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Lecture 17

PHIL 180 Lecture 17: Edwards on Meaning of questions

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California State University-Northridge
PHIL 180

Edwards on Meaning of questions. In Paul Edwards 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 reasonsmaintaining 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 selfdeceived 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 questionshow 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
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