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The Ultimate Question

In my last blog entry I discussed some of the fundamental questions many people ask, especially those questions they don’t believe can be answered by science. Many of these questions are “why” questions instead of the simpler ones which involve what, who, where, etc.

Ask I said then, I think there are many questions which science cannot currently answer and there are others which it might not ever be able to answer. But there are two reasons a question might not be able to be answered: first, the question is badly formed and cannot be answered for that reason; and second, the question is genuinely deep and difficult. Naturally it’s the second type of question which is more interesting to me. In fact there is one question which I think is the ultimate question, the one on which all others depend. No, it’s not the ultimate question from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and the answer isn’t 42!

Before I reveal this question I want to mention a few which other people think are unanswerable but which I think feel short of the pre-eminence my ultimate question. One would be “what came before the Big Bang?” sure, that’s a great question and one I would love to know the answer to, but there are many ways it might be answered, including the currently popular answer: the question is meaningless because time was created in the Big Bang.

Let’s get a bit less technical. How about this one: “is there a god?” Unfortunately this question becomes a victim of issues of definition. Are we talking about a traditional, personal god; or even one of the existing gods described in common mythologist such as Christianity; or do we mean an advanced race of space aliens; or even impersonal natural forces such as the god concept Einstein followed? Depending on your definition the answer could be probably not, almost certainly not, maybe, or yes.

But enough of this. Here’s my ultimate question. The question is: “why is there anything?” This question is as unanswerable to religion and philosophy as it is to science. For example, if a religious person answers “there is stuff because god wants it that way” I have two (very obvious) objections: first, why does god want it that way; and second, why is there a god? Like many theological answers it isn’t an answer at all. It’s an example of special pleading: science has to explain the reason for everything but religion gets a pass on answering the same questions about god.

So, why is there anything? It really is an interesting question. Before we find out how the force of gravity works on the universe shouldn’t we know why there is a universe? And if the universe appeared through random quantum processes why do those processes exist?

Maybe it’s just another one of those infinite regression questions that children sometimes ask: Why do I have to go to school? Because you need an education. Why do I need an education? Because you need to get a job. Why? To make money. Why do I need money… Well, you get the idea.

But it doesn’t seem quite the same. By questioning the existence of everything this question cannot really be answered in a way which simply leads to a re-specification of essentially the same question. I believe it really is the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything!

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  1. Anonymous
    September 10, 2012 at 6:28 am

    “Why is there anything” is obviousley the ultimate question – and one that can never be answered by science; religions can answer the question (of course) but……..
    I do wish that scientists would accept that they are just clever human beings, and then openly state that the physical Universe and conscious biological life are beyond their understanding – they are mysteries and beyond rational human intelligence.

  2. ojb42
    September 10, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Actually I’m not sure that it is the ultimate question any more. Perhaps the natural state of the universe is to exist. Who says that nothing is the default state of things?

    And I totally disagree that science can never answer that question. That sort of statement has been made in the past (example: the composition of stars) and the person making the statement has looked silly very quickly. Of course religion can offer an answer but it will be nonsense and worse than no answer at all!

    Some scientists think that there are certain things which can never be understood but, as I said above, that has been said many times in the last and has often been ultimately wrong.

    Also, I think that if science can’t answer a question then maybe nothing can (obviously this is debatable), so we either give up completely or trust science to try to find an answer.

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