Paul Edwards (1923 – 2004) was an Austrian American moral philosopher who was editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published in 1967. With eight volumes and nearly 1,500 entries by over 500 contributors, it is one of the monumental works of twentieth century philosophy.
In his 1967 article entitled “Why,” Edwards discusses whether or not the question of the meaning of life is itself meaningful.[i] He begins by pondering two issues regarding the use of the word why: 1) the contrast between how and why questions, and the prevalent view that science only deals with how questions; and 2) ultimate or cosmic why questions like “Why does anything at all exist?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Regarding the first issue, some thinkers insist on the contrast between how and why for religious or metaphysical reasons—maintaining that science answers how questions but only religion or metaphysics answers why questions. Other writers like Hume who are hostile to metaphysics, maintain that neither science, religion, nor metaphysics can answer why questions. Both groups agree that there are classes of meaningful why questions which cannot be answered by science; they disagree in that the former argue that religion or metaphysics can answer such questions, while the latter argue that they cannot be answered at all. In response Edwards makes a number of points. First, how and why questions are sometimes of the same type, as in cases where A causes B but we are ignorant of the mechanism by which it does this. In such cases it would be roughly equivalent to ask, why or how a particular drug works, or why or how some people who smoke get lung cancer but others do not. In these instances, science adequately deals with both why and how.
Still, there are cases when how and why ask different kinds of questions, as when we consider intentional human activity. How we robbed a bank is very different from why we robbed it, but it is false that empirical methods cannot answer both questions. In fact, the robbers probably know why they robbed the bank. True they might be lying or self-deceived about their aims, but still the answer is open to empirical methods. So we might ask the robbers friends about them or consult their psychoanalyst to find out why they did it.
For another case in which how and why questions differ, consider how we contrast questions about states or conditions as in “How cold is it?” or “How is his pain?” with questions about the causes of those conditions as in “Why is it cold?” or “Why is he in pain?” Clearly these are different types of questions. Edwards also notes that why questions are not always questions about the purposes of human or supernatural beings. To ask “Why are New York winters colder than Los Angeles winters?” is not necessarily to suppose that there is some conscious plan behind these phenomena. But it does appear we often answer both how and why questions without resorting to metaphysics.
To summarize Edwards thus far: how and why often are used to ask the same question; when dealing with human intentional actions they ask different questions—how asking about the means, why asking about the ends. Additionally, how questions often inquire about states or conditions, while why questions inquire as to the causes of those states or conditions. It does seem that we can in principle answer all these questions without resorting to religion or metaphysics.
Regarding our second issue, cosmic why questions, Edwards begins by considering what he calls “the theological why.” The theological answer to the theological why posits that a god answers the question of meaning. Major difficulties here include how we could say anything intelligible about such disembodied minds, as well as all of the other difficulties involved with justifying such beliefs. Edwards focuses particularly on whether the theological answer really answers the question, mentioning a number of philosophers in this regard: “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…Nagel insists that it is perfectly legitimate to inquire into the reasons for the existence of the alleged absolute Being…”[ii] Thus, the theological answer appears to be one of convenience that does not fully answer our query; rather, it stops the inquiry by asking no more why questions.
Edwards differentiates the theological why question—are there gods and do they provide the ultimate explanation?—from what he calls the “super-ultimate why.” A person posing this latter question regards the theological answer as not going far enough because it does not answer questions such as “Why are there gods at all?” or “Why is there anything at all?” or “Why does everything that is, exist?” The theological answer simply puts an end to why questions arbitrarily; it stops short of pushing the question to its ultimate end. One might respond that it is obsessive to continually ask why questions, but most reflective persons do ask “Why does anything or everything exist?” suggesting that the question is basic to thoughtful persons. Of course it may be that we just don’t know the answer to this ultimate mystery—all we can say is that the existence of anything is a mystery, its ultimate explanation remaining always beyond us.
According to Edwards, while some philosophers take the ultimate why question seriously many others argue that it is meaningless. The reason for this is that if a question cannot in principle be answered, as so many philosophers claim about this super ultimate why question, then that question is meaningless. Critics of this view agree that the question is radically different from all others but disagree that it is meaningless. They respond that ordinarily questions must in principle be capable of being answered to be meaningful, but not in the case of this ultimate question. Yet if a question really cannot be answered, and if all possible answers have been ruled out a priori, is that not the very definition of a meaningless question?
Another way of arriving at the conclusion that the question “why does everything exist?” is meaningless, is to consider how when we ordinarily ask “why x?” we assume the answer is something other than x. But in the case of “why anything at all?” it is not possible to find something outside of everything to explain everything. So meaningful why questions are those which are about anything in the set of all things, but if our why question is about something other than everything, then why has lost its meaning because it is logically impossible to have an answer.
Summary – How and why sometimes ask similar questions, and sometimes they ask different questions. Theological whys ask meaningful questions, but this does not mean theological answers to such questions are true. Furthermore, theological answers do not answer the super-ultimate why question. The super-ultimate why question is meaningless since there cannot be something outside of everything that explains everything.