If you had no language you could ask no questions, and you wouldn’t go seeking for answers. If people in the West had never been introduced to the idea of enlightenment, they wouldn’t go seeking it. Or if they had never heard of sin and salvation they would not have felt inadequate and sought adequacy through the Church. So the questions we ask are determined by the ideas we have ingested – consciously or otherwise. Let’s look at a pressing question most people have asked at some time or other. Why does a cow have four legs? Just joking. Is there any part of us that is immortal?
The materialist would say no. We are just an aggregation of matter, ordered by the information contained in genetic codes, and when we inevitably fall apart all the added value (consciousness, directed action, physical organization) falls apart too. But then we need to ask about matter. What is it? The physicists would say that particles (molecules, atoms etc) are made of other particles, and that as far as they are concerned they fit a mathematical model and are represented by numbers (charge, spin, mass etc). We don’t actually know what an electron is, we just have a handful of numbers that measure its properties. This is the best that physics can do – models of reality represented by numbers. And the information contained in our genetic codes, where the hell does that come from, and what is information? Enough said on this – we don’t know what matter is. Neither do we understand time. Einstein showed conclusively that time is relative to the observer. There is no absolute time out there ticking away. Kant and Schopenhauer claimed that time was a property of our consciousness – a construct that allows us to navigate the world, in the same way a computer only understands bits. This is its form of representation, and ours is time and space.
So we don’t know what matter is, and we don’t know what time is. We then come to the thorny question of what we are as conscious entities. Is there anything within a person that can be called “me” – a homunculus that lives within us? Probably not – but we don’t know for certain. And all of this is predicated on the concepts we have ingested – matter, space, time, eternity, immortality, self, and so on. None of these terms can be defined. The best we can do is try to measure them with numbers.
Of course there are statements of fact that answer questions. Facts are usually of the form “this has that quality” – the sky is blue, this guy is a loser, and so on. But dive down into the words and we start to get lost. Superficial statements of fact are the surface of the ocean, and as long as we move fast enough we will not sink down into the depths of meaninglessness.
If you want to ask questions, keep near the surface. It takes an Einstein to peer just a few inches below the surface, and below this is an infinity of the unknown. People tend to move toward two extremes. There are those (including many Zen practitioners) who practice “don’t know mind” – very nice too, although we would never have discovered that thunder and lightening was caused by electrical discharge, and would still be hiding in caves thinking we had angered the Gods. And then there are those who think we know a great deal and will attempt to apply reason (using invented premises) to any problem, even when the answer s absurd (trickle down economics, or the ontological proof of God for example).
That we do not really know anything other than superficial statements of fact, would indicate that all the big questions are meaningless for us. Acceptance of this is a relief. Physicists seem to be productive because their questions are superficial, and most physicists deride philosophical efforts. Despite our pretensions of profundity we can find a true home in the superficial. Why does a cow have four legs? So it doesn’t fall over of course.