Big questions. The type of question that apparently has no answer. Questions that result in debates which devolve into shouting matches. Questions that are discussed with friends in a park without noticing how serious the conversation has become.
Such questions have unfortunately been met with quick dismissal because they lack an easy answer. And the statement ‘We can’t figure it out! Stop asking about it!’ is uttered by the frustrated.
This attitude is often damaging and unhelpful. Some questions demand vigorous thought and conversation. They test patience and sanity. However, what they’re unlikely to do, is make life drastically worse for existing.
I say this because they have another function beyond being in an introductory philosophy book.
They foster powerful conversation between friends, give us a chance to exercise freedom of thought and help us learn more about ourselves, the world and the people we share it with.
They force us to live with uncertainty and find peace in it.
Take the question ‘What is the good life?’
Thinking about this question for only a few minutes opens us up to the huge possible answers you could give. To this question alone the answers have ranged from serving God to finding peace in a secular place to being virtuous to living with as much pleasure as possible. Some great minds have been trying to answer this and solve our contradictory yet equally appealing opinions for thousands of years. However, the lack of a definitive answer does not signal towards its insignificance.
In part, the value of the question comes from the process of trying to answer it, not just the answer settled on. Engaging with the questions opens us up to personal beliefs previously hidden to us which are then challenged and defended or dismissed. They can potentially change our lives simply because they’ve given us a new perspective on problems that we may never have taken seriously.
For example, we all know about avoidable poverty that persists in the world and tend to think it’s a bad thing but asking whether we’re all morally equal humans can change our opinions on whether we should give to charity. If we decide not to give to charity we can begin to develop our answer beyond a stutter and a hurry to change the topic.
Thinking about the questions, we might come closer to a satisfying answer that we may never have realised was in our grasp. But only by grappling with it for a while (or for some, their whole lives) can we do this. Everyone can be told answers to questions without any personal engagement but refusing to do some of the work ourselves stifles our gift for curiosity that should be grown instead of stifled.
If we find an answer we like, then all the better. If not, we can still enjoy the discussion. We then find that saying ‘I don’t know’ shouldn’t make us anxious. It’s a normal part of dealing with difficulty and practising some humility in the process.
It is important to note that I’m not demanding we live with every question in the world. There are many I currently have little interest in (No, I don’t know what an object is Mr van Inwagen.*) and some I have lived with for so long they aren’t invited for dinner any more. We all have different interests and some are more central to our everyday lives than others but we mustn’t dismiss them simply because of their difficulty.
To live with a question means we sometimes invite it over for some food and drinks, chat for a short while, crack a few jokes, realise you’re personifying a question for the sake of a metaphor and then, when the night is over, thank Ms Big Question for the enriching conversation. Maybe afterwards you’ll call Mr and Mrs 300-page-book for some help.
Live with questions and embrace the complexity they bring.
Live with questions and allow them to enrich your thinking.
Live with questions instead of wishing for their death.
If the questions die then the answer goes along with it and more importantly so does our thought.
* Peter Van Inwagen is a philosopher who has written about what objects are and determined they’re either elementary particles or living organisms.
Some other stuff: