Subsidiary Questions. Part 3. A Pinch of Truth

Let me summarize briefly the themes we have covered thus far: Primary questions of a moral, aesthetic, spiritual, or intentional nature are often deemed unanswerable by the program of science. Nevertheless, against the positivists, I assert that these questions are not devoid of meaning. They bear a meaning given by the persistence with which they are asked. What kind of meaning is it? How can we recognize the pinch of truth gained through the answers to the subsidiary questions? This pinch of truth has four characteristics: 1) it requires that actual, specific people keep on asking the questions, 2) it does not aim toward the universal, 3) it is rooted in time, and 4) it is expressed in the first person voice (either trivially or profoundly). These characteristics sharply distinguish the meaning of persistence of moral questions from the truths of rationalistic philosophy and of science. Nevertheless, the meaning of the persistent questions is not a mere matter of wish or belief without evidence; it is rather a matter of observation. We do keep on asking the questions.

There are many examples from philosophy, history, and literature that can serve to illustrate these points. I will cite only one from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, concerning 2 brothers. Sergey was a highly esteemed thinker, well known in the drawing rooms of Moscow for his conclusions about the natural laws of social interaction, especially regarding the virtues and advantages of peasant life. He enjoyed visiting the estate of his half-brother Levin in the country, where Levin sometimes worked alongside his peasants, adjudicated their quarrels, and admired some, disdained others. This is Levin’s reaction after his brother’s visit.

Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something – not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey, and many other people who worked for the public welfare, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take an interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine. (Anna Karenina, Part iii, Chapter 2)

Notice that in the last sentence of this famous passage, Levin makes an observation about – in other words, derives evidence from – the questions that his brother asks. Contrast the universalism of Sergey, identified by a repeated phrase, “the public good,” versus the particularism of Levin, driven by an “impulse…to choose some one out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one.” In the novel, Sergey’s path of life goes nowhere. Levin marries, grows with the joys and terrors of family life, and continues to mow the fields with his peasants. Sergey has the answers, while Levin keeps on asking questions.

Look again at the 4 primary questions posited at the beginning:

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose with me now that these questions are answered with absolute and universal truth. Moreover, suppose that all of the great questions such as these are answered, at least in general terms. Is this heaven?

Some may join Plato, other rationalists, idealists, and even positivists, as well as a number of saints from all religions in longing for the day when Truth takes command of our lives. I do not long for that day, because I think that universal answers to the great primary questions might crowd out freedom. I cherish the opportunity to say “Yes!” or “No!” to each of these great primary questions. I also cherish the pang of doubt that follows immediately, asking, “Is it true?”, because it gives me the opportunity to ask the question again. But recognize that even “I cherish….” presents itself as another primary question. “I cherish…is it true?” Will I keep on cherishing the opportunity and experiencing the doubt – inspiration transformed into a repetitive question? The future is unknown, but as for the present, yes, so far… up to now, it is true. I do keep on asking.

We have talked about the primary questions and the subsidiary questions. The implication from the start has been that the primary questions are the important ones. The subsidiary questions tend to be viewed as adding something, but not much. Now upon reflection, I choose to think that the reverse is true. The primary questions may indeed be unanswerable, not because answers are impossible, but because answers make the questioner disappear.

So the subsidiary questions are the real ones for us. They have answers compatible with human life and freedom. The answers do not provide truth for everywhere and always, but just a pinch of truth for here and now. If the pinch is hard enough, then we should remember to keep on asking.


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