One of the most confusing questions is “why did it happen?” For what do we mean by it? It looks so simple: When we ask why something happened, we ask for its reason. But this begs the question, for when we ask what we mean by a reason, we are back where we started, since a reason is an explanation why something happened. The circle is round.
In his seminal article “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” Donald Davidson states that a reason for an action is made up of an agent’s desire and belief, a view for a long time hold by many action philosophers since then. For instance, I come home and it’s dark. So I flip the switch and turn on the light. In this simple example, my desire is to turn on the light, and my belief is that I can do this by flipping the switch.
At first sight this case seems to illustrate clearly what we mean when we talk about a reason for an action. But does it? Assume that I am making a walk and I have an umbrella with me. Suddenly it starts to rain and I put up my umbrella. Now it’s normal to say that the reason why I put up the umbrella is that it rained. However, what are then the belief and the desire that make that I put up the umbrella? For according to Davidson, we speak of a reason when we have a belief and a desire in mind that explain my action, but the only event in the umbrella case that refers to a reason that made me act is the rain. That it rains is neither a belief nor a desire, for beliefs and desires are mental events and raining is a natural event that takes place outside me. Nevertheless, it’s normal to see rain as a reason to put up an umbrella. The upshot is that the way Davidson fills in the concept of reason cannot be correct. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t have beliefs and desires in the umbrella example. Here my desire is to stay dry and my belief is that I have to put up my umbrella for that (for why else would I have taken it with me?)
In my PhD thesis I argued on grounds I just put forward that the simple idea that a reason for an action are a desire plus a belief cannot be maintained. Instead I presented an alternative view. But my solution applied only to the explanation of human actions (which was the main theme of my thesis). In his recent book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Dennett asks also what “reason” means, but unlike me he uses examples from the natural sciences, which gives it a wider interest, I think (in the sense that it broadens the field of application). So let me follow him now.
(1) “ ‘Why are you handing me your camera?’ asks”, so Dennett, “what are you doing this for?”, while (2) “ ‘Why does ice float?’ asks how come: what is it about the way ice forms that makes it lower density than liquid water?” (p. 38,; italics D.)
According to Dennett “[t]he how come question asks for a process narrative that explains the phenomenon without saying that it is for anything.” (ibid.) An answer to the “for”-question in (2) might be “in order to make ice skating possible”, but such an answer assumes that there would be a being that had designed the laws of nature, which is neither Dennett’s view nor is it mine.
Once we know this the confusion can be easily solved: When we ask why something happened we don’t ask one but two questions. Asking why, can either be asking how something comes about or what it is for – which doesn’t imply, though, that both questions are always relevant in the same situation –. The two questions are not simply different, but they have different temporal directions as well. When we ask how come we look back and ask what happened before the phenomenon to be explained took place. On the other hand, when we ask what the phenomenon to be explained happened for, we ask what came about after the phenomenon occurred. The questions are about the past or about the future. So I put up my umbrella after it had started to rain and next I hope to stay dry.
- Donald Davidson, Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 3-4
- Dennett, Daniel C., From Bacteria to Bach and Back. London: Penguin Books, 2018.- Weg, Henk bij de, De betekenis van zin voor het begrijpen van handelingen. Kampen: Kok Agora, 1996.