Answers to Ultimate Questions

The ‘ultimate questions’ for humanists are probably similar to those for religious believers. They are questions about purpose and existence: Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? Why is there so much suffering? Is there a god? How do we know what is right?

For a humanist, speaking of “the ultimate” can be problematic. Humanists ask this kind of question because they are reflective human beings, and because thinking about these questions is part of determining who they are and how they live. However, many “ultimate questions” do not seem very susceptible to the usual humanist thinking tools of evidence and reason; on the other hand, religious answers are utterly unconvincing to humanists.

Humanists have various options when they consider ultimate questions:

  1. They can remain agnostic about them, acknowledging the human need to ask such questions and being prepared to explore them, but believing that we can never be certain of the answers.
  2. They can adopt a rather dismissive attitude to them, perhaps best exemplified by A J Ayer in ‘Language Truth and Logic’ (1936) in which he categorises all statements that are not either true by definition or empirically verifiable as “nonsensical”, or by Bertrand Russell’s airy answer when asked how he would explain the existence of the universe, “I should say the universe is just there, and that is all.”
  3. They can find their own answers. Some will look to science to provide answers. Richard Dawkins, for example, tends to do this, but he also finds a kind of transcendence in contemplating and exploring the natural world, as do many humanists. Humanists may also share the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “awe and wonder” at “the starry skies above and the moral law within”, or experience transcendence in creativity or the arts.

Questions of personal identity – “Who am I?” – tend to be answered by humanists in relatively pragmatic, empirical terms. Everyone is a unique blend of genetic influences (some immediate, from parents and family, and some very ancient, part of the shared human heritage) and environment (upbringing, culture, education – all the external influences on us). Humanists also think that we have a great deal in common because we are all human beings, living in human societies, and tend to look to psychology, social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychologists for answers to questions about human nature.

Humanists respond to experiences of transcendence by seeking rational explanations. Experiences such as joy, wonder, sudden clarity or understanding, forgetfulness of self, or love, often categorised as “spiritual” can also be seen as normal human emotions, often aesthetic or to do with relationships. To seek naturalistic explanations of these experiences and to deny that they are religious is not to belittle them; they mean a great deal to those that experience them. To explain things, to “unweave the rainbow” (as Keats’ expressed his criticism of “cold philosophy” in his narrative poem ‘Lamia’) is not necessarily or even usually destructive or reductive; it may even be life-enhancing and inspiring:

“… isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?” (Richard Dawkins ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’)

Suffering appears to be an inevitable aspect of the human condition: few of us have lives untouched by pain, loss or failure, and none of us can avoid death. How does a humanist respond to “the problem of evil”, the impossibility of reconciling suffering with an omnipotent, omniscient benevolent god? For humanists, this is not so much a problem as a powerful argument against belief in such a god. Humanists would not blame a deity or any abstract concept of evil for suffering; nor would they look to a deity for solutions or comfort. They find these in human action and solidarity, and in themselves and their relationships.

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