Coffee Talk #17
December 23, 2000
By Rick Walston, Ph.D.

Table Of Contents

Coffee and Philosophy

What do you do when you cannot sleep and it is 2:30 am? Well, when I found myself in this very predicament this morning (December 23), I put on a pot of coffee, and a sub-pot of latté, and started searching the Internet for interesting tidbits . . . and I was not disappointed. I found something that I thought was very interesting: a web page of a philosophical society. I read and read, and then I came across this statement by Dr. Geoffrey Klempner . . . (of the University of Sheffield, England):

I can imagine you saying at this point rather impatiently, 'Look, if you've found the problems of philosophy, you've found philosophy. What are you worrying about?' My reply is that it's not enough just to be gripped by the problems. The anxiety about why we are gripped points to something. Even if Kant and Wittgenstein failed to hit the nail on the head, that doesn't mean there isn't something there, at the centre of it all. I still had no idea what that 'something' might be.

I am not sure if he went on to answer his own question or not, but I knew the answer. Let me repeat his question again for clarification and give some background before we get to the answer.

What is the meaning of life . . .

Since, in a broad sense, philosophy is the study of being, and that is an issue of who we are and why we are, some who have studied philosophy have come to many unsettling questions. Why are we here? Who are we? Where is all of this "being" leading? What is the meaning of life?

Dr. Klempner says that beginning philosophy students are deeply troubled by these questions, and he wonders why they are troubled by these questions. I believe it is because they do not have the answers. However, he also implies that those who have made philosophy a way of life are no longer troubled by these questions because they have long-accepted the idea that there are no answers: thus, they are satisfied that they have asked, and asked, and asked the questions. In essence, the philosophy professional in his search for answers has completely exhausted himself to the point of frustration and exasperation because he has no absolute answers; and, then, finally, he surrenders to the ambiguity, vagueness, and incertitude of being. For, if he does not surrender to this abyss of uncertainty, the quest for answers will drive him mad! (Granted, I am reading into his remarks.)

The meaning of life = "the unanswerable question"

So, the beginner asks, "What's the answer?" The "pro-philosopher" answers, "Yes. Good question!" To the beginner, the goal is an "answer." To the pro-philosopher, the goal is the "unanswerable question."

In time, the student is worn down by the constant incertitude and finally succumbs to the "lofty" conclusion that the highest thinking is one of skepticism. The highest achievement in thinking is that "absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty"; but, even then, "approximate or relative certainty" is itself only approximate and relative.

Thus, the philosophy professor is most pleased with the student who has the most questions. There are no answers, just questions. The professor says, "Look, if you've found the problems of philosophy, you've found philosophy. What are you worrying about?" The fact that one has arrived at these questions is in itself an arrival at "doing philosophy." One should, therefore, be happy that he has come to the pinnacle of philosophy: i.e., to the arrival of unanswerable questions.

Why we are gripped?

But, Dr. Klempner asks this one more telling question: "My reply is that it's not enough just to be gripped by the problems. The anxiety about why we are gripped points to something."

Why are beginners gripped by the questions? Exactly! Forget the questions themselves . . . the real issue is not the questions or the fact that we ask them; the real issue is WHY do the questions bother us?

Dread . . .

As I read this, I knew immediately and exactly why the questions bother us: Dread.

I now toy with the idea of closing this Coffee Talk without further commentary so as to allow you to move forward in your own philosophical inquiry. But, I won't be as bedeviling as that. You might want to stop here for awhile and ponder the concept of dread and how it relates to the unanswered questions. Remember the questions? Why are we here? Who are we? Where is all of this "being" leading? What is the meaning of life?

Your pondering now finished, we continue . . .

We are most satisfied in life when we have answers, and we are most unsatisfied when we do not. We are most happy when life is predictable and most unhappy when it is not. If you have complete certainly about tomorrow, you will have a strong sense of peace and security. If you have complete uncertainly about tomorrow, you will have unsettling, inherent feelings of dread and anxiety. You will anticipate tomorrow with alarm, or angst; and if this angst is prolonged, it will lead to depression and, if left unchecked, finally to psychosis (yes, I have studied a little psychology).

Everybody Sing! "Don't worry, be happy"

So, what does the pro-philosopher say to ease this feeling of dread? He says, "Look, if you've found the problems of philosophy, you've found philosophy. Don't worry about it!"

Now, this attitude might get a person over the "hump" and allow him or her to go to MacDonald's and enjoy a Big Mac with friends, but in the quiet of the night when that person considers the "Whys" of being, humming a bar of "Don't worry, be happy" just doesn't cut it.

Dr. Klempner's comment that, "The anxiety about why we are gripped points to something" is absolutely true. It points to an inherent and undeniable need for certainty.

If you thirst, it points to the fact that there is something to quench that thirst, water.

If you are in need of warmth, it points to the fact that there is something that will satisfy that need, the sun or fire.

If you crave the companionship of another human, it points to the fact that there are others who can satisfy that craving, other humans.

If you are gripped by the questions of "being," it points to the fact that there are answers to the questions of "being."

If you deny that there are answers, then you will be filled with dread.

If, however, you submit to the answers, you will have peace.

Finally, the meaning of life . . .

Now, let us answer the biggest question of all time: "What is the meaning of life?"

I was only a boy the first time I heard this question, and I was immediately filled with dread because I did not know the answer. I asked my father and he said, "Mankind has been forever searching for that answer son. And, I don't know what it is."

However, I later "discovered" the answer, and I have had peace about it ever since. (By the way, I "discovered" the answer in the same way that Columbus "discovered" America: it had been there all the time; I just stumbled upon it.)

It's not that there is no answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" It is that many people simply chose to reject the answer. They often believe that it is more "sophisticated" to act as though they are pondering this question (see the person rubbing his chin as though deep in thought) than it is to know it. Man in his quest to appear intelligent has, by the artwork of one Auguste Rodin, made a statue of "The Thinker." This statue is one of the most famous statues in the world. It is a man, sitting on a pedestal, chin in hand, and, apparently, deep in thought. In fact, other cultures have copied it with their own cultural figures doing the pondering.

Drum roll please . . .

Are you now ready for the answer? The first philosopher who had his words recorded asked that same question, and after a lifetime of searching he recorded the answer . . . Here is his answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:12b-13).

More Simple?

Someone might ask, well, what does THAT mean? Ok. Let's break it down another step. In fact, someone asked Jesus Christ to break it down further too. They asked, "what does THAT mean?"

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent" (John 6:28-29).

If that is not broken down enough, try this

For God so loved the world that he gave [sent] his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

If you do this, i.e., believe in the one He has sent, Jesus Christ--God's one and only Son--you will have the answer to the questions of "being" that the "Thinkers" have been pondering for years, and with that answer the peace that certainty brings.

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