Not Knowing: The Importance of Abstract Questions
A lot of questions that have been floating around in my mind for long periods of time have finally been coalescing into clear concerns and questions, and this blog post is about one of them. I have long been bothered by the nonchalant attitude that many people take towards questions that truly and deeply disturb me, and I think I’ve finally hit upon why. In a piece at alternet, Greta Christina addresses one of the main tenets of skepticism: “If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.” In general, I agree with this principle. As a skeptic it seems perfectly logical. But there is a problem with this mindset, which is that sometimes we really do need to know the answers to things in order to continue to act in our lives.
Greta says this quite clearly when she asks:
“What do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, ‘What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?’”
This paragraph is fascinating to me. Most people are understanding that you want more answers and that you will struggle with trying to be a good skeptic while also continuing to find appropriate ways to act when your questions are things like Greta’s concerns. These questions are very clearly life and death, and people understand that you want the best possible answer to act in the best possible way when your life is in the balance.
What I don’t understand is why people are not willing to extend some of the same sympathy when you feel the same sort of emotional gut-punch from abstract, philosophical questions. What I really don’t understand is how people assume that things like philosophical questions can’t have huge real world impacts for someone. real world impacts like…oh, say, just for a random example, whether or not you walk through your life with overwhelming depression every second of the day.
For most people things that are abstract like “why is there something instead of nothing” don’t lead to anxiety or impact their day to day lives in any major way. It’s the kind of question that you can go through your life being fairly uncertain about without it gnawing at you or without it causing any major fear. Or at least that’s what everyone tells me. Everyone SAYS that it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t bother you, the kind of thing that doesn’t affect how you live your life, the sort of thing that is just a philosophical exercise.
Unfortunately for me, it’s not. I cannot understand how people think that it doesn’t or shouldn’t have a direct impact on your life whether or not there is a reason we’re here, how our morality is formed, how much access we have to reality. I cannot understand how people feel that it’s appropriate, logical, or acceptable to go through life without any sort of answer to these larger questions, because without these larger answers, we have no overall guiding compass that puts all the rest of our actions into a context, a scope. Answers to the deep philosophical questions are what should be guiding us through each choice we make in life. I don’t know how to make decisions without answers to some of these questions, just like someone who doesn’t have all the information about their cancer diagnosis would have a hard time pursuing appropriate treatment options.
Some people might tell me to simply learn to ignore these questions, learn to live with the uncertainty. I would love to be able to do this and I have been struggling to do this for quite some time. However philosophical meaning and existential crises are deeply tied into my mental illness, and when I just ignore the purpose of my life, I tend towards suicidal ideation. For some people, these questions have serious consequences, and I am one of those people. It is just as life and death for me as the question of cancer is for Greta.
The number of atheists who are happy to just shrug off these questions with a “we don’t know” is upsetting to me, not simply because it ignores a fascinating question, but because it actively ignores something that deeply affects my life, and it tells me that the questions which are extremely important to me are trite and silly. It tells me that I shouldn’t be at all worried that I don’t know about something that affects my life. While I do need to learn to accept what I don’t know, it is unhelpful and dismissive to tell me that the struggle is unimportant. Just as it would be entirely disrespectful to tell Greta that she should just get over the worry of whether or not she might get cancer, it’s disrespectful to me to tell me that I should just get over the worry of whether I am going to be depressed.
There’s a reason I become so upset when people tease about being a philosophy major, or imply that philosophy is just an academic circle-jerk. I went into philosophy not because I wanted to use big words or nitpick about semantics, but because it was a matter of my life quality. Trying to come to grips with real, deep questions is not an exercise: it is a process of self-acceptance. The abstract is very real to me. It hits closer to home than many literal discussions about real-world problems. Some people may not be able to relate to this, but I still deserve the basic respect that says my concerns are worthy of time and discussion.
I have a request for the entirety of the non-religious world: please stop telling me that the questions that drive my life are unimportant, or that it makes no difference if we just have to accept that we don’t know. Not knowing about something that is upsetting or confusing to you is difficult and it sucks, and it’s not easy to just create your own meaning. While this may not be on par with the possibility of cancer that Greta faces, it does play into my own serious illnesses (depression and an eating disorder). Saying that the questions are abstract tells me I’m making a big deal out of nothing, when in reality the meaning of my life is anything but abstract for me. This is gas-lighting on a movement wide level. Stop.