“There is something life giving and redemptive about asking better questions”, wrote Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise, a book in which she is effusive about the value of good questions. She is not wrong. Insightful questions have a proud history of bringing about scientific advances, revolutionary theories and occasionally whole new paradigms. But coming up with good questions is no easy task — I knew of one academic who said he would retire happy if only he could come up with one good question. If Socrates’ famous dictum was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, then it is worth considering what the questions are that we should be examining life with.
This has led me to start curating a library of questions that we should be asking ourselves. For the last couple of years I have written to a number of influential thinkers to ask them what question they think we should be asking. A number of the questions and interviews have been posted on the project’s website (examined-life.com), with more to come. What follows is a thematic look at a selection of the questions and interviews; they touch on the life of the mind, ethics, life together, spirituality and existential questions. Full interviews, an online discussion platform and more questions can be found on the site itself.
One of the first interviews I conducted was with psychiatrist, philosopher and all-round polymath Iain McGilchrist. According to McGilchrist, the question we should be asking ourselves is, “What is it that my culture is preventing me from seeing?” It was a fitting question to open a project where the raison d’etre is to deepen wisdom through seeing things from different perspectives.
McGilchrist points out that our perspective is always culturally blinkered, and this stops us seeing truths that are otherwise hidden: “Built into every truth there is a hidden untruth, and it’s our job to uncover those”. McGilchrist offers the example of the way that religion is viewed by many in the UK – as the reserve of the unintelligent or ignorant. Or the current view of the life sciences being something that is entirely mechanical and reductionist. Both, to McGilchrist, seem like dogmas which cannot be questioned without being labelled a heretic, dimwit or an eccentric (one might think here of Rupert Sheldrake’s TED talk that was banned for a time). Not only are cultural beliefs often wrong or misguided, they can also shield us from seeing other truths.
In addressing this question McGilchrist focuses on the pivotal role that education has to play. Like many of us, he is concerned about the dominant focus of the education system “[education] … seems to be more and more about saying certain things that people find important … about filling brains, rather than teaching people to think.” In other words, received wisdom is being propagated rather than questioned through our education system. However, it is within the power and indeed the duty of a good education to teach people how to think, and to see things from different perspectives. McGilchrist suggests that “children should be taught to think critically about the things they consider most indisputably correct …To be trained in school to argue passionately for something you believe in, then to argue just as passionately against it.”
Similar sentiments to McGilchrist’s question were echoed in some correspondence for the project with Mary Midgley, who wrote that “We should all attend to whatever conflict is now most shaking and damaging to our view of the world … attending specially to the one that has less appeal for us”. Midgley contends that philosophical work is needed whenever conflict is breaking up current thought dangerously, and we should be trying hardest to understand the perspective of those we most disagree with. While the concerns of McGilchrist and Midgley are timeless in their relevance, they also feel particularly apposite for our current political realities, and the echo chambers in which many of us now live.
Other questions have been less about the life of the mind, and more concerned with conduct and behaviour. Peter Singer and Roger Scruton both raised questions in this sphere.
Singer put forward a question befitting of an academic who has dedicated his life to ethics, suggesting that we ask ourselves, “How ought I to live?” In Singer’s words, it is a question which “encourages us to reflect on the way we are living, on the goals that we explicitly or implicitly have in our life, and whether those goals stand up to critical thinking.” For Singer, it cannot be a person, an ideology or a religion that directs our ethical behaviour, because “when you start to be committed to something, you’re not open to reflection on the foundations of your thought.” For Singer, “reason is the guide for us, it is the only way of being consistent.” Singer then explains on how he discerns “the good”, and how that translates into lifestyle choices (veganism, environmentalism etc).
His question seems to be something of a propaedeutic to the one suggested by Roger Scruton. Scruton says that the key question we should all be asking is, “What is more important to me than my present desire?” He explains that the way we answer this question is foundational to answering all the other questions that life throws at us. If we cannot find an answer to this question, we will be locked into our appetites in the present tense.
“At any moment in your life,” Scruton argues, “there’s something that you want. It might be something that you want urgently, but there are other things that are probably important to you that are not urgent-in-the-moment things, so you put them out of mind. So, my desire for yet another glass of wine, is in conflict with my thought that my health is more important to me than that. The more you think in this way the more you downgrade your present desires, and increase the long term perspective on your life. It is that long term perspective where happiness and fulfilment reside.”
Doubtless Scruton and Singer disagree on many foundational points, but the idea that behaviour should be reflected upon in the light of larger goals seems to be a preoccupation they share. Related to these individual goals, are the pragmatic and value driven questions of how we live in harmony together. Theologian Tom Greggs and writer Tobias Jones offer related questions which both explore some of the issues facing us today.
For Tom Greggs one of the pressing issues for anyone living in a multicultural society is, “How in the context of globalisation am I to live with my neighbour peacefully and generously?” It is question that he dutifully unpacks, slaughtering the sacred cow du jour of “tolerance” in the process.
“I think tolerance is a tremendously weak virtue. Tolerance works on the basis of highlighting the distinction between the powerful and the less powerful, the majority and the minority, it works on the basis that variance or difference isn’t a good thing to be celebrated – it’s something to be put up with …. So for me, the language of tolerance always presupposes that it would be better if things were homogenous. And actually [it says], everything really is homogenous, but there are a few exceptions that we tolerate and put up with.”
The way Greggs seeks to address his question, is by engaging more deeply with difference – without which, all we can hope for is superficial peace. Instead, what he suggests we do is to try to reason with people on their own grounds:
“We need to try to understand the logics that people employ as they reason religiously. Until we do that, we will end up thinking that we need to impose a one-size-fits-all reality onto the world, which in many instances will just make things worse”.
There is no doubt a mutually reinforcing relationship between an inability or unwillingness to understand “the other” and the fragmentation of society. The atomisation of our societies is one of the things that troubles author and communitarian Tobias Jones, who puts forward the question, “How do we recreate the commons and turn back the clock on privatised lives?”
Jones explains the damage that fragmentation had done, and why it is therefore necessary to rediscover some kind of communal existence. For Jones, the engines of atomisation are to be found in technology and the dominant western worldview, he lists a number of offenders:
“Capitalism, cars, central heading, television, consumerism, greed, nuclear families, the obsession with privacy, lack of modern tolerance of outsiders, the desire to have our own spaces and to possess them, rather than enjoy them. There are other factors like the erosion of religion, which means that churches are no longer communal meeting places, and there’s far less incentive to feel a sense of solidarity when one isn’t commanded to do so by a Deity.”
Jones is convinced that the epidemic of depression and mental illness we see in developed societies is a direct consequence of atomisation. Our lack of rootedness robs us of purpose, and duty to care for one another. He points out that the common solution of self-help is part of the problem – to heal the self, you need to take the focus away from the self. Jones is pessimistic about the likelihood of turning society around without a catastrophic environmental disaster, whereupon radical lifestyle changes may be forced upon us involuntarily. He suggests that a return to communal ways of living, and a rediscovery of “the sacred” is essential if we are to rediscover those things so alien to modern life – yet so integral to our human ecology.
Perhaps a predictably common theme within the contributions has been a concern with questions pertaining to the spiritual dimension, or ones “inner life”. One of the more enigmatic questions offered was by Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan, who asks “Am I on my way to peace?”
It is a question that calls for a bit of clarification, as peace can of course be understood in many different ways. For Ramadan, the question translates into various areas of life:
“Am I on my way to intellectual peace, to psychological and spiritual peace, am I on my way to human peace (with the environment and other human beings)? So when philosophers say that the ultimate goal is happiness, I would say for me, it is to reach a state of peace with God, and with myself, and with humanity.”
Ramadan is quick to point out the way that consumerism alienates us, robs us of peace and causes us to confuse our emotions with spirituality. True to form as an academic, Ramadan is particularly concerned about the pursuit of what he calls “intellectual peace” – something he relates closely to thinking and living consistency. As if offering a strapline for this project, Ramadan stated that “Intellectually to be at peace is to never avoid questioning, but always be looking for answers”.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger also has spiritual preoccupations (it goes with the territory), though locates them in the concrete, with her question, “How can I make the best use of the brief life I have?” In unpacking the question, Neuberger draws on her own lessons from being immersed in literature and music, growing up in a background of activism, and spending time with the dying and bereaved. Her observation that the dying seem to harbour regrets about what they haven’t done, rather than what they have done, was particularly instructive – she writes:
“what it [spending time with those who are dying] teaches you is that you need to fill your life with as much as you can, so you have as few of those regrets as you can – so all passions are spent, as it were. You won’t succeed, and the younger you are to die, the less likely you are to succeed, but do all the things you want to do – don’t say, “I’ll leave it until next year”, carpe diem and all of that.”
This is of course one life’s big questions – how do I spend my life? For Rabbi Neuberger, the question is answered through drawing on experience, and of course finding a road map through the religion of Judaism. It is exactly this need for a narrative to hang life on that animates artist and aid worker Aaron Moore, who is exercised by the question “Why am I here?” In addressing this, Aaron is dismissive of the meaning we might create for ourselves, rather than finding something bigger than ourselves (e.g. God):
“To find purpose for our lives I think we ultimately need to find something outside of ourselves. To find purpose in our world I think we ultimately need to look for something outside of our world”.
He considers the meaning that we create for ourselves to be ultimately futile, if everything is ultimately meaningless in the end. It is an interesting question which finds a sparring partner in the one asked (as yet unpublished) by anthropologist Seth Kunin, who proposes a rather Sisyphean question – “Should it matter that life is meaningless?” For Kunin, it does not – he is in-fact liberated by the license to create and recreate his own frameworks of meaning, rather than having them imposed by a faith.
Putting Aaron Moore and Seth Kunin into conversation together might prove enlightening and insightful. Though perhaps there is something to be said for leaving those conversations to the imagination – forcing us to think about the questions being posed. That is of course the beauty of questions over answers, of discussion over triumphalist debate; generous questions retain their vitality, while answers can lend themselves to lazy minds by removing the need to think for ourselves. Most of the questions for the Examined Life will not by nature result in resolved answers, though they will hopefully sharpen our hearing to the lives we live. In so doing, we may come to realise the advice of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke – “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”