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How come vs. what for

posted November 22, 2017 in deep thoughts

fireplace Mmm, cozy. Anyone have any chestnuts?

When people ask “Why…?” what they are really asking is at least two possible questions: “How come” and “what for”1. For example, suppose you ask why is my TV showing logs burning in a fireplace? One answer is it creates the warm, cozy feeling of having a fireplace without needing to have an actual fireplace. That would be the “what for” answer. A weirder but still appropriate answer, given the question, would delve in to the technical details of how the information for representing the fireplace flows through the “series of tubes” to the computer connected to the TV, then flows from the computer to the TV, where atoms in liquid crystals are excited so they emit just the right frequency of light. You might think me a smart aleck if I answered the second way, but notice I’d still be answering your “why” question, though in a different sense of the word.

Sometimes it’s actually important to note the “how come/what for” distinction. Such as if we’re curious about why the simulation of a fireplace makes us feel cozy and warm. The “how come” sense might lead to an investigation of whats going on in the brain, whereas “what for” might lead to a consideration of the possible benefits of this tendency. Interestingly, Darwinian evolution simultaneously provides explanations for both versions of the question.


  1. Dennett, Daniel C. (2013) Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking