Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.