The Top Three Philosophical Questions

A while ago I put together a brief on the ten philosophical questions that have interested me most in my life. In my experience, however, they are not (with one exception) the questions most non-philosophers are interested in. This is unsurprising, for two reasons. First, as any philosophy teacher can testify, it often takes a lot of work just to understand why many philosophical questions are questions at all: many of the beliefs philosophy challenges us to rethink seemingly are so obvious that we have a difficult time seeing the need to ask for their rational and evidential grounds. Second, even when we come to understand philosophical questions, it is easy and natural to immediately dismiss many of them as too hopeless to warrant further thought. In short, few philosophical questions register with most people, and when they do, we tend quickly to dismiss them and return to our default preoccupations with money, entertainment, true love, and the like.

With all of this said, non-philosophers do seem to think fairly frequently about at least a handful of problems. I would like to talk briefly here about the top three that I run into. I do not think these questions necessarily are the ones people should be most concerned with, or that the thought most people give to them is especially critical, just that they seem to be the top three questions people are concerned with.

1. Is there life after death?

No matter what they profess to believe—and this goes for the religious and the nonreligious equally—few people are secure about what happens after death. Few think the question can be answered with any confidence before one actually dies and gets to see (or not) for oneself. At the same time, most people seem to feel that it is the single most important question there is, and that the value of life itself depends on the answer. Likewise, the more we age the more pressing the question becomes, as death increasingly surrounds us and looms before us.

For my own part, I do not believe that there is life after death; I believe that once one’s higher brain function has ceased permanently, then one no longer exists and cannot be brought back. Although I am not sure whether minds are physical things, it seems clear enough that the mental cannot exist apart from the physical. I don’t find this belief pleasant, but it is far from being the worst-case scenario. If death is extinction, then we will not suffer after we die. More importantly, if death is extinction, then although we never will be reunited with lost loved ones, we do not have to worry about them feeling any pain or any loss. This is better than having an afterlife in which even a single person suffers eternally.

2. Why is there so much suffering?

Most people believe that the cosmic order is good, either as a brute fact or because there is a good god who is in control of everything. Moreover, those who believe that the cosmic order is good tend to be deeply invested in this belief, often because they think it holds out promise of an affirmative answer to the first question above. At the same time, a good cosmic order seems clearly impossible to square with the extent of horrendous suffering in the world. Even the most faithful tend to be baffled by such suffering when it intrudes with full force into their awareness; they do spin many explanations and affirm these explanations confidently to the faithless, but when they allow themselves to be open and vulnerable they admit that no answer they can fathom is satisfying: ultimately, the only answer they can offer is that it must remain a mystery, but this is no answer at all. For many, this question is as close as one comes to a case of an immovable object (faith in a good cosmic order) being met with an irresistible force (the evidence suffering provides against a good cosmic order). Such tension makes the question difficult to put aside, so it returns again and again to one’s mind.

This question no longer troubles me because my own faith in a good cosmic order has turned out not to be quite the immovable object after all: study and reflection eventually convinced me that reality fundamentally is physical and, as such, devoid of any moral qualities. Suffering therefore is unmysterious: it is just the unfortunate but natural consequence of our being fragile, sentient creatures in an indifferent universe.

3. What is the meaning of life?

I suspect most people who ask this question really are asking one of two things. The first thing they may be asking is whether there is some grand plan or destiny which, if they only knew it, would make all of the death and suffering in the world seem worth it. This could just be another way of asking the first two questions in moments when one is seized with doubt, though it can be asked even by someone who is completely agnostic about a good cosmic order. Those who intend the question in this way simply would like to be reassured that everything will be alright in the end. The second thing they may be asking is whether they themselves exist for some cosmic, predetermined purpose which they are supposed to fulfill. The question may be motivated by the feeling that one’s life is directionless or even boring. It may also be motivated by fear of the possibility that one must oneself bear the burden of defining the purpose of one’s own life. For those who have any choice at all about what direction to take in life—and this is virtually everyone—it is an impossible question to avoid.

My answer to both senses of this question is “no:” I see no reason to believe that everything is destined to work out the way we would like it to in the end, and no reason to believe that people exist for a predetermined purpose. The first part—that no happy endings are promised—can be both saddening and frightening, so I do understand those who run to illusions for comfort. However, I believe it is better to look reality in the eye than to lie to oneself for comfort. It is also only by facing unpleasant realities that we can have any hope of changing them in the way we would like. The second part—that our roles are not set for us in advance— is, I think, exhilarating rather than frightening: I find it wonderful to be able to wear however many hats I choose throughout my life. This has not made my life carefree by any means, but it has made it my own, and that is the greatest fulfillment of all.