What are ultimate questions and why are they hard to answer? Dr Felicity McCutcheon Dialogue Australasia Conference


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What are ultimate questions and why are they hard to answer?

Dr Felicity McCutcheon

Dialogue Australasia Conference

Newington College, Sydney 2011

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for?’

from 'Andrea del Sarto' by Robert Browning

Introductory remarks

What are ultimate questions?
When I had finished writing my PhD on Wittgenstein, I had the privilege of having it read by the late emeritus professor of Christchurch, Oxford, David Pears. He called me into his study and after saying some complimentary things about it he remarked “you know Felicity, as I read it I got the distinct impression that there was just him and you in the room when you wrote it’. By ‘him’, he meant, of course, Wittgenstein. And he was right. I wrote it with Wittgenstein looking over my shoulder the whole time (disapprovingly, I might add)
Ultimate questions are a bit like that, I think. Always in the room, unsettling, demanding and challenging us – calling us to make sense of who we are and perhaps even calling us to become more than we are.

This paper has been more difficult to write than I had anticipated. My problem was essentially one of scope. Too much to say, so many ways and too little time to say it. It was also a problem of semantics. I initially got caught up in the issue of definitions (what is an ultimate question and what is not) and the ever present analytic philosopher in me then decided I should work through all ways ultimate questions can’t be answered before getting to the ways they can - a kind of via negativa approach. I had begun thinking seriously about the paper over Christmas when I was on holiday in Italy – and more especially, sitting at a little writing desk in a nunnery in Assisi. I was filled with a kind of wonder at St Francis and the example of his life as an answer to the most pressing of ultimate questions but I realised I couldn’t simply stand before you today and point to lives of truth and love, although everything I will go on to say is really a set of footnotes to doing just that.

I eventually realised I could have more modest aims and that as opening keynote all I really needed to do was to provide a scaffold for our thinking this week, both in terms of the nature of these questions and how we, as teachers, might go about handling them in the classroom. The sessions to follow will no doubt do a much better job at focussing on specific questions so my work is preparatory. I really want to do just 3 things:

  1. Explore the essential features of ultimate questions

  2. Examine various ways in which we might attempt to find answers

  3. Discuss the particular difficulties that arise when teachers address these questions in the classroom

First, let’s have the experience before us of being asked these questions.
What does it mean to be human?

Why is there evil and suffering?

How do I find truth?

What is a good life?

Note carefully what happens inside you when you are asked questions like this.
Be assured that your students will have the same response, although in their case the sense of mental panic, confusion and helplessness will probably be more marked. It is very tempting, I think, to want to put an end to the discomfort and uncertainty, either by defaulting to a strongly felt opinion (with a kind of triumphant certainty) or to disconnect from the question altogether with a kind of triumphant relativism – I have had students take this position and declare loudly that ‘These questions don’t have answers so it doesn’t matter what you think.’
Which is really a way of saying the question doesn’t matter and so there is no need to think about it.

If, as I shall suggest, ultimate questions require not merely thinking about but a deeper response from our core, the challenge of helping our students take them seriously will require more than simply engaging their sceptical minds. There is the added difficulty in getting our students to travel inwards and discover ‘the outer regions of inner space’ as Joseph Campbell once put it.

In an age of information and interactive technologies, a world of search engines, tracking, updates, blogs, tweets, and immediacy of response, I think the difficulty is increased as we are led further and further away from developing the patience for and seeing the value in ultimate or eternal questions.
Robert Storr, Dean of Yale, School of Art expresses it well:

We are in a period in which scanning has replaced seeing and keeping track has replaced paying attention’ (quoted in The Age, 1 Aug, 2010)

Paradoxically, living in a constant present strips us of the opportunity to be truly present and this makes the asking and answering of ultimate questions even more difficult. I know that this is one of the biggest challenges I face in teaching my RE classes. It is trying to get the boys to slow down, to move them inward rather than settling for the outer, to get them to think from the back of their minds rather than always being in the front.
But being hard to answer does not make them unimportant. Indeed, I shall argue it is what gives them their importance.
Such questions arise from our deep self and so can only be inhabited and engaged with at a deep level. One way I try to get my boys to think about it is to draw a distinction between the near and the far.
[A classroom exercise was explained here]
If you only have the ‘near’ you can’t see where you’re going, nor can you see what’s coming. Having a horizon ‘makes sense’ of my experience and provides it with some kind of coherence. Without it my experiences are simply had – without a background or a backup, there is no ground to stand on and nothing to hold onto.

My ‘present’ is my near but it needs a horizon before it has a meaning beyond the fact that I am having an experience. ‘What is this an experience of?’ ‘What is the meaning of this experience?’ That question takes me out of ‘now’ in order that I may be ‘in’ it. If we never do this we will end up like Alex Higgins the Irish snooker player, who in an interview some time ago, when asked about his life, replied; ‘I can’t tell you – I haven’t been there for most of it’.

Ultimate questions – a peculiar specimen
What are ultimate questions?

When I am teaching free will and determinism to my year 11s I open with the question on the whiteboard: ‘what is the difference between the moon and a person?’ In this context, I am simply looking for something like ‘a person can choose to dodge a meteor and the moon can’t’ (it’s a way of motivating their interest in the way the free will question hinges on what you think a human is made of…on a materialist model, we are made of ‘essentially’ the same stuff as the moon which makes it problematic to defend the kind of free will they naturally think they have…hence, the follow up lesson on Creatures in the Libertarian Zoo (examines attempts to defend free will by developing views of what the ‘will’ is really made of – Kantian wills, Cartesian minds and religious souls…)
Humans ask ultimate questions. The moon cannot.
Ultimate questions tend to be concerned with two domains, although as we shall see, they are interrelated. The first is to do with what we might call the ‘ultimate ground’ of things. This is the fundamental nature of reality (explored primarily by philosophy and theology). The second is what Paul Tillich calls ‘Ultimate concern’. This is the nature of experience and meaning – the existential/values component.
If we take a look at some sample questions we shall identify these two categories and also see the overlap.

  1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

  2. What caused the universe to exist?

  3. Where did we come from?

  4. What place do we have in the universe?


  1. Does life has meaning?

  2. What is the meaning of human life?

  3. Is there ultimate meaning behind the universe?

  4. Does death cancel out meaning?


  1. Why do we feel guilty? Should we?

  2. Is there a supernatural basis for moral behaviour?

  3. Does following certain rules of conduct relieve our guilt?

  4. Which comes first: guilt or morality?


  1. What happens after death?

  2. How does having-to-die affect our living?

  3. What does it mean to ‘fear death’?

  4. Does my life cease to have meaning once I die?

Generally, we can see the interdependence by tracking down possible responses. If, for example, I come to the conclusion that there is a divine cause of the universe which also has the qualities of love, justice and goodness, answers to questions about guilt and meaning will follow a particular path (although not necessary a ‘certain’ one or the ‘same’ one for everyone).
Ultimate ground - metaphysical (philosophical/theological) - Reality

Ultimate concern – existential/value – ‘meaning’ - Experience
Given that it is humans that ask such questions, what are the ways in which they might be answered and what difficulties do we face not only when trying to answer them but also when trying to teach them?

In what follows, I want to look first at where science can take us. I want to address the place of science as I believe that scientists have become the new priests of culture and it is worth thinking carefully about what they can and what they cannot tell us, how they can and cannot help us. Helping students understand the limits of the empirical method is crucial to enabling them to recognise and look beyond the pretensions of scientific reductionists like Richard Dawkins. The point is not to enflame an already muddled religion vs science debate but to enable young people to think clearly about the issues presented in the debate.

Ultimate questions - How far can science take us?

I think it is really important for teachers to see with a steady eye and help their students see clearly why science cannot answer ultimate questions. I want to make two points about science and scientific knowledge.

First, science, no matter how far it advances, can never be more than a description of phenomena. That’s right. Science describes. It does not explain. My second point is that science qua science cannot provide answers to ultimate questions that by their nature seek the ground of the phenomena presented to and described by science.

Science as description

Judging by the number of people who think that science is explanatory, this first point must be terribly difficult to grasp. But if you think about it, the point is easy to see. Either science is describing patterns or predicting patterns and these patterns are simply made up of descriptions. In its simplest terms:

Every scientific statement in the long run, however, complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2.20am on January 15th and saw so-and-so, or, ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so. Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more I believe he will agree with me that this is the job of science – and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question. If there is ‘something behind’, then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and there statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make…Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, ‘Why is there a universe?’ and ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ and ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were? (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 1, Ch 4)

Nietzsche makes the same point: “We call it explanation, but it is description which distinguishes us from earlier stages of knowledge and science. We describe better – we explain just as little as anyone who came before us”. What we have achieved are descriptions of greater and greater complexity and sophistication (and inferred patterns, which we call laws – from our descriptions) but we have explained nothing. Knowing how fire changes molecular structure does not explain fire itself….“If we chop up the endless continuum of the world into manageable pieces for our digestion, let us not imagine that the menu we prepare for ourselves is the only, or even the tastiest, one. Yet the hubris of science insists that it is” (Introducing Nietzsche p60)

When I am trying to explain to my students the difference between a scientific question and a question about meaning, I use the example of a mother who has lost a child in a car accident. ‘Why did my child die?’ The ‘scientists’ (doctors, forensic police, etc) will answer this with a presentation of the empirical facts. Something perhaps like: when a car is hit at such and such a speed from such and such an angle, the human who feels the impact suffers from a crush of the chest resulting in a complete failure of vital organs, thereby resulting in death’.

Knowing the physical details won’t answer the mother’s actual question which is to ask for the event to make sense. To that question, science has nothing to say.

Of course when Richard Dawkins and many others insist that Science is the only menu and ‘There is no ultimate why’ they are not presenting a scientific view but rather declaring their own theological or faith position, they are presenting their answer to an ultimate question.

What Nietzsche calls the ‘hubris of science’ is more formally known as scientific reductionism or scientism which is not a scientific but a metaphysical position that holds only the physical universe exists and that only science can provide truth. It is itself an answer to an ultimate question but it is important to note that it is not in itself a scientific answer.

With the collapse of a religious world view and the increasing irrelevance of religious language, it is tempting for people to simply fall for the hubris of science. Our students literally imbibe its assumptions from everywhere in the media. Here’s just one example which I think is indicative of many. It’s a fairly typical example of how scientific discoveries are reported by the media.

Neuroscientists have apparently discovered the part/s of the brain that are connected to religious experience and religious belief.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009: ‘Belief and the brain’s God spot’

The by-line reads: ‘Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that control religious faith. And the research proves, they contend, that belief in a higher power is an evolutionary asset that helps human survival.

We are then told that:

A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history. Scientists searching for the neural God spot, which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief”.

Leaving aside the conflation of ‘belief’ with ‘experience’ and various other logical errors, this article is actually making one very simple claim. That scientists have found the part of the brain that is active when human beings have spiritual experiences, and they have discovered that all human brains seem to have this part, and that spiritual experiences can be caused by stimulating that part of the brain, whether the human has an actual belief in God or not.

Now I don’t know about you but I’d be more surprised if scientists discovered that no part of the brain was active when people have religious experiences. I’d also be a tad concerned! So, what have I learnt when I am told about this discovery (which, incidentally, I am not implying doesn’t have information that is interesting – science is interesting - it’s just not equipped to deal with the ultimate and is being dishonest whenever it suggests otherwise).

The article is too long to go through it point by point with you now but I will include the link in the published version of my paper and more detailed analysis of the philosophical assumptions embedded in the article. I encourage you to examine it with your senior students. They rightly feel caught in the middle of a science/religion debate where the options are either to reject science or to reject religion. It’s an impossible choice and unsurprisingly, they more commonly default to scientism without being able to clearly orientate themselves to the issues.

What most people take from articles like this is the conclusion that when science discovers the parts of the brain active in, say, our experience of beauty, or poetry, or in this case, God, this entails that beauty, meaning and God are nothing but brain states. If we can stimulate such experiences without having ‘real objects’, surely we have ‘proved’ there is no such thing as beauty, meaning or God. What follows from this is that it is foolish to continue to ask questions about God’s existence because clearly science has proved God doesn’t exist.

Obviously the shift from a description of brains and experiences to the metaphysical conclusion is philosophically illegal. Clearly the brain can produce an experience of X either by experiencing X or by being stimulated to experience X.  The fact of the latter does not disprove the existence of Xs (I could, for example, tickle the right part of your brain and cause you to see a chair or taste apple pie but that tells me or you nothing about the actual existence of chairs or apple pies).

So a clearer way to present the ideas in this article might be this:
A brain state can be matched to a belief in God, and researches have also found that the human brain can be stimulated to have religious experiences, according to a study that suggests that religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.

You can now more easily see the descriptive, rather than the explanatory nature of the science and also realise that nothing in the findings themselves can tell us what our experiences are of.

The article rather tellingly concludes with this:

When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us opportunities to believe in God. When we don’t have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations’.

I presume we are supposed to conclude that although belief in God was a necessary explanatory feature for biological survival, we won’t need such beliefs in a world where science has explained everything. In essence this is the logical equivalent of claiming that now that we have knowledge of the God spot, we no longer have a need for God. I assume I don’t need to point out the absurdity of such a conclusion.

What I have tried to show here is that this contains a profoundly mistaken idea – that God currently fills the gaps that science will one day fill. Nothing about a scientific discovery per se can by itself give us an answer to ultimate ‘why’ or ‘what’ questions. Empirical data cannot, all by itself, reveal its source or ground. Re Lewis: why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question. When Dawkins decides there is nothing behind and there is no why, this is as much a faith decision as the person who thinks there is something behind and there is a ‘why’. It is simply dishonest of anyone to suggest that Dawkins’ position is the position that truly enlightened, scientific minds must adopt.

Science will never answer ultimate questions – but, more worryingly, perhaps the hubris of science may one day mean that people are encouraged to feel foolish for asking them. Something distinctly and deeply human would be threatened in such a world.

Humans ask ultimate questions. Science cannot.

Asking Ultimate questions – the distinctly and deeply human

What does it mean to be human?

Why is there evil and suffering?

How do I find truth?

What is a good life?

When a human asks a question like this they are asking about meaning and purpose. They are asking about ultimate reality, value and personal significance. They are asking an existential question, and this is another reason why ultimate questions are difficult to answer. The ‘facts’ contribute to the problem. They cannot, on their own, provide a solution. Answers to ultimate questions are to be found within. On that point I am sure David Tacey will have much more to tell us on Wednesday. I want to make just a couple of points here by looking at how Kierkegaard presents the problem.

Ultimate questions - the existential component

Of crucial importance to Kierkegaard’s analysis of the existential nature of ultimate concern is his critique of Hegel.1. Any totalising theory will have the same features as Hegel’s system. A ‘theory of everything’ would be just as much a target of Kierkegaard’s analysis as Hegel’s attempt to explain world history in terms of spirit consciousness.

You will recall that Hegel’s grand project was to provide a biography of Reason – the story Reason would write for itself if it could. Dissatisfied with Kant’s abstract and context free account of Pure Reason, Hegel engaged in the much more ambitious project of showing Reason progressing to an Absolute state. Recall Hegel’s Geist, moving through history via the process of the dialectic, overcoming paradoxes through a series of synthesising steps until it eventually achieves an ultimate synthesis – an absolute final state, realised, not unsurprisingly perhaps, in Hegel’s 19th century Germany. For Hegel, it was quite literally ‘the state’ that was absolute. All the contradictions and paradoxes that Kant had stumbled across disappear in Hegel’s final state. It is Rationality made perfect.2 In Hegel’s ideal society, the will of each individual and society’s laws must coincide because ultimately human beings are defined by their relation to others. The result of this Hegelian system was that the individual must be subordinated to the family unit, the family to society and society to the State.

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