Top Ten Greatest Philosophical Questions of All Time
#10) Does God exist?
I think most people would put this question at number one. But it's not and for one simple reason: the question of God’s existence actually bears very little on the answers to every other question below.
For example, on the question of why there is something rather than nothing at all, most people say “because God did it” on the idea that makes simpler sense than any imaginable alternative. But CT scans show that the same part of the brain is active when people think about God as when they think about ghosts. In other words, our subjective experience of God is a uniform disembodied force. He seems simple, homogeneous, the kind of thing that could just be, whereas the universe is filled with quarks and communists and condoms and math tests. It’s all very complicated.
But then surely the universe is not more ornate than God. If He designed and created all that stuff, if He is a conscious agent, all-good and worthy of veneration, then surely He is more majestic, more extended in space and time, full of strange and unimaginable forces that transcend the very laws of physics He invented.
That is the basic thrust of the argument from design, which says that if we stumble upon a pocket watch lying on the beach, we don’t assume it assembled itself. We assume something even more complex designed it. Namely, us. After all, the human brain, which designs things like watches, is the most complex thing known.
Adding God, then, doesn't explain anything. It simply passes the buck. If we can't believe the watch/universe just is, with all its trees and teachers and income tax, then we should be even more skeptical of blaming God, who is more complex still. Adding Him simply replaces something that seems messy with something that seems simple and homogeneous, even though He isn't.
Note, I am not saying God does or doesn't exist, just that proposing Him doesn't resolve the debate about anything else, which we'll see again below. In fact, the only reason I included this question at all is for its historical significance. Humanity has exhausted itself on this one, an effort I won’t perpetuate.
#9) What is the meaning of life?
I don't think this question means what you think it means.
It might be that we're supposed to cut off all our limbs and babble gibberish in a cave in the desert until we died. Don’t sneer. It’s a possible answer to this question, and your dismissal of it is based on certain assumptions about what the meaning of life would look like, assumptions that you take for granted.
You assume, deep down, not only that there is ultimate meaning, but also that it must look a certain way – that it will be applicable to YOUR particular human life as well as all others, but we don’t know if that’s true or not. If anything, the objective evidence suggests not. Human beings are mortal creatures who came into existence at some point in time, and so any answer that applied to us couldn't possibly be THE ANSWER in some grand cosmological sense.
This is the problem of reconciling the subjective and objective points of view. How can the things that have infinite value to me have any value to the universe? People have traditionally used God to bridge this gap. YOU matter because YOU matter to Him. Fine, but then everyone matters to Him, and every six year-old schoolchild understands that if teacher says everyone is special, then no one really is.
Not surprisingly, the big response from the theologians is that it’s all one big mystery that only God understands, that only God can understand, that He has a plan, and who are you to ask Him to change or even reveal it? (Guess we're not so special after all.)
Philosophers and poets, on the other hand, will tell you to forget about THE ANSWER, that the question itself is bunk, that it doesn't ask anything meaningful, and that it doesn't matter – a point well-made by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said that human beings aren’t looking for the meaning of life but rather the experience of life, the rapture of being alive, which is wholly different.
#8) What is the relationship between mind and body?
This is a question most people probably don’t think about, which is unfortunate considering it directly addresses their ability to think about anything at all. In its purest form, it asks: If the mind is intangible, unable to be touched, how can it interact with the world? How is pain translated from unfeeling electrical impulses to the sensation “ouchness"?
Lots of folks these days like to think of the mind as the software to the brain’s hardware, and admittedly this appears an easy solution… except that it leaves no room for consciousness, a problem brilliantly summarized by the philosopher John Searle in his now famous Chinese Room argument.
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the… test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
In other words, the computer analogy insufficiently explains the phenomenon. In particular, it seems unable to describe particular kinds of subjective experience that philosophers call qualia (singular 'quale'). When you stub your toe, for example, or hear a classical concerto, or embrace your lover, or smell fresh-baked cookies, and so on, there is a certain "what-it's-like-ness" to undergo that state over and above the electromechanical functioning of your nerves.
Today, computer-controlled cars receive data about their physical state. That information is carried along wires that are analogous to human nerves. Certain actions are then triggered. For example, an engine light might come on. But even though the car's computer receives these electrical impulses from its extremities, it doesn't feel hungry when it's almost out of gas. It doesn't have a headache when the engine light comes on. It doesn't feel pain when it runs over a nail.
Note, we're not saying machines can't be conscious. But if they ever are, it will be because they have some emergent quality not yet identified that is present in brains but absent in computers. The experience of consciousness is not a necessity of the software model, which means it doesn't explain consciousness. Something else does.
That something else does not have to magical or "immaterial." In fact, as Professor Searle has argued, brains clearly cause minds, which suggests other things could as well. No one yet knows how.
#7) What happens next?
This is actually two questions in one. The first asks what happens when the neurons in your brain stop working. In other words, what happens after life? Do we survive death?
Religions vary on the subject. In the East, the answer to that question is, yes, and you are reborn right back into the world. In the West, we also tend to answer yes, but only inside an eternity extremes: either torment or paradise.
In either case, nobody wants it to end. Ever. Which is just plain silly, a point argued wonderfully by British moral philosopher Bernard Williams. In an infinity of existence, he said, all possible things will be done an infinite number of times, and so eternity inevitably leads to a poverty of experience – a fate worse than hell. Existence itself becomes relentlessly tedious.
It’s an idea most people will struggle with because the brain simply doesn’t have the tools to comprehend the arithmetic of cosmic numbers. Take a googol for example, or 1 followed by 100 zeros.
You can perform symbolic transformations on that – divide it by a thousand, for example – but you can't comprehend it the way you can comprehend a hundred. Or a thousand.
Imagine a googolplex – 1 followed by a googol zeroes. Think how big that number is… 1 followed by as many zeroes as are represented in the symbolic number above.
No, really. I'm serious. Imagine a 1 followed by a googol zeros. That's not even the real number. That's just a symbol of the number, and still you can't wrap your head around it.
Now divide that incomprehensibly huge number by infinity. What do you get?
Basically, zero – or at least a number so close to zero as to make absolutely no difference. (It's actually a little more complicated than that since infinity is not technically a number, but for our purposes, it suffices.) In fact, that's what you get when you divide ANY finite number infinitely, no matter how mind-bogglingly huge. Infinity, however easy a word it is to pronounce, is not something you can actually understand.
Infinity is not a googolplex of googolplexes. It’s not googolplex to the googolplex power. It’s not googolplex factorial! Infinity is the sum of all those plus an infinity of googolplexes more. On such a scale, Williams is absolutely right, and saying we want to live FOREVER is nonsensical.
The second, altogether more interesting question asks what happens in, say, a hundred thousand years. Forget about survival after death. What will happen to the human race a few hundred million years from now? Will anyone be here to witness the destruction of the earth when the sun goes supernova? What about ten billion years from now? Or a hundred thousand billion years from now?
What happens then?
#6) Why is there something rather than nothing?
This is my favorite question of all time. Seriously. But while this question, the question of existence, transcends every other one in this list, it's not No. 1 for the simple reason that I suspect it's futile to ask, and in any case the answer, if there is one, is quite possibly absurd.
Nothing is the problem. But we'll get to that. Thinking about nothing is difficult, probably impossible, so we should skip nothing for the moment and instead start with something. All of it. The entire universe.
Ask yourself, why does it stop where it does? And what's outside? Is it nothing, or is it an unending black void? As we saw with the last question, an infinity of empty space would reduce the universe, no matter how large, to a infinitesimal speck – basically nothing. There's no theoretical reason why that couldn't be, but why only a speck? Why not a little bit (or even a lot) more? And how can emptiness just go on without end?
One solution is to make the universe infinite. Then there really isn't nothing. Alternatively, the universe could be finite but unbounded. Typically such a universe is described like a sphere, or a Möbius band, where if you are standing on the surface and you start walking in a straight line (or flying in a space ship), then no matter how big it is, as long as space-time stays the same size during your trip – ours is getting bigger every second – then eventually you'll return to the exact point at which you started.
There are problems with both models. An infinite universe seems squarely contradicted by the observational evidence, which suggests an initial explosion and rapid expansion that gave rise to all we see, but such a finite, unbounded universe seems a bit like a dodge of the question.
A sphere has three dimensions, even if the people living on its surface only experience two. Very clearly we can imagine one of them taking a shortcut through the third dimension to cut across the center to the other side. Regardless of how many dimensions are actually occupied, it seems like we could always theoretically open one higher and so step "outside" everything.
If not, if dimensions are finite and it's impossible to create any more, then we're right back to the first problem – namely, how is it that everything stops where it does? And what's on the other side of the border?
I can't imagine what that could be. Literally. I can't. And neither can you – for the simple reason that nothing can’t be. By its very definition, it isn’t. Nothing is not a void, although we often use it that way in casual language. When we say "there's nothing in the closet," what we really mean is that there's nothing of significance. At the very least, there's empty space. That's not the same. Nothing is not space. Nothing is not a void. Same with zero. Zero is also something. Nothing is not zero.
Nothing is the complete lack of ANYTHING, even space, which is why your brain – which is a particular kind of something, occupying space, and which uses thoughts, which are also something – cannot comprehend nothing.
Which brings us back to our original question: why is there anything at all? Why should anything exist? Forget the how. Forget the what for. Forget the deep structure of the universe. Why is anything here, period, including time itself? Wouldn't it be simpler if there was just . . . nothing?
For the ancient Greeks, the answer was so simple it borders on the absurd: true nothing is a logical impossibility. Our belief in its existence is simple parochial error. Just because we think we can imagine something doesn't make it real. Something must be, they said, because nothing can't.
#5) Why all this stuff and not some other stuff?
This is probably the most dangerous question in the world. The answer here would settle the ancient battle between free will and determinism, nature versus nurture.
But then, the nature-versus-nurture debate isn't all that interesting. We already know that not everything is determined, which would mean nothing is ever random, a statement at least conflicted by the observational evidence from modern physics. But those same observations from physics also show that not everything is completely random either; some things are predictable. (The same is true in chemistry and biology and so up the chain.)
What we're left with, then, is a universal accounting exercise – figuring out in each case how much is random and how much is determined and under what circumstances and so on. That’s science, and while it's important, that's not really what we mean when we ask why things are this way and not some other way.
It's worth thinking about not least because it's not always clear what would even count as an answer. Did the eight ball go into the corner pocket because it was struck by the cue… or because your TV was broke and you decided to play pool? Did the oil rig explode because a valve failed... or because the oil company cut back on safety? Did thousands die of cholera in the nineteenth century because of contaminated water… or because the ruling elite of early capitalist societies were uninterested in providing clean water to the poor?
Even where we're clear on what kind of answer we’re looking for, we still have a track record of mucking it up. It's a fact that human beings succumb to hindsight bias, or the tendency to assume after the fact that any given outcome was likely or even necessary from the very beginning. Contemporary neuroscience suggests a mechanism: the human brain is a cognitive miser. It does not retain any more than it expects to need. Thus, we can easily recall the end result of our deliberations – that we decided on a red car, or to vote for a particular politician, or that we didn’t like a certain movie – but we have difficulty recreating the full range of considerations that took us to that conclusion. (When prompted, we'll make something up.) Once a decision is made, our hindsightful, miserly brain sees no reason to waste energy retaining all our foresightful uncertainties and dead ends.
We tend to forget, then, just how much uncertainty there was, how easily things could have been different. After all, history never reveals its alternatives, which is what makes this question so important. Those who ask it genuinely, unencumbered by convention, are the true revolutionaries, rejecting the obvious answer, the time-honored explanation, the tradition, the law.
That last one is important. For the highest application of this question isn't to science and philosophy. It's to everything else. Slavery, torture, the Holocaust, apartheid, and so on were all legal in their time. Some of them still are. Legality is a matter of power, not rectitude, though it's never presented as such. It's presented as just the way the things are, the way they've always been, maybe even the way they're supposed to be – even when in truth they could have easily been different.
And still could be.
#4) Who am I?
We spend most of our lives in abject certainty of who we are but in complete doubt at all of the moments that matter: when confronting our first obstacle as an adult, when contemplating marriage, when facing a terminal illness, and so on. Why the difference? If we are truly certain of who we are, then we should double our resolve in moments of crisis, as we do with our most closely held principles, for example.
Very clearly we don’t, and that suggests our certainty is an illusion born of repetition. Nothing much changes from day to day, which gives the appearance of constancy. Constancy gives the appearance of soundness. So we assume there's no reason to doubt ourselves. Until life shakes us to our core and we have to wrestle with questions of identity.
But who are you, really? What is it that undergoes this crisis? What makes up you? And I don't mean a list propensities, experiences, likes, and dislikes. This isn't a church social or internet dating site. We're not asking for your playmate profile. We're asking what defines you, me, the self?
If we're defined by our given name, what about people with the same name? If we’re defined by our relationships, what happens as old friendships wane, people divorce, and family members die? If we're defined by our genetic code, what about twins? Are they not separate people? If we’re defined by our physical being, what about those who lose a limb (or several)? And consider that you turn over all the cells in your body on a fairly regular basis. The molecules that together defined “you” five years ago have all moved on, probably to other bodies (human or otherwise). What’s left?
When pressed, most people flee to the brain. The molecules of our bodies may slowly, relentlessly turn over, but the self is encoded somewhere in our billions and billions of neural connections. But then, new neural connections are forming all the time as we age and gather experience. What happens as they change? What happens after serious damage, say from a stroke? Or what about someone who gets into an accident and has a traumatic brain injury that changes their personality? What about someone with Alzheimer's? Are they literally not the same person? If they were drinking and driving, and in the process killed a child, would we not hold them accountable in a court of law?
Defining ourselves by the emergent property of our neural connections, our consciousness, fares no better. What about when we're sleeping? Or those in a coma? Do they cease to exist? Are those in a persistent vegetative state no longer people? Do they no longer have any legal rights? And if you’re defined by the contents of your mind, what happens as you accumulate more memories and others fade completely? Is someone with full retrograde amnesia not liable for crimes committed before their illness? What about people taking psychoactive medication, illicit drugs, or other substances that significantly alter consciousness? What about those with multiple personality disorder? Are they really and truly made up of multiple people inhabiting one body?
Through the grind of daily life, we insist on the continuity of the individual. It's a founding principle of society – that its members cohere from moment to moment – embodied in its institutions, such as the law, and in its norms and mores. But there is simply no definition of the individual that is both unique to you and yet persists over time. None. Zero.
How is it then that YOU persist? And who are you anyway?
#3) How do I know what is right or wrong?
For many people, the answer to this question seems just plain obvious. The things that are wrong are obviously wrong, and anyone who tries to make it more complicated than that is an atheist commie bastard.
But that's not really what we mean. It’s fine to say it’s obviously wrong to lie, cheat, steal, or commit murder – not many would disagree with you – but such an answer is hopelessly academic. The real question is, what counts as lying, cheating, stealing, or murder? And how would I know that?
After all, it's obvious that people – good, honest, hard-working people, both in your country and abroad – have genuine disagreements about what is right and wrong in any particular instance. That one person thinks the right answer is just plain obvious proves nothing if many others disagree. By definition, it must not be so obvious. And majority opinion is no sure guide. At various times, the majority have supported slavery, anti-semitism, apartheid, the divine right of kings, human sacrifice, witch-burning, and so on. How would we know what is right?
The most common answers appeal to God, but this adds nothing for the same criticism applies. His commandments are so academic as to be practically useless. (Here we will restrict ourselves to the Christian God just for the sake of argument, but this line of thought applies universally to moral theism.)
God says, “Thou shalt not kill”, which is often assumed to mean “It is wrong to murder another human” rather than “It is wrong to kill anything.” Even if we assume it’s just plain obvious He meant the former and not the latter, we still don’t know what counts as murder. After all, even God gets muddled. Often.
In Deuteronomy for example, God says the punishment for pre-marital sex should be death by stoning:
But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
So much for thou shalt not kill.
In II Kings, an elder of the Hebrew tribes hears that one of the Israelites has married a Midianite woman. But mixing of races is not part of God’s plan – He was dabbling in racial purity back then – so the elder walks into the newlyweds' tent and runs them both through with a spear. The Bible tells us God looked down and said it was good.
It doesn't matter if the Bible is literally true or not. That it offers highly conflicting advice on the subject of murder means it doesn't answer our question. In fact, appealing to it only seems to make things more confusing.
Some theists acknowledge the inconsistency and point instead to the need for heaven and hell "to promote social order," which sounds nice… except that doing something out of fear of punishment or anticipation of reward is not a moral act. A homicidal killer might choose not to slay one of her victims in plain sight so as not to get caught, but that hardly means she's a good, moral person.
A moral act is one that is done because it is right and for no other reason. Certainly it’s not something done out of fear. If that were so, then whatever I can compel someone to do – with a handgun, for example – could be considered a moral act. If we are actually motivated by hell, if we at all consider what we can get away with or will be rewarded for (like a child), then we are already not behaving morally, and so God again adds nothing.
The search for viable alternatives to the divine have thus far focused on two kinds of rules: ends-based and means-based. Utilitarian theories focus on ends: that we should strive to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarians, however, have had problems defining "the good," for if we leave it at mere happiness, we end up with some nonsensical results, such as that we should kill a petty criminal on live television if it even marginally increases the happiness of hundreds of millions.
Means-based theories, like Kant’s categorical imperative, involve some kind of a priori rule which it must always be wrong to violate. Here, too, we also end up with nonsensical results, for if it’s wrong to kill, then it’s wrong to kill someone who will kill others, such as an active shooter.
Proponents on both sides have tried to rescue their theories by introducing additional criteria – such as that it's okay to kill as long as it's in defense of others, that it's not okay to kill unless that person has committed a serious transgression. But in each case, there's always yet another imaginable circumstance that would seem to lead us astray and which requires yet a further clarifying rule. Is it okay to murder someone who killed people in the past but who cannot anymore (say, because they are quadriplegic)? Are rapists ever deserving of parole? Is it okay to torture someone who may or may not have information necessary to save lives?
And so it goes, on and on, in an infinite regress that brings us right back around to the original problem: what counts as lying, cheating, stealing, murder, etc. in each specific case? How do we know for sure what is right or wrong in practice? What counts as justifiable homicide? What about suicide? Is it wrong to kill yourself? Is it wrong to assist an elderly person with suicide? What if they are facing a long, painful death? And where any of those things are clearly wrong, what is a fair and appropriate punishment, given the exigent circumstances?
What about situations that don't involve a clear moral transgression, such as how to equitably divide an estate between four children not all of whom contributed equally to elder care? Or the best way to divide limited resources (i.e., scholarships) between variously disadvantaged applicants? And while we're at it, is it ever justified to take from one to give to another, and if so, how would we calculate an objectively just rate of taxation? Is mass analysis of personal metadata by the government part of an appropriate balance between liberty and security? Is it morally justified to fire a missile at a known terrorist when he's surrounded by relatives, including children? At what point is it acceptable to test gene therapies on living people? Is it a crime to make copies of someone's memories without their permission? Is it immoral to set foot on a potentially habitable world where biological contamination by even one bacterium could alter that planet's entire deep future?
The Bible doesn't say. Nor do the relevant popular theories. The simple fact is, answers to these questions seem to require a great deal of nuance, more than can be captured in a holy book or simple system of rules, and so despite millennia of effort, they have so far completely resisted any attempt at formal classification. It seems – for now – that the best we can do is follow our own good conscience.
#2) How can I know anything?
This is the reply to the radical skeptic, who has argued persistently (if not always convincingly) from the very beginning that, when you really think about it, there's no proof that we know anything. And I don’t mean that 2 + 2 = 4 and the like. I mean ANYTHING – that you exist, that the universe is, that you aren’t a brain in a vat (or a computer simulation of a brain in a vat) living a complex virtual reality, and so on.
The standard philosophical definition of knowledge is "true, justified belief." That is, we know something if it’s true and if we believe it because we have good reason to believe it (versus believing it for bad reasons, or just on accident). The problem with that definition, the skeptic warns, is that there doesn't seem to be a universally applicable benchmark of truth. What independent source can verify that our true, justified beliefs are in fact true? Even if some advanced alien race came down from the heavens to impart universal wisdom, how would we know that it wasn’t all just as much as sham as any of the rest of it?
We wouldn't, says the radical skeptic. And science is no help since what it produces is not truth but provisional knowledge forever subject to cancellation or revision by future discovery. In fact, what makes something scientific is its falsifiability; knowledge (however defined) that absolutely cannot be overturned is not scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, as long as it is possible that any bit of knowledge could be overturned, then it cannot count as absolute, and so there is always uncertainty.
What's more, no internally consistent scientific account of the universe would be able to tell the difference between reality and a sufficiently advanced simulation of the same. Hence almost everyone tends to ignore the question of absolute truth and instead focuses on the question of justification. If we can't prove beyond all doubt that we know anything, what at least counts as sufficient reason to accept a proposition? Where should we set the bar?
Here people tend to fall into one of two camps: empiricists and rationalists. The latter argue that the first seeds of knowledge, the foundation from which we can deduce all the rest of it, is either innate – say, provided by God or Nature as a fundamental quality of the universe, like the Planck length – or else derivable from logically necessary first principles, which is what Descartes was trying to do with his famous Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.
Hogwash, say the empiricists. Deducing the nature of the deep universe from the comfort of your armchair is about as effective as quarterbacking from the same. Knowledge can only come from engagement with the world, from experience. We know only what we can go out into the world and demonstrate through observation and testing. Anything else is intellectual masturbation.
To understand just how fascinating this debate can be, take the famous ontological argument of St. Anselm (circa 11th Century). Says Anselm:
God is a being than which none greater can be conceived, therefore He must exist, because if He did not, we would have a paradox: a greater being could yet be conceived – namely, one that had all the same superlative qualities but with the additional quality of existence. Therefore, a being than which none greater can be conceived must logically exist. Therefore, God exists.
The logical cleanliness of such reasoning appeals to a rationalist, whereas an empiricist would argue, no matter how clean it appears, nowhere is it demonstrated than any such thing actually is, let alone that it's all-good or all-knowing or even that it's the Christian (versus some other) God. The empiricist stands on the threshold of the world and asks, Where’s the Beef?
And yet, the act of looking, as Kant showed, comes fully loaded with cultural preconceptions. Contemporary philosophers of science call this the "theory laden-ness" of facts, that raw data often tends to be filtered through the commonly accepted theoretical explanation. The world is rich with complexity, after all. In fact, it's so complex that it's easy for all of us to find some evidence somewhere for whatever it is we want to believe, which is what makes this question number two on our list.
But regardless of which you prefer, none of us are purely rationalist or purely empiricist in daily life, not even the scientist, who both demonstrates AND deduces. In the ongoing quest for a benchmark of knowledge, there is a place for both.
Unfortunately, neither yet has a good response to the radical skeptic.
#1) What am I supposed to do?
Here we mean something more than what is right or wrong. Presumably if we knew what was right, we would do that, but that says nothing of what we are supposed to spend our time doing. After all, there are a great many things that are neither right nor wrong to do – get married for example, or be an accountant versus a software engineer.
Another way of asking this is, “what is good?”, which is subtly but importantly different than “what is right?” For example, what is a good life? Someone might work their whole life and donate whatever they earn to charity but eschew all personal contact and live completely as a shut-in, taking none of the money even for a movie or book or trip abroad or anything other than a spartan cabinet and the basic necessities of life. There is nothing immoral about that. In fact, such a person would probably end up doing a lot of good. But most of us recognize that there's something missing. Living a good life entails something more than simply doing good works.
This question is number one on our list for the simple reason that, had we an answer, we wouldn’t care so much about the rest of it. We cling so tightly to, say, the arguments for God’s existence or arcane moral theorizing mostly because they seem to give us a ready answer to this question. What am I supposed to do? Whatever God tells me. Or whatever is dictated by the moral calculus.
But then, as we've seen, that really misses the point. Much of the confusion comes from an implicit assumption we make in asking this question: that there's even an answer, that there's something which we are supposed to be doing, or at least that some things are objectively or practically better to do than other things. But there is no reason why that must be so.
That epiphany – that there's not much sense in fretting over a question we're not sure even has an answer – has resurfaced periodically in the history of ideas, from Buddhist philosophy in the East to existentialism in the West. Whereas the Buddha taught that there really wasn't an answer, and so we should stop worrying about the question, existentialists like Sartre argued that, since we have no evidence of an answer, and yet we have to live our life somehow regardless, we must therefore be free to invent our own.
But such strategies require the will to act. For Nietzsche, those with such a will were the exception, “super men” who transcended the parochial limits imposed by the state or religion or societal norms. The Buddha was more democratic. For him, anyone could achieve enlightenment, or awakening to the truth that there is no answer to the question, the truth of sunyata, or absence. The best anyone can do is hop off the wheel of reincarnation, and maybe help a few others do the same.
These points of view have been variously criticized as nihilistic, relativistic, or just plain bankrupt, which is sad since all of them – even Nietzsche’s – affirm human life against the paucity of an answer. This takes a little reflection to appreciate, but as much as we yearn for one, any formal answer to this question, no matter the guise, requires some subjugation of the soul. It must, for it prescribes a path. And that to me is a tragedy.
That’s not to say there isn’t something worryingly autocratic about Nietzsche, or that the Buddha’s answer – stop worrying and become a saint – is practical. And the existentialist approach, in as much as it stresses our unencumbered freedom, does seem vaguely nihilistic. If we just make it all up anyway, then why do anything?
Much of the recent work in the humanities and social sciences, from literature to positive psychology, has tried to bridge the gap between our desire for an answer and the limitations of the various “there is no answer” responses. Here the big idea is authenticity. You don’t need to give up on the question. (In fact, worrying about what to do seems to be genuinely human!) Nor do you need to look externally to God or complex social theories for an answer. You don't even have to make one up.
It isn’t so much that there are “many paths,” these folks say, as much as it is a realization that, regardless of whether you make your own path or follow someone else’s, you’re still you the whole entire way, and the best thing you can do, no matter the hand you've been dealt, is figure out who you are and be true to that person and those around you. In short, to discover and be the best version of yourself you can be. After that, it's out of your hands anyway.
Would more of us had the courage to believe that.
I'm Rick Wayne, and I tell stories.