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This question was inspired by the this thread over at physics.se.

What are the correct uses of "why" and "how" as interrogatives?

Do questions that begin with "why" necessarily pursue answers which lie beyond the realm of empirical data or natural fact? If not, is it possible to rephrase those "why" questions which can be addressed by the experimental sciences as "how" questions without changing their meanings?

  • If you define a 'why' question as trying to find a reason & a 'how' question at trying to find a description, I would've thought both had a place in physics. Though is the conversation around which should form the basis for a hypothesis? – anotherdave Dec 14 '13 at 20:12
  • I'm not sure if this belongs to sociolinguistics or another branch of linguistics but certainly inappropriate in English. Here's why: Hypothetically, I could translate this into at least a few other languages and post them on respective language Q&A's, which would be valid questions. – Kris Dec 15 '13 at 12:13
  • I posted an appropriate mirror to this question at philosophy.se yesterday, but I think that the question here is suited for English. I'm looking for an English-language usage perspective on the interrogatives "why" and "how," specifically what connotations do questions that begin with them have and are there certain classes of questions that are ill-suited to one or the other (sound strange, don't makes sense, etc.). – Geoffrey Dec 15 '13 at 17:54
  • Besides, English is the international language of science and, therefore, holds a privileged position. – Geoffrey Dec 15 '13 at 17:55
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How about this:

I ask, "Why can't I see round the corner of the cupboard from where I'm standing?"

This could be rephrased as:

"How does my position relative to the cupboard prevent me from seeing around the corner?"

You could then work out a scientific explanation about light and angles etc.

BUT the first question could have several different answers:

Because I have my eyes shut.
Because you're standing in my way.
Because the light is switched off.

You could explain these in scientific terms too.

You could ask specific questions for each of these circumstance using How. In order to ask a How question you need more specific information about the problem you want to solve.

I therefore suggest that Why is useful when you have a phenomenon which has multiple potential answers.

  • I like the idea that "how" questions tend to require more precision in their formulation, so they lend themselves more readily to scientific inquires. But it seems to me that "why" questions still have uses in contexts where observations contradict expectations or appear anomalous. For instance, in your example it is fairly obvious that one's position vis-a-vis the cupboard ought to be an important parameter of the problem, but what happens when there is some new unknown affecting the experiment? If I don't know all of the parameters of a problem, can I still ask "how"? – Geoffrey Dec 15 '13 at 0:25
  • My example is pretty prosaic but suppose it was to do with quantum physics instead. Q: How does my quantum position relative to the quantum cupboard prevent me from seeing around the corner? Science might experiment for years with different positions of self and cupboard, trying to find the answer. But if the problem is cause by the quantum equivalent of closed eyes then clearly you are never going to be able to see round the corner. So it requires some lateral thinking, ie the original how question was misleading. I'm still thinking about your last point. – Mynamite Dec 15 '13 at 15:07
  • I suppose one way round it would be to ask "How can we understand result X from observation Y?" This would encompass all parameters, known and unknown. All possible reasons would have to be investigated. – Mynamite Dec 15 '13 at 15:09

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