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Question of the Month

What’s The Most Important Question, and Why?

The following answers to this question of questions each win a random book.

I once heard a story explaining what it is to be a philosopher. Imagine you live your life from birth with your tribe within a large cabin. This cabin and the land around it provides you with all you need to be content and in some ways happy: sustenance, warmth and mild entertainment. Beyond the cabin gardens lies an empty wasteland, devoid of any allure. Living in your cabin you would find no reason to leave it or your immediate surroundings, yet a few might through curiosity or some other aspect of the human condition find reason to venture forth into the unknown, despite the surface evidence suggesting that there is no worth in doing so. It is these few who would by their perseverance breach the wasteland to find that beyond it lies a lush landscape, full of life in all its grandeur, unparalleled by the simplistic stimulation previously available at the cabin. In this analogy, the few who venture out are the philosophers, the thinkers, the ones who question what it is not obvious to question.

The similarities between this cabin allegory and Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave may be obvious, yet differences are also apparent. Plato suggested that if you’re not a thinker, you are in fact in a place that’s unhealthy, without worthwhile stimulation. However I would attest that this is not so – that people who are not minded to question are not beset by chains as they are in Plato’s allegory, but rather may be in a state of contentment brought about by ignorance, this contentment no less real than a scientist’s or philosopher’s joy of discovery. In fact, even in this ignorance most are capable of understanding the machinations around them: that fire is warm, and that the warmth comes from burning logs. They accept these facts as absolutes and do not ask the question ‘why?’, although they may ask ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ Yet they do not consider why burning logs provide heat, or the wasteland, dread.

When one asks ‘why?’, and ventures out to see this question answered, the possibilities increase beyond anything any imagination could have fabricated. Although suffering comes from the pursuit of why, from traversing the wasteland, beyond it lies far more than a mind could understand in a lifetime, and so it is in this discovery that ‘why?’ becomes the single most powerful and important question someone could ask.

Marty Everett, Nottinghamshire

My first reaction was to say that the most important question is Why? It’s simple, and my reasoning should be obvious to anyone who reads a philosophy magazine: inquiry, earning, advancement, all that stuff. But I think that it would be sacrilege to let the siren of simplicity sequester us in her sanctuary sans struggle, especially when an equally interesting interrogative can be found in How? I know that it must sound like I’m just throwing out questions, but please bear with me.

In mathematics you can understand how to find an integral without understanding why it works, or you can understand why an integral works yet have absolutely no clue how to solve one. This dichotomy can be elaborated on endlessly, but by no means is it an absolute separation. ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ can be two sides of the same coin. Like some horrible Hegelian monstrosity, they work together. Learning how something works often leads to an understanding of why it works, and vice versa. Why? When you ask “Why?” you are inquiring about the cause of something. There isn’t always just one kind of cause at work, though. Aristotle listed four of those bad boys, and the different types of causes are still the subject of lively debate (at least in my social circle). As much as I love ‘How?’, it is a subcategory of Why; asking Why does a crossbow work? will yield how it works as one of the answers. Most importantly, a knowledge of answers to both ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ can lead to new things.

Yet I have to pick the most important question. This has to be Why? Why? When I was young, my father handed me a box of freshly-made chocolate chip cookies and told me that I could have one. As my hand began its descent, my uncle advised me, “Remember, if you can only have one, take the biggest.” How those words have guided me since. And they come in handy here, too. ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ are both juicy and delightful and tempting, but the latter is larger and, in this case, size does matter.

Matthew Hewes, Edmond, Oklahoma

My candidate for the most important question is: What counts as a good reason? But let me give a reason.

Philosophy rightly prides itself on its reason-giving credentials, but philosophers are not the only ones who like being reasonable. We all do! However, some of our reasons are better than others. Imagine a black man being told he wasn’t getting the job because of the colour of his skin. In Britain today this would not only be shocking, it would be illegal. In other words, it is now legally acknowledged that this is a very bad reason for denying someone a job. Elsewhere and elsewhen, of course, such discrimination would be ‘perfectly reasonable’ to perhaps the majority. What once counted as a good reason is now widely known as a bad reason. (The principle of equality, which says that we should treat people the same regardless of irrelevant attributes such as skin colour, is largely responsible for this change.) Generally, we have a choice: hope that people won’t notice our bad reasons or their consequences, or work a little harder towards finding good reasons to support our views.

Although a principle is not a fact, strong principles are not arbitrary reasons. One mark of a good reason is how widely it is shared by fellow reasoners. Giving reasons is one thing, having them accepted quite another. Facts matter in deciding what counts as a good reason. A greater scientific understanding of what it means to be human has, for example, strengthened arguments against discrimination. Occasionally, facts can be set aside for good reasons. That Henry V was in fact white is not a good enough reason to deny the role to a black actor. This is not, of course, a licence to ignore all facts about King Henry, if one values truthfulness.

Disvaluing a certain amount of truth for dramatic purposes can sometimes be a good idea, but generally speaking, if we want to explain, say, the diversity of life on Earth, we should pay attention to the body of evidence amassed. In that case, where once there were few good reasons backing a naturalistic account, and many scriptural reasons in favour of a creationist account, today the distribution of good reasons has reversed.

In figuring out what counts as a good reason, science and philosophy are both crucial, but perhaps the most important personal quality is a degree of humility.

Jon Wainwright, by email

The most important question would be fundamental, as an axiom in geometry is fundamental. Its answer would have extensive application in the life and decisions of every person. Everyone would ask it and would want to know the answer to it, not merely to satisfy curiosity, but because it would benefit everyone to know the answer. It would have existential and practical importance for everyone, not just theoretical importance. The most important question would be existentially fundamental but not necessarily logically fundamental, that is, not necessarily the first conclusion of a logical system of thought. Being general and fundamental, the most important question would be a philosophical one. However, it would not be mostly asked and thought about by professional philosophers. That would not satisfy the criterion of being asked by everyone. In philosophy, metaphysics and ethics ask questions important to everyone. If a metaphysical question, it would be about the nature of the world. The answer would subsume issues such as the existence of God, whether we have immortal souls, free will, and purpose. Let’s suppose, though, that the nature of the universe is just purposeless matter in various forms. We would still have to decide the best ways to live, individually and collectively. Each of us must still ask, “What should I do?” This then is the most important question: “What are our obligations?” The question “What are our obligations?” satisfies all required criteria. It is fundamental, existentially necessary, to be asked by everyone, beneficial to everyone, has practical importance, and possesses the power of extensive application.

The answer would not be a ‘to do’ list but a set of principles. The answer would consider not only obligations of individuals to individuals, but also obligations to family and other groups, and obligations to animate and inanimate nature. The answer would subsume issues of rights, for obligations respect rights and rights occasion obligations. It would subsume social issues such as liberty, equality, and justice. It would subsume issues concerning the authority of any government. It would subsume issues of conduct between governments. And to truly understand our obligations would be to feel constrained by them, for t hat is the nature of obligation. Knowledge of obligation obliges.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

How can we best serve others? I have chosen this question because if everyone bore it in mind, people would be less selfish, thus easing many of life’s problems. Similarly to the Golden Rule, if we all stopped and pondered this question before acting, society could be much more coherent and allow all to flourish rather than a select few. My reasoning for this idea comes mainly from Eastern philosophy. By putting others first, the focus is removed from the self or ‘I’ (which may not truly exist).

According to the Buddha, a human is nothing more than a bundle of impermanent factors (skandhas) – form, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness. Each is temporary and makes up what we see as ‘me’, but does not define us. Each being is caught in the same cycle of birth, death and re-birth, trapped in a web of karma. If all actions have karmic consequences, although we cannot avoid suffering, it makes sense to minimise suffering by acting with good intentions towards others. The Buddhist worldview includes extending our duty to animals and plants, to serve not only humanity but the whole environment (also affected by positive and negative karma). By viewing humanity and the environment in this inclusive way there is no justification for discrimination or bias of any kind. Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, in particular, places emphasis on the goal of becoming a compassionate being or bodhisattva, who delays achieving individual enlightenment in order to help others.

Hindu philosophy disagrees on the concept of a self or atman (it sometimes thinks there is one), but agrees that dutifully devoting ourselves to others is part of the path to enlightenment. Mahavira, a Jain contemporary of the Buddha, put forward the doctrine of the many-pointedness of truth (anekanta vada) which reminds us that all viewpoints can contain elements of truth. This idea can remind us of the need to listen and consider the views of others rather than hold to our own beliefs without question. Similarly, I feel that the West has a lot to learn from Eastern philosophy.

Briony Knibbs, Gwent, South Wales

“Is there some property, or some rational conceptual definition, which grounds Morality?” This is the big question for life itself, for religions, politics, even some sciences; and it’s the aim of much philosophical debate. The behaviour of a man in a remote spaceship, alone, hopelessly adrift, out of control, with no communication and no hope of rescue, has no effect on anything else ever. But put a companion aboard, and morality appears! It applies whenever two or more people are involved.

Integral to the adaptation of a species for its environment, each life-form possesses instinctive behaviour benefitting its own species. This is their (non-linguistic) morality. The instincts (=morality) of a fox are different from those of a rabbit or a soldier ant. Uniquely, language enables humans to express and communicate thoughts, reason logically and develop our instincts into moral codes, adding ‘good/bad intention’ as a factor of human moral ‘responsibility’. Humanity’s survival impetus triggers all our morality, rather than, say, Jeremy Bentham’s calculus of pleasure and pain, although Bentham’s problem of correctly foreseeing likely consequences remains.

Religion has played a huge role in human behaviour, and was an inescapable precursor to scientific knowledge, so even secularist sceptics are indebted to it. Religion, being a product of cultural evolution, is imperfect, like the eye’s design, but both have worked. The Christian Commandments, albeit humanly devised, founded on fallacious belief and out-dated, have operated successfully (= ‘evolutionarily well’) for a long time for countless people. But as natural explanation weakens supernatural belief, religions’ leverage on behaviour also weakens.

Philosophical debate about morality is paramount, vitally to consider how to supplant religion with all its powerful moral controls, its hierarchy and infra-structure and fill our slowly-emptying ‘God-holes’. Can we safely believe that humans are now capable, individually, of good (evolutionarily-speaking) moral behaviour, as each strives to exist unequally but interdependent in enormous complex societies?

Arthur Morris, Eastbourne

I believe the most important question is “What one goal do I want to accomplish in life?” I value this question because struggling with it has helped me prioritize and coordinate my energies, desires, and subgoals. Indeed, if wisdom is the “coordination of the desires” as Will Durant says in The Story of Philosophy, then struggling with this question is the first and most important step towards wisdom. Certainly, many philosophers have wrestled with it and given answers to all who will listen. Epicurus said the one goal is ‘Repose’, a happy and tranquil state of mind arising when people prioritise their lives around relationships, self-sufficiency, and time for reflection. The Stoics said the one goal is ‘Virtue’. This is accomplished by recognizing what is under your control and what is not, and not worrying about the latter. Many religious philosophers believe the one goal is to be in a relationship with God, thereby growing into their full humanity. Aristotle said we all intrinsically seek the one goal of happiness. Although people have different ideas of what will make them happy (e.g. money, sex, knowledge, love, chocolate), Aristotle thought these people were mistaken. For him, happiness has an objective component discoverable through an analysis of human nature. In the end, Aristotle believed living a life of contemplation and moderation (a ‘Golden Mean’) will help us reach happiness.

For me, the fundamental goal is a synthesis of all the above goals; my goal is to “always see with eyes of love.” Of course, saying this is much easier than achieving it. The greatest barrier to achieving it is knowing how to love in each situation.

Whatever the case, all my other goals are subordinated to this goal, and flow from it. For example, I value truth because I cannot love people well without knowing what is truly good for them. And I value moderate habits because acting in extremes usually harms self and others.

So, what is your one goal? I believe struggling with this question will lead to a richer, more harmonious, and wiser life, one in which your goals, desires, and energies are coordinated and properly prioritized.

Paul Stearns, Brenham, Texas

What is your god? Martin Luther defined ‘god’ as that from which we expect all good, and to which we turn in distress. It is in terms of this definition that I’m asking this question. Jeremy Bentham proposed that human activity could be scientifically explained in terms of motivations of pain and pleasure. Therefore, those who do not believe in supernatural beings could phrase the question as, “What is most fundamental to our motivations?” But I leave the question as I’ve given it for four reasons. First, there is often an implication that by looking at something naturalistically we have ‘risen above’: that we no longer worship an unknown god, and know the gods are not in control. However, as long as it remains possible for our emotions to wrest control from reason, I don’t think we can say we have stopped worshipping things: love or wealth, for instance. Second, although we may like to think our emotional outbursts are a temporary loss of control, it is worth considering the converse, that our reasoning produces an illusion of control that we can’t sustain. Third, this idea of ‘rising above’ implies that instinctive nature is bad. Most would agree with a moral kernel that includes ‘do no harm’, yet lions instinctively kill, therefore we must exercise some sort of god-like moral transcendence in our ethical behavior. Fourth, we must ask ourselves what is behind this motivation to rise above. Is it an altruistic hope to find some means by which we can achieve good, or is it a selfish desire to be godlike?

I don’t pretend to be neutral on this question. I believe our god should be the God. But I’m also not naïve. I realize many honestly disagree with me. Still, there is an aspect to philosophy that we all must admit. None of us pursues a philosophy in which we have no interest. We hope to get something out of it. Even doing philosophy for philosophy’s sake is an aesthetic statement about our joy, and we pay whatever offering is due to achieve it. So what is your god?

Resha Caner, Peoria, Illinois

The Most Important Question is: What do we do now?

Philosophy is better at telling what to think than what to do. When it dabbles in action it often leads to revolution and turmoil. But as climate change, population growth, hyper-urbanisation, depletion of natural resources, and political and religious identity crises circle each other to stir up a perfect storm, are we to leave the world with a myopic choice between shopping, driving, sport and celebrities on the one hand, and blind obedience to violent ancient gods on the other? If it is possible in this turmoil (as ever was), now linked by a selective high-speed network, to talk about our ‘civilisation’, then civilisation’s characteristic and redeeming property is what is known as ‘creative destruction’, meaning the ability to discard stuff and build new stuff in its place in an evolutionary manner not much influenced by sentimentality. By its nature as a distillation of truth, mostly it builds on what has been acquired, often at great cost in terms of effort and pain. ‘Energy’ is not really in short supply, in fact readers might do well to use more – walking, running, cycling, etc. Many other resources can be recycled. But knowledge can really be lost, and human potential can be wasted. In Britain, a superficial contrast is drawn between 2011: the summer of riots, and 2012: the summer of medals, with calls for investment in playing fields to motivate disaffected inner city youth, whom nobody needs because they are barely literate and have no experience (although two centuries ago that would not have prevented them from taking over their fathers’ businesses). Disenfranchisement of youth is a profound crisis, but an inevitable consequence of an obsession with maximising profit from selling largely imported consumer products.

What counts as meaningful and purposeful human existence can change radically over time; but it does need confidence, coherence and a sense of ownership.

Nicholas Taylor, Little Sandhurst

The most important question is “What is the nature of the world we live in?” Thales and the Milesian school of philosophy in the 6th century BC considered this when looking for natural causes for natural phenomena. Effective medicine and technology depends on understanding the nature of the world. The sustainability of our species and the biosphere will depend on the decisions we make based on that knowledge of the world. Thus both utilitarian and ecological ethics are based on the accuracy of our answer to the primary question. Eastern philosophy also links the effect of our actions to the nature of the world, through concepts of karma and dharma. Hence knowledge of the nature of the world is a prerequisite in Eastern ethics too. This points to the relationship of religion and Western philosophy. Many Greek philosophers, including the Stoics and Aristotle, believed in a ‘hands off’ God who did not interfere in the world. However, Judaism and Christianity believe in a ‘hands on’ God who does get involved in this world and is receptive to prayers. According to Spinoza, they are indistinguishable, as God becomes nature. Yet even if we have to take into account the involvement of deity, the nature of the world is still the primary question, as the question of the nature of God, and our moral and ethical standards are still based on our knowledge of this world.

The concept of the world has changed. To the medieval mind the world consisted of earth, heaven and hell. For most contemporary scientists the world is bound by the event horizon known as the big bang. Perhaps our personal world is also bound by event horizons, known as birth and death.

Russell Berg, Manchester

The most important question should be something along the lines of “What should we do with knowledge?” or something similar pertaining to the purpose of knowledge. Every question we ask is asked with the intention of being answered. Questions are the primary medium through which we build up our base of knowledge. Yet, once we have this knowledge, what are we to do with it? How valuable is it?

It is vitally important that we give knowledge its context. Before we have done so there is little point in asking further questions. If we do not know how we should handle knowledge, there is no point in amassing more. If, before amassing their wealth, individuals know what to do with their money, then the money they amass has more worth, for it is collected with a goal in mind, and the same principal applies to knowledge. Otherwise we could end up having more knowledge than we know what to do with. Thus the most important question should be focused on what we are to do with the knowledge we collect.

One could attempt to brush off this question by saying something along the lines of “knowledge is inherently valuable.” However, this is another way of answering the question of what should we do with knowledge: essentially, those who believe that knowledge is intrinsically valuable believe that knowledge should be collected and preserved. For some this answer will not be satisfactory, but it is an answer nonetheless.

Benjamin Carpenter, Ipswich

“Always question everything!” my physics teacher used to say. But why? Inquiry and open-mindedness underpins modern thought, and in science you never stop asking questions. With that in mind, I canvassed the nearest sentient beings as to what they perceived to be the most important question. My dog, recognising from my inflection that I had presented a question, asked whether it concerned biscuits or ball-throwing, his two most important questions. My wife told me to philosophise later please, and when are you going to finish tiling the bathroom? I retreated to Google, to raise my brows developing more grand questions along the lines of “What do we know and how?”, or “What is the universe for?” to try and invite a deeper contemplation of the boundaries of epistemology and the fundamental nature of the cosmos. Very soon I got hungry and began questioning what was for tea.

Quotidian questions borne of distraction are significant in themselves. Think of a bored child, insidiously affected by the existential angst of an endless summer break, driven to beseech her deities (mum and dad) with “What can I do?” Arguably this could be part of an ongoing strategy to extort more pocket money, but it also signifies a deeper unease of a more universal theme, of what should we all be doing, and why.

Questioning itself drives curiosity and creativity. As collective knowledge (d)evolves, so do the questions. So maybe the most important question would be, Will questions always be important? Even if humanity reached unambiguous enlightenment, presumably the death knell for further profound questions, people would still wonder where they put their car keys, or which folder they saved a spreadsheet in. Kierkegaard acknowledged inherent absurdity at the core of human life. I take this to indicate that if questions tell us something about ourselves, the most common questions asked (with the least convincing answers) are surely the most important. Or perhaps the most important question is to keep questioning, which isn’t actually a question. But in the end, does it really matter?

Chris Godfrey, Preston, Lancs

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What Are The Most Important Things To Know, And Why? Please give and justify your ultimate advice in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 10th December. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thank you.

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