Subsidiary Questions. Part 2. Rules of the Game

We have looked at a set of primary questions, as follows –

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

– and we have asserted that these questions are neither trivial nor academic. These questions are not restricted to individuals, but may also be asked by groups of people or even entire cultures. But questions like these have often been deemed unanswerable. In response, I have proposed that a set of corresponding subsidiary questions of the form –

                            K. DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

have answers, given by –

                             L. WE DO KEEP ON ASKING___________.

as long as we keep on asking.

Now the meta-question is – what good are these subsidiary questions? What value do they have, and is it positive or negative? To pursue this line of thinking, let me propose several characteristics – one might say, rules of the game – for the subsidiary questions and their answers:

    1. They relate to specific people asking the primary questions.
    2. They do not aim toward universality.
    3. They are rooted in actual time.
    4. They are best expressed in the first person voice.

Point #1. Specific, particular people must ask the primary questions. This is in contrast to the anonymous and interchangeable observer in scientific research. The primary questions are not scientific. Importantly, however, and emphatically this is not the old distinction between empiricism and faith. Whether or not the primary question keeps on getting asked is a matter to be judged on the basis of observation, not faith. We do not have to decide whether to believe without evidence; we simply ask, “Are we still asking that question?”

So the primary and subsidiary questions are matters of observation and evidence, but are distinct from science. Does that mean they are incompatible with science – that is to say, incompatible with a viewpoint of natural realism? By no means! Humans placed in a natural world do ask primary questions like (A.-D.) repeatedly. There is no contradiction with nature, and no conflict necessarily arises between natural realism and the answers to our subsidiary questions.

Some will say that the repetition of the primary questions…and thus the answers provided to the subsidiary questions are phenomena likely to be explained by some evolutionary advantage which has fixed those questions into our genetic makeup. But this begs another primary question:


And (M.) has no more validity than (A.-D.).

It is tempting to think that the answers to our subsidiary questions might serve as the entrée to a system of pure logic dealing with values and moral imperatives…a system similar perhaps Kant’s transcendental idealism or to Hegel’s absolute idealism. Might they not function, to use a science fiction metaphor, like a wormhole to a parallel, metaphysical universe? The temptation can be resisted by remembering how we get answers to the subsidiary questions. “Flesh and blood” and some degree of sacrifice – at least the sacrifice of repeatedly allocating mental resources to ask the primary questions – are required. The answers to the subsidiary questions are neither absolute nor even marked by probability. Instead they are concrete for the present, indeterminate for the future, and contingent upon personal activity.

Real specific people must keep on asking the primary questions. As a consequence, a sense of responsibility may develop. Others will not necessarily help to keep on asking. Our own activity is necessary for the maintenance of answers to the subsidiary questions.

Point #2. The subsidiary questions and their answers do not aim toward universality. Only some of the student pranksters get caught and find themselves in detention. Only some people cannot help hearing the voice inside asking the primary question over and over again.

The goal of universality must be given up. This is extraordinarily difficult in several ways. The primary questions with their themes of love, joy, discovery, perseverance, and thankfulness seem so important that we want them to be universal. But our desire to make them universal just becomes another primary question – unanswerable in itself.

We recognize that mathematical and scientific progress depends critically on the widespread applicability of theoretical and experimental results. The novice in science is drilled in a methodological rigor that produces general rather than particular conclusions.

But the primary and subsidiary questions of value and spirit must remain particular. We do not discover truths which every reasonable person must recognize. In consequence we ourselves must remain humble – not an easy thing for humans. Alone as individuals or in groups of varying size, once in a while we may discover a pinch of truth in the persistence of a moral question. The group may be as small as two. As hubris escalates, the group may be proclaimed as large as a civilization… or even the entire course of human civilization up to the present. But we should never presume to have discovered truth in this way for everyone, always, and everywhere.

Often people seek to establish and disseminate unprovable moral suppositions and their subsidiary questions of persistence. Consider this example, which is similar to the initial four primary questions – an intimation followed by a pang of doubt:

                            K. EACH PERSON SHOULD HAVE ONE VOTE. IS IT TRUE?

In ages past, the proposition of one person/one vote would have elicited blank stares or condemnation. In some cultures even now, this position will be deemed unrealistic, morally naïve, or stupid. Yet in the context of liberal civilization and open societies today, the proposition of one person/one vote as an ideal is widely accepted. How did this happen? I submit that it can be derived neither from mathematics nor from pure reason. Even less does it arise from natural science. The doctrine of natural selection describes a competition for dominance among individual packets of genes.

Supposing that you agree with one person/one vote, how can we together promote it? In my view we cannot appeal to science, to human self-interest, or to any kind of universal law or truth. Human self-interest, if it is really smart, gives lip-service to the ideal while seeking to subvert it in the interest of self.

But we can ask people to choose. Are you willing to align self-interest with the idea of human equality? Will you agree to seek your identity at least partly in the common condition of humanity? At least to the extent of voting equally? The task is essentially political in the best sense of coming together to form the polis – a community of equals. Nothing in the realm of philosophy, nor any law of human nature, compels us to see universal suffrage as something good. The laws that our civilization provides for free and fair elections owe their origin to a complex genealogy of human choice.

Point #3. The subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are rooted in time. Specifically, they exist in the present moment. To be sure, they recall the past, and they point toward continuation in the future. But the past is inadequate and the future uncertain. Everything hinges upon an active voice that asks the primary question once again. In contrast, mathematics and science deal with unchanging, eternal laws of logic and physics. To be sure, physical events have trajectories that move from past into future. Yet if the very word “trajectory” refers to something real, it must refer to something that transcends time, not to something in the grip of time. Often the answer to a problem in physics does not even require knowing the direction of time: future to past may work as well as past to future, cases of entropy or cosmic expansion being exceptional. In scientific discussion, the present moment serves as a point of reference, and generally nothing more than that.

In clear contrast to the answers provided by mathematics and science, our subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are inescapably tied to the present moment. As with previous points of consideration, this has an important consequence. By tying the answers more or less tightly to the now, we leave the future open and undetermined. Only the frail reins of hope and persistence (in continuing to ask the primary questions) are available to guide the future. This means that the future remains free – an extraordinarily difficult concept.

Point #4. The primary and subsidiary questions are most clearly expressed in the first person voice. I am tentative in raising this point. Confidence is confounded, and I am not sure whether the reason lies in the limitation of language, the ubiquitous sprouting of the seeds of universal rationalism, or my own inadequate thinking.

(I recognize that the primary questions (A.-D.) at the beginning of the post are not written in first person voice, for reasons of brevity and impact, but even these statements will be expressed more clearly by prefixing each with “Do I/we think that…?”)

Let me amplify the point just a bit. It is not just any real specific person or group who “keeps on asking the question.” It must be me or my group. The primary question must be asked with first person voice.

What’s the problem? Just this – all questions and all answers, without exception, originate with first person voice. What? Would that not invalidate the second and third person voices – you, she, he, it, they – entirely? Let me explain. It is always possible to add “I/We judge that…” to any declarative statement, “I/We ask whether…” to any question, “I/We exclaim…” to any ejaculation, and so forth – without changing the meaning of speech at all. Within the statement, question, or exclamation, the second or third person voice will often appear, but the first person prefix can always be applied. This is the sense in which all questions and all answers originate with first person voice, either explicit or implicit.

Here is a turn toward subjectivity! Yet the whole burden of science has been to remove traces of subjectivity, so that objective truth can be learned. Is this an attempt to erase the progress? Even in science, I propose, every question and every report originates with first person voice. In science, a special case of “we” applies. Charles Peirce spoke of the community of philosophers (scientists) as the context in which we seek the ultimate philosophy (scientific truth).1 This is a highly developed “we” that aims to approach universality, conceived as the community of past, present, and especially future rational, trained observers who seek to reproduce and refine knowledge by framing questions to be answered by nature.

The philosophical question is not whether all sentences are first person. They are. The philosophical choice is whether to regard this point is (a) a trivial truism arising as an accident of the way we communicate, or (b) a profound insight into our existence as rational beings engaged in observing and responding to the universe – an insight embedded so deeply in language that it has escaped notice repeatedly in the history of philosophical inquiry. I think (b). But we have neither time nor space to develop this further here.


1 Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.


Subsidiary Questions. Part 1. Students in Detention

Subsidiary Questions. Part 3. A Pinch of Truth


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