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

Kierkegaard argues that Hegel’s Absolute obliterates the subject


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Kierkegaard argues that Hegel’s Absolute obliterates the subject.

Only individuals can ask ultimate questions. The State cannot. A system cannot.

Kierkegaard argues there can be no complete system because existence is a ‘surd’, always left over when all description and analysis is complete. Abstract concepts are always abstractions whereas real life human beings can never be reduced to mere concepts. Our individual existence is the unanalyzable residue which is simply’ there’. Kierkegaard rejects Hegel’s system because it does not include existing individuals. And he accuses Hegel of the absurdity of not being able to include himself in his own system: ‘Is he purely eternal, the pure ‘I am I’ even when he eats, sleeps and blows his nose?’

Reason and science may provide objective truths - abstracted from reality, conceptualised and tested. In each of these cases there are objective, external criteria to which we can appeal when we question the truth of a claim. These truths, claims Kierkegaard, are existentially indifferent. That is to say, nothing in your life would radically change if you discovered that one of these truths was false.

Take for example, the discovery mentioned earlier, that neuroscientists have discovered the parts of the brain that are connected to belief in God or religious experience. If, in 20 years’ time, this discovery is overturned, would that change anything about a persons’ life – religious or atheistic? I suggest not.

Subjective truths, on the other hand, are truths for which there is no objective criteria to which one can appeal, and yet, for Kierkegaard, they are the most important kind of truths. These are existential truths in that they are essentially related to one’s existence. These truths are not about objective facts but about values and the foundation or ultimate ground of values, and by implication, our identity, meaning and place in the universe.

Subjective truths are not pieces of knowledge, or well- reasoned arguments, rather they must be appropriated by the individual, internalised and reflected in one’s decisions and actions.

Humans ask ultimate questions. Humanity cannot.

Humans have fears, desires, thoughts, dispositions, neuroses and commitments. Humanity does not. This is Kierkegaard’s starting point. Whilst fictional and abstract characters are provided with a character or essence that determines their destiny, for real people, the opposite is true. It is their chosen actions the cumulatively determine their character and what they understand their actions and experiences to mean. Living is not an activity that can be ‘mediated’ by some ongoing dialectic (nor, I am tempted to say, by a scientific hypothesis).
If for example you are told that you are hard wired to propagate, you still have to decide who to marry, or indeed, whether to marry and whether to have children. The science doesn’t take decisions away from you – nor does it take away the consequences of those decisions, in terms of the meaning they have for you.

Kierkegaard suggested that most people flee from their freedom, seeking relief from the anxiety of having to choose for themselves or face ultimate questions by following the crowd. Most people are content to be absorbed into the everyday world of marriage, career and social respectability. If their society is a Christian one, they go to church, get their children baptised, and so on. If their society is communist, they dutifully attend party meetings and obey the dictates of the state. If their society is a capitalist one, they will no doubt unthinkingly believe their purpose is to accumulate assets and wealth and contribute to the ‘growth’ of the economy. Kierkegaard does not suggest they are hypocrites, however. They are simply avoiding all self-conscious reflection about the kind of life they lead. They lack any real freedom because they have allowed others to decide how they should live.

Kierkegaard’s existentialism is a radical and damning challenge to this. Our capacity to ask questions about meaning and value (which Kierkegaard would describe as our spiritual nature), to place ourselves in time and space and to hear the call of the eternal, is what defines us. But this is also a source of spiritual anxiety. The more awareness, the more freedom; the more freedom, the more risk, the more responsibility but also the possibility of lives with profound meaning – lives lived sub specie aeternitatis.
Kierkegaard’s analysis of the different types of choices we can make (the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious) ends up with the conclusion that only living in relationship with the absolute or ultimate will grant a person a life of ultimate meaning. Kierkegaard famously saw accepting the God-Man paradox of Jesus as the ultimate Faith stance because it required maximum subjective risk (it doesn’t make sense) and yet secured maximum meaning. A finite individual could live in relationship with the infinite. The eternal could be met in the present.
If you are ever looking for curriculum content in your philosophy and RE courses I highly recommend you include at least an introduction to Kierkegaard somewhere. I find that although the material is difficult, senior students get an enormous amount from it.
The existential nature of ultimate questions is what makes them possible to answer but also is part of the reason they are hard to answer. Why?

  • First, a person has to take them seriously (and there are reasons why we would rather avoid them)

  • Second, even if you do take them seriously, you live in a society that encourages you to avoid them

This means that as teachers, if we are to protect and preserve what is deeply and distinctly human, we must do all we can to affirm both the questions and the persons who ask them.

If ultimate questions are deeply and distinctly human why would we rather avoid them?

Because they unsettle us. Questions about our mortality and our value are only possible in creatures that have sufficient consciousness. As Kierkegaard emphasises, we are aware that we will one day cease to exist, that we have to choose and take responsibility for our actions and that ultimately, our lives may come to nothing. Tillich rather usefully presents the three main types of anxiety which are distinctly human and related to ultimate concern:

  1. Ontic self-affirmation – threatened in terms of fate and absolutely in terms of death

  2. Spiritual self-affirmation – threatened in terms of emptiness and absolutely in terms of meaninglessness

  3. Moral self-affirmation – threatened in terms of guilt and absolutely in terms of condemnation

If our capacity to experience existential anxiety is connected to our ability to ask and answer ultimate questions it is crucial that we accept and learn from this anxiety and unsettledness. But this is painful and difficult.3

A striking component of Tillich’s analysis is his account of spiritual fanaticism and its connection to the threat of meaninglessness. Tillich suggests that anxiety about meaninglessness is based on man’s sense of separation from the whole of reality – so it can be overcome by surrendering his separation and fleeing from his freedom to fanaticism – a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed authoritatively. The fanatic surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life. Meaning (of sorts) is saved but self is sacrificed.

I sometimes wonder when I look at the technological totality that constitutes my students’ experiences, whether the need for constant connection is not another form of overcoming the anxiety of meaninglessness by surrendering separation. Of course the fanatic does this to a fanatical degree. In both cases, however, there is a collapse of a distinction between self and reality; for the fanatic, the horizon (the ‘far’) has become everything, for those addicted to Facebook and Twitter updates, the constant feed of the ‘near’ (the now) obliterates the horizon. Meaninglessness is staved off by the endless possibilities offered by social networking sites that can perhaps temporarily silence the anxiety. ‘I must check for new feeds’.4 It is hard to see how in that conglomerate of constant news flashes and emotional flux the deeper, searching self can make itself heard or known.

Perhaps challenges to the importance of existential anxiety are also coming from other sources. Part of the consequence of the shift from the religious to the scientific world view is the objectification of humans to purely biological subjects, rendering us objects of scientific enquiry and technical management. Don’t we now have a proliferation of narcotics to soothe a proliferation of anxiety disorders?

But the problem here is highlighted by Tillich:

The safety which is guaranteed by well-functioning mechanisms for the technical control of nature, by the refined psychological control of the person, …this safety is bought as a high price; man, for whom all this was invented as means, becomes a means himself’ (Tillich p.138). In other words, self becomes an object, a thing.

Humans ask ultimate questions. Things cannot.

For those who seek the holy grail of a utopia of happiness (now more commonly termed ‘wellbeing’) expressions of individuality and expressions of despair disturb them. In such a utopia one is unable to distinguish the genuine from the neurotic. Think of Huxley’s brilliant vision in Brave new world. The controller wants the smooth functioning of society – the technological reduction of self to the collective. John the Savage embraces and courageously claims the ‘negative’ – he wants to incorporate suffering, not to deny life but to affirm it because this is the truth about reality, the truth about being human.

“We prefer to do things comfortably’, said the Controller.

‘But I don’t want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want real danger. I want goodness. I want freedom’.

‘In fact’, said the Controller, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy’.

‘Alright then’, said the Savage defiantly. ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy’.

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent…the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all”, said the Savage at last.

“The Controller shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome”, he said.

(Brave New World)

Normalisation by narcotics – Augustine’s restless heart provided with peace, secured not by spiritual truth but by soma. There may be plenty that is new but there’s surely nothing brave about such a world.
There is something brave about an individual who understands that spirit makes him human and that the promise of physical or material salvation is simply another version of hell.

Of course along with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, that other 19th century existential giant, recognised the impending loss of a divine horizon and realised that humans would need to find a new horizon to replace the God they had killed if they wanted to avoid the mindless pursuit of pleasure and the siren songs of science. Nietzsche saw with a clarity wrought from a kind of brilliant madness the impending fate of man:

“Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand!” (Daybreak 174)

His rejection of hedonism and utilitarianism, perhaps of all the comfort and leisure technologies to which we have become increasingly addicted, is no less compromising:
“Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible” (BGE 225).
The higher one leaves pleasure “to the great majority: happiness as peace of soul, virtue, comfort, Anglo-angelic shopkeeperdom” (WP 944). (I can't help but think there's a side glance here to Benthan and his utility calculus)

Nietzsche’s much misunderstood Ubermensch is not a cruel and ravaging beast but a ‘higher man’ a ‘free spirit’ who understands that neither morality nor reason can generate meaning and neither can science. Ultimately one needs mythology – a horizon before which and a ground on which to stand.

“The passion that attacks those who are noble is peculiar…it involves the use of a rare and singular standard cold to everybody else; the discovery of values for which no scales have been invented yet; offering sacrifices on altars that are dedicated to an unknown god; a courage without any desire for honours; self-sufficiency that overflows and gives to men and things” (GS 55)

Nietzsche understood that to make sense of my life or my experience I must be shown it as a whole. I need a ‘far’ to make sense of the ‘near’. He adopted the mythology of fate, eternal recurrence. All that I have done and that happens to me can be creatively woven into the continuing saga of my life. I can choose to repossess it. Of anything I may say: ‘Thus I willed it so”.

I personally think there is something incredibly inspiring in Nietzsche’s call to authentic and passionate self-determination. I also happen to think he was deeply mistaken in his belief that an individual could self-create. But he does not advocate a nihilistic negativity, despite the fact that many postmodern cynics claim him as their master. But modern day cynics are not like their predecessors in Greek society who were critics of contemporary culture on the basis of reason and natural law. Modern cynics have no belief in reason, no criterion of truth, no answer to the question of meaning. They ‘courageously’ reject any situation which would deprive them of their freedom to reject whatever they want to reject. They are empty of both preliminary meanings and an ultimate meaning and are easy victims of neurotic anxiety.

[ anecdote about students who arrive with certificates justifying their resignation to weakness and entitlement to indulgence]

Nietzsche, when properly handled, can be a wonderful antidote to a culture of hedonism, helplessness and entitlement. Nietzsche, unlike many of his postmodern followers, at least knew that redeeming truths are not psychological but metaphysical. His mistake was to think that by force of will we could create new ones. Kierkegaard knew that whether we call on him or not, God is always present. He is always and already waiting to be found.
Teaching Ultimate questions

So, what does all this mean for our classroom practice? Good teaching is always about what matters. Good RE teaching is about what ultimately matters.

It turns out that it is not merely the minds of our students (sceptical or otherwise) that we need to engage. We must also

  • Engage their hearts and spirits (their deep selves)

  • Present them with examples of how these questions have been thought about and answered (the core of our curriculum) which is really a way of presenting them with possibilities

  • Confirm in everything you do and say that these questions matter

  • Live the questions ourselves

  • Know that your answer need not be their answer. They are not you

Ultimate questions are essentially existential. What does that mean? The answer can’t be found on the internet or in a text book or even in a facilitated discussion. There is no answer ‘out there’ although the way other humans have thought about and lived their own answers is an important part of me working out my answer. At the end of the day, however, every individual faces the question and must come to an answer for themselves.
How many will even try?

Kierkegaard again:

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their masters by copying the answers out of a book, without having worked out the sum for themselves” (Journals, Jan 17th, 1837)

We have new ways of copying the answers, don’t we? It’s so much easier to google than to really search (I think of it as ‘goggle’ – have a look at the eyes of your students when they are doing internet tasks. We literally goggle when we google.)
Perhaps the copy and paste facility has simply replaced the traditional method of rote learning?

Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with using technology for particular purposes I think it is important to be mindful of its limitations, too. When I am doing my ‘near’ and ‘far’ exercise with my new year 9s, I get them to read through and discuss the following remark.

In post-modern culture we tend increasingly to inhabit virtual reality rather than actual reality. More and more time is spent in the shadowlands of the computer world. The computer world is all foreground but has no background. Much of modern life is lived in the territory of externality; if we succumb completely to the external we will lose all sense of inner and personal presence. We will become the ultimate harvesters of absence, namely, ghosts in our own lives”. (John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes)
People ask ultimate questions. Machine cannot. Ghosts do not. (Okay, so I don’t know that last one for sure.)
The most important thing we can do as teachers is to affirm what O’Donohue here calls the ‘inner and personal presence’ of our students which is the only ‘search engine’ that ultimately matters.
In closing, I have two teaching ideas I call to inner and personal presence that I have found to have lasting significance for my students in philosophy. Both are done at year 12 but I am sure they could be adapted to younger years.

  • The grave stone exercise – what do you want your hyphen to stand for and why?

  • Letter to unborn child on how to live a good life

Perhaps another way of affirming their personal presence and potential is to have reminders up in the classroom. What about Aslan’s command to the creatures of the newly created Narnia: ‘Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” (ch 9)

It’s always struck me that Aslan does not say ‘believe this creed’ but rather ‘become a certain kind of creature’. In another of his other books, C S Lewis has one of his character’s ask: ‘How can the gods meet us face to face until we have faces?’ (Till we have Faces, p.223)

Why not have a discussion about the difference between having a Facebook page and having a face, an identity ready to meet the gods? Ready to come face to face with the ultimate?
Ultimate questions are hard to answer because they ultimately call us to account, they demand something from us. Rather like Wittgenstein’s gaze, or Aslan as described by Mrs Beaver, they are ‘good but not safe’.

In conclusion then

Understanding the nature of ultimate questions involves recognising the limits of science, reason and technology. It involves recognising that they demand a profoundly subjective response to the call of the eternal within us, that no answer is ever the once and for all answer or known once and for all. It is to recognise that ‘the real mystery of life is not a problem to solved, but a reality to be experienced’. (J.J.Van der Leeuw)


Appendix – sections that could not be covered due to time constraints

Ultimate Questions – How far can Reason take us? – Kant and Hegel

In examining the place of Reason I had to decide, due to the constraints of time, whether to look at Plato or Kant. Plato was, of course, Western philosophy’s most famous exponent of Rationalism as a source of knowledge of the ultimate or absolute and in many respects it would make sense to focus on him. However, Plato’s account, brilliant in its scope, depth and detail, has, nevertheless been found out by subsequent developments in philosophy where distinctions Plato never made have been introduced to sort out some of the conceptual and explanatory confusion Plato fell into to. I am thinking for example of the subsequent separation of epistemology from semantics, and metaphysics and logic (specifically, the distinction between necessary truth and necessary existence). More significantly for our purposes though, I personally think that Plato did not offer a vision attainable by Reason alone but, a mystical view which requires a more expanded and perhaps more spiritual view of the nature of consciousness. For these reasons I have decided to focus on Kant as a way of revealing the limitations of Reason when it comes to answering ultimate questions.

Time constraints will mean that I cannot do justice to the nature and scope of Kant’s project but you will remember Kant’s was trying to address the sceptical challenges presented by Hume whilst avoiding what he saw as the unjustified dogmatism of the Rationalists’ project. Armed with his belief that we can only give content to our conceptual categories via experience, Kant drew that famous distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal realms, arguing that empirical reason could not play the role of establishing rational truths because it goes beyond any possible experience and is applied to the sphere of that which transcends it.

I cannot here defend Kant against Rationalists who may present counter-arguments, but I think his concept of the antinomies is instructive when thinking about the relationship between reason and ultimate questions. Antinomies are contradictions reason encounters when it attempts to think about ultimate grounds or secure purely rational truths. Kant identifies four antinomies that are generated by reason’s attempt to achieve complete knowledge of the realm beyond the empirical. Each antinomy has a thesis and an antithesis, both of which can be validly proven, and since each makes a claim that is beyond the grasp of spatiotemporal sensation, neither can be confirmed or denied by experience. The First Antinomy argues both that the world has a beginning in time and space, and no beginning in time and space. The Second Antinomy’s arguments are that every composite substance is made of simple parts and that nothing is composed of simple parts. The Third Antinomy’s thesis is that agents like ourselves have freedom and its antithesis is that they do not. The Fourth Antinomy contains arguments both for and against the existence of a necessary being in the world5.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer”. (Preface to First Edition, Critique of Pure Reason)

Our capacity to Reason is what gives us the ability to ask ultimate questions but alas, it is unable to provide answers to them.

Of course Kant’s account of Reason is far more sophisticated than the tool most of us use on a daily basis but the truth of Kant’s position can be seen more directly. For example:

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