What Don’t You Know? October 15, 2008

What Don’t You Know?

One major reason religions exist is to provide answers to the Big Questions.

Why are we here? To glorify God.

How did the universe come to be? God created it.

Where will I go after I die? To Heaven with God.

The more rational among us know we don’t have the answers to those questions. In many cases, we will never have the answers.

Of course, it’s perfectly fine to respond, “I don’t know” to those questions. We just have to accept that we don’t/can’t/won’t know everything.

As atheists, though, which questions in your life go unanswered?

Which questions keep you up at night?

For which questions would religion provide false comfort? — Still, you accept that you may never know the real answer?

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  • Ubi Dubius

    What answers in my life go unquestioned?


  • Not just for atheists, but the most important questions are “who really loves me”–because you will never definitively know THAT either.

    Another delusion shot down.

    We hardly know anything with absolute certainty, religious or not.

    Once I know for certain, I’m no longer a rational person. I’m an ideologue of some ilk or the other, and my mind is closed.

  • andrew

    What I wonder about is the “basic” unit of life: the cell. It turns out that its not very basic(in a way). The cell is so complex! It needs tight regulation,coordination, nutrients, etc etc!! We know hundreds of pathways a cell can have, but there is still much more to know! I wonder if we could ever create a cell de novo. Im sure we could with time, but not right now we cant!

  • Nick

    Understanding what happens after one dies.

    Personally, I like the idea of a ‘continuing life’, that is, you can ask the deity (God) to remain ‘you’ but go through another life cycle. Similarly to reincarnation, but actually knowing what your past life was like, and keeping your original mind/thoughts of that initial life. I’m always curious what will happen after I die (e.g. new technology, what happens in my favorite t.v. show, etc.)
    Of course only if you wanted to be reborn.

  • Matthew

    You know, this really gets at the root of the conflict between science and religion. In days of old, there were lots of questions that had the God answer:

    1) Where does lightning come from?
    2) Who decides when it’s going to rain?
    3) Why did my entire family die an awful death when we ate a 3 week old Zebra carcass?
    4) Bumble bees shouldn’t be able to fly, so how *do* they fly?
    5) Holy crap, there’s a lot of different animals in the world, how did *that* happen?

    In the days of zero or little knowledge, the answer was “God did it”. But over time science and knowledge has chipped away at these answers. At some point, and perhaps we’re getting close (I doubt it), we’ll be left with the unknowable but that doesn’t mean the fundamentalists aren’t going to kick and scream along the way. Sure, the Catholics are pretty much on board with evolution, but there’s a lot of Sarah Palin’s out there still that are trying to hold on to what little they have left in terms of explaining the world.

  • justin jm

    I still want to know how to eat a ton of ice cream without brainfreeze.

    On a more serious note, I would like to know what happened “before” the Big Bang.

    (I put “before” in quotation marks because, apparently, that is impossible to know).

  • Polly

    Are animals REALLY conscious? Which ones? What about people? Are all of us really aware, some certainly seem like they’re just reacting to stimuli.

    How can we ever know if a machine is sentient or not?

    Are there other dimensions? What would it “be like” to venture into them?

    Are there other ways of thinking aside from the one we know, other logics, other maths that are equally valid and yet we’re cognitively blind to them? Try explaining hexadecimal or quaternary counting to someone who’s not into math sometime and you’ll get an analogy of this.

  • Right now, what keeps me up nights lately is fairly mundane – mystery fingerprints are on my craft projects, and I think it’s the glue fumes, but I’m not sure.

    Oh, you meant major questions…

    Whether there’s any continuation of consciousness or presence after we die remains one of them.

    Then there’s the great “what if I’m wrong about religion, specifically Christianity?” since I’m still working through fear-of-hell issues.

  • Stephen M.

    Where did I put my car keys?

    Reading about evolution, and coming to the understanding that Christianity is just another creation of human superstition, has helped me to come to terms with the questions that traditionally have “God….” as an answer.

  • I’ve been struggling with the concept of death since February of this year, and the question that keeps me up at night (as illogical as it is) is “What does it feel like to be dead?” If the scientific/naturalistic perspective is right, I feel nothing, because my consciousness, and thus I, cease to exist. But it doesn’t stop me from worrying about it, or being afraid to die.

    Other questions along a similar bent are, “When/how will I die?” and “When/how will my mother/father/grandparents/etc. die?” The religious response might be, “When God chooses to take them back into Heaven,” or something similar. I guess that wouldn’t really apply to my immediate family, though, because none of us are religious.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I wonder about free will. I don’t believe we have free will, I just don’t see any mechanism that allows for it. But I do wonder if it is even possible to have free will in any imaginable world/being.

    Every time I try and think about this problem with an open mind, I end up fixated on Galen Strawson’s argument, and I lose the ability to even contemplate the possibility. Damn you Galen…

  • Ubi Dubium

    I wonder about how the way other people actually experience the world compares with the way I experience it. For instance, someone may describe a flavor as “sweet” or a color as “blue”, but that does not let me share what they actually perceive. If I were able to inhabit their head temporarily, I might find they were experiencing something totally different than I do.

  • What keeps me up at night– Mostly, wondering how my child’s life will turn out. Am I raising him the best way possible? Am I doing enough to help him? Am I doing enough to help autistic-spectrum folks in general? Why do some people’s brains work one way, while other people’s brains work another? Why do I understand math but not physics? And what the heck went on, if anything, before the Big Bang???

    Some of these questions I may get answered. Others, I will never know.

  • Ian

    Why do Albertans keep voting so heavily for the Bush-esque Stephen Harper Conservatives?

    At least I got a Socialist representative in the midst of Conservativeland.

  • Jen

    When I was young, I had the idea that heaven involved finally understanding the “bigger picture” so to speak. I thought one received ultimate knowledge of the universe, or knew what God knew, or otherwise gained an intense understanding of the world. I don’t think I had this idea because it was taught to me, but I loved the idea.

    It makes me sad that I will never grasp the bigger picture no matter how much knowledge I gain. Now, Kirk Cameron, I am not saying I think that there is some Great Artist who draw the picture- merely that with more knowledge comes a greater understanding who does what and why.

  • Are all of us really aware, some certainly seem like they’re just reacting to stimuli.

    Since I am a being that only reacts to stimulus, nothing keeps me up at night unless there is a loud noise or something. During the daytime, though, my reactions are fairly sophisticated and are sometimes interpreted by others as sentient behavior. 😉

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    What started the universe or megaverses? Why? Is there a “Thinker” somewhere who has done this? On earth, the prime focus is to propagate the species, no matter which one. Mosquitoes are beautifully adapted to survive and do their damage to humans in Africa. ALL species in this predator/victim world have biological “weapons” to survive and kill others. It deeply saddens me that I’ll never know what started all of this and why.
    It’s not fair (as if life is fair) that we are intelligent enough to ask the questions but not smart enough to figure out the answers.

  • Will humans ever meet new, sentient life?

  • Richard Wade

    which questions in your life go unanswered?
    Which questions keep you up at night?

    Is there intelligent life on Earth?
    Does the refrigerator light really go off when I close the door?

    And the biggest question of all:

    How do they get malted milk balls smooth all around without a flat spot on one side?

  • Since it’s 4 am, I’m in the right spot to describe the questions that keep me up at night. Here’s what comes to mind:

    What are the laws that govern the universe that we live in? Are there other universes, and can we say anything about them? What sort of physics lies beyond the standard model? Is string theory on the right track? Is there a final theory? While we’re at it, which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct?

    Why does mathematics as abstract as gauge theory or differential geometry turn out to be so remarkably successful in describing our universe? Are there limits to our ability to understand abstraction? If so, do any physical theories lie beyond this limit? Can we ever directly experience the weirdness of quantum mechanics? If we somehow turned a dial on Planck’s constant and made it a sizable number, would we ever be able to comprehend our experience? Or would it be outside the capability of this East African plains ape, that evolved in what Dawkins called ‘middle earth’?

    Why does it feel like something to be alive? Are our brains Turing complete? (meaning can they me modeled on a computer?) What level and kind of complexity does a computer program need to achieve before it can feel like something?

    How can one reconcile our capability for creativity with the fact that we are governed by physical law bound by deterministic equations? (quantum mechanics doesn’t seem to provide a loophole, since the wavefunction evolves in a deterministic fashion)

    Is there intelligent life anywhere else in the universe? What processes of evolution did they undergo? Can there be life on timescales much longer or shorter than ours? How far can the scale of life go in size and in timescales?

    Can we do away with death? Would we want to?

    I don’t think religion brings anything intelligent to the discussions that I care about.

  • Tao Jones

    How long can this culture of destruction continue before civilization collapse?

    Is it too late to stop it?

    How can we stop it?

    What can I do now to bring about the type of change we need?

  • Oblivious

    I would like to know how everything started but what bothers me is that I’m going to die before I see how it ends. The potential for our species is pretty big but I wont get to see it play out.

  • What will replace humans as the dominant species on the planet when we’re all gone (if anything)?

    Why can’t we humans create a government that is able to plan for longer than 3 years ahead?

    When you die all your brain functions cease. Where does the energy go when this happens? Is it just emitted as heat or electromagnetic radiation? How much energy is involved?

    Why do living things die?

    Is it possible to build the Matrix or something similar where a virtual environment is indistinguishable from a real environment?

    When you look in a mirror and see your reflection is that how people see you (only in reverse) or do they see you differently?

    Is it possible to build a tower that goes into space?

    Could we colonise Mars or one of the moons in our solar system?

    How close to the speed of light can we travel and survive?

    What sort of crops should I grow in my pokey little garden?

    Why do some people seem to need religion?

    Is there anything smaller than a quark? I’ve heard of superstrings but the idea is too strange for my mammal brain.

    What’s it like to be a pond skater, a bird or a mole?

    What colour was a T-Rex?

    I could go on forever.

  • Jeff E.


    Did you ever find out who defaced your signs?

  • SarahH

    This is hardly cerebral, but I’d be fascinated to hear what people say about me when I’m not around.

    On a deeper level, I’d like to know whether science will ever find a way to revive people who’ve tried cryogenics. Living is something I enjoy immensely, and if there’s an option of being revived to live again in the future, sign me up!

    Religion could certainly give me “answers” on these subjects. It shouldn’t matter what others say about me, it only matters that I honor God. I’ll live forever in heaven, so who needs a frozen purgatory? Those answers are based in a system that I just can’t buy, intellectually, and they seem just as silly as believing that fairies will come take my spirit away after death and turn me into a flower or something, lol.

  • Oli

    I’m a transhumanist so my deep thunks are generally about related topics.

    If in the future I create a copy of myself, such as by uploading my personality to a computer, does this mean there are two of me? Which is the real me, If i was destructivrly scanned and reproduced twice in identical bodies, which one is the real me? Are they both me? Which one gets my CD collection? And why?

    Can we colonise Mars? Does an opportunity to colonise another planet present the opportunity to create a new way of living (government/ethics/spirituality/etc) that might break us free of the influences of ancient life currently on earth? Can we change our way of living significantly for the better and how?

    What would it take to change our society for the better in a significantly major way? Can this be done at all, or is all positive change slow and incremental?

    If we use advanced computing and cybernetic implants to merge our sentience with AI’s, will this produce a better society? What about for those who cannot afford this technology? Will they be left behind?

    Can we stop the aging process? If so for how long? What will it mean if humans live to 500 with the bulk of that time being in the 20-40 range of health? How about if we can extend life to 1000 or more?

    How can we reduce the planets population dramatically. Many of our problems on earth come from overcrowding, many of the futures biggest problems will be due to a lack of resources vs too many people. How do we get around this?

  • Why do Albertans keep voting so heavily for the Bush-esque Stephen Harper Conservatives?

    Because we are stupid rednecks. I loves me oil.

  • Gabriel

    Why do we age?

    How long can human life be extended?

    Why do pressure changes in the atmosphere make my bad knee hurt so much?

    How much alcohol can I drink in one sitting?

  • timplausible

    The big question that seems unanswerable is: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

    But, ultimately, God doesn’t even answer that. The question just changes slightly to become “Why is there God instead of No God?”

    This question lead me to the conclusion that some big questions just have no satisfying answers. The answer is: no reason. The universe “just is”.

    What keeps me up at night? Death. But not really questions about it. I don’t wonder much about what happens when we die. I pretty much feel I know what happens. I just don’t like it, and if I think about it too much, it bothers me. If I still believed, that would be the big weight lifted off my mind. But I’ve become very good about not worrying much over this thing that I can’t change.

  • Jeff E.

    1. What is the nature of God?

    2. What is the purpose of human life?

    3. Why does the ignition key to a Chrysler go in upside down?

    (Actually, I think they changed that last one.)

  • Emily

    self. reality. existence.

    string theory. universes. particle physics.



    and how america voted for bush 2.0

  • MisterDomino

    My biggest question?

    Are we going to make it? Humans, I mean.

    Will we continue living here on this planet for all eternity to come, or will we eventually snuff each other out through war? Or will we be snuffed out by disease or famine? If we don’t make it, what will we leave behind? And will anyone/anything ever find it?

    That’s what keeps me up at night.

  • I’m curious about what happened before The Big Bang as well.

    I prefer to have the open ended questions about life. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex at a specific time of the month causing me to become conceived and I lucked out and survived the pre-natal developmental and birthing processes.

    What is the meaning of my life? Whatever meaning I want to give it. To me, that is a beautiful answer. I’m not trapped in some narrow reason for being here like people who believe in Christianity, Islam, or maybe even Judaism (not sure, need to study that religion more closely) are.

    When I was Mormon, I felt stifled. Their whole thing is that we are here to get bodies. If one survives past the age of 8, then you’re reason for being here is to obey & serve the church, get married and have children. Anything beyond that is incidental. I guess that provides comfort for some people, but for me it was depressing.

    Religion provides false comfort in several ways. To me, the most obvious is in regards to death. Most people who believe in a god also believe in some sort of after life. It’s much more comforting to believe a dead loved one is still alive in another form & you may see them again someday than to believe that they have simply ceased to exist.

    Another way religion provides false comfort is in regards to a sense of justice. By that I mean that most religious people I know believe that even though injustices (whether real or simply perceived)go unaddressed here on earth, their god will even everything out in the end. They might be poor and suffer a lot here on the earth, but they will have a great and wonderful reward in the after life with god.

    I know this is getting long, but I want to list 2 downsides I’ve seen to these false comforts (besides the obvious that they likely just aren’t true). 1st, I’ve been to funerals for children under the age of 8 (most of them Mormon so my view may be a bit tainted here) where the family is chastised for mourning the loss of their child. They were told that they should be celebrating because their child had been so righteous in the pre-existence that they didn’t need to be tested here on earth, they just needed a body. The child had an automatic ticket into the highest level of heaven and that was a cause for celebration. Then the funerals turned into preaching sessions about how wonderful the Mormon church is and how the family needed to stay faithful to the church in order to be with their dead family member again. Those funerals made me so sick to my stomach, I won’t attend a Mormon funeral again.

    Too many times I see people just drudging through life and instead of trying to make the most of their life here on earth and finding joy for themselves, they are just biding their time until they can die and “go be with god.” I see people who aren’t too concerned about the injustices going on in the world because they think their god will right or even everything out in the next life.

    It would be “cool” if there was some sort of after life as long as I was free to do my own thing. I’d love to be some ethereal presence floating around the universe observing things.

  • absent sway

    I’m newly agnostic about things, so now I find a whole range of questions that had black-and-white answers before are opened up. Not only that, but questions that were mysterious even within a rigid religious framework had the advantage before of being trusted to God’s perfect judgment, and I could take hope that somewhere, somehow, he would arrange them properly.

    -How closely can we approximate justice?
    -What is the full range of “crazy”–how differently do our individual brains operate in comparison with each others, and how fine is the line between insanity and genius? Related to this, how much artistic inspiration needs to come from a place of pain or altered states?
    -What is a “good person?” How can I measure myself most accurately?
    -Knowing more now about how easy it is for people to change in dramatic, unanticipated ways, what other changes in my life and actions in the future might appall me were I to know about them now? Will changes be strong enough to come between me and my loved ones?
    -How can it be that I’ll never be reunited with my deceased relatives?
    -How can I best use my limited time and energy and talent; how can I not waste my life?

  • Steven

    All of these questions remind me of one of my favourite quotes “Human beings – I’ll never understand them. Even being one doesn’t help.”
    I really wish I could remember where I heard it.
    I’ve always been full of questions about what I don’t know but I’ll stick to the two of them that make it hardest for me to understand my fellow travellers:
    Why do we stubbornly believe in things that cannot be proven?
    Why are we so obsessed with death instead of life?
    Far too much time is wasted trying to please inscrutable, mute gods and imagining a better life in the “next life” instead of making this life the best one possible.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    What do you get when you multiply six by nine?

  • Is the “I” that’s the object of introspection the same as the I” that’s doing the introspecting?

  • Gabriel

    J.J. I can answer your question.

    What do you get when you multiply six by nince?


  • Ngeli

    Well, I am disabled (autism and really bad vision) and I often wonder how other people see the world. Other things I ponder were already mentioned… often I wonder why human interaction is so hard and how to improve it. Various linguistic problems also have the tendency to keep me up pondering them.

  • Richard Wade

    Sometimes answering these important questions just results in more questions. For instance, Gabriel said:

    J.J. I can answer your question.
    What do you get when you multiply six by nince?

    Feeling a bit confused, I first looked up the word “nince,” which I could only find in the Urban Dictionary. It’s a slang term meaning a combination of a ninny and a dunce, in other words a stupid, silly person. What 42 has to do with half a dozen dummies I can’t fathom.

    Then I thought well, maybe it’s a typo and it was supposed to be “nine,” but six multiplied by nine is 54. I’m really confident of that, because I double checked it with a calculator. So then I thought maybe “nince” means “seven” somewhere in the world, because double checking again I verified my suspicions that six multiplied by seven is 42, but I couldn’t find any reference to “nince” meaning seven to anyone anywhere.

    So now this is the question that will keep me up at night:

    What did Gabriel mean?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    “Nince” is what you call somebody who doesn’t prufread his posts. Oh, and if you’re going to be up at night, you might as well read some good books.


  • AnonyMouse

    What will America be like post-US?

    How long will it take for the US to collapse?

    When will they realize that all our snazzy medical advancements (particularly for genetic illnesses) are weakening the species? Will they go ahead with it anyway? Or do people have the sense of responsibility necessary to remove themselves from the gene pool for the good of humanity? How big of a riot will this cause?

    What exactly caused the Big Bang?

    What will happen in this dimension after the universe has dissolved?

    How long will organized religion exist?

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