What are the Big Questions that science can’t answer but religion can?

Anyone who reads about science versus religion sees this claim all the time: “Science can tell us about the natural world, but it can’t answer the Big Questions.” This goes along, of course, with the claim that the Big Questions can be answered only by religion. I plan to deal with this in a future talk, and have discussed this back in June, but right now I’m trying to compile a list of the Big Questions that supposedly stymie science. Here, for example, is a list given by John Haught in his book Deeper Than Darwin (p. 133):

“It is the main business of religion to answer the big questions. . .

  • What’s going on in the universe? *
  • Is there any point to it all?
  • Why are we here?
  • How should we live?
  • Why be moral?
  • Why is there evil?*
  • Does God exist?
  • Where did the universe come from? *
  • Why does anything exist at all?  *
  • Why is there so much suffering? *
  • Why do we die?  *
  • Do we live on after death?
  • How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
  • What can we hope for?”

Now my claim is twofold. First, science can answer some of the big questions (the ones with asterisks above), though believers may not like the answers. Second, insofar as the Big Questions are moral or philosophical, religions can give answers, but different religions give different answers—so there is no general “answer” at all. For instance, “do we live on after death” will be answered differently by Christians, Buddhists, and Jews.

In other words, while religion proffers answers to many questions, they are personal answers that don’t apply even to all members of a given faith, much less to members of different faiths. And, I further claim, for questions related to “how to live”, there is no answer that religion can give that is better than one philosophy can provide.

I have more questions on my own list (e.g., “what is the meaning of life?”, “how do we know the difference between right and wrong”), but here I’m crowdsourcing not just more Big Questions, but reactions to the list above and, especially, to the claim that religion answers the Big Questions.

146 Comments

  1. Posted September 19, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    My only disagreement, Jerry, is that I would asterisk all of those questions.

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Well, those questions involving morality, or “how shall we live” cannot, I think, be answered by science. I don’t think, despite Sam Harris’s claim, that there are objective moral decisions that always maximize well being, and many philosophers agree with me.

      I was trying to be charitable with the rest of the questions. 🙂

      • Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        I agree entirely in rejecting objective moral realism. But, then, when faced with a question such as “what is the moral thing to do?”, we can still answer it.

        We can either interpret the question as asking about objective moral standards, and reply by stating that moral realism and moral cognitivism are false, that there are no such objective standards, and thus that the question is ill-posed. (To my mind that is still an answer to the question.)

        Or we can interpret the question in a moral subjectivist and non-cognitivist way. We can thus interpret it as a question about how we humans want to live, what sort of society we want, and what might give us greatest contentment. If the question is then about human feelings and desires, then we can answer it.

        [Thus in a sense Sam Harris is half right: he is right that human moral feelings are about human well-being; but he goes wrong in trying to construct an objective scheme out of human subjective feelings.]

        • Posted September 19, 2016 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          I think Sam Harris is about two thirds right. There are collective decisions to be made, so we construct rather than simply discover what is moral. On the other hand there is a lot of relevant objective fact which constrains the construction. And of course, a given individual might not find morality appealing, say if he is a sociopath. But to my knowledge Sam Harris has never denied that. At any rate, such sociopaths don’t go around asking “why be moral?” It tends to give their game away.

      • Xuuths
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        I claim that the answer to the unasterisked questions is: chocolate.

        If you disagree, I’m guessing you’re using the scientific method to back up your disagreement.

      • eric
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think there are either, but there could have been. Questions like ‘what is moral’ are questions empiricism has tried and failed to answer. This is quite different from a question empiricism has never been used on or a question empiricism can’t be used on. Its the difference between “I looked, didn’t find, and therefore have some warrant to believe doesn’t exist” and “I didn’t look, and so have no clue whether it exists or not.” Objective morality, gods, etc.. are in the former category, not the latter.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I thought this as well, but now I am thinking that for at least some of them science can say a lot about these without definitively answering them right now. For example, for the question ‘Why be moral?’, we can explain that morality fits models of evolution that concern kin selection and reciprocal altruism, and that our sense of morality matches behavior seen in other species. These facts explain why the moral sense evolved by natural selection. But this does not explain our strong impetus to be moral, as individuals. do we know the machinations that cause the feeling of morality in our brain, causing one to feel a sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? No. Science does not (yet) have an answer for that. But it does a helluva lot better than religion.

      • Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        I would say that “Why be moral?” has a straightforward answer, namely:

        There is no standard nor normative force that is external to humans that obliges us to be moral.

        But, it is also the case that humans often do want to act in ways that they call “moral” because they use the term “moral” to laud actions of which they approve. (That’s a descriptive, not a prescriptive statement.)

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          These are good answers to the question about the inducement to morality, but are they scientific?

          • Posted September 20, 2016 at 2:31 am | Permalink

            Yes, I would say so.

    • TJR
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Agreed, for a certain definition of “answer”.

      Science by its very nature doesn’t usually 100% “answer” questions, it just produces approximations of successively higher precision and utility.

      Its turtles all the way down, but usually better turtles each time.

      For all of the above questions, I would argue that if we want to get anywhere in “answering” them, we need to use a mixture of empirical observation and rational thought, i.e. “science” broadly defined.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        That was my thought too. Also to successfully answer a question, whether big or small, you need to have a convincing method of finding the answer. You can produce an “answer” by flipping a coin, and that’s pretty much what religion does. That’s deeply unsatisfying to anyone with an ounce of self respect.

      • Kevin
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        “Mixture of empirical observation and rational thought” Is All You Need.

        I think that’s the song John meant to write, but Paul probably thought it was too long a phrase. 😊

  2. dabertini
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Why can’t science answer the question of whether or not g*d exists? “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”(FVF)

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      You could always say there’s a deistic god.

      • Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        But Occam’s razor is a part of science and excises vacuous gods.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          Occam’s razor is a preference for parsimony, not a proof. Standing alone, it doesn’t provide an “answer.”

          • Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            It does provide an answer, just not a 100.000% proven one. But then science never does.

            • S
              Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

              Some kind of deistic god is slightly plausible. Gods such as the Abrahamic god are not remotely plausible.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              To someone persuaded by the “prime mover” or “first cause” argument, a deistic god is the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of the universe, so Occam’s razor isn’t going to provide them an answer.

              Personally, I’m not moved by the unmoved mover, but there you have it.

        • Posted September 21, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          Occam’s razor would suggest Solipsism/Idealism, not a version of Realism which extrapolates from objects appearing in the interface of consciousness to objects the ‘exist’ outside of consciousness.

      • Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Not if either: (a) the universe is taken to more than the local hubble volume or (b) Vic Stenger is right about hubble expansions obliterating / randomizing their “initial” conditions.

    • Alan Clark
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Why ask if God, singular, exists, and not gods? I think that psychologists can explain the gods as a product of the human mind, so I would put an asterisk against this one (although being pedantic, Psychology is Science-like rather than Science).

      • Billy Bl.
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Maybe each bubble of the multiverse has its own god. We lucked out with the constants of nature but got stuck with a psychotic god.

  3. Robert Bray
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I think ‘does god exist’ and ‘do we live on after death’ need to be taken together. The answer to both CAN be answered by science, and with a strong ‘very probably not’. Both questions require the supernatural as a basis for ‘yes;’ and the Bayesian probabilities for its existence are low and growing lower by the moment.

    • KD33
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like you’ve been reading Sean Carroll’s book?

      • Robert Bray
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        Guilty as charged, KD33, and quite willing to do the time for the crime!

        • GBJames
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          It is a very good book, IMO.

  4. GBJames
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “Do we live on after death?”

    This one definitely deserves an asterisk, IMO. Assuming a coherent definition of “we”, of course.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I think so too. Part of the issue with religious thinking is what constitutes “proof.” From a scientific perspective the answer to “Do we live on after death?” is NO and the evidence supporting that answer is as solid as The Standard Model. But that isn’t good enough to persuade the faithful.

      Ironically it is science that may eventually enable us to change that answer to a YES, in some sense, and again beat religion at its own game.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Unless the afterlife is meant to be unmeasurable, information theory, thermodynamics, and conservation of energy exclude any possibility of organisms on earth retaining their spiritual life force after death.

  5. eric
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I think its worth pointing out that many of the ‘unanswerable’ (non-asterisked) questions could have, in theory been answered by science – or more generally, empiricism – if things had turned out differently. The fact that science can’t answer them is due to the apparent state of our universe, its not because those questions are inaccessible to empiricism in principle. For example, there’s no ab initio philosophical reason why a God or Gods could not be empirically apparent. They could be, it just so happens that in our universe, they aren’t (whether because of non-existence or other reasons is irrelevant to this point). Souls could be detectable – after all, in the 18th century people tried to weigh them. They just aren’t. Likewise we could have been some designed lab experiment, with our makers providing us with the answers of why we were made, what things will make us happy, and so on. But that’s just not the way things turned out.

    I think this is an important point because the claim ‘science can’t answer these questions,’ hides the fact that we’ve used empiricism for thousands of years to try and answer these questions, and the reason it hasn’t yet answered them is because no such answers apparently exist.

    IMO there is a critical difference between “we’ve looked, and not found any unicorns” and “unicorns are unfindable.” That difference gets whitewashed in claims like ‘science can’t answer…’ Souls aren’t unfindable; rather, we’ve looked, and not found them. An objective purpose to human life isn’t unfindable in principle; rather, we’ve looked, and not found one. And so on.

    • Xuuths
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Excellent points.

  6. alexandra moffat
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…
    I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It dosn’t frighten me.”

    Richard Feynman shortly before his death , Februrary 15 1988

    • Dominic
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I am with him!

    • Flemur
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Humans are relatively encephalized apes, and therefore might “know” more than other apes, but still hadn’t been able to figure out much of anything about anything until a few hundred years ago. Phlogiston was in the air until almost 1800.

  7. Duncan
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Could it also be said that Science is at a huge disadvantage in this comparison as it has to be honest about what it can answer?

    When you’re pulling your religious answers from where the sun doesn’t shine you don’t have to conform to anything resembling intellectual honesty.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I suppose it depends on your perspective. From mine that is an advantage for science not a disadvantage.

      Of course there probably isn’t a single religious believer anywhere that would agree that they or their religious authority figures are being intellectually dishonest and so they are likely to claim that advantage (intellectual honesty) for religion.

  8. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Religion: lies to live by.

    I’m surprised there’s no asterisk follow, “Why are we here?” ‘We’ in that sentence refers to human beings. Darwin answered that question.

    • serendipitydawg
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Darwin was more to do with how we became what we are; I think the question relates to the ultimate purpose of existence rather than that of individuals, which boils down to make more 😉

      • Dominic
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Purpose is a human artefact not a real thing.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

          Well, my cat generates purposes too. Just this morning she created the purpose of waking me up 20 minutes before my alarm went off to demand wet-food breakfast. She can stomp really hard for a ten pound fur ball. She’s loud when she wants to be too.

      • J.Baldwin
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        How we got here is why we’re here. Humans are here because humans evolved. I realize that this answer is unsatisfying for many. However, all available evidence suggests that life’s purpose is to live (biologically speaking).

        To ask, “why are we here” in a grand design sense might be an entertaining mental exercise, but its usefulness is limited to subjective instrumentalities. A better “big question” might be, “why do humans alone (so far as we know) seek meaning for their existence?”

    • Xuuths
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      ‘Why are we here’ presupposes that there is a purpose that we just don’t know. It is a linguistic word salad which makes as much sense as asking ‘why is there blue’.

    • jeremy pereira
      Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      I agree. Science has already answered that question. I am here because evolution my ancestors all had the necessary traits to survive and reproduce, one of which was the desire to reproduce. Evolution and chemistry and physics provide a perfectly satisfactory answer to “why are we here?” just as physics provides a perfectly satisfactory answer to “why is the Sun here?”

  9. serendipitydawg
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    My own view has always been that religion always ultimately defers the answers to {deity of choice} has a plan and we can’t know what it is, so believe, behave and trust to eternal life in paradise.

    In the words of Marvin the paranoid android, “sounds ghastly.”

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      On the other hand, Marvin found great solace in _God’s Final Message to His Creation_. 😉

  10. Dominic
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Why do people study theology???

    • darrelle
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      Probably for the same reason that crazy killer-monk in the movie The Da Vinci Code does this.

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      So they can think up vague big questions which they hope will stump science.

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Religion can only offer an opinion on any of the so-called big questions. And as you say, the opinions will be varied. I also wonder why these are considered the “big” questions. Life after death is only important or big to the religious, not to us and really, not to science. It is hardly worth spending a lot of money on this. Lets spend it finding cures and answers for the living. The religious can watch the walking dead. Find answers to war, stop violence against people. Ooops, I may have mentioned some things that religion is responsible for.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, religions’ opinions about these big, weighty questions are a lot like armpits — all of them have ’em and, you sniff around too close, all of ’em start to stink.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        You may be on to something. Weren’t some of the Norse gods spontaneously odorified into existence from the sweat from a precursor god’s armpit?

        • GBJames
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Everything I know about Norse gods is from The Almighty Johnsons. (not really, but…)

          In any case, it sounds plausible!

          • darrelle
            Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            Finally had a moment to refresh my memory. The “god” was a primeval frost giant named Ymir. The odoriferous offspring were a male and female frost giant. Oh, it was the left armpit, by the way. That’s important, I bet.

            I wonder if there was a right armpit heresy.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          “Twilight of the Gods” my eye nose.

  12. George
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I think religion can help answer the question – How stupid can you be?

  13. David Harper
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I’d also ask:

    – Is there life elsewhere in the universe? How common is life elsewhere? How often does intelligent life evolve?

    Okay, that’s three questions, but they’re all related. And they are bigger than many questions asked by religion, which tend to be much more parochial.

  14. Kevin Meredith
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    A robust, complete and rational morality may be constructed from the single premise that the universe is here to satisfy want, with the selection among competing wants assessed, individually and collectively, on the sole basis of maximal want satisfaction.

    Virtually all religions create one or more beings whose wants are given preference over human wants, thus working against morality.

    Religion, it may be argued, is humankind’s most immoral creation and absolutely the worst source for discovering morality.

  15. Flemur
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe? *
    – Everything.

    Is there any point to it all?
    – Yes

    Why are we here?
    – No matter where you go, there you are.

    How should we live?
    – “Mind yur own business, keep your hands in your own pockets.”

    Why be moral?
    – It’s built in.

    Why is there evil?*
    – Evil is imaginary.

    Does God exist?
    – No.

    Where did the universe come from? *
    – “We know for certain, for instance, that for some reason, for some time in the beginning, there were hot lumps. Cold and lonely, they whirled noiselessly through the black holes of space. Those insignificant lumps came together to form the first union – our Sun, the heating system. And about this glowing gasbag rotated the Earth, a cat’s-eye among aggies, blinking in astonishment across the Face of Time.”

    Why does anything exist at all? *
    – Why not?

    Why is there so much suffering? *
    – Pain and suffering are imaginary.

    Why do we die? *
    – Bodies get damaged and wear out.

    Do we live on after death?
    – No.

    How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
    – That depends.

    What can we hope for?
    – Mostly more of the same.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      “Why is there evil?*
      – Evil is imaginary.

      Hmmm, I don’t know. I’d say “Evil is a value judgement.”

    • Kevin Meredith
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I agree with all but these two:

      Why is there so much suffering? *
      – Pain and suffering are physically measurable neurological responses to events and conditions that interfere with an individual’s pursuit of want satisfaction.

      Why do we die? *
      – A species whose members do not die will compete with offspring who might possess mutations that increase fitness. Death is therefore more fit than immortality.

      • Jeff Lewis
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        As far as ‘Why do we die?’, here’s one of the better explanations I’ve seen:

        https://www.quora.com/Death-and-Dying-According-to-the-theory-of-evolution-why-do-we-die/answer/Suzanne-Sadedin

        Short answer: Because even if we didn’t die from old age, then predation, disease, or accidents would kill us anyway. So natural selection has favored mutations that boost our fitness prior to the age when we’d likely already be dead, even if they come at the cost of harming us later in life. Additionally, and not quite the same thing, there’s not much selection against mutations that are harmful only in old age.

        • eric
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Additionally, and not quite the same thing, there’s not much selection against mutations that are harmful only in old age.

          That just defers the question, because now we can ask why humans only produce high quality eggs and sperm for a certain amount of their lifetime. There would seem to be little evolutionary advantage to such an arrangement.

          But given the facts about human aging and reproduction, I suspect you’re right. Mutations that help an 80 year old to reach 90 won’t have as much chance of being passed on as a mutation that helps a 20 year old reach 30, because the latter will generally end up preserving the gene line more than the former.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

            The reason why human gonads wear out is the same reason why anything wears out: entropy.

            What you’re really asking is why we don’t continue spending energy to keep them functional indefinitely, and the answer to that, I think, is that there’s little or no positive selection pressure to maintain fertility into our declining years when we lack the physical strength and stamina to be effective parents anyway.

            • eric
              Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:33 am | Permalink

              But again, why declining strength etc? It doesn’t have to be that way. There does not seem to be any evolutionary advantage to having the entire package reduce over time. At best, what you have is an argument that once some of these things get reduced over time, there is little evolutionary advantage to keeping the others going full tilt. But it doesn’t tell you why the whole package doesn’t last 30 years instead of 50, 70 instead of 50, 100 years instead of 70, or 150 years instead of 100.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:35 am | Permalink

                “But again, why declining strength etc?”

                Because maintenance is expensive. It takes energy to keep things going. Lots of it. Any home owner knows this.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 20, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                It’s not just a question of maintenance costs. Engineering for durability also has costs.

                Why aren’t smartphones built to last ten years? Because it would be more expensive to do so, and nobody actually wants a ten-year-old smartphone; people typically upgrade to a more capable model after two or three years.

                The same logic applies to us, as Jeff already mentioned. There’s no payoff to building bodies that last 150 years if they’re likely to die from accident or predation within 50 years.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                I was going to say just what Gregory did. Things wear out. (I was going to use a car for an example). And the things that get auto-repaired, there’s a finite chance that the repair mechanism itself will either fail or go wrong and cause damage.

                Evolutionarily (is that a word?) speaking, our ancestors – which is where our ‘design’ comes from – likely led a hazardous life and would have succumbed to accident at a fairly young age anyway. You might reasonably expect to survive five encounters with lions but extremely unlikely to survive ten. (Made-up numbers, I know). So no point in making an ultra-reliable organism that’s going to get chomped anyway.

                cr

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

                I see I’m just repeating what Jeff said upthread, only he expressed it much better.

                (The perils of responding to a comment in one’s inbox without back-tracking up the page…)

                cr

      • Flemur
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        – Pain and suffering are physically measurable neurological responses to events and conditions that interfere with an individual’s pursuit of want satisfaction.

        They don’t necessarily interfere; physical pain is a motivator to avoid physical damage (don’t eat something that’s on fire).

        Emotional pain is a motivator to avoid social damage (prevent your kids from getting killed).

        As for measurable, only recently

        darrelle: Hmmm, I don’t know. I’d say “Evil is a value judgement.”

        How much does a value judgment weigh? How big is it?

        • darrelle
          Posted September 20, 2016 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          Value judgements weigh nothing and their size is directly proportional to the ego of the mind that invokes them.

          • Kevin Meredith
            Posted September 20, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            How much does a particular color weigh? Or a sound? The question is ridiculous because it doesn’t fit the subject matter. The measure of a value judgment must take into account what is being impacted. I call the Holocaust an absolute wrong because the wants of millions of people were egregiously violated. I call trickle-down economics questionable because its efficacy remains unproven after almost 40 years of trial. Neither of these judgments has weight, neither is an expression of an over-sized ego, and if we cannot make value judgments like these, we cannot continue to progress as a species.

            • darrelle
              Posted September 20, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              That might have been better addressed to Flemur. He / she is the one who seems to have an issue with the value of value judgements.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Right on

    ~”Believers may not like the answers “~ <-( my shorthand for paraphrasing) – that's key.

    … for some – I'd say all victims of religion- anything you say/do can never be enough. You could have a week-long talk in the public square and there's always some weaseling to be done.

    Also I include myself as a victim of religion, as I have so easily been taken in by its special pleadings even after being divorced from the whole thing for decades. Haught's odious list up there counts among the special pleading in my view that floats out there, hoping to draw in the weak victims by its special pleading and innocuous sounding language.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I meant unctuous not odious.

  17. Steven
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I disagree that “why does anything exist at all?” can be answered by science. Even if we had a complete understanding of the big bang, that would not tell us why there was anything to do the banging in the first place. I often hear people claim that we can explain how matter arises from the vacuum and therefore know how something can come from nothing; but this does not explain how the vacuum came to exist!

    I don’t think it’s possible even in principle to explain existence. It’s very similar to Munchhausen’s Trilemma. If the universe was created by another universe, then either:

    1. There is a base universe whose existence must be taken as an unexplained axiom.
    2. The chain of universes goes on forever, with no fundamental cause ever being reached.
    3. The chain of universes is circular.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      “Even if we had a complete understanding of the big bang, that would not tell us why there was anything to do the banging in the first place.”

      How do we know that?

      • Steven
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        It’s an inescapable consequence of logic. For any phenomenon, we can always ask “what caused it?” As you follow a chain of cause and effect, it must either terminate, go on forever, or loop back to where you started. This list exhausts the possibilities, and none of them seem to answer “why” in a way we would find satisfactory. Basically, it’s an ill-posed question since it can’t be answered even in principle.

        We may be able to follow the chain of causality back to the very beginning, and know the exact laws of physics and the initial state of the universe. But that doesn’t tell us why the laws of physics are the way they are, or why the initial configuration was the way it was, or why such a system is even instantiated at all.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

          I don’t think so. We don’t have a complete understanding of the big bang. It may be that the not-yet-understood part includes information that will answer the part you think can’t be understood. You’re simply assuming the nature of the “complete” understanding.

          • Steven
            Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

            I’m not claiming that there are parts of the universe we can’t understand. I’m claiming that even if we did have complete understanding of our universe—a complete description of the big bang, the position and momentum of every single particle, what you ate for breakfast three years ago—that still wouldn’t explain where the universe came from.

            If we find out the big bang arose from vacuum fluctuations, that just leads to the question of where the vacuum came from. If we find out our universe was created from some process in another universe, that just leads to the question of where *that* universe came from. If we find out the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is true (it’s beautiful, but we won’t; it’s unfalsifiable) that leaves the question of where math came from. And so on.

            (This is why people taking intellectual comfort in the idea that a god created the universe has always amused/confused me; if they need to explain the cause of the universe so badly that they’re willing to posit a deity, why aren’t they bothered by the fact that they’re just passing the buck one level up the chain? And if they think god doesn’t need to be caused, why don’t they say the *universe* doesn’t need to be caused and leave it at that?)

            • GBJames
              Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

              “that still wouldn’t explain where the universe came from”

              My point is that you can’t know that. It might. You can’t know what the “complete” picture contains.

              • Steven
                Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                My point is that we can’t know the cause of the universe *regardless* of what the complete picture contains. Consider a civilization living in a computer program. They have learned almost everything about their universe; all its laws, what the initial frame looked like, how it will end, etc. Regardless, no amount of effort on their part will ever tell them what the universe outside their simulation is like, no matter how much information about their computer program they obtain. Unless there is a way for information to flow between the simulation and the outside world, they will never know. So it is with our universe and its cause, and the cause’s cause, and so ad infinitum.

                What sort of explanation of the cause of the universe would satisfy you in this sense? I can guarantee that it will fall into one of the three categories of Munchhausen’s trilemma, since they are exhaustive. We may be disagreeing about what a good enough explanation of causality entails.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                Just this, Steven… I’m perfectly comfortable knowing that I don’t know. I am not comfortable with assertions about what can not be known, beyond those things that are incoherent statements about the universe that are by definition unworthy of entertaining. (Ben’s “What is north of the North Pole?” is an example.)

                Your assertion is about what is knowable “prior” (if that means anything here) to the Big Bang. It seems to me that assertions that the question (assuming it is meaningful) is in principle answerable. That doesn’t mean that it will ever be answered. But it does mean that asserting that it can’t possibly be answerable is a statement of faith.

        • jeremy pereira
          Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:21 am | Permalink

          One problem with your argument is that cause and effect are emergent large scale phenomena. At the quantum level, there is no cause and effect, only interactions between particles. Usually (always?) these are completely time reversible.

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      It can be answered by reflecting on the question and then looking at conservation laws to get the answer.

      “Why does anything exist at all?” has as presupposition that there *could have been nothing*, which as far as we can tell, is *false*.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      The question is misstated. The real question, since we observe from here and now, is “why would ‘nothing’ exist?”

      ‘Nothing’ is an unobserved state, whatever it would mean. And as Keith notes here, the existence of conservation laws – or even unitarity of quantum physics meaning you can’t replace existence with non-existence as you look back in time – makes it an implausible notion.

      Also, I would note that replacing even the old pre-inflationary cosmology with a claim that there was a moment in time – “banging” – that was somehow first is erroneous. We didn’t know that then, and moreover now the current cosmology looks back before the old Hot Big Bang moment.

      And for all we know inflation is eternal backwards in time, and it is the simplest model. Which reinforces how unnatural claims of ‘nothing’ and ‘time 0’ are.

      • Steven
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Trying to explain the existence of the universe by invoking the conservation laws or quantum mechanics is exactly the sort of mistake I’m trying to avoid, because the question then becomes “why, these particular conservation laws?”, “why quantum mechanics?”, and “why is there even a universe for these laws to describe?” Even if our universe were eternal and had no beginning, that still does not explain why it exists.

        What I am trying to say is that whatever system gave rise to our universe, the question then becomes “what caused that system to exist?” Either you’ll find that out too and pass the question along to the next system, never reaching the bottom; or you eventually find the bottom, and are now left with a system whose cause you cannot explain, or you end up recursing.

        I am not saying this is a bad thing, or a flaw in our reasoning, or due to some limitation of our ability to know things about our particular universe. I am saying this is a fundamental feature of trying to explain cause and effect, or consequences and their logical antecedents. This is a general feature of all logically possible universes, not just ours.

        • Steven
          Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          “Why does anything exist at all” is a meaningless question, because any possible explanation either belongs to an infinite chain, a recursing chain, or a terminating chain, none of which satisfy our (or at least, my conception of what most people mean when they ask this question) idea of what “the real reason” should be. Causality works fine for reasoning about events inside universes, but breaks down when you reach the limits. Science cannot answer this question, because no possible answer could answer this question, because the question is meaningless.

        • Posted September 20, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          The argument explains why it exists! It tells you precisely that it couldn’t *not* exist. So it does. It doesn’t tell you *what* exists, of course.

          (I’m assuming tertium non datur, for the logical purists.)

    • David Harper
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      “How/why did the Big Bang happen?” may turn out to be rather easy to answer if the string theorists are correct and we actually live in a ten (or is it eleven?) dimensional manifold, of which our four-dimensional universe is merely a sub-space. The main difficulty with this hypothesis is that it’s going to be very hard to find ways to test it through observation or experiment.

      Still, it’s a good excuse to tell my favourite joke. An engineer and a mathematician are sitting in a string theory seminar, and the speaker is explaining how the Big Bang can be explained by considering eleven dimensions. “How can anyone possibly picture a universe with ELEVEN dimensions?” wails the engineer. “It’s quite simple,” says the mathematician. “First, picture a universe with N dimensions, then set N=11.”

  18. Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I would claim that the Soul Hypothesis, and by extension, the Big Question “Do we live on after death?”, and also “Does prayer work?”, are all in principal testable and falsifiable, and hence scientific questions.

    In short, if ensoulment happens, if prayers are answered, if the soul goes somewhere after death, then there must be a mechanism, a dimension, a force carrier, for all this to occur.

    Also, something exists, because absolute nothingness is an impissibolity. It can’t be did.

  19. darrelle
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Anything can answer questions. Answering questions is easy. The actual issue is, are the answers any good? Are they useful? How do you determine if the answers have any value? Religion certainly does answer the big questions, and if you give it free rein it answers any question anyone would care to ask. The problem with religions’ answers is that they have been shown to be worthless at a steadily accelerating rate until religion has been thoroughly discredited except as something that makes some people feel good.

    Every single one of the Big Questions is better answered by science (broadly construed) than any other mode of inquiry or, in the case of those that are really value judgements, are better answered informed by science than not. And many of the Big Questions believers typically claim are actually tiny little things that amount to virtue signaling, adolescent species-vanity or yearnings resulting from the conditioning of being raised in a religious culture.

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Another thing:

    If a result can be shown to be reproducible using *independent* methods, the conclusions thereof are weighted more than if a result is obtained otherwise. When do supernatural “answers” do that?

  21. kieran
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe? That’s for me to know and you to find out
    Is there any point to it all? Yes, but you need to give me ten dollars to find out
    Why are we here? I think I covered that in question 2
    How should we live? In a way that allows you to give me ten dollars a month
    Why be moral? It’s good to give me ten dollars a month
    Why is there evil? So that for ten dollars a month I can give you clues as to where the evil people are
    Does God exist? This more than a 10 dollar answer but you have to get to at least theata level 5 to discover it
    Where did the universe come from? Theta level 6 answer
    Why does anything exist at all? To give me money
    Why is there so much suffering? I get bored
    Why do we die? Failure to deliver the ten dollars
    Do we live on after death? Theata 12 answer I’m afraid
    How can we find release from suffering and sadness? Will with ten dollars you can rent a few minutes of happiness or save a buy a pet
    What can we hope for? Answers for all the money you’ve given me but don’t worry I’m using it to help otters

  22. Mike
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    It’s a good list, Jerry. I’m also in the camp of science can answer those questions, though whether there’s an ultimate point to the universe will quite likely remain unanswered.

    As for god(s), I think we can defeat the notion of them entirely through education of how the idea came about and developed into what we see in religion today.

    Can science answer what is the meaning of life or humanity’s purpose in the same way it can answer what is the weight of an atom? Of course not. But I think it can answer it in the context of ‘humanity exists and we’d like it to continue to exist.’ Otherwise, aren’t we just being nihilists?

    I think that individuals must find reason and purpose for their own lives themselves, but we can do it within a framework that science gives us for the whole.

  23. Chris G
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I think the first two questions ‘What’s going on in the universe?’ and ‘Is there any point to it all?, are too vague to be on the list, it’s just not clear what ‘going on’ and ‘any point’ mean.
    Surely one interpretation of the question ‘Why are we here?’ can be answered by science: we are here because of evolution by natural selection.
    ‘Does God exist?’ has a strictly scientific answer when we emphasise the burden of proof being with those that claim ‘yes’ i.e. the answer is ‘no’ because we have no good reasons to believe so.
    The questions ‘How can we find release from suffering and sadness?’ and ‘What can we hope for?’ surely have many correct yet wildly subjective answers – again, too vague,
    Chris G.

  24. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Does religion answer the big questions? I have to say not. Not only do different religions offer different answers but the different religions do not appear to be converging on a single answer.

    Interesting an article in AEON https://aeon.co/essays/can-religion-be-based-on-ritual-practice-without-belief argues that the Abrahamic faiths are primarily about beliefs and this prejudices our philosophical outlook. In Japan ‘religion’ is far more about ritual practices (a way of living?) than belief (a way of knowing?). In which case claiming that Japanese religions answer the Big Questions is incoherent.

  25. Kevin
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Religion has revealed nothing about the natural world. Not a single massless photon has even remotely been explained by religion.

    As for morals or how to live science can inform us significantly better than any religion.

    We don’t listen to music or drink wine or select a pair of shoes without science. We performed educated decision every day to how we live and these decisions are bassi of critical thinking, not some spooky-man tellings us not to eat green meat.

    Answers from religion are consistent with answers that people get from illiterate desert barbarians walking the planet millennia ago.

  26. Lalo Khezia
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    #6 Why is there evil?
    ans.: Because it pays.

  27. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    How can we find release from suffering and sadness?

    Adjust serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitter levels in your brain.

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      I’m unsure if that’s a permanent fix.

  28. Bruce Gorton
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    “What’s going on in the universe? *”

    Stacy’s mom.

    “Is there any point to it all?”

    Porcupines.

    “Why are we here?”

    Hey, I’m not keeping you.

    “How should we live?”

    If you can’t answer that for myself, then I suppose you should live however makes me happiest.

    “Why be moral?”

    Because dicks get punched.

    “Why is there evil?*”

    Because not enough dicks get punched.

    “Does God exist?”

    You can’t even come up with a coherent definition of God, so no, not even really as a concept.

    “Where did the universe come from? *”

    It came outta nowhere.

    “Why does anything exist at all? *”

    Nowhere was pretty boring.

    “Why is there so much suffering? *”

    Suffering is part of how living things evolved to avoid the bits of the universe that make them dead things.

    “Why do we die? *”

    Because we are ultimately just a collection of chemical reactions, and those can’t carry on forever.

    “Do we live on after death?”

    No, otherwise it wouldn’t be death.

    “How can we find release from suffering and sadness?”

    Address the cause of whatever is making you suffer. Also, have you tried punching a dick?

    “What can we hope for?””

    Not to get punched in the dick.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      “Suffering is part of how living things evolved to avoid the bits of the universe that make them dead things.” Brilliant.

      Or if you are neurotic, psychotic, or OCD, suffereing is self-inflicted with little to no merit of personal survivability, though, arguably, these traits, not fully expressed, can be a great benefit to society.

  29. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Yes, I agree with you here.

    However, science isn’t antithetical to religion in the sense that it has unanimous consensus. We are still bounded rational and many a rational thing given the data set of bygone times are considered completely asinine to hold as a belief now. Science provides an adumbration of reality, it isn’t and never will be a complete description of reality. Not to say that religion is comparatively better.

  30. Christopher Bonds
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    My view tends to be that if science can’t answer the question, maybe there’s something wrong with the question.

  31. Jonathan Dore
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    “What’s going on in the universe?” — hereinafter known as “The Marvin Gaye Question”.

  32. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    A lot of these questions are existential dilemmas arising from the predicament of human contemplation, but scientific investigation will undoubtedly bring us closer to resolution than anything else. Nonetheless, contemplation does not warrant an emotionally fulfilling response once the investigation process commences.

  33. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    How many other life forms have lists of questions such as these they feel a need to ask and answer? Most life forms either can’t or don’t ask; they just are, they live. Living is the purpose of life. Is human intelligence primarily involved in asking and trying to answer largely futile, unanswerable questions? For most of the questions, no universal answers have been found because no universal definitions have been agreed upon. And, the questions and answers have changed over time and when asked by different cultures.

    Why should there be a purpose to living? What do we each mean by “moral”? What do we each mean by “evil”? Many Gods have been created by Man and they have all existed in our imaginations. What is “suffering”? We might as well ask “What is joy?” What is the purpose of any human emotion?

    “What can we hope for?” We can hope to enjoy
    our lives as much as possible while we live, without having to know from whence we came and/or whence we go. As for me, I’ve had a very full life. Eventually my ashes will be combined with those of my husband who has departed life before me, and we will be sprinkled together on one of our favorite patches of Earth. Our molecules will have been released to become something new in the universe. Our brief 57 years together generated much love, many experiences, memories, and dreams. Enough!

    • bluemaas
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      This ? This, Ms Kitchen, is my thinking.
      Better stated than I ever could.

      And exactly why for two huge purposes, I further state, that soooo, so many imams, so many preachers, rabbis, shamans and other so – called “spiritual healers” – as well as along with their henchlings – for the lifetimes and / or lengths of their reigns absolutely loathe this type of pariahs’ brains: people who think like her and me i) cannot be controlled and ii) cannot be used to make a prodigious passel of pecuniary pocket change off of.

      Blue

  34. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    What can we hope for?

    The snide answer is “anything, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”

    If interpreted as “of those things that we want, which are possible?”, then science is the way to go.

  35. Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I think the question “what is the meaning/purpose of our lives? is question begging. I dont think the value we give our own lives could accurately be called a purpose or meaning, therefore the question assumes that there is an outside entity- namely God- to give our lives purpose.

  36. J. Quinton
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Dear religious people: Answering a question doesn’t mean you’ve *correctly* answered the question.

    • Posted September 20, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Religion can answer the Big Questions. So can a Magic 8 Ball. Both religion and the Magic 8 Ball will give you an answer. The real “big question,” though is: how confident can I be that the answer I’ve been given is actually true?

  37. Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Theists often regard atheists as pretending to themselves that religion has no value and not as people who seriously considered why they either left religion or never chose it in the first place. Therefore theists can’t grasp that the genre of questions that are categorised as Big have been answered or rejected as being non-applicable or inane by self-reflection, life experience, resilient adaptation, science, cognitive psychology, logic, and lack of evidence. Atheists then just live their lives the best they can. Ironically that what theists do also, though they give credit to their religion.

    Christopher Hitchens cut through this wasteful handle by challenging theists and their supporters to name one moral act a theist can do that an atheist can’t. No suitable answer has been offered.

  38. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    The fact that different religions have different answers is not necessarily a problem for some of these questions. For instance, “How should we live?” and “How can we find release from suffering and sadness?” may well have multiple effective answers.

    Of course systematic empirical investigation is the best way of finding answers, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that religion, with its much longer history of seeking answers, may have stumbled across some useful ones, if we strip away the woo. Looking at religions as artifacts of cultural evolution, we should expect the “how to live” questions to be the ones they’re most successful at answering.

    • Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Religion has no history of seeking answers, it only has a history of making up answers.

      And yes, even a blind chicken finds a morsel now and then, but this isn’t something unique to religion. For example, Epicurus, who died about 270 BCE, taught that there’s no afterlife and therefore no need to fear death, but in the absence of science he was really just guessing. Yet Sam Harris presents the same conclusion, convincingly justified by modern neurology.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        You could say that biological evolution doesn’t seek answers; it just makes them up. But the ones that work persist, and the ones that don’t work die.

        My point is that even if religious answers are made up, they can still be subject to selection pressure in the “how to live” domain.

  39. Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t find those questions particularly interesting whether science has the answers or not. If we let god go, the more interesting question is whether science, with all its wonderful revelations, is going to kill us all off or save us from being killed. It’s one I mull over daily.

    • Jefe
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Point of order: Science won’t kill us. Some agency employing science (people) might kill other people, or all of us. Some agency observable by science (un-predicted causation, unplanned events) might kill us. Science might enable us to save ourselves from being killed.

      • Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        Or, using your logic, some agency using science…

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you. (Why all the “why” questions?)

      • GBJames
        Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        I think there are two kinds of “why” questions. One, like “Why does the sky look blue?” is answerable in terms of ocular anatomy and light refraction. It is really a “How does this work?” sort of question.

        The other kind of “why” question, the kind that obsesses theists, is more like “Who intended and caused this to be so?”. Since lots of times nobody did, it tends to be a meaningless question, one that assumes an answer that is false from the start.

        • Posted September 20, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          “Tell Me Why

          Tell me why the stars do shine;
          Tell me why the ivy twine.
          Tell me why the skies are blue,
          And I will tell you why I love you.

          Nuclear fusion makes the stars to shine;
          Tropism makes the ivy twine.
          Rayleigh scattering makes skies so blue,
          Glandular hormones is why I love you.”

          (oversimplified, but amusing. Not mine, of course.)

  40. Timothy Bagley
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I would like to know if my fellow posters think that science can answer why we ask the non-asterisk questions. Why do we primates pose these questions at all? Can science direct us as to its cause(s)?

    • GBJames
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Probably. Those seem to be questions that evolutionary biology and neurology could, in principle, address.

  41. Jeff Lewis
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Many others have already said similar things, but here’s my 2¢.

    Any question with an objective answer is best addressed by science, even if we can’t definitively answer it at present (and yes, I know science doesn’t deal with ‘definitively’ in principle, but in practice, I think it’s safe to say definitively that the Earth is roughly spherical in shape). So, that would mean adding asterisks to some more of PCC(e)’s questions, such as ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Do we live after death?’. To take the latter of those as an example, our understanding of how brains work, incomplete as it is, certainly makes it seem as if our minds are controlled entirely by physical processes, leaving no reason to postulate souls or their continued existence after we die.

    Even the subjective questions can be informed by science. For example, ‘How can we find release from suffering and sadness?’ Well, what studies have been done on this? Are there certain actions that tend to decrease sadness among the study participants? Are there certain actions for society to take that tend to decrease suffering in a population (e.g. Does a welfare state help alleviate suffering or does it promote dependency leading to a cycle of suffering?) Even open ended questions like ‘What’s the meaning of existence’ can be informed by science, because ‘meaning’ presupposes an outside source granting that meaning. If there is no such outside source, the question itself becomes a bad one.

    And like PCC and others have said, even for the questions science can’t answer, philosophy does a far better job than religion at addressing them.

  42. peepuk
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I think science has answered these questions if you believe Theory of Evolution and mainstream physics reveal the true nature of reality.

    Is there any point to it all?
    No.

    Why are we here?
    Why ‘should we’ be moral?
    How should we live?
    Sentences with “should” or “why” are meaningless. There is no “why” or “should”.

    Does God exist?
    No.

    Do we live on after death?
    No.

    How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
    Take the right drugs.

    What can we hope for?
    Anything we want; hope is pure fiction; it has no limits.

  43. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe? *
    Is there any point to it all?
    Why are we here?
    How should we live?
    Why be moral?
    Why is there evil?*
    Does God exist?
    Where did the universe come from? *
    Why does anything exist at all? *
    Why is there so much suffering? *
    Why do we die? *
    Do we live on after death?
    How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
    What can we hope for?

    My own list would * these:

    Why are we here?
    Why be moral?

    – Because evolution.

    Does God exist?

    – Asks for magic/a magic agency, which is rejected by thermodynamics (1st law) and quantum physics (standard particle model) both.

    But of course the way to respond is personal, since the list is personal questions rather than “big” ones.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Oops, forgot this one:

      Do we live on after death?

      – See the “god” response.

  44. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Jeez. Why can’t a few of the big questions be addressed by art and/or philosophy??

  45. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    And another thing

    The so-called-and-self-named “Big Questions” – on what basis are these questions “big”? I say they are no more than questions without any idea of what the answer could be … except one, that is. And the intent of such questions is to fool people.

  46. Ray Hartenstine
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I agree Science and Philosophy can help answer the big questions and the fact that they do not make any reference to philosophy as a tool to do so, when they use philosophy all the time, just goes to show their own arrogance about these issues…!

  47. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    And one more time…

    If the entire human race was wiped out would there be any ‘Big Questions’? My expectation is that they would not – suggesting that the Big Questions are solely human concerns, trying to reduce the uncertainty of living.

  48. Phil Rounds
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I think religion and science could weigh in on all of them!
    Here’s my take on what each would say;

    *What’s going on in the universe?
    Religion; There’s a universe?
    Science; Entropy
    *Is there any point to it all?
    Religion; Getting to heaven, Eternal life!
    Science; No. There doesn’t need to be any.
    *Why are we here?
    Religion; To worship that creator guy that no one can see.
    Science; The real question is “how are we here?”
    *How should we live?
    Science; We’re social animals…Reciprocity.
    Religion: Cover yourself in a bag and give us your money!
    *Why be moral?
    Science; See above ^
    Religion; Just do as we say!
    *Why is there evil?
    Science; There is no evil. It’s all subjective.
    Religion: Because there are gay people and atheists.
    *Does God exist?
    Science; “shrug”
    Religion; “DUH!”
    *Where did the universe come from?
    Science; We’ll get back to you on that…
    Religion; God made it because he was bored
    *Why does anything exist at all?
    Science; see above
    Religion; see above
    *Why is there so much suffering?
    Science; Because of religion.
    Religion; Because of gay people and atheists!
    *Why do we die?
    Science; Gradual degradation of genetic information
    Religion; Because God wants you to!
    *Do we live on after death?
    Science; no
    Religion; Of course!…Otherwise how could we sell you all of those warped and unlikely faerytales?!
    *How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
    Science; Reciprocity and Reason.
    Religion; Die!
    *What can we hope for?
    Science; That mankind will eventually emerge from willful ignorance and mistrust of intellectualism.
    Religion; That we’ll take over the world! Mwahahahahah!

  49. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe? *

    On average, fusion. Small amounts of chemistry. Some radiation and absorption. Otherwise, nothing.

    Is there any point to it all?

    No. Next question?

    Why are we here?

    Because our mummies and daddies loved each other very much and had adult snuggles.
    That works back to the invention of sex. Before that it was mindless (literally, not figuratively) cellular multiplication. Before that, chemistry.
    I take it that the rest are similarly ill-thought through.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      I seem to recall reading that, if we average out all matter across the entire volume of space, a typical cubic metre contains less than one particle.

      Therefore, to a first approximation, we don’t exist. Nothing does. So we’re not here and nothing can be happening.

      cr

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 22, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        So you didn’t say that and nobody heard it. Won’t Ken Ham be pleased.

  50. Posted September 19, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    I agree with you that science can answer the asterisked questions or at least provide a lot of evidence for an answer for these questions. I’d probably say that “Why does anything exist at all?”, “Where does the universe come from?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (added in by me) are all mostly the same question.

    The rationale for why I think science can answer these questions is a little different, but it makes sense to me.

    1. These questions are metaphysical questions.

    2. Metaphysics is the study of being and existence.

    3. The universe “be”s and exists.

    4. Physics is the study of the universe.

    So, just by following the trail, it seems like the laws of physics should be logically derivable from the principles of metaphysics. Using this thinking, what we can do is take metaphysical models of existence and of why things exist to build real physical models of the universe, which exists and is made of things that exist. Hopefully, we can eventually make testable predictions using these models. This is a way of not only answering these questions but of turning metaphysics into science. I think this kind of metaphysics-to-physics or philosophical engineering approach will let us make faster progress towards a deeper understanding of the universe than the top down approach used by many physicists.

    As am amateur (e.g., a “crackpot”), I’m using my ideas on the questions “Why does anything exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” to build a simple model of physical existence and, hopefully, someday make testable predictions. I’m trying to learn 3D modeling software to do this, but it’s slow going.

    Thanks for listening!

    • Posted September 21, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      There’s a tradition in philosophy, albeit not a terribly influential one, of making metaphysics compatible and “continuous” with science and technology. Have you read vol 3. of Bunge’s _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_, Armstrong’s _A World of States of Affairs, McCall’s _A Model of the Universe_ etc.?

      (There’s at least one metascientific problem with each one, I think, but …)

  51. Seversky
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe?
    — The Rise of the Cat

    Is there any point to it all?
    — Yes, cats

    Why are we here?
    — To look after cats

    How should we live?
    — With cats

    Why be moral?
    — Cats rights

    Why is there evil?
    — Dogs

    Does God exist?
    — Yes, He’s a cat

    Where did the universe come from?
    — The primordial hairball coughed up by God

    Why does anything exist at all?
    — Something for God to play with

    Why is there so much suffering?
    — Not enough cats

    Why do we die?
    — Original sin. Adam and Eve forgot to feed the cat

    Do we live on after death?
    — Reincarnation. If we’re good we come back as a pampered domestic moggie

    How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
    — Adopt a cat.

    What can we hope for?”
    — More cats

  52. Zado
    Posted September 20, 2016 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Every one of those questions that begins with a “why” is ridiculous. They are asked from a theistic/teleological viewpoint that presupposes an overarching agency inherent to the natural order. But there isn’t one.

    “Why be moral?” Really? As social primates, we cannot help but be moral (at least, to a certain degree). I could go on.

    As always, religious thinking invents a problem where none exists and pretends to address it with revelations and/or pseudo-philososophy. I would make that point in a talk about “The Big Questions.”

  53. Mike
    Posted September 20, 2016 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    What’s going on in the universe? * Physics
    Is there any point to it all? None at all
    Why are we here? Evolution
    How should we live? as best we can
    Why be moral? it in your own best interest
    Why is there evil?* Why is there good?
    Does God exist? don’t know, no proof
    Where did the universe come from? * nowhere and everywhere
    Why does anything exist at all? *Physics
    Why is there so much suffering? * ask Nature
    Why do we die? * Oxygen
    Do we live on after death? don’t know ,doubt it
    How can we find release from suffering and sadness? suicide
    What can we hope for?” the next Day.

  54. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 20, 2016 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    42.

  55. Posted September 23, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I really agree with a few phrases used:

    “there is no general “answer” at all.”

    And “for questions related to “how to live”, there is no answer that religion can give that is better than one philosophy can provide.”

    I totally agree. I would add that science, like religion, is a child of philosophy. That is, both religion and science make assumption regrading the metaphysical nature of reality that undergird it’s descriptive paradigm for experience. Most (classical) physics, for instance, assumes realism as opposed to idealism. There is no reason to do so as they are empirically interchangeable, but we use the metaphor that reality is outside the mind. Fair enough and works just fine. But it is a metaphysical assumption and thus a metaphor in terms of what really IS. We cannot ever know what really IS. So it goes. Assumptions that appear to correlatively and coherently describe experience are good enough for our purposes.

    As for the big questions, I think that – per the first quoted comment (“there is no general ‘answer’ at all”) we wind up creating our answers by how define terms that are inherently ambiguous (one might say all language is somewhat ambiguous).

    On top of that “truth” has so many faces, making “true” and “false” often simultaneous depending on the kind of “truth” in question (correlative, coherent, pragmatic, descriptive, explanatory, so forth), context, intent, scale, so forth.

    What’s going on in the universe? “the universe”? Strictly physical? What is the nature of the “physical”? QM isn’t particularly clear.
    Is there any point to it all? “point”? “it all”?
    Why are we here? – What does “here” mean? Metaphysics aplently embedded in this.
    How should we live? – Or why. Who is it that “lives” and in what sense?
    Why be moral? – What is “moral”?
    Why is there evil? – Is there evil? Why?
    Does God exist? – Is there a more ambiguous word than “God”? Defined as ‘the cosmos’ or ‘experience’ “God”‘s “existence” is a tautology.
    Where did the universe come from? – Define “universe”? Are thoughts part of it?
    Why does anything exist at all? – Define “exist.” This is another bottomless rabbit hole of metaphysics.
    Why is there so much suffering? – Is there “suffering”? Who defines it?
    Why do we die? – Different levels, different answers, all as meaningless as the next.
    Do we live on after death? – Tautologically unanswerable.
    How can we find release from suffering and sadness? – Hello philosophy.
    What can we hope for? – Hello philosophy, again.

    This was a fun post. Thanks Jerry.


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