There is a widespread myth that all questions must be answered. Practical experience, however, shows that most questions go unanswered. Then the cynic says: Truth cannot be known. In this post, I will analyze this myth, to update it to something precise: All good questions can be answered and there is no answer to bad questions. A bad question is based on unsubstantiated assumptions. A good question is based on provable assumptions.
There are thousands of unanswered and unanswerable questions in Western philosophy and science. They arise because science and philosophy started with unsubstantiated assumptions. When the questions go unanswered, then the cynic says: All these are pointless questions. However, they never go back to analyze their bad starting assumptions, which then led to the unanswerable questions. They just assume things that are not true and get locked into unsolvable problems. If we want to solve them, then we can go back to the original questions, and provide irrefutable answers. With those answers, we will never get unsolvable problems, and everything can be known with certainty. However, one has to be humble to accept that they made unsubstantiated assumptions which must now be rejected.
Table of Contents
- Intellectual Games and Pastimes
- The Definition of Bad Questions
- Four Good Questions
- The Genesis of Bad Questions
- An Example of a Bad Question
- Another Example: Brain in a Vat
- The Failure of Rationalism
- Personal and Impersonal Logics
- Gödel’s Incompleteness
- The Incompleteness of Scientific Theories
- The Nature of Eastern Philosophy
- Western vs. Eastern Philosophy
Intellectual Games and Pastimes
Children often lock themselves in a room to create imaginary games and realities. I have seen girls organize imaginary tea parties, and boys organize imaginary car races. Adults are not permitted to enter their rooms during this time because it disturbs the illusion of the tea party or the car race. However, after some time, reality strikes—the children get hungry, thirsty, sleepy, or poopy. Then they come out of the imaginary game, open the doors, and enter the real world again because they cannot solve the real-world problems while being locked within their rooms engrossed in imaginary game realities.
The same problem exists with intellectuals. They create thought experiments, locking themselves inside a room enclosed by its assumptions to create an intellectual tea party or a car race. There are things you can say within an enclosed room—which constitute the game. But you cannot solve numerous problems in that imaginary realm, because you have made simplifying assumptions to solve a limited problem only. Like children don’t want adults to enter their game, they don’t like being told that their imaginary game is unreal. They would like to keep playing that game until reality strikes—they hit the limit of their assumptions, and cannot solve numerous problems.
However, unlike the children who exit their imaginary realms to solve the unsolvable problems, most intellectuals deny the importance of the problems that they cannot solve. They are so conditioned by the simplifying assumptions they made to solve the limited problems, that they cannot think any different. The result is that time passes by, the intellectual dies, and the unsolved problems keep growing and getting more severe. Eventually, the intellectual edifice collapses under the pressure of its unsolved problems because it is unable to accept its limitations and reform itself in due time.
The Definition of Bad Questions
Modern science is falsely touted as having the capacity to change its premises. The reality is quite different. First, people who have grown up thinking in a certain way have ossified brains; they cannot think any differently. Second, changes to fundamental principles require acknowledging mistakes of the past, which requires dumping your ego, and it almost never happens. Third, the short-term needs of continuous progress go against the long-term necessities of a reboot; the system of vested interests, economic pressures, and centers of powers view reformers as disruptors and marginalizes them.
Thus arises the necessity for false propaganda under which the unsolved problems have to be minimized, rejected, or postponed to preserve the egos of intellectuals. I have been involved in numerous discussions over the years with people who don’t realize that they have locked themselves into a set of assumptions under which numerous problems cannot be solved, but they are unable to change their assumptions. By minimizing, rejecting, or postponing, the problem doesn’t disappear. Instead, it just keeps getting worse.
The attempt to answer all questions within assumptions that were never meant to answer them produces bad questions. It is foolishness to try to solve the problems of hunger, thirst, sleep, or poop within the confines of an imaginary tea party or a car race. A question becomes bad when it is locked in the confines of unsuitable assumptions. Then, there is no answer, and trying to answer it is a waste of time. There are hundreds of unsolved problems, which cannot be solved because of the attempt to solve them within the confines of unsuitable assumptions. They are all bad questions. They were not bad a priori. They have become bad due to the limiting assumptions.
Four Good Questions
In Bhagavad-Gita 4.16, Lord Kṛṣṇa states: O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute. We can reformulate the above statement as follows.
There are only four good questions: (a) How to overcome suffering? (b) How to obtain happiness? (c) What is the method to know the truth? and (d) What is the nature of the truth? These four questions then lead to the four subjects of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and ontology. Ethics is the answer to the question: How to overcome suffering? Aesthetics is the answer to the question: How to obtain happiness? Epistemology is the answer to the question: What is the method to know the truth? And Ontology is the answer to the question: What is the truth? The assumptions here are minimal—(a) there is happiness and distress, and (b) there is truth and falsity.
If we do not begin from these questions, and progress with extreme caution to only accept those assumptions that have been properly substantiated, we will never reach a perfect answer, in the sense that (a) we will never fully answer a question, and (b) we will never answer all other questions.
The Genesis of Bad Questions
The problem is often that people are too impatient. The moment they get a problem, they start making simplifying assumptions as a way to solve the problem quickly. Then, they are locked into bad questions, because the next level questions are framed in terms of the assumptions of the previous answers, and there is no answer to questions conditioned by bad assumptions. Thus, bad questions are always produced from bad answers to good questions—which makes the questions unanswerable.
We can depict this process as follows: good question → unsubstantiated assumption → bad answer → problems with bad answers → bad questions arising from the need to solve the problems with bad answers → repetition of bad assumptions or addition of bad assumptions → unsolvable problems.
This is related to the problem of evil and deceit in this world. People often ask: How does truth produce delusion? How does good lead to bad? And the answer is simple: unsubstantiated assumptions. Those assumptions may result from haste to answer the question, malice to arrive at a predetermined outcome, laziness to substantiate the answer, etc. The world presents us with problems and questions, but we choose to answer them in different ways. By giving bad answers to good questions, we produce bad questions. Thus, good question → bad answer → bad question → unsolvable problem.
Once a bad question has been created, we can never answer it, unless we go back to the original good question and start fresh. This also requires rejecting all the previous bad answers and starting fresh. But most people are not going to do that. They will stick to bad questions, and because they cannot answer them, therefore, they will reject, postpone, or minimize the questions. Similarly, they will rigidly uphold the bad answers to good questions to preserve their ego, because they have been partially successful in the past.
An Example of a Bad Question
One of the earliest examples of a bad question is the Socratic allegory of cavemen who watch shadows on the wall of the cave, but they don’t know if these are cast by actual dancing cavemen or a shadowgraphist. Socrates compares perception to such shadows and concludes: Truth can’t be known.
The Socratic problem is one of reasoning with incomplete information. Yes, we cannot know the truth with incomplete information. But to say that all perception is incomplete information is false. This problem can be solved in two ways: breadth and depth. Breadth pertains to gathering more information, and depth pertains to combining this information into a concise representation of that information. For example, apple is the depth information while red, round, and sweet are breadth information. In the Socratic problem, both breadth and depth are cut-off. For example, in the case of the shadows, we don’t have access to the full information that eyes can gather, which means that the breadth is cut-off. Likewise, our minds cannot interact with the world so the depth is cut-off. This is like trying to infer whether something is an apple or a nectarine simply by knowing that it is red.
However, if we begin with the right question—namely, How do I know the truth?—then there is a succession of good answers, such as (a) you must collect all the information, (b) every bit of new information eliminates possible interpretations of that information, (c) by eliminating alternatives you get to know what the truth is not, and (d) then there is mental intuition by which you can know what the truth is. This is the way to know the truth.
Another Example: Brain in a Vat
The problem of hallucination is reformulated nowadays as a brain in a vat, hooked onto wires, that feed electrical currents generated by a computer, controlled by an evil genius manipulating you. This kind of idea is depicted in the movie The Matrix. How do you know you are in a Matrix? You cannot, unless you suspect that there is a Matrix, and try to get out of it. But can you get out of the Matrix? Not if you are a brain in the vat, because you have no hands and legs, due to which you cannot pull out the wires to disconnect yourself from the computer feeding you images. So, you cannot know if you are in the Matrix, you cannot get out of the Matrix and cannot know the truth. You are forever stuck in the Matrix, because of your assumptions.
What are the assumptions? They are: (a) An evil genius is feeding you images, (b) you cannot think or suspect that you are in a Matrix because you have no free will to think, as you are fully controlled by the computer’s actions, and (c) you have no hands and legs to pull out the wires from your brain.
The conclusion of all these assumptions will be simple: I cannot know the truth, I have no free will, and I have no power to change my destiny. Is that a better answer than the one where I begin by saying: (a) There is truth, (b) It is possible to know it, and (c) There is a method to know it? It is not. And this is a clear illustration of why a question that begins with bad assumptions doesn’t get to the truth. It must always end up in denying the legitimacy of the question—e.g., Can we even know the truth? Is anything at all real?
The Failure of Rationalism
People falsely assume that every question must be answered. In the Vedic system of logic, called Nyāya, every question will not be answered; only good questions will be answered. What is a good question? That which begins with proven premises. For example, how can I get out of suffering is a valid question because it is based on the real premise of suffering. Likewise, how can I know the truth is a valid question based on the real possibility of hallucinations. If we begin with questions whose premises are substantiated then we will always get an answer. However, if we begin with false premises, then we will not get the answer, and we will end up rejecting the question.
For example, to say that everything we are seeing is like shadows on the cave wall is an unsubstantiated premise. When we are looking at a cave wall, we are seeing it perfectly: There are shadows on the cave wall. We are not looking for what caused those shadows, so how can we find them? If we were interested in finding the cause, we can turn around and we will find it. Therefore, to say that all experience is imbued with absolute uncertainty is patently false. But if you put conveniently absurd clauses in your thought experiment, where the prisoners are, by definition, unable to turn around, you are preempting the possibility of knowing the truth, by eliminating the method of knowing it. Your allegory is just an aesthetically interesting but ultimately contrived way of asserting your belief that truth cannot be known. It is also false.
Likewise, if you say that we might be brains in a vat, the simple question is: How do you know? Where is the evidence for saying that we are brains in the vats? If there is no evidence, all questions arising from hypotheticals are bad questions. If you want to ask that question, then establish that this is a question based on a substantiated premise. Otherwise, even if you start with hypotheticals, you will never get an answer and you will end up rejecting the question itself, calling it a bad question. Why don’t we reject the question from the start, by saying that it is based on unsubstantiated assumptions?
Personal and Impersonal Logics
The real question is: Are you even seeking the true cause of the shadows on the cave wall? If so, why won’t you turn around to find it? Why do you insist on finding the cause of shadows on the cave wall, by nothing other than shadows on the cave wall? The problem is your reluctance to turn around. This is an issue of your laziness to turn around rather than the factual inability to find the true cause of shadows. You rationalized your laziness as the inability to find the true cause of the shadows. But laziness is not an argument.
The issue is also: Why would someone employ unsubstantiated and imaginary assumptions? That merits the psychoanalysis of the person who is making such imaginary assumptions. What are his real intentions? What goals is he really trying to achieve? Why does he insist on assuming that which even he cannot substantiate properly? Clearly, the answers to all those questions will not portray him in a good light. But don’t blame us, because he is using those unsubstantiated assumptions, so clearly he must have a desire either to delude himself or others, although by feigning that delusion to be rationality.
This is the personalism of logic: It asks hard questions of evidence before anyone assumes anything. Then, if you insist on using bad assumptions, it will analyze your bad intentions to show that you are arguing in bad faith, either willingly to deceive, or unwillingly out of sheer ignorance. Just because we are having a rational argument doesn’t mean we cannot psychoanalyze you and attack your evil intentions. We are not impersonalists. We are personalists which means we can attack your motives, after establishing that your premises are unsubstantiated but you insist on sticking to them.
This not ad hominem attacks which question a person’s motives before checking if their premises are substantiated. A person’s motives can be questioned only if the premises are unsubstantiated, and the person insists on sticking to them. Hence, there is a primacy to rationality—we have to establish the premises. But that is not impersonalism because if you stick to delusions, your intentions are questionable. Ultimately, truth can be established rationally, but only if one begins with proven premises. If we begin with baseless premises, then all questions cannot be answered.
Gödel’s Incompleteness is another good example of this problem: All questions about numbers cannot be answered because we have begun in bad premises, namely, that counting is based on a priori distinct entities (which we call physical objects). The correct premise is that two things are distinct based on qualities like color, shape, taste, smell, hardness, roughness, heat, and so forth. All things are comprised of qualities because these qualities are necessary even to create distinct things. In short, things are distinct in precisely the manner in which we can distinguish them. We cannot count unless we can distinguish, and we cannot distinguish without qualities. Therefore, numerical labels are a side effect of qualities, and cannot be a fundamental reality. Science, or the study of material objects, therefore cannot be based on numbers; it has to be based on fundamental qualities.
Modern mathematics, however, begins in bad faith assumptions that things are a priori distinct, and we can count them using numerical labels, which are also a priori distinct. Thereby, mathematics postulates that counting is a 1-1 mapping between two sets of mutually exclusive entities—one set of entities is numbers and the other set of entities is physical objects. They also try to construct a theory of numbers using collections of mutually exclusive physical objects. None of these attempts has worked, and it will never work.
The Incompleteness of Scientific Theories
Every subject of modern science is based on bad faith assumptions, which then create the problem that these subjects cannot answer all the questions that they assumed will be answered by their premises, and yet, the subjects are unprepared to change their premises. When push comes to shove, they are prepared to postulate a greater number of theories, with arbitrarily chosen assumptions, such that their assumptions are contradictory to the assumptions of the previously formed theories. That resistance to change the assumptions to qualities is bad faith rationality—it tries to argue within its bad premises, fails to achieve its goals, and yet, refuses to let go of them.
This is when the science and the scientist must be psychoanalyzed—Why do you stick to failing assumptions? What are your true intentions? Why do you want to delude others with things that are known to not work? That psychoanalysis will produce one of few answers: The egos of the scientists are unprepared to accept the failure of their bad ideas, their brains have become ossified to prevent new thinking, or they are compelled by external forces to comply due to the pressures of prestige and money over truth.
When Euclid began geometry, he started with 5 axioms. He never established if those axioms are true; he just assumed them. By axiomatizing geometry, Euclid set a pattern for all subsequent developments in mathematics and science. He made it fashionable to postulate arbitrary axioms and then try to model a domain using those axioms. Over time, however, people find that those axioms are not true; then they changed the axioms to create non-Euclidean geometry. But those axioms are still not true, as we now know in cosmology because they cannot model the problems of dark energy and dark matter. However, now nobody knows how to change Euclid’s axioms.
When Newton formulated laws of mechanics, he assumed: (a) the world is uniform in all places and times, (b) the world is governed by mathematical laws, and (c) change is wrought by physical force. These assumptions were never substantiated. And these are false premises that lead to unanswerable questions. For example, the result of colliding particles is unpredictable in Newton’s mechanics, because the universe is not uniform in time, place, and objects. Physics just axiomatized that all times, places, and particles are the same, which makes it impossible to predict all the outcomes correctly.
However, even as these assumptions are falsified by observations, scientists don’t reject them. They twist the problem: We will keep the assumptions, and say that certain problems are not solvable using these assumptions. What are those certain problems that physics can solve? Those where particles don’t collide or collide elastically. What is the ratio between elastic and non-elastic collisions? Over 99.999% of all collisions are inelastic, and they are outside physics. But you won’t see anybody admit to that problem. They will talk about the 0.0001% cases which they can solve; they will create technology within those limited 0.0001% cases, and claim victory over the problem.
Likewise, quantum mechanics begins by saying: Let’s assume that there is an infinite-dimensional space of functions, which are mutually orthogonal, and they project properties through operators. They never established why these are good, valid, or necessary assumptions. And the result is that they are quickly locked into unanswerable questions. But they cannot stop speculating. They increase their speculation to create many interpretations of quantum mechanics, trying to find some rationalization of their false assumptions in one crooked way or another, rather than question their assumptions.
The Nature of Eastern Philosophy
In Vedic philosophy, every philosophical claim has to be rooted in absolute certainty. Some of these claims can be established by observing the world, but equally many claims depend on the observer’s nature and are established by introspection because the inner reality is bigger than the outer reality, and finding that inner reality through the outer requires too many observations (i.e., breadth) which only establish what the truth is not. The introspective method simplifies the issue by depth, by which we know what the truth is.
Introspection begins by withdrawing one’s consciousness from the world. As the existence of the self is established with certainty, then we can inquire into the nature of the self. One such nature is that the self is capable of creativity: It can create ideas, which can be turned into speech, by adding more properties of the self. The best evidence for this is the existence of dreams where the self can create as good an experience as the waking experience.
Thereby, we conclude that the world is produced by some conscious person quite like we are capable of producing thought and speech through our minds. This also helps us explain why we are able to control the world: It is because the world has the properties of the self that the self can control it. Thereby, there is no mind-matter dualism. Rather, matter is produced out of the mind.
Then we can ask: How do we know that there are other selves? The answer is: If you love, then you can directly experience their feelings; you can feel their joy, their love, their hopes, or their pains. If you have no love, then you will objectify them, and treat them like things, resources, to be exploited by you. That love is also your property and nature. If that property doesn’t exist, then we cannot know other-selves, but that is a shortfall in our capacity to know, not the unreality of other-selves. Therefore, love is the goggles you need to wear to see other selves; these are the eyes by which you can see.
Then, what is God? God is the self of the self; the self is like the body, and God is the soul of the self. And God is known by seeking justification about why the self exists, the purpose of our existence. Like we see other-selves only when we love them, similarly, we see God when we love the purpose of soul more than soul. This means: I can tolerate suffering as a labor of love for the goal of life. Loving the purpose of existence more than the existence is the love of God. By that love, one sees God directly. But one needs the goggles of love because love is the instrument to see any self. Hence it is said that those who have anointed their eyes with love, can always see God within themselves.
The atheist says: There is no self, and there is no purpose; thereby, they reject both self and God. The response for that is: You know nothing other than self with absolute certainty. If you reject the self, then you know nothing.
Western vs. Eastern Philosophy
Someone recently asked me: What is the difference between Western and Eastern philosophy? And the answer is: In the West, people begin with axioms, which they have never substantiated. Rather than try to establish those axioms more firmly, they axiomatize them as truths without explaining why. Since most of these are unproven assumptions, therefore, by using them all the subsequent questions become bad. And the result of a bad question is that you will never find the answer. Whatever you hypothesize to resolve the problem will also be a bad answer, which means that it will create even more problems down the road. After numerous such problems, people reject the questions and become nihilists. This never happens in Eastern philosophy because nothing is ever axiomatized. It is either established firmly or rejected.
Eastern philosophy never begins in axioms. We are not interested in thought experiments. You will not find people saying: Let’s assume such and such. They will always begin in questions, and as we have discussed, there are four valid questions: How to avoid suffering? How to become happy? How can we know the truth? What is the nature of the truth? Even if someone gives a tentative answer, philosophy will say: We are not sure if that is certain, so let’s move to something that is absolutely certain. Thereby, even if some unsubstantiated claim is made early on, it will eventually be questioned and substantiated on something more fundamental, more self-justified, and more certain.
Western thinking axiomatizes and moves forward from the assumptions rather than back to the justification of the assumptions. Very rarely, if people find that the assumptions were utter nonsense, they might pick another set of axioms rather than analyze what went wrong with the previous assumptions. Thereby science is synonymous with speculating, hypothesizing, creating thought experiments, giving bad answers to good questions, getting locked into bad questions, and lacking the humility to accept their fault.
Speculation is so deeply entrenched in Western thinking that Einstein once stated: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Once he was asked: What would have happened if the facts would have disconfirmed your theory? And he responded: So much the worse for the facts. This is not by accident. It is the result of centuries of using imagination, invention, speculation, and guesswork to find the truth. This idea is formally called liberalism—i.e., giving everyone the freedom to keep imagining, inventing, and speculating about the truth, right, and good. And liberalism applies both to science and religion, which means you are not required to substantiate your claims.
The Vedic tradition rejects speculation as the method to know. It considers people who use this method childish and delusional: They are playing in tea parties and car races. They cannot solve any problem convincingly, but they want to keep entertaining themselves, at others’ expense. Therefore, the sincere person gives no value to this pastime; he treats it as child play.