Philosophy, unlike science, does not have a reliable method for answering questions. As a result, there are longstanding philosophical questions that have no good answer. Or, perhaps, that have too many answers and no good criteria for determining which is the right one. So, what are the 6 biggest questions in philsophy?
This post was inspired by the above video. In particular between 58 seconds and 2 minutes 25 seconds when they address Dennis Prager’s assertion that the question of whether or not God exists is the most important question in philosophy. The two interlocutors deny this, saying that the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is more important. To me, this seems to be conflating philosophical questions that are more basic with those that are more important. The question of why there is something rather than nothing is certainly much more basic than the question of whether or not God exists – as the interlocutors say, existence itself needs to be on the table prior to asking about the existence of God. That, however, does not mean it is a more important question than whether or not God exists. As such, I am breaking down what I am calling the biggest questions in philosophy into two categories: the most basic questions and the most important questions. I will go through what (to me) are the three most basic philosophical questions and the three most important philosophical questions.
The Three Most Basic Questions in Philosophy
To be a basic question in philosophy, it must be a question that interrogates those things in metaphysics that ground many other ideas. For instance, in the intro above, I said that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is more basic than the question of whether or not God exists because the existence of God is grounded in the ontological status of existence itself. This brings us to our most basic of all philosophical questions:
1) Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
I actually think there is a good answer to this question. First, the unstated assumption in this question is often that non-existence is easier to explain than existence. As such, the empirical fact that at least one thing exists (via the Cartesian “I think therefore I am” telling me that at the very least I exist) demands explanation. Non-existence is the null hypothesis and requires no explanation. This, I think, stems from our human way of conceiving things. We humans intuitively abide by the principle of sufficient reason. If I find a bottle cap out in the woods, my mind immediately can come up with some sort of reason why it would be there (e.g. someone was out in the woods drinking beer, or it fell from someone’s pocket). If I am out in the woods and do not find a bottle cap, however, I do not come up with a story about why I found no bottle cap in the forest. Similarly, I have “come across” existence by the simple fact that I exist, so that demands a story to explain why it is there. Conversely, I do not demand a story for every non-existing thing I do not come across at every moment.
I think another issue with this question is that it assumes that non-existence is a state that something can be in. I can conceive of an infinite number of different bottle caps I could come across out in the forest, but the fact that they are not there means that they are in some state of “not existing out in the forest.” But non-existence is not a state of being. It is not even the state of not being. It is not a state at all, since a state is a mode of being. Non-existence is non-being. It’s impossible for there “to be no existence.” Non-existence is not like the bottle cap in that it is not a sort of emptiness or lack of something. It is not a state of possibility that could potentially be occupied or actualized. Such non-existence is impossible, because there cannot exist a non-existence. It is a contradiction. Thus, existence is necessary.
2) What is the Nature of Existence?
This question is both basic and standard. It’s basic in that, once we establish existence itself, we then must ask “in what way does existence exist?” Or, perhaps, “what is the content of existence?” It’s standard in that it is likely the oldest question in metaphysics and ontology. Realism, anti-realism, idealism, nominalism, universalism, nihilism, all of these things are schools of thought that attempt to answer the question “what is the nature of existence?”
Do abstract things, such as numbers and sets, exist? If so, in what way do they exist? If not, then what is a number? Is it something made up completely by humans? What is the nature of necessity vs. contingency? Actuality vs. possibility? These are all some of the subcategories of questions that fall under the ultimate question about the nature of existence.
Greek and Scholastic philosophers were often concerned with ideas such as substance and property. A substance is whatever is left after all predicates have been removed. It is that onto which all properties are predicated. For instance, a red ball has properties such as redness, roundness, texture, size, firmness, and so on predicated of it. But there must be something that persists even after all those predicates are removed, some “thing” onto which those predicates adhere. Modern philosophers don’t usually take such a view of ordinary objects, taking a more reductionist view. This somewhat pushes the problem down a level, to where we have to ask ourselves: what is a subatomic particle? Not in a physics sense of how it exists as a probability wave or excitation in a field (both of which are also pertinent philosophical questions, but not the ones I’m specifically pointing to here), but in whether there is some “electron” absent its properties like charge, spin, mass, and so on. Or perhaps all such fundamental particles are simply a collection of properties somehow localized at a single point.
Then, of course, there are properties that are essential and those that are accidental. An essential property is one that something has by definition: a bachelor is defined as an unmarried man, a razor is defined as a type of sharp object, and so on. An accident, however, is a bachelor being in Moe’s Tavern at some particular time. It does not have to be the fact that the bachelor is at Moe’s Tavern. It is completely accidental. But what kind of existence is an accident? If the bachelor at Moe’s Tavern is the thing “this bachelor at Moe’s Tavern” but then leaves Moe’s Tavern for the night, does the thing “this bachelor at Moe’s Tavern” disappear? And if he comes back the next night, is he then a completely separate and different thing called “this bachelor at Moe’s Tavern?” How can such things pop in and out of existence?
Other such questions about the nature of existence have to do with composition and constitution. Do mereological composites exist? Or is this an overdetermination (i.e. the ordinary object doesn’t add anything to the explanation of the object-wise arrangement of simples)? When does a collection of simples become the ordinary object, or vice versa, when does removing simples cause the ordinary object to cease existing?
There is a joke in ontology: if there are two bowling balls in a closet, how many objects exist there? The nihilist will say two: bowling ball one and bowling ball two. The realist will say three: bowling ball one, bowling ball two, and the object composed of two bowling balls. This has to do with mereological sums. Our intuition in some cases is that an object composed of simpler objects is an object in-itself. For instance, each bowling ball is thought of as a single object even though both are composed of simpler objects themselves (subatomic particles). The joke shows that what simples we group together into another single object in-itself is somewhat arbitrary. Why is a bowling ball, composed of simples itself, considered to be an object in-itself, but the object “two bowling balls” is not?
This is what can be called the “thingness” of objects. I take a pragmatist/nominalist view of things. Calling a collection of simples into a table-wise arrangement a table is a sort of useful fiction. It’s useful in a pragmatic sense: apprehending the concept table allows a person to make accurate and reliable predictions about the table-wise arrangement of atoms. It’s a fiction because there is no tableness that exists above and beyond the table-wise arrangement of atoms.
There is much to say on this subject. A lot of ink has been spilled concerning the nature of reality. The following Vsauce video I think does a great job of breaking the subject down in an understandable, and even entertaining way.
3) What is Consciousness?
This question bridges the gap between basic philosophical questions and important philosophical questions. It could easily find itself in the category of important philosophical questions. However, since it acts as a metaphysical ground of all important philosophical questions (there are no questions if there is no consciousness to ask them), as well as having a more general interest than just how it pertains to whatever particular consciousness is doing the questioning, I thought this inquiry fit better as a basic philosophical question.
Another way to state this question might be: how does consciousness come to be? The distinction is that the question “what is consciousness” hides the assumption that consciousness is an ontological status considered independently of any sort of process that might bring it about. As an analogy, think about the two questions:
What is “atomness?”
How does “atomness” come to be?
The first question will have answers like “atomness is a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.” This could then lead to further questions about “what is electronness?” and “what is a chargeness?” The second question, however, will have to provide an answer about how atomness comes to be without needing to interrogate about the ontological status of more fundamental objects; atomness just is the processes of what those fundamental particles do, and the explanation of atomness is what it is that those particles are doing.
The difference here is that the atomness of an atom is not explained by the ontological status of its constituents, but by what those constituents do, how they interact. There is no deeper “atomness” independent of what its constituents do in a holistic manner. Or, we might say, the “atomness” of the atom is supervenient on the constituents and cannot be interrogated independently of those constituents.
Similarly, consciousness appears to require some sort of physical substrate: it must supervene on something physical (there are no disembodied consciousnesses). Yet, at the same time, there is something ontologically very distinct about consciousness. This is the so-called hard problem of consciousness. The physicalist or materialist answer is usually to either A) deny the existence of consciousness altogether a la the eliminativism of Daniel Dennett or B) that consciousness is an emergent property of the incredibly complex interactions within the brain, similar to how “the economy” is an emergent property of the complex interactions of humans on earth.
I think most reasonable people can quickly dispense with A from above, easily refuting it by simply paying attention to the fact that they are, in fact, capable of experience. Answer B requires more interrogation. One of the reasons that this view is popular has to do with the conception of the human brain as a computer. Algorithms, formulae, and Boolean logic are successful in being able to represent a vast number of different things in simple form, to compute an astronomical amount of information with a few simple processes applied in different settings. Thus emerges a type of intelligence by means of simple processes. Consciousness seems to be the same thing insofar as the binary “neuron is firing” vs “neuron is not firing” can give rise to a dizzying array of complex experiences and emotions by coupling enough of these together.
Whether this emergent property view of consciousness is right or not – and by no means is it obvious that it must be right – is still a contentious issue (see for instance Mysterianism and Panpsychism).
This question does, of course, lead to a slew of other questions (which is why this one deserves to be among the basic philosophical questions). Is consciousness necessary? Does consciousness arise from any sort of complex interactions, or does it have to be a particular kind? Why did evolution select for consciousness? Does consciousness confer some survival benefit above what a philosophical zombie would have, or is consciousness nothing more than an accident that just sort of comes along for the ride? What is the relationship between consciousness and free will? If we do have free will, is consciousness a necessary and/or sufficient condition for free will? If we do not have free will, then why does consciousness fool us into believing we do? Is consciousness substrate independent (i.e. it does not need organic matter in general or neurons in particular to exist)? Can a computer ever be conscious? Is there a supra-consciousness that supervenes on human society (or any other pattern of complex interactions)? Is consciousness even a single thing we can talk about, or should the question be “what are consciousness?” What is the spatial and temporal nature of consciousness (i.e. all the issues raised in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons)? Is my consciousness now in some way “the same” as my consciousness from 15 years ago? If not, how can we justify imprisoning people for longer than we can say that the consciousness of the perpetrator of a crime is the “the same” as that of the imprisoned person? How do drugs and psychedelics affect consciousness? And the list goes on.
The Three Most Important Questions in Philosophy
The importance of a philosophical question has to do with how it actually affects the lives of conscious beings. The word “important” requires us to determine “important for whom?” Thus, when we consider philosophical questions in terms of importance, it must be centered on some being – or for some being – capable of placing value on some ends.
1) Does God Exist?
There is certainly a basic sense to this question, especially if it is true that all existence aside from God itself (the nature of existence and the fact that it is here at all) and morality is grounded in the existence of God. Most of the time, however, when we are considering God, it has to do with what the existence or non-existence of God means for conscious beings in general and humans in particular.
I have written an extensive post about the existence of God. Spoiler alert: I do not think that God exists. But in the introduction section of that post, I go into detail about why the question of whether or not God exists is important. Essentially I argue that if God exists, then God would have to be considered a variable in every scientific, political, and ethical question that can be raised. How does a pandemic begin? If God exists, this isn’t just a purely scientific question: we must consider whether it was God’s will that a pandemic begin. Should we allow buildings greater than a certain height be built in our city limits? We ought to consult God, because we cannot rule out that He has an opinion on the matter. If someone murders their child and says that God told them to, can we really rule out that this is actually the case?
In other words, considering the psychology of God must be a variable in just about anything we humans do.
If God exists, this also raises other important questions. The Euthyphro Dilemma comes to mind. Is the answer to the question of what I ought to do grounded in God’s command, or does God command it because it is what I ought to do? And how do we know that God’s commanding it means it is what I ought to do aside from “might makes right” (God is more powerful than me and therefore I am coerced into obeying His commands)? God can judge us because God is more powerful than us, but does that mean that God is actually right in His judgements?
It is often said that without God there is no purpose in our lives. Indeed, the original video that inspired this post was responding to Dennis Prager, who was arguing that without God there is no meaning or purpose to anything. My issue is that the answer, if the existence of God is to be accepted, comes down to making humans things that function to bring pleasure to God. Our purpose is to please God, making God a celestial version of a nerd in his mother’s basement piecing together a robot to be his girlfriend: we were created only because God was lonely and wanted to create something that could love Him. It also, as the interlocutors in the video at the top said, means that God’s existence is meaningless since nothing created God for any sort of function that God could serve. If the only reason humans have meaning and purpose is because God created us (i.e. without God we have no meaning, only with God do we have meaning), then God, being uncreated, has no meaning.
The converse answer to this question, that God does not exist, raises its own issues. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that meaning and purpose can only come from God, i.e. that the existence of God is a necessary precondition for human life to have “meaning” in some cosmic sense, and that having a meaning in this “cosmic” sense grounds any and all other sorts of meaning a person can have. If we then discover that God does not exist, then there is no meaning in this “cosmic” sense and therefore all other sorts of meaning are groundless and therefore invalid, fictitious, and ephemeral.
What makes this question important, however, is what it means for humans (and for conscious non-humans). If humans at the very least need to believe in God to merely feel like their life has meaning and purpose, then the non-existence of God can lead to existential crisis. If humans need to believe in God as some sort of ground for morality, then God’s non-existence implies a state of anarchy. We find ourselves thrown into existence and condemned to freedom. There is no ground for human rights or any notions of the good life aside from whatever I make up using a mind formed by evolution (and therefore the values it holds are accidental to its evolutionary past).
This invariably leads to the next of the most important philosophical questions.
2) What is the Good Life?
This question could be subdivided into two other questions:
1. Is life worth living?
2. How ought I live my life?
The first is what Camus was asking in his Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.
Camus argues that the absurdity between our human need for meaning and the meaninglessness of existence cannot be reconciled. Yet, Camus ultimately concludes that a person must be happy regardless. A person must not delude themselves with the fictitious meaning of religion and must not succumb to suicide, but to be the absurd hero. In the end, though, only the individual can truly answer whether their life is worth living.
The question “how ought I live my life” has much more affect on others. This is the philosophical realm of ethics and politics. Is the best life one that maximizes the number of pleasurable states I experience? In other words, is the answer to the question “how ought I live my life” simply “maximize the number of pleasurable moments and minimize the number of displeasurable moments in life.” Consider the Nozickian “Experience Machine”
What matters other than how people’s experiences feel “from the inside”? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?
If we accept that maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering is the principle grounding the good life, then the Nozickian Experience Machine would be the optimal good life. Yet I think most people have some intuition that living in the Matrix, being blissfully under a pleasant fiction, is somehow not quite right. That this would be hollow. That there is something intrinsically good about our pleasure being derived from something real.
There is also the issue of the experiencing self vs. the narrative self. If given the choice between the dream vacation of a lifetime that you would completely forget as soon as it’s done vs. a pleasant, but not ecstasy-inducing “staycation” that you would remember afterwords, most people would choose the latter. This means that we intuitively know that simply maximizing pleasurable moments is not the highest principle by which a person ought to live their life.
This idea of maximizing our pleasurable moments also reeks of egocentrism and selfishness. Is it not the case that we ought to live in some level of service to others? This makes me think of the Sartre quote: “the poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity.” In other words, other people are reduced to their function inasmuch as they can be the subject of my service to them. In other words, if nobody wanted for anything, how could one be a service to others? Should we then hope that at least some portion of the population is always left wanting in order that I may be of service to them?
This question of “what is the good life” is likely the most important philosophical question humans face. Important in the sense of being the question that must be asked at just about every minute in our life. Is what I am doing right now the “best” thing I could be doing right now? Would my time be better spent doing something other than writing this post? What does it mean to be doing the “best” possible thing I could be doing right now? Is there even an answer to that?
3) Is Knowledge Possible?
This question is often asked in a different formulation for practical reasons: how is knowledge possible? This formulation assumes that knowledge is in principle possible and then asks how we can define what knowledge is. This definition of knowledge has to do with justification. Justification is the difference between believing something that just so happens to also be true, and knowledge, where knowledge is a belief in something that is true but also where the belief is somehow justified.
This second formulation of the question tends to be more pertinent to our everyday lives. A person can certainly go down the rabbit hole of skepticism, doubting that any knowledge is possible. If, however, we commit ourselves to the idea that knowledge is possible, we are then faced with how knowledge is possible. For instance, do we need to witness something for ourselves for it to be knowledge, or can we gain knowledge through testimony? This is very pertinent to real world issues like QAnon conspiracies, criminal justice, flat-earthers, anti-vaxers, and so on. What level of epistemic responsibility should people be held to? What ought to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for changing our minds about something?
This question also enters into psychology, namely things like cognitive biases. When a person considers their belief to be justified, and is therefore knowledge, they are likely to use that fact itself as further justification. This is what is known as doxastic conservatism. And the mere fact that we already believe something will subject us to confirmation bias, where we weigh evidence in favor of our belief much greater than we weigh evidence that does not support (and perhaps even contradicts) our belief.
Other issues that fall under this question are things like: what is the nature of scientific knowledge (i.e., verificationism, Popperian falsifiability, Kuhnian paradigm shifts, and so on)? How much control should a government be allowed to exercise over the economy given the limitation of knowledge? Can a white person ever have knowledge of what it’s like to be a black person and vice versa? The same goes for other modes of experience, such as sex, gender, orientation, and even just the fact that person A has a slightly different upbringing than person B. How much does genetics and biology contribute to “innate” knowledge, knowledge acquisition, and the capacity to attain knowledge (e.g. how much does a person’s IQ affect their knowledge)? The list goes on.
There are obviously many other big questions in philosophy, as well as many other ways that the questions I raised here could be subdivided and categorized. This, however, is the list of the six biggest questions in philosophy according to me. What might you change, add, or remove from this list?