I’ve admired the work of Stephen T. Davis, the Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California, for many years. Lately, I’ve been reading his 2015 book After We Die: Theology, Philosophy, and the Question of Life after Death.
I liked this passage, which appears right at the beginning of the book:
What is an ultimate question? I suggest that a question has to satisfy two criteria before it can be considered ultimate. The first is that it must be a question that human beings keep asking and deeply want to answer. “Was Julius Caesar right-handed or left-handed?” is a question that almost nobody cares about (a biographer of Caesar might). But ultimate questions keep appearing in various cultures, societies, and epochs of human history. “Is there life on Mars?” appears to satisfy this condition, at least in recent times. People are highly curious about it. Whenever NASA successfully sends a probe to Mars, at the press conferences at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the scientists are always asked whether the probe has uncovered any evidence about life on Mars. Indeed, this is usually the first question that the reports ask.
But “Is there life on Mars?” is not an ultimate question because it does not satisfy the second criterion. An ultimate question must also be a question that cannot be answered by the scientific method, where I mean the term “scientific method” in a broad sense. In other words, there is no accepted method of verifying or falsifying possible answers to ultimate questions. We cannot answer such questions by doing an experiment in a lab, by observing a phenomenon, by measuring an effect, by taking a poll, or by crunching numbers. “Is there life on Mars?” can be answered in principle by the scientific method and doubtless will be answered in the future. If we actually discover life on Mars, or if after years of painstaking effort we discover no evidence of life there, our question will have been answered.
What are some ultimate questions? They are, in effect, the questions that make up much of the subject matter of philosophy. Does God exist? Do human beings have immaterial minds or souls? Are all human decisions and actions causally determined, or are we sometimes free to do one thing or another given the same antecedent conditions? What is knowledge and how does it differ from other cognitive states like believing or having an opinion? How can we know what is morally right and what is morally wrong? There is no experiment that we can perform in a chemistry lab or a physics lab to answer these questions. But notice that one other sort of question definitely belongs here too: Does my death end my existence, or will there be life and experience for me after my death? (2-3)
“Ultimate questions,” in Professor Davis’s view, are essentially beyond the reach of science. They’re deeply important, but science cannot answer them. And pointing to the effectiveness of modern technology and science at curing diseases, placing astronauts on the Moon, building bridges, and creating supercomputers doesn’t change that fact in the slightest degree.