Are Big Questions a Good Idea?

by Emrys Westacott

Philosophers are supposed to ask Big Questions. The Big Questions is the title of a popular introduction to philosophy and of a long-running BBC programme in which people discuss their ethical and religious perspectives. But since we philosophers, following in the footsteps of Socrates, claim to practice critical thinking, it behooves us to ask whether Big Questions are a good idea.

It’s not easy to say precisely what makes a question big; but we can at least give a few examples form the history of philosophy so that we have some idea what we’re talking about:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the nature of ultimate reality?
  • What is Being?
  • Is there a god?
  • Is there some sort of cosmic justice?
  • What is the self ?
  • Does a person’s self (mind, soul) persist after death?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Why be moral?
  • What is the good life for a human being?
  • What are the foundations of our knowledge?
  • What are the limits to what we can know?
  • What is truth?
  • What is the good?
  • What is justice?
  • What is virtue?
  • What is beauty?
  • What is life?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

In modern times such questions have met with various fates. The cultural ascendancy of natural science was accompanied by skepticism toward what Kant calls “speculative metaphysics.” Simply put, we can’t have knowledge of matters that lie beyond what we can possibly experience. So we can’t know if there is a god, or if we have immortal souls, or if there is cosmic justice. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant claimed that in denying knowledge he was “making room for faith.” Inevitably, though, faith in God, the soul and the afterlife has declined dramatically since Kant’s time, especially among intellectuals. There are virtually no articles published in philosophy journals today that treat the existence of God or the immortality of the soul as live issues. Science does not explicitly teach us that there is no God and no heaven, any more than it teaches us that there are no fairies or vampires. But the default attitude of most professional philosophers today is that in such matters the absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence.

Some philosophical questions, far from being dismissed by science, have been taken over by science. Before the emergence of psychology and neuroscience as independent disciplines, philosophers were the ones who theorized about how the mind works, the nature of sense-perception, the motivations underpinning morality, and so forth. Today, many of these issues are addressed primarily by natural and social scientists. The evolutionary roots of morality, for instance, are discussed by the primatologist Frans de Waal in Good Natured, and its psychological foundations by psychologist Paul Bloom in Just Babies. Some topics–notably free will and consciousness–lie in disputed territory, and a fascinating struggle is taking place between those who think the scientific approach yields the whole truth about these matters and those who believe that the peculiar nature of the phenomena in question does not lend itself to being caught in the scientist’s net.

Some questions, though, remain hardy philosophical perennials, particularly those with a normative dimension. Since value judgements are typically viewed as unscientific, scholars who view themselves as scientists are typically chary of them. So it is largely left to philosophers to discuss matters such as the nature of justice and of moral virtue. Few are as ambitious as John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) offers a sophisticated and far-reaching answer to the question first posed by Plato in the Republic. But hundreds of scholars sustain themselves by nibbling at particular parts of Rawls’ theory.

From time immemorial, philosophers have exhibited a tendency to think big, to generalize questions and to broaden their scope. A classic example of this occurs in Plato’s Meno. At the beginning of the dialogue, Meno asks Socrates if virtue can be taught. Socrates replies that before this problem can even be considered one must first be able to answer the question: what is virtue? Meno responds by saying that it all depends on the type of person one has in mind. The virtue of a soldier is to be brave; the virtue of a slave is to be obedient; the virtue of a woman is to manage the household efficiently.

Socrates complains that these are just examplesof particular virtues. What he wants is a definition of virtue in general. On the face of it, this seems a reasonable objection. But is it?

The Greek word that is usually translated as “virtue” is arête. The term can also mean “excellence” of some sort, and understood in this sense Meno’s response to Socrates makes perfect sense. Many things have particular kinds of excellence associated with them: the cardinal excellence of a racehorse is to be fast, of a ship to be seaworthy, of a priest to be pious. These excellent qualities are what enable the things that have them to fulfill their function.

But in rejecting Meno’s way of answering his question about virtue, Socrates exchanges well defined questions such as “what makes someone a good soldier (or a good architect, or a good farmer)?” for the vaguer, more abstract question, “What makes someone a good human being?” The first kind of question has a fairly straightforward answer since the functions of a soldier or a farmer are clear. But generalizing the question only makes sense if human beings qua human beings have a clear function; and it isn’t obvious that they do–or, if they do, what it is.

If we follow Socrates’ line of thinking, we end up with questions like, “What is the function of a human being?” and “What is the good life for a human being?” These will strike some as vital and significant, leading eventually and naturally to the Ultimate Big Question: What is the meaning of life? Yet from a contrary perspective, the Socratic move is a mistake, taking us away from meaningful questions that can be answered to questions that lookmeaningful but which don’t have answers.

Kant put his finger on the problem when he observed in the Critique of Pure Reason that human reason is driven by its very nature to ask itself questions that it is unable to answer. Wittgenstein, too, saw many philosophical problems as specious. We can legitimately ask, “What is the truth about how Jack broke his wrist?” or “What do you know about Jill’s exam results?” But philosophers then mistakenly think that they can meaningfully ask, “What is truth?” and “What is knowledge?” not realizing that the meaning can drain out of words when they are lifted out of their normal, everyday contexts. “Philosophical problems arise, Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, “when language ‘goes on holiday.’”

Should we, then, set aside the Big Questions, and train ourselves only to pose questions that are sufficiently well-defined and empirically grounded as to guarantee the possibility of a definite answer? This is, by and large, the scientific mindset. From this point of view, philosophers pondering the Big Questions are like moths drawn to a flame around which they endlessly and pointlessly flutter in circles.

Yet an inclination toward the Big Questions should not be despised. After all, in the course of humanity’s intellectual history it has often been thinkers with that tendency that have made the most significant contributions. (One might note, in passing, that Stephen Hawking’s final book was titled Brief Answers to the Big Questions.) For it is an impulse that, while it may lead us astray at times, can also be seen as driven by and expressing the sense of wonder that, according to Aristotle, is the beginning of all philosophy. And, one might add, of all science and art as well.