as in:

  1. Foundationalism, coherentism, or infinitism is true. (More sophisticated: foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism, foundherentism, infinitary coherentism, infinitary foundationalism, or all three together, are true.)
  2. Foundationalism and coherentism (or...) are not true.
  3. Therefore, infinitism is true.

... which is just about as compact an inference as can be (perhaps the infinitist can claim that there's an infinite amount of reasoning packed into justifying (2)); or (B) the infinitist doesn't infer their position's truth as a contrast with the falsity of its "competitors," but non-inferentially justifies belief in infinite sequences of inferences by erotetic reflection. I.e. they have non-inferential, intuitive awareness of infinite sequences of questions a priori, and in this awareness can see the possibility of infinite sequences of answers, answers joined together in an infinite array of logical relations. Kant says in the Transcendental Dialectic:

This point—though a mere idea (focus imaginarius), that is, not a point from which the conceptions of the understanding do really proceed, for it lies beyond the sphere of possible experience—serves, notwithstanding, to give to these conceptions the greatest possible unity combined with the greatest possible extension. Hence arises the natural illusion which induces us to believe that these lines proceed from an object which lies out of the sphere of empirical cognition, just as objects reflected in a mirror appear to be behind it. But this illusion—which we may hinder from imposing upon us—is necessary and unavoidable, if we desire to see, not only those objects which lie before us, but those which are at a great distance behind us; that is to say, when, in the present case, we direct the aims of the understanding, beyond every given experience, towards an extension as great as can possibly be attained.

And that is the essence of transcendental illusion in cosmology: to conflate the existence of an infinite sequence of questions-in-themselves with the existence of an infinite sequence of requisite answers in experience. But the rationality, such as it is, of the questions, is not constitutive of a rational expectation on infinitely complete answers; the apriority of the generic sequence of questions apparently turns out empty of possible physical content quickly enough, so although we can see that we can ask, "Why is 1 + 1 = 2?" or, "Why do things exist?" we can also see that the very presuppositions of being able to ask such questions correspond to self-answering questions at this stage in the regress.

To be sure, then, in philosophy they have found ways to question whether 1 + 1 = 2, or if I remember correctly Bertrand Russell had a whole chapter's worth of analysis of the word "the" somewhere; and there are other fine points of uncertainty besides, throughout the literature. But so suppose you had, "Why are there why-questions at all?" in play: if the question somehow answers itself, then in questioning the answer to the question, one will not move backwards down the line of a regress, but just hover above the terminal erotetic node, here.

To illustrate:

  1. Why are there why-questions at all?
  2. "Why are there why-questions at all?" is why there are why-questions at all.
  3. "Why (2)?" = (1).

So (1) is an axiomatic question which, if its own answer, halts the regress of questions (not the regress of assertions) in that the act of questioning the answer to the self-answering question cycles to (1); this is a self-singleton structure, as it were. At any rate, we don't need to fall to skepticism for seeing that foundationalism, coherentism, and infinitism are, individually, insufficient to solve the regress problem altogether; all of them together can solve any regress problem. Here, it is the self-cycling of (1) that brings in a coherentistic moment, but then the ability to infer assertions from questions (via transcendental argument) grounds a foundationalistic moment, too; and all this is bracketed by the potential infinity of the rest of the erotetic series in itself, which is an infinitistic moment.

  • Interesting, thank you for the answer. But if I were asked "why are there why questions at all?" I would have gone down the "because human psychology has a curious/inquisitive nature to ask for the causes of things" line of reasoning and then it would infinitely regress down evolutionary psychology of curiosity etc. then biological explanations of evolution then back to physics and chemistry again probably ending up at the same "Why does matter exist/Why did the Big Bang happen?" roadblock again.
    – user63990
    Jan 22 at 23:32
  • @AshtonDowling if we answer, "Why are there why-questions at all?" with something besides the question itself, we would be back down the endless road. If going down that road is too problematic, does that not rule out the idea that the question has some appropriate answer besides itself? It is strange to say that a question answers itself, but sometimes that is the case: Raymond Smullyan's What Is the Name of This Book? is, for example, a book whose title is a self-answering question. Jan 22 at 23:39
  • But the point is that infinite regresses based on logic always lead to this 'origin of science/mathematics' dead end which cannot be expanded on any further. The answer I gave about psychology is a logical explanation whereas your explanation is a more philosophical one void of coherent/applied logic (not necessarily wrong, maybe 'pure logic' if thats a thing). To dismiss reasoning that when infinitely regressed ends up at this dead end would be to dismiss applied logic as we know it (science, mathematics etc.)
    – user63990
    Jan 22 at 23:47
  • @AshtonDowling perhaps you are presupposing that regresses work a certain way, and this way that you theorize them to work is what generates the specific question that you are asking. So maybe I presuppose that regresses work in a slightly different way. I believe that there are multiple regresses, some loop, some terminate, some go back forever, some are made just of assertions, some interleave assertions and questions, etc. Jan 22 at 23:57
  • When I was a child and asked "Why is ..." my somewhat older brother would say, "To make people like you ask dumb questions." It still seems to me the best response. Still, you wrote a juggernaut of an answer that I didn't even try to comprehend. I'll just stick with writing complex SQL statements.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 23 at 2:30

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