Hard Questions Answered

The hard questions of life are argued at length throughout philosophy, religion and science without ever reaching resolution. This is an attempt to express succinctly, in two A4 pages, points of view that may help a modern 21st century understanding.

We have to accept there are many questions we cannot answer, for no matter how clever we are we have limitations. We cannot know, for example, what came before the big bang or why we exist: we can guess but we cannot know. Being humble like this is the first step to being wise. The second step is to accept that no single set of beliefs, even our own, has all the answers. Religion, science and philosophy all give valuable clues but none gives the full picture.

Our world is so amazing that it defies imagination to see it as just accidental; equally though, it defies imagination to see it as the work of some unseen presence, such as God or Brahman. We each have to decide this for ourselves. I suggest that there is such a presence but that it is beyond all human attempts at definition. Our religions are based on ideas about deity which are human ideas and therefore liable to error; indeed all religions, though true in some respects, are flawed in their concepts of the divine. We may do best to declutter our minds and simply accept there is an ultimate mystery we cannot solve. This presence appears to transcend all boundaries of space and time and to flow through everything that exists and to underlie all change, but beyond that we are guilty of cherry picking if we say it is like this or like that. Thus we have to conclude that it is a mystery full of paradox, like all of life – both personal and impersonal, constant and changing, and so on.

If we accept this mystery is one we cannot penetrate, we are effectively writing it out of everyday life. Unless it has personality it is of no use to us. To deal with this – for we all need a Gold Standard of some kind – we each have to create a deity of our own. This is what religions have done and what we as individuals do, even atheists (their deity is nullity or nothing). A solution that works for me is to take Providence as my deity, that is, the aspect of the ultimate which sustains me and keeps me going, rather like the Hindu god Vishnu. My Providence is endlessly benevolent and creative.

Like God, the universe as a whole is too big to describe and yet some properties stand out, like the four fundamental forces of nature. The overall diversity, the harmonies, the balance of opposites, and the near-cyclical pattern of change: together these form the universal order. These properties interact, for example change breeds more diversity which in turn breeds more change. And all these things flow through the different domains of our being – through nature, thought and so on. What brings them all to life is the values we attach to them, beginning with good and bad.

Some people think good and bad are just products of our imagination, but our feelings tell us they are very real: objective truth as well as subjective. What is important is not so much that they exist but rather how we relate to them. Good and evil, pleasure and suffering follow each other; bad things lead in the end to good things, and vice versa. We naturally hate the bad and try to stop it, but it is a necessary precondition for our overall advancement and so we have to accept it, as we accept yin and yang, action and reaction. Ideas like sin as disobedience to God are not helpful, nor indeed is the idea of salvation from sin. Sin and suffering are fundamental to all existence – end of story.

The way the world is ordered can be interpreted through different lenses – science, religion, philosophy and so on. One view is that this order is the fundamental truth which forms the basis for all our experience. As such, truth is the part of life that is ultimately reliable, the necessary foundation for everything. It might indeed be seen as the firstborn child of the ultimate (or God or whoever). Truth is both actual and potential, that is, things that exist already and things that are waiting to exist. Because truth is about not only the essence of things but also the way they relate, there is an interdependency between truth and love: we cannot have one without the other. Arguably, truth and love together are the engine for ongoing creation, with truth as the objective reality brought into life by the will to love or bond which is its subjective correlate.

Creation is far more than the big bang. It is the process that keeps us all going, not just the inception of new life but also the enhancement of existing life. Some see this ongoing creation as itself the ultimate reality, however this idea is too limited, choosing just one aspect of existence and making it a deity all of its own. That said, creation may be the thing that brings us closest to appreciating if not understanding the great mystery. This is so for three reasons: (1) it is boundless in its energy and limitless in the scope and scale of its operation, (2) it works through primal forces of the universe, and (3) it is in constant albeit changing balance.

While truth and love (or positive will) flow through all nature as binding forces culminating in the process of creation, their opposites are present too. It is thus that creation and flourishing are balanced by decay and death. These forces are discernible in everything, from the natural world to ethics. Even something as small as the molecule, which results from the bonding of atoms, demonstrates the operation of truth and the impulse to join, while something as big as Brexit demonstrates the operation of other tendencies beginning with the (apparently) fundamental separateness of Britain from Europe.

In ethics, truth represents a family of virtues like honesty, reliability, diligence and moderation, while love equally is a family – compassion, kindness and so on. The opposite of love is indulging the ego, setting the self above everyone and everything else. The opposite of truth is carrying this indulgence to distortions of behaviour like greed and possessiveness. Behaviours like apathy and fear are lower order distortions which undercut truth and love and allow evil in its various forms to flourish.

Change is another essential part of our understanding of life. Change is sometimes predictable, the outcome of a process already happening, or a reaction to something; alternatively it may come from somewhere unpredictable, in other words chance. This raises the question whether we are subject to some divine plan, where the world was formed for a reason and is heading somewhere for a reason. We cannot know. It appears, however, that there is a cosmic framework in which certain things must happen (species evolving for example) while chance provides for other things to “maybe” happen. Free will is one of the agents of chance. Within this loose framework it is possible for things to happen that we might think perverse, like bad things happening to good people, but we have to accept that the world is not ordered as we would have it. Things are as they are.

While we know roughly how the universe came to exist and life began, we do not and cannot know why. The best we can say is that, like everything else, we contribute to the overall ongoing process of creation or keeping the world moving. This is our function in being alive. Our purpose is something different – something we set for ourselves. From this purpose comes the so-called meaning of life, the meaning we give to our own existence. What we make of our lives is constrained by factors like when and where we live, but as individuals we are not (apparently) subject to anything like a divine plan; so we can set our own goals and limits.

Some people aim for happiness, meaning pleasure, others aim for a broader and deeper wellbeing found in fulfilment of talents or service to others. There is no direction we have to take; we have the freedom but also burden of choosing these things for ourselves. Almost certainly there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell or reincarnation: our choices are for this life alone. Fortunately there is broad agreement on what things like good living mean. Principles like the Golden Rule, Golden Mean, and self-fulfilment through self-sacrifice (Jesus was the ultimate example) don’t form an entirely consistent whole but they are all sound. Ultimately, the test of a good life may be how well it serves ongoing creation, that is, whether it enhances the experience of living or degrades or destroys.

Every age is challenging, none more so than our present age. We have great achievements to celebrate yet we keep adding to the ways in which we can self-destruct, while new life forms which we ourselves have created are overtaking us. There is no obvious end to the processes of history, no Paradise or New Jerusalem to cheer us. Individually we die and our contributions are absorbed into the greater history of the planet then to be forgotten. It all seems to be endlessly more of the same, except that the universe is expanding and life is becoming more complex by the minute. There is no answer except to keep adjusting to present realities and to do whatever seems best, that is, to promote truth and love or goodwill as the best ways forward. Only through this will we be able to do as the late American statesman Robert Kennedy asked of us all, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” I can think of no better aspiration.

The hard questions inevitably begin with issues of reality and knowing (ontology and epistemology). Very soon however we come to questions like where do we come from, to whom if anyone are we beholden, and who sets and polices the rules around our daily living. In the 21st century is it still reasonable to believe in God or some other deity?

On the question of deity it is proposed that we adopt a two-tiered approach recognising first an ultimate mystery which we as mere humans (small creatures that we are) cannot possibly solve, while also adopting for everyday purposes a deity of our own creation. This may be one of the standard deities like God or Vishnu or someone or something entirely personal to ourselves.

The way the world is ordered also requires careful thought, addressing both the fixed order and change. Creation and other forms of change can be interpreted in terms of philosophically conceived forces like truth and love. Evil and suffering are similarly viewed in terms of change; for while we do everything to avoid them we forget they are necessary as (indirectly) agents for positive change. These are hard realities of life which we have to learn to accept.

Amongst the many other mysteries of life is the one of our own existence. This question connects directly with the everyday question of how to live. The best way forward seems to be- again – acceptance of and grounding in present realities rather than surrendering to notions like divine plan and afterlife. We have freedom to make our own choices, so far as we know, and we should exercise that freedom with as much good sense as we can muster, doing so with due regard not only for our own wellbeing but that of others. In matters like these, religion and ethics have much to offer, provided we keep clear of the more esoteric paths into which they sometimes lead us.

In earlier centuries when we were less confident of ourselves our world-view was shaped largely by what we conceived to be the divine – God or gods. Subsequently humanism developed and we saw ourselves – and still do – as the centre and measure of everything. Now, however, as we head into the future, we are starting perhaps to regain some of the earlier humility, but this time with more focus on the universe we inhabit. That in turn should make us reflect more on our role in the processes of creation.