No Time for Questions

There’s an argument going on in one particular blog circle: Personal Failure, Michael Mock (both atheist), and Former Conservative (liberal Christian) are arguing with Red Cardigan (Catholic) about atheists and philosophy.

Red Cardigan has chastised atheists for not being particularly interested in philosophical questions like “Why are we here?” or “Why is there suffering?” She says, “The part that frustrates me is that people from the dawn of human history have grappled with these questions, not finding them either frivolous or evidence of clinical depression.”

True, many people throughout history have. But many people have not. I’m reminded of the Buddhist parable of the arrow. According to the story, the Buddha was repeatedly asked philosophical questions by one of his students. At that time, Hinduism was going through a time of intellectual exploration, and there were many questions to ask. After a while, the Buddha got tired of questions about dualism vs. monism, reality and illusion, and the immortality of the soul. This was his response:

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

Right now, you’re alive. Worry about how to live. The meaning of suffering is less important that the fact of suffering. Maybe there will come a time to worry about the afterlife, but it is not now.

(Of course, it should be said that there were something like eighteen schools of Buddhist philosophy within a century, much of it very abstract. Apparently not many people took this lesson to heart.)

  • Gordon

    “Why is there suffering?” is *only* a deep question if you assume there is a benevolent deity who would be expected to want to minimise suffering. If you don’t asume benevolence or don’t assume the deity, then it is not even really a qustion, let alone a deep one.

  • FO

    1) Suffering is a biological response that brough an evolutionary advantage.
    If you like better that we are at the mercy of a omnipotent psychopath, be my guest.

    2) Using any god-based answer just moves the question one step away: “Why is God here?” “Why was God created?”
    If you are not interested in those questions, maybe you are not curious enough, or just selectively curious.

    • http://ohmatron.wordpress.com/ Custador

      Spot on. The questions are only worth asking if one assumes that there is purpose or meaning to it all. That’s a very human trait; if you accept that it just is, for no particular reason, then the questions are meaningless.

      • vasaroti

        This. Living every day with compassion for all the beings we share this planet with and intellectual curiosity is all the ‘meaning of life’ I need.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

          Um… I’m alive. That’s all the “meaning” I need. I simply strive to enjoy my life while I have it.

          After I’m gone, hey… whatever. Not like I’ll care.

  • Baconsbud

    Not much I can say because it seems the first three comments pretty much answered why these questions aren’t worth deep study. Most suffering is cause by human to human interaction or lack of it. Take all the kids that have starved in the last week. They suffer because of a lack of supplies. Why was there a lack of supplies is the question that should be asked.

    As to why are we here? Does it really matter that greatly since we are here lets do what we can to make things better for the next generation.

  • D’n

    I am a philosopher and do occasionally find it slightly sad that people don’t care about philosophy. I would have to argue against the Buddhist parable simply because we aren’t on the brink of eminent death. We have more than enough time in our lives to pause and consider the bigger pictures.
    My problem with Cardigan is that the questions he posed are bad questions to be your examples of philosophy.
    Why are we here? This question is self defeating, if we weren’t here then we wouldn’t be asking such a question. If we imagine that there are two worlds, the one which “happened” and the one which didn’t then only the people in the “happen” universe will be around to ask the question. Our universe may be a 1:billion chance but maybe the conditions for it to happen occurred 10 billion times.
    Why is there suffering? A very easy question. We “suffer” because entropy causes all systems to eventually break down. As intelligent systems we desire to continue functioning and desire to not break down. Suffering as an emotion is created to motivate us to avoid entropic decay. Since entropy always wins intelligent systems will always suffer. No god needed in the equation.
    The first question could be formulated to ask, why are WE here. That is, why are human beings the way they are and why is nature this way instead of some other way. That question is answered by science very well. The foundational purpose of science is to answer the question of why the world is the way it is. Christian philosophers don’t like this answer though because it doesn’t include god.
    So, atheist philosophers aren’t ignoring the greatest questions of the world, we have just already answered the ones that plague theist philosophers. The only reason they plague theist philosophers is because they refuse to accept the answers. Of course, many theist philosophers focus on actual frivolous questions like “how can god know everything yet still allow me free choice”. Those questions are about as important as “if Mickey Mouse were president of the U.S. what laws would he pass”.

    • blotonthelandscape

      Red Cardigan’s 2nd paragraph sums it up quite well… She basically gives completely sensible (if somewhat snarky) responses to the questions she would pose (except the extistential one), then goes on to say that these aren’t answers… *facepalm* It seems to be rooted in the assumption that science isn’t linked to philosophy, which is absurd (note her sarcastic deferrence toward empiricism), and her obvious desire to conclude “Q.E.D. God”, which, as you rightly point out, these answers don’t.

      I don’t think it’s fair to say that atheists don’t care about philosophy (at least no less than the average joe). Like you say, the questions theists ask aren’t in our interest set, either because they’re irrelevant or already answered. We’ve “moved on”.

      I’ve found philosophy to be far more satisfying than the mystic drivel I bought into as a christian.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      I am a philosopher and do occasionally find it slightly sad that people don’t care about philosophy.

      Perhaps I would care more about philosophy more if religious apologists didn’t use it as cover for their sophistry. I’m talking about the likes of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

      • Elemenope

        Philosophy also provides the tools to expose and deconstruct such sophistry. It is a set of analytical tools, nothing more. Who holds the tool dictates to what end they are used.

    • trj

      Eminent death. For the connoiseur who refuses to settle for boring old regular death.

      ;-)

      • Michael

        I’ve always preferred preeminent death, myself.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    The meaning of life is definitely a pointless question to contemplate. It is what it is, and it can be what you can make of it. I think the answer, like so many answers, can be found when you mash up Satanic philosophies with the Bible. Do what thou wilt, as long as what you wilt do can be done right back atcha and you wilt not mind. Or something. Needs work, i know. And additives.

  • Barry Hardee

    “Right now, you’re alive. Worry about how to live. The meaning of suffering is less important that the fact of suffering.”

    I disagree. The “why” is the most important aspect to any existential question. Just fix my car solves my immediate problem of getting to work, but not knowing “why” it is broken is just increasing my problems in the future especially if the problem is caused by me. There is a reason that the Buddhist faith splintered, Buddha’s philosophy as related in the story is unliveable.

    It is of immense importance if suffering is just a part of the system and to be expected, or if an angry god is pissed, or if suffering is an abnomality and shouldn’t be. These foundational viewpoints would and should affect how we live our lives.

    The comments bear out the fact that without God suffering is just status quo and has no objective meaning. I see two things though. First most people when faced with immense suffering naturally attach meaning to their problems (why me?, God hates me). Second a lot of people just say we should have compassion or provide for future generations, but if there is no meaning the universe doesn’t care if I do that or exploit people and make life as enjoyable for myself as I can now. Some people might think that’s bad but if subjective existence of meaning is all we have then it is no differenct than some people like Coke and other like Pepsi, it’s a matter of preference.

    • Elemenope

      But if factual beliefs close off the meaning of those existential questions, they become no longer existentially relevant. If a person believes there is no intelligent will behind the universe as it exists, then questions about objective “design” and “purpose” are literally meaningless, perhaps amenable to idle curiosity when exploring fanciful counterfactuals, but of no relevance to how one lives one’s life. That was (some of) the Buddha’s point in the story.

      And I’m curious why you believe it to be unliveable. Plenty of people go through life doing just fine without attributing meaning or purpose to the vagaries of chance.

      • http://ohmatron.wordpress.com/ Custador

        Yep. It’s not always comfortable though – The first time you witness a death as an atheist bites you hard. They’re all pretty unpleasant in varying degrees, but that first one is a bitch. You find yourself really, really wishing that you were wrong, but at the same time you know that wishful thinking is all that it is; There’s no meaning to it all, we’re born, we die. It’s on all of our to-do lists.

        • Elemenope

          This is why I plan to live forever.

          • Ty

            Which completely interferes with my plan to kill you.

            • Elemenope

              Mwahahaha!

        • John C

          Such a sad statement, so glad its not true, so glad Life is not meaningless. There is more, so much more guys (and gals). All the best.

          • Elemenope

            If that’s your takeaway from what Custy and I wrote, you misunderstood. I didn’t claim that life was meaningless (hah, far from it!), only that “why” questions of a cosmological/eschatological bent are meaningless. Life has the meaning the person living it imbues, and additionally takes on meaning for those others that life intersects with and is touched by.

            Far from being a sad truth, it is an exhilarating one. The only sadness that follows from it is that many people refuse to make their own lives and their own meanings, and end up shackled to the ones other people have made for them.

          • Bill

            “There is more, so much more guys (and gals).”

            Prove it.

            Seriously John, I’m sick of your incoherent babbling. Please provide one shred of evidence supporting this statement.

            • John C

              You can know in exactly the way the Truth Himself says you can know Bill. Exactly. We are not orphaned, are not Father-less, it only ‘appears’ that way. The kingdom of heaven (His rule and reign) is within you (Luke 17:21) as JC taught, its all an inside job.

              All the very best.

            • Sunny Day

              Translation: “I don’t have proof, neener neener neener.”

            • Len

              Use the force, Luke.

            • Bill

              More incoherent babbling.

              Whay am I not surprised?

            • Malvond

              That’s the thing, though: That your version of “meaning” via some sort of divine plan is “more” or more meaningful than some other notion, like the notion that there is no plan but that our realities and meanings and morality exist as a part of our own existence, is an entirely subjective call.

        • Stony

          I’ll agree with you partially. I was just witness to a family member’s death — my first time as agnostic — and I think I would be a little angrier had I still been a Christian. The gentleman was only 55 and left behind a family that is now going to have an incredibly hard row to hoe. I didn’t rail at the heavens because the prayer chain didn’t work, or think that maybe the fault was ours because we didn’t believe hard enough or have enough faith. I recognized that the treatment of the type of disease that he had was a crap game from the get-go, and that the only “miracle” would be if the treatments worked without debilitating side effects. Would I like to believe that he’s in heaven with his god? Sure. It would be easier if I did. But his comfort and his wife’s comfort in believing this is enough for me, and hopefully for them.

      • Barry Hardee

        The moral that I point that I pull from the story is, that the “why” or the details don’t matter. It’s just the existential state we find ourselves in is the only thing that should garner our attention.

        I think is unlivable because we as humans naturally attribute meaning to those types of questions or problems in our lives. Whether you find objective meaning to those or ascribe a subjective meaning to them, you still have framed them in a way that does matter. The simple fact that you that within your viewpoint these questions are meaningless (objectively speaking), means that you have foundational answers to some of those questions the disciples were asking and that we all ask.

        I do appreciate the moral of the story in one sense though. I had several religous discussions with one of my favourite uncles. After much discussion and rabbit trails he gave me an analogy similiar to the Buddhist story. He said that most theological and philosophical debates were similiar to sorting sand on a beach. They are both interesting to a point but at the end of the day it is ultimately pointless and neverending. As I’ve grown older I find more and more appreciation in that point of wisdom.

        For me the the questions drive me, but I find myself less and less willing to debate about them because I find few willing to discuss them in civil ways both those that happen to agree with me and those that don’t. I think we fight about these abstract ideas more because we find our self worth wrapped up in being right rather than because the ideas that we have are actually true.

    • trj

      a lot of people just say we should have compassion or provide for future generations, but if there is no meaning the universe doesn’t care if I do that or exploit people and make life as enjoyable for myself as I can now.

      We’re not living our life for the universe but for ourselves and others. It doesn’t matter one damn bit that there is no objective purpose to life or suffering, because we’re living purely subjectively.

      The universe won’t miss us when we’re no longer here. But so what! That makes no difference to the purpose I find in my life or my ethical choices. Because, like everone else, I’m living my life for me and those I know. Why should I be indifferent to my life or the lives of others just because the universe is indifferent to me?

      • Elemenope

        Indeed. This idea that the lack of objective meaning leads inexorably towards callous unconcern is a huge stumbling block for theists in understanding how atheists by-and-large actually feel, and how we actually act. Suffering sucks, and I have decent belief that other people (not just me) have the capacity for suffering, and they like it about as much as I do. Compassion isn’t magic, and it doesn’t require a supernatural faculty; it’s a simple recognition of the other as a feeling being and a desire to live in a community with these other beings.

        • Ty

          But without god to tell us it’s wrong, wouldn’t we all just be raping and murdering all the time?

          • Elemenope

            Only when the police aren’t watching!

            • trj

              Unless it’s the Atheist Police.

            • Elemenope

              Please. Atheists in public service? That’s patently absurd.

            • trj

              Just one more proof that we’re living in the End Times. It’s all part of the subversive NWO agenda. But I’ve said too much already.

      • Barry Hardee

        “Why should I be indifferent to my life or the lives of others just because the universe is indifferent to me?”

        I wasn’t trying to force an atheist or agnostic person into some sort of logical trap that you have to live a certain way, in this case selfishly. I live in a world in which many atheists that I know live more consistently with the moral code that a lot of Christians claim to have. I’m just saying that if all we have subjective meaning we have no grounds to judge the actions of another person because all is preference.

        Let’s take God out of the picture. Let’s say that I was some super rich individual who likes the ideas of Ayn Rand. If I take the stand that universal health care mandated by federal government is immoral, and then you disagree, what ground do you have to convince me that I’m wrong. Living according to subjective meaing doesn’t neccesitate that one rapes and pillages, but it also doesn’t neccesitate that i live and altruistic life either.

        • Ty

          This is why humans create social groups and methods for hashing out these questions.

          No god required for that.

          Just for fun, tell me one thing that can be objectively shown to be wrong using your preferred holy text. Real world issues please, no “sinning against the holy spirit” baloney. Things that one human might do that affects another human being. I used to be a bible scholar, and I still have just about every translation at home. I also have copies of the Koran, Book of Mormon, and a variety of other religious texts. Feel free to use whichever you like.

        • trj

          if all we have subjective meaning we have no grounds to judge the actions of another person because all is preference.

          Most people possess empathy and a sense of fairness. These manifest themselves in shared norms and ethics. So it is reasonable to evaluate your behavior by how it accords with those standards. Just saying any kind of behavior is as moral or as justifiable as any other is specious reasoning – that is definitely not how things work in practice. Your actions don’t exist in a vacuum, and people will judge you by them.

          If I take the stand that universal health care mandated by federal government is immoral, and then you disagree, what ground do you have to convince me that I’m wrong.

          Well, to convince me that it is immoral you’ll have to argue your case. And to convince you that you’re wrong I’ll have to argue my case. There are always several views to a question, but that doesn’t mean all views are by default equally valid (cf. above).

          • Ty

            And, oddly enough, all of the various animals that demonstrate empathy and fairness don’t seem to require a god or religion to do it.

          • Sunny Day

            The problem is some theists will just assert that god gave you that empathy and sense of fairness.

        • Hamish Milne

          I’m just saying that if all we have subjective meaning we have no grounds to judge the actions of another person because all is preference.

          Enter intersubjective meaning! Morals and meaning based around the reactions of others to the thinker.

    • gbm

      I think that it’s also imperative to point out that God doesn’t really help with the problem of meaning. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that God exists, and created me for a purpose; what makes that purpose the objectively correct purpose for my life? An analogy–if I built a sentient robot for the purpose of worshiping my socks, it seems to me that my robot would be perfectly justified in rejecting that purpose and looking for his own.

      Moreover I think that our situation WRT God is actually worse than my robot’s situation, since God is omnipotent. If (as many Christians insist) the purpose of life is to glorify God, doesn’t that leave us nothing but poorly designed tools? After all on their view, God created the universe, something infinitely more complicated and beautiful than anything that humans could ever create to glorify God. On that view it looks like it is our job to do something that God can and has done infinitely better than us. Perhaps I am strange, but that doesn’t seem any less pointless than an indifferent universe…

      • Len

        Maybe you should teach your sentient robot to wash your socks, rather than worship them. That is a real purpose is life.

  • James G

    I’ve always failed to see why life with a God is in any way more meaningful than a life without one. I’ve got goals in my life that I’m heading towards. I know what I want and how to get it. If a God turned up on the scene tomorrow like a deadbeat dad that doesn’t pay child support, it wouldn’t change my life in any way at all, unless, like a deadbeat dad, it came accompanied by threats of violence. And if God exists, then the meaning of life ultimately boils down to “God did it” and anyone who thinks that’s more interesting than quantum mechanics, wormholes or alternative universes can, at the very least, be accused of a lack of imagination.

  • Dennis N

    Why questions are incomplete questions, letting unstated assumptions creep in. How questions are much better for getting at truth. “How did we get here?” is a much more mature question to ask than “Why are we here?”.

  • Gordon

    “The part that frustrates me is that people from the dawn of human history have grappled with these questions, not finding them either frivolous or evidence of clinical depression.”

    It is easy to seem to take empty theological questions seriously when the alternative is being burned at the stake. Otherwise how many angels can dance on a pin, why god would allow evil or whatever just ring hollow.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio Lantz

    I think many of the people pondering philosophy and religion are looking to help their insecurity (suffering) and solutions are:
    (1) comfort of the afterlife
    (2) comfort of community of believers

    The Buddhist parable says to remove the cause of suffering. Well, that is the debatable issue, isn’t it? What is the cause? Some say “sin”, some say “attachment”, some say “ignorance”. Hmmm, doesn’t seem like anything is solved but not talking about it.

    • Elemenope

      Hmmm, doesn’t seem like anything is solved but not talking about it.

      On that I think we can all agree.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio Lantz

        that is suppose to by “by not talking about it.”

        • Elemenope

          Quite so. I totally missed the typo the first time. I agree with the sentiment that it is better to discuss questions–even ones that seem nonsensical or incoherent–if they attempt to address some fundamental need in human understanding. The care and skepticism comes in in deciding how seriously to take the resulting answers.


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