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.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. Not sharing your concern with a philosophical issue is gaslighting? Not thinking it has the same importance you believe it does is deliberately sabotaging your mental state?! Why not compare it with child moleststion or the holocaust? If you’re going to step on that pedal, might as well push it all the way to the floor. We could drive this conversation right off the cliff before it even starts. Yeeee ha!

    Or, maybe, just maybe you could consider that some people aren’t actually bothered that much by these questions. They just might not share your concerns. Just like you can’t imagine why they are not bothered, maybe they don’t understand why you are bothered. Maybe they’re failing to sympathize with you. Maybe they’re just not so good at empathy. Maybe they’ve come to terms with it and can’t relate to someone who hasn’t. Maybe they find solace in answers you don’t find comforting.

    But the atheists of the world probably aren’t collectively attempting to psychologically ruin you. Either that or I missed a meeting…

    1. Or maybe, just maybe for someone who has a serious risk of suicide this is a life or death question. And maybe the fact that a large portion of the atheist community likes to openly mock those of us who do care about these questions is in fact a bitchy move to make and is in fact emotionally damaging. And maybe just maybe I don’t care if they agree but I would expect them to just have the slightest bit of respect for others when others say “hey, this is a big deal”.
      I know that others aren’t bothered by these questions, I hear it all the fucking time, and I know that others can come to terms with it and that’s lovely for them. “Not being good at empathy” is a really shitty excuse for the fact that the atheist community is constantly deriding questions of meaning as unimportant, silly, stupid, or unrelated to practical reality. I’m not asking for others to share my concerns just for them to stop mocking them.

      1. Other atheists, and other people in general, don’t have any idea what’s important to you until you tell them.

        Look at it this way. To lots of people, alcohol is “life or death” to them — they can’t be around it, and they have to work hard on managing their addiction. To a great number of people, drinking is no big deal at all, and they go right on doing it without any real concern for a particular individual’s sensitivity to it.

        That’s pretty much life. We each may have, more or less, a heightened sensitivity to something, a “need” for something (whether it be knowledge, answers or explanations, or something else), and other people may not share those same needs and sensitivities.

        I’m sure there are things that you, personally, have no interest in and which you discard easily. For some people, for example, they feel they must believe in a deity in order to give their lives meaning, and they might suffer depression and anxiety if their illusion is shattered. Do you and I have to respect that? Do we have to sympathize with their need and take their belief seriously because they may have strong feelings about it?

    2. Why would you deliberately do exactly what she ask people not to do?
      I get that you don’t understand her concerns but that doesn’t give you license to trivialize her fears because you don’t share them. It’s like waving a spider in the face of an arachnophobe because “it’s a silly fear that they should get over”. Yeah, for you.

      Not cool, major uncool!

  2. For the record, I don’t think the majority of atheists mock philosophical questioning; the ones I know love philosophy. They do mock (rightfully, IMO) people who claim to have the definitive answers to those questions, like theists who say they know exactly why we have to die and where we end up afterward. Saying “I don’t know” is honest, and I don’t see it as a blockade to further inquiry or to personal discovery. As you point out, wrestling with those questions–even as you recognize that you will not answer them per se–can help us contemplate what we want from our lives and how we can think about getting there. One response to theist (and conservative) certainty is to show how certainty is not the only legitimate goal of intellectual activity.

    1. I think you’re right, and the majority of them don’t. Unfortunately it only takes a small number of intolerable people to make a space intolerable. In fact, if everyone else is silent and tacitly enabling, it can take as few as one.

      If I were to write this, I wouldn’t merely say, “Stop mocking me for thinking things are important when you don’t.” I would also add, “Stop standing by and allowing your fellow atheists to be cruelly treated by others.” There are many more bystanders than perpetrators, and it is the silent complicity of bystanders that allows the perpetrators to do what they do.

  3. I admit, I’ve done some philosophy mocking in my time, though most… actually, come to think of it, all my interactions with the philosophy department were jackass students who would start “philosophizing” at the drop of a hat in order to look smart. Or, occasionally, because they were doing poorly in an argument, and questioning the nature of reality (and thus all evidence against them) bought them some time.

    Philosophy as a personal undertaking, I certainly approve of though. I don’t go in for it, because I have answers that more or less satisfy me on most major questions. Others, such as the formation of morality, I see as psychological questions rather than philosophical ones. But whatever floats your boat. Or prevents your boat from sinking.

    “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.”

    This bit I don’t like though. It might just come down to wording, I’m not going to make any assumptions as to intent. But the use of the general “we” type statements is a bit grating. However, I don’t like the implication that my philosophy (which essentially states that there is no answer to these types of questions, or that the answer to many of them is “None” [and that this is often a good thing]) is illogical, or unacceptable. I think it’s perfectly logical and acceptable that I do not need answers to these things. Just as it’s perfectly logical and acceptable that you do.

    Honestly, I do kind of regret having made fun of philosophy in the past. It’s part of the giant Academic Chain of Hate that I grow increasingly tired of. … Chain might not be the right word. Soft and hard sciences hate each other, both hate liberal arts for being… not science, liberal arts hates them back for being soulless. That’s just between wide groups. Physicists hate chemists for being derivative, they both hate the biologists, the biologists hate them back because of their insistence on using university funds for another godless laser machine… The psychology department has especial hate for the philosophy department, because they feel like the philosophy department is claiming answers to problems in their field without any research. How much the philosophy department hates psychology back, I don’t know. Basically, whatever department you are in, you WILL get shit from it, courtesy of most of the other departments. It’s tiresome and counterproductive.

    1. Having been a philosophy major, I don’t actually recall ever giving much consideration to the psych department except when a psych major I knew tried to tell me what you’ve just said, that they think philosophy is treading on their turf. Which is probably the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Bluntly, it sounds like a complete misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what its goals are.
      Basically, I try to explain it this why to hardcore science-heads: science helps you find information, philosophy helps you decide what you’re looking for in the first place. Psychology is the science of the mind; wonderful. What is the mind? Where does the mind end and the body begin? What constitutes a healthy mind? What is mental illness? Is it only a set of symptoms, and does context affect that? Does a person have to be suffering for it to count, and what if they’re happy that way? What is happiness, exactly, and does it affect our perceptions of disease? And so on. You can no more use science to answer these questions than you can use it to answer, “Is this a good movie?” Philosophy without science is pointless, but science without philosophy doesn’t even exist.

      1. I’d actually argue that science can at least come up with evidence for some of them. Happiness can be described in a scientific way as a set of experiences brought about by a particular pattern of neurotransmitters and brain activation in response to stimulus. Nailing down exactly what those patterns are is tricky, but not theoretically impossible. Also if happiness changes perception can be answered scientifically (And has. It does).

        … And, actually “What is mental illness? Is it only a set of symptoms, and does context affect that?” can have at least a scientifically informed answer if you can find underlying causes (not symptoms). For example, if someone develops a tumor on their amygdala and goes on a shooting spree, as a result, we probably don’t need philosophy to tell us that’s a mental illness. We can point at the area of the brain that’s been damaged, leading to an inability to control emotional reactions.

        This isn’t to invalidate what you’re saying, but rather highlight the issue, and why psych people can take undue upset. In fact, basically all of those questions are ones psychologists deal with (If they’re in the mental health, or other relevant fields. Some of us are less concerned about “what is mental illness” because it’s not what we study. After all, there is more to the study of the mind than just illness. Not that illness isn’t extremely important.) But because we do pay careful heed to these when needed, as well as supplementing that with scientific knowledge of the mind… Well you can understand why some people might get irritated at a field that doesn’t work with the mentally ill, and doesn’t study the brain claiming authority on “what is mental illness.”

        That’s not to say that philosophy can’t possibly inform psychology as well. Although, from what I can tell (Do please, honestly, correct me if I’m wrong) if you ask 100 philosophers those questions, you get 100 answers. Psychologists, wither or not they know it, aren’t actually anti-philosophy. They’re anti-philosophers.

        1. Oh, sorry to reply to myself, but as to “What is the mind” that is one we can work on. I honestly don’t think any philosophical discussion on the mind, or the nature of consciousness, could be complete without a look at neurology, patients with anterograde amnesia, or other cases of brain damage affecting consciousness. Obviously there’s not a complete scientific picture of these things, but we can make a few statements. For example, is mood based entirely on memory? It seems no. Patients unable to form new memories are still happier when given an activity that fulfills them, like working in a garden, or practicing music. It’s an idea that makes sense. Neurotransmitters and hormones released from fulfilling activities don’t just vanish, even if the memories do.

          That’s part of the reason the infighting annoys me. I can understand the reasons behind it. Neither department often has a very good understanding of the other. They could inform each other though. Even if philosophy doesn’t have solid answers to the above questions, the perspectives may help. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how. I don’t know much philosophy (My main sticking point is wondering why anyone else’s philosophical ideas are any more valid than mine, without supporting evidence. Which is a little arrogant, yeah, but whenever I disagree with a philosopher, it becomes a sticking point). And psychology could help philosophy make a more informed discussion on certain topics. I’m not saying that all psychologists must take philosophy, or vice versa. But it’s the academic bickering that annoys me.

  4. I share some of your concerns. Ultimate meaning and such questions do have impacts on my own depression. But I’ve found my own ways to work through it, so maybe my own analysis will help.

    First, on the question you bring up, why is there something rather than nothing, imaging I came to you one day and said, “Because of slood.” You could of course come right back to me and ask, “Well why is there slood instead of no slood?” We’ve just moved the questioning back a step. We could try to move it back another step, but then we’ll have another question to ask. Perhaps eventually we’ll come to a “Why?” which is truly for an answer, or perhaps we’ll come to an infinite regress of “Why”s and “Because”s. Either of those results leaves us without an ultimate meaning for why there is anything. In the end, there simply can’t be an ultimate reason, but there can be an ultimate question. Unsatisfying, but being unsatisfied about it sadly isn’t going to change reality. We just have to learn to live with it.

    So, how do I live with it, and stave off my own suicidal ideation? Well, whatever there is for ultimate (or closer-to-ultimate) meaning in the universe, we do know that we exist. We know that humans can experience pleasure and pain, and they’d prefer more pleasure and less pain. We can work from that to set up a system to maximize these ends, and call it “morality.” It’s not an easy process, and people are going to disagree on many principles (“Is it worse to be imprisoned for a year or lose a thumb?” for instance, has no clear answer everyone would agree on). It’s up to society to debate these questions and come to a shaky consensus on morality. Individuals have the right to disagree with society’s conclusions (For instance, I don’t agree that things such as drug use which can only harm oneself are immoral, but the larger society I live in tends to disagree on that for most drugs), and they can work to change it.

    Well, I’ll leave it there. I hope this helps in some little way.

  5. I definitely wouldn’t say that abstract philosophical questions are unimportant. I would, however, make a distinction between:

    1) questions that probably do have an answer (or a combination of answers) even if it’s unknown to us.
    2) questions that don’t have an answer, or at least it’s unclear what it would even mean to say that it has one.

    Not being philosophically sophisticated, I tend to place a question like “where does our morality come from?” in the first category while “why is there something rather than nothing?” seems (to me) to belong in the second category. I may be quite wrong, but for what it’s worth, here’s how I think about it. As every atheist knows, if God himself is something rather than nothing, he cannot be the explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, since God himself is an example of the very thing we were trying to explain. By the same logic, anything you might substitute for God would either have to be nothing or just another example of the thing we were trying to explain. From this perspective the whole question is starting to look suspiciously nonsensical (at least to me), and the only sensible answer appears to be “because there is”.

    Does that make any sense at all?

  6. Hi Olivai, if I might presume too much and offer some advise, regarding philosophic imponderables. I think that you are already on the right track where you say “being a philosophy major” because to “participate in the journey” (i.e reading everything on the subject, participating in debates, becoming the expert) is where the fun is.

  7. Great blog, and I so identify. I am an atheist, I also think about big, abstract questions, and I also have been dismissed, even belittled by fellow atheists for doing so (by one particular ass over on The Friendly Atheist comments section). While I understand that many atheists don’t struggle with “why” questions, and I respect that, I wish you, me, and others like us could have these discussions without being mocked. I’ve thought a lot about questions like, “What is goodness? What is that, really?” and “Why should people be compassionate, empathetic, helpful, etc.?” and “Why should I care now about what happens to my body and my stuff after I die?” I may never have answers to things like this, but I don’t want to be dismissed for thinking about them and wanting to discuss them with anyone willing. I wasn’t a philosophy major, but I do like reading blogs and books that explore the questions I have (hard to find those that don’t have a religious or new-agey-crap perspective). It’s one of the reasons I started my blog, Your Atheist Muse – I like to be inspired, and I suspected other atheists might like some inspiration as well – to feel energized, even comforted, by an idea or question, for whatever reason. So KEEP exploring the abstract – and, honestly, if you ever want to discuss it online with someone willing to discuss it, give me a shout.

  8. I think one of the ways to look at this is as follows:

    There are certain things that an individual does not know. When the individual does not know something, the typical view of a skeptic is that the person should simply be honest about it and say, ‘I don’t know.” And, then that lack of knowledge is provisional — more information is needed until some conclusion can be drawn. We don’t insert answers out of the blue in order to fill the gap.

    That being said, you are correct that certain issues are important, and other issues are less important. Of course, the sentence should always be finished or understood to be finished with: “to X.” That is, “…to Olivia.” Or, “to me.” There is no objectively important issues — issues that no matter who you are they are important. It’s a matter of individual opinion. Things that lots of people think are important are often confused with being “objectively” important, but they are not. It’s just a lot of people thinking similarly, and in the future that may well change.

    So, there are some issues that you, Olivia, feel are very important to you to have answers. For you, whether or not there is a “reason” for us to be here is something you think impacts your day to day life and not having an answer to it means that you will be depressed and such. I think where you miss the point, though, is that just because you feel an answer to a question is very, even critically, even life and death critically important to you — that doesn’t mean that you have or ever will get an answer. You still can very well never know the answer. That’s just the way it goes.

    Also, the fact that someone says “i don’t know” to a “big question” of life, the universe, and everything, does NOT mean that they don’t attach importance to it. It doesn’t mean they’re “shrugging it off” as you put it, and/or minimizing the import it may have to you. For many people, the big questions are unknown, yet still very, very, very important, and it is the search for answers that is important to them. They want to find out too — not just sit there unconcerned.

    Carl Sagan was able to say “we don’t know” about a lot of questions, but a person could not be found, I think, that placed a higher importance on the search for truth and knowledge than Carl Sagan. He may not have been walking around in a depressed state because he couldn’t prove one way or the other if we have a purpose for our lives. But, he certainly wanted an answer and speculated about those answers.

    Mentioning Carl Sagan brought back to my mind his explanation of science and skepticism from Demon Haunted World — where he discusses the story of the Dragon in his garage. He talked about the invisible dragon living in his garage that he tells his friend about. His friend demands proof, and they go through different tests, and each time the dragon foils the tests because he is an invisible, incorporeal dragon that breathes heatless fire and can’t be detected. So we can’t know if he’s there.

    it doesn’t matter, Olivia, how important you or I may feel it is to know if the dragon is really there. It doesn’t matter if not knowing or not being able to figure it out is vital or will cause us depression. The fact remains, we don’t believe a dragon is there until there is some proof or reason from which to conclude he’s there.

    That’s no different than reasons for existence, something rather than nothing, gods, and purposes in life. It doesn’t matter how important it is to you — if you don’t know, you don’t know. No amount of wishing and hoping for an answer will change that. All you can do is keep searching.

  9. Your last paragraph was of particular interest to me, where you state, “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.”

    Who has told you that the big questions that drive your life are unimportant? Does anyone think the meaning of life, the reason for existence, whether there is something rather than nothing are “unimportant” questions? Whoever they are, you should set them straight by telling them that they are important questions, to you and to almost every scientist and skeptic that one will run across.

    Some questions, moreover, ARE abstract. But, abstract things are not by definition unimportant. Why is there something rather than nothing, however, is not an abstract question. What is the meaning of life is at least partially, if not completely abstract, but it is in no sense unimportant. Are many atheists and skeptics suggesting that the meaning people attach to life is unimportant and simply to be shrugged off and disregarded?

    There are, of course, some people out there who don’t find any scientific or philosophical questions important — so what? That’s not gaslighting. Not agreeing with you that an issue is important is not “gaslighting” you — I mean – that’s like saying that if you think music is important in your life, but some other person thinks music is irrelevant to life that they’re “gaslighting” you.

    And you really ought not run around demanding that other people stop voicing their opinions, even if their opinions upset you or make light of something you think is important. I mean, I’m not telling you what to do — I’m suggesting a course of action — you can go ahead and keep demanding that other people “Stop” saying “just accept that we don’t know” all you want. It’s a relatively free country and you can do as you please. However, if you keep doing stuff like that I submit to you for your consideration that it will add to your woes and not alleviate them. It will add to them because you will not get the result you want. People are not going to “Stop” having different viewpoints from you and if they don’t think it’s a big deal to “not know” then they’re not going to start thinking it’s a big deal just because you are depressed about it. In other words, that way madness lies.

  10. It seems to me that much of the problem here comes down to simple courtesy and consideration. If something is A Big Deal to another person, whether on not it’s important to me I have an obligation to not trivialize the person’s feelings. Some questions may never be answered, but if someone is bothered by a question it is an important question–at least to the one it bothers. If the person wants to talk about it, listening, trying to learn their viewpoint, and being respectful won’t hurt, may be a learning experience, and might start or nurture a friendship. If it’s a topic you really can’t stand to hear about, politely shutting down the conversation (“That’s not something I know anything about and I don’t have time to discuss it now.”) is much better than mocking or trivializing the person.
    Speaking as an atheist, the fact that I’m not going to roast in hell for being obnoxious is no reason to be obnoxious.

    1. Does that apply to everyone, though? Like – a lot of folks take the position that “ridicule” of religious beliefs is appropriate. I’ve heard that from PZ Myers, the Four Horsemen, and various other prominent folks. Certainly, religious beliefs are very, even vitally, important tot he religious folks who hold those beliefs. Do we have an obligation to not trivialize their feelings about their religions? Or, can we mock their religious beliefs, ridicule them, and whatnot, but somehow take their “feelings” about their religion non-trivially? How does one walk that tightrope?

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