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Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee

Grant Sterling asks some immediate questions about Ultimate Questions.

Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions (2016) is a thought-provoking and interesting book with some strong passages, but in the end we still have many questions, and fewer answers.

Magee apparently wishes to be known as the great agnostic philosopher. The flavor of his agnosticism can be seen in this passage, which provides a good summary of this book:

“The unknowable and unconceptualizable spill over into our empirical world. We live amongst them all the time. We are mysteries to ourselves, and to one another. In our sexual relationships the miraculous happens, and happens again in the creation of new life. We do not understand life or death. Nor do we understand time… ‘What is it about our empirical world that convinces you that there must be something else?’ I am tempted to say, ‘Everything.’” (pps.56-7).

Magee repeatedly emphasizes this idea that reality is, or is likely to be, far greater and deeper than the physical world we perceive. For example, we know some moral truths; and morality, he thinks, cannot be reduced to a social convention. We perceive the physical world; and yet our own consciousness cannot be understood by what we know about the physical world. Music cannot be explained in words, and yet it offers insights into reality that words could never convey. We see other people, but what we know about them, how we understand them, and how we relate to them, is so much more than with the perception of other physical objects. When we have sex, especially, we can encounter something that is so much more than the physical interaction of two objects.

Magee rejects all attempts at reductionism, and all attempts to confine reality to the boundaries of the empirical realm. After all, he argues, we happen to have five major senses, but we know that some other animals have fewer, and some have senses that we don’t have, such as echolocation in bats. So we know that there are aspects of reality that we cannot sense, because we don’t have the proper organs. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly likely that there are countless aspects of reality that no living being can possibly experience, because the necessary organs cannot exist. This means that not only are there countless truths that we do not know, there are entire realms of truth that we cannot even begin to conceptualize. Combine this with the fact that even what we do experience is only the tiniest fraction of what exists in the world right now; and that the world right now represents only an instant in the history of a species that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years and that Magee confidently assumes is likely to continue to exist for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, and the sheer volume of the unknown and unknowable should give us pause.

So this is the great theme of Ultimate Questions: our ignorance is astoundingly vast.

Unknowable Unknowables

Having spent a great deal of time trying to show how reality spills over the boundaries of the natural world as studied by scientists, Magee turns to a discussion of those philosophers who attempt to solve the problem of the vast unknowability of it all. Ignorance, especially inescapable ignorance, is distressing, so it is no surprise that many people look for doctrines which avoid the possibility.

One way to do this, which Magee primarily associates with Hegel’s idealism, would be to narrow the concept of ‘truth’ by holding that it is grounded in our consciousness. In this way, all the alleged unknowables would be swept away: ‘truths unknowable by humans’ would be, by definition, impossible – a self-contradiction. Magee rejects this position: no matter how comforting the idea that truth is what is knowable by humanity might be, there are simply no arguments that can prove that it’s true, and it is unacceptable to believe in such a doctrine without proof.

ultimate questions thinker

A popular way to escape the limits of our ignorance is to hold that we can have knowledge about a supernatural realm. If we cannot eliminate the unknowables by reducing them to the physical or by restricting truth to what can be in our consciousness, then why not simply accept that the supernatural exists, and find a way to know it? And if our senses and consciousnesses are inadequate to know it, why not just accept that there is a being greater than us who can impart some knowledge of it to us – the most important parts, no doubt? In short, why not turn to religion? But Magee has the same view of religion that he has of Hegelian idealism: of course there could be a deity, just as “it could also be true that my living room is full of silent, invisible, intangible monkeys” (p. 22); but there is no proof available for such a belief, and so this strategy must also be rejected.

This, however, is the part of the book that most needs our attention. Magee repeatedly treats religious beliefs as if they’re all transparently nothing more than wish-fulfillment, so that there is no need to respond to them with arguments. He writes, “Religious discourse has this general characteristic. It is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting point.” (p.31). This conclusion might be justified if it were supported with arguments; but here it is Magee who offers none. Certainly, though, this vision of religious thought does little justice to thoughtful writers such as Aquinas or Augustine.

Ultimate Questions is an interesting read, and a good antidote to the widespread modern tendency of people to naïvely assume that modern science knows all and sees all – the sort of people who, like Horatio in Hamlet, refuse to allow that there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their empirical philosophies. But the book seems to merely assert the truth of inescapable agnosticism, rather than supporting the assertion. In any case the book is aptly titled: it does raise some of the ultimate questions, whatever the reader may think about the answers that are offered.

© Dr Grant Sterling 2017

Grant Sterling is a professor of Philosophy at Eastern Illinois University.

Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee, Princeton, 2016, 144 pages, £14.95, ISBN: 0691170657

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