Why Have We Stopped Asking The Big Questions?


This morning I was watching a debate between the atheist Richard Dawkins and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The debate concerned the notion of consciousness and, ultimately, the origin of humans. Williams, an articulate theologian who studied and teaches at Oxford and Cambridge, believes in a combination of evolution and intelligent design. The idea is that because humans are able to self-reflect on their own consciousness, their relationship with others, and their relationship with a divine entity, there must have therefore been some sort of divine energy (what he calls “God”) that implicitly designed humans and their souls. Dawkins, a materialist of course, is of the belief that any complexity of consciousness or self-reflection can be explained by neurology, and that it is exclusively through atoms interacting and the way they have arranged themselves that we have the modern human and the human mind.

Fascinating stuff, but what I wondered most while watching all of this though had little to do with consciousness or God. What I really wondered was why so few people actually think about these types of questions any more? Where have the big questions gone in modern discourse? Why have they been left to old white-haired Brits to discuss, abandoned between the Hogwarts-style castles of Oxford and Cambridge? Of course, a quality debate on this sort of issue takes years of studying and a good portion of pure intellect, so not everyone can jump into a discourse on consciousness; yet, it seems that recently we’ve contented ourselves — especially us twentysomethings — to pursuing increasingly banal information and lives.

Now, I enjoy film and food and the other cultural experiences that will have little effect on humanity after I die — and that’s not a bad thing. There’s something to be said for enjoying the finer things, the things that don’t particularly matter, that are pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Indeed, there’s a sort of transcendental qualities one can find in a perfect wine or a relaxing day at the movie theatre watching silly movies.

Yet, I fear that we’ve allowed the scale to slide too far. There’s no longer much esteem for philosophers, for theologians, for poets. We think, why have they wasted their expensive education on that career? How pretentious, elitist, hoity-toity — what are they out to prove? Yet the big questions — What is the meaning of life? What is consciousness? Where did we come from? How do we live in the present? How do we deal with death? — are now shrugged at with ambivalence. “That’s for religious people and scholars,” we think. “That doesn’t concern me.” But with all the free time, comforts, and information we have, there’s no better time in history than now to pursue these types of questions. So why aren’t we pursuing them? Why have we pushed them to the wayside?

One of the reasons we have ceased to ask the big questions is because we’ve come to a bit of a scientific standstill. Most people agree that we know a lot about the world. With a few big exceptions — the deep sea, the human brain, dark matter — we actually have quite a solid grasp on much of our existence. The fact that the former Archbishop of Canterbury — and the current Pope for that matter — agrees that evolution is now indisputable means that there’s no longer much of a back-and-forth discourse on that. (The Pope essentially says that God injected, so to speak, a soul into homo sapiens, but he still believes that homo erectus came before and that, ultimately, humans are animals.)

The questions — and ostensibly the answers — therefore now lie in neuroscience, mathematics, computer science, and rigorous philosophical questioning. These are less accessible métiers, and in order to respond to the big questions, one must have a big education to back them up. That’s one reason it’s the Oxford DPhils who now rule this sort of discourse. Another, is simply the economics of it all. Philosophy isn’t a financially feasible career unless you’re funded by a wealthy institution (e.g. Harvard, Oxbridge), and, if you go into computer science or neuroscience, there’s little financial incentive to dive into academia when a bustling tech sector or private practice also awaits.

But, perhaps more importantly, these days, we simply do not have as much to wonder about as we once did. For instance, in trying to understand the stars, Plato proposed that the universe was a series of spheres and circles. The stars, he believed, formed the outermost crystal sphere, followed by the planets, the moon, the sun, and the spherical earth was in the center of it all. He postulated that when we see the stars, it is because there are gaps between the planets, the moon, and the sun — holes in the sphere surrounding Earth let the stars’ light in. Such a theory could be debated heavily and indefinitely without the ability to collect actual evidence. It was only until Galileo — who used a telescope and worked off of the Copernican model — confirmed heliocentricism, the true movement of the Earth, and the relative position of the stars that the matter was settled.

As with Galileo and his complex calculations, it will take increasingly intricate and demanding science, math and philosophical inquiry to discern the answers to the big questions that remain. We can no longer wonder whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth, we now must wonder, as Dawkins and Williams do, why humans are the only self-reflectively conscious beings, why we’re here, and how did we get here? So how do we respond to such an immense challenge?

Unfortunately, rather than attacking these big questions with our immense resources, we have settled on dealing with small, banal issues — issues that don’t force us to our face our mortality, our cosmic insignificance, and the sorts of depressing realizations that come with exploring the big questions.

Instead, we have put priority on pursuits like making vast amounts of money, on presenting ourselves as confident and well-off in real life and on the web, on eating and drinking extraordinarily well, on having the “right” career, on beauty, on baseless aestheticism — on comfort above all else. One cannot argue with this sort of superficiality though. It is a sensible reaction. It is eons more convenient to dote on these aspects of life rather than attempting to tackle that which is most serious, inherently depressing, and most likely a futile effort to understand. If our life were a painting, what we have done is we’ve pushed the memento mori off the canvas entirely. After all, it is unlikely that someone will ever discover the true meaning of life, so why should we try? But there is much to be said for the build-up, for the work and research and thinking that goes into these kind of philosophical quandaries, which we’ve now chosen to ignore in favor of living less meaningful, shorted sighted existences.

Now, not everyone is a philosopher, and not everyone even enjoys thinking about these big questions. And that’s entirely understandable. But for those who are interested, there are a few remaining bastions of serious inquiry: The National Endowment for the Humanities has given $2.2 million in grants in the last three years to fund college courses that tackle “enduring questions.” One can stream debates from Oxbrdige or the Harvard Veritas Forum online. The Recanati-Kaplan Foundation recently began funding a new lecture on “Ethical Inquiry” in order to give Brown students a better understanding of what it means to live a “good life.” And, of course, there are many dedicated philosophers, theologians, and probably even a few neurologists, computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, abstract mathematicians, particle physicists, and the like exploring these questions. Yet these questions are not just for the scholarly, they are questions that the student, the artist, the businessman, the jetsetter, and the Netflix junkie, should all think about throughout their day. These questions — and our reflections upon them — ground us in a shared human history, contextualizing our lives within an ever-beautiful, ever-complex world. They are questions that we should never give up, no matter how difficult they may be, or how much we would prefer to bask in life’s ultimately empty pleasures. There is deep, visceral satisfaction to be had, and it begins with approaching these questions. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “______”

image – nicolasnova