Forbidden Questions

A century or so ago, the peak and beginning decline of the Modern Age, philosophers and scientists had reached general agreement that matters of human destiny, Deity, and cosmic purpose with their heavy load of mystery and mysticism were forbidden questions. Because they could not be answered, they should not be asked.
An illustrious series of agnostic or atheistic thinkers in science and philosophy–Bentham, Spencer, Schopenhauer, Pavlov, Russell, Sartre, Haldane, and many others–established and defended this Modern creed. It presents God not as the Creator of the Universe, but as a bothersome relic of a bygone, credulous age unnecessary in the modern paradigm of reality. And if unnecessary, then without valid arguments for his existence.
     The human corollary logically followed: if there was no divine guarantor of human fate, then mankind could make no valid claims to an afterlife. These and other likeminded thinkers shunted all such discussions off to theology, which they regarded as the dustbin of meaningless matters.
     But the Modern Age passed, and now we are more than a hundred years into a new phase of history as yet unnamed. And our views have likewise changed. What the Modern thinkers considered its greatest advance, we are now beginning to see as its greatest failure. In consisted of two mistakes. First. the Moderns reasoned that if they could not answer the ultimate questions, then no one could. They believed themselves to be superior not only to all past eras but also to all future ages. Their solution was to narrow the intellectual agenda and to define it by what it excluded rather than by what it contained. And they expected future generations to obey the same restrictions. For Modernity was archly imperialistic, an age in which each art, country, science, and philosophy sought to establish its dominance. The same imperialistic vision that inspired Cecil Rhodes to build counties inspired Richard Wagner to create heroic music.
     The second error was even more serious. The Moderns failed to understand that it is not the answers that stimulate science and philosophy but the questions themselves. The first thinkers of ancient Greece asked the basic questions and at first came up with simplistic answers. For instance, they reasoned that fire, water, earth, and air were the basic components of all things. From our perspective, it is a laughable hypothesis. But if we stop there, we misjudge the importance of their efforts. Instead of relying on omens and oracles, as their ancestors had done, for the first time these philosopher-scientists turned their intellect to the task of explaining the world. It was to be the pattern of intellectual progress from then on, not from the first answers, which often are wrong, but from persistently asking the right questions.
     Today, we still lack answers, but we have new perspectives and, most important, once again we have the questions. Now that the old restrictions of Modernity no longer apply, hasn’t the time come to begin asking again the forbidden questions?

Harold Raley