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Giving answers to questions that ask to be wrestled with

In a lecture last week at Penn State, renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson used Paul Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” (above) to introduce his ideas on eusociality. According to Wilson, Gauguin’s three questions are the central questions of religion and philosophy. However neither is equipped to answer them.

Wilson asserts that religions do not have the necessary scientific understanding of the universe and offer competing accounts. And since the decline of logical positivism, philosophy has “scattered in a kind of intellectual diaspora and into those areas not yet colonized by science”. In a leap of logic, Wilson concludes, “by default therefore, the solution to the great riddle, if it has an answer, has been left to science”.

Wilson claims that eusociality and evolutionary biology provide the best answer to Gauguin’s questions. Rather than address the veracity and usefulness of Wilson’s eusociality (something that extends beyond my discipline), I want to pause and focus on the type of answer that Wilson’s eusociality is and whether it address Gauguin’s questions.

Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is considered to be his most significant work. It is also reported that he intended to commit suicide after its completion, a fact relayed by Wilson. Gauguin was approximately fifty at the time of completing the work, however its title and origins go back to his childhood when he was a student under the Bishop of Orl�ans, F�lix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup.

Dupanloup developed a catechism for his young students to encourage them to reflect on the nature of life. The catechism revolved around three questions: where does humanity come from, where is it going to, how does humanity proceed? While Gauguin disliked his school years and later clashed with the Catholic Church, these three questions clearly held a lasting significance for him, inspiring one of his greatest works.

In painting a scene of life moving from birth to death, the viewer is left questioning with Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Clearly many answers are possible, including Wilson’s eusociality, however different disciplines will hold different answers of different significance. In response to the question, ‘what are we?’, a biologist could start explaining the anatomical structure of a human, but this does not address the existential character of the question.

In asking ‘what are we?’ or ‘who am I?’ the question directs our inquiry beyond descriptive facts of biology or anatomy to philosophical and ethical notions of identity and self-understanding. These answers certainly include the biological, identity and self-understanding are to abstracted from the body, but nor are they reduced to it.

In his lecture Wilson describes the task of science as discovering “the knowledge of the real world [that] can be tested and shared with every person”. This is a fine description if by “real world” Wilson means the physical or sensible world. But if “real world” means the world of human interaction and concepts, such as freedom, morality, and meaning, then Wilson either misunderstands science or misunderstands the way non-physical ideas operate in the world.

In discussing Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, Michael Sandel addresses the role of science. “Science can investigate nature and inquire into the empirical world, but it cannot answer moral questions or disprove free will. That is because morality and freedom are not empirical concepts. We can’t prove that they exist, but neither can we make sense of our moral lives without presupposing them.” (Justice, 2009: 129) It is important to be aware of the boundaries separating disciplines and the different questions they seek to answer.

In recent years, some populist scientists have “colonized” questions that go beyond the empirical and physical. In using the methods of natural science, questions of morality and meaning have been flattened and reduced to biophysical explanations (for an example of where these issues are currently unfolding see neuroethics). In so doing, the scope of possible answers are reduced to the empirical, or alternatively questions that extend beyond the empirical are discounted as “silly“.

Importantly, scientists have answered many questions, helping us to better understand the physical world and our place in it. But while natural science is a powerful tool, it is not the only tool we have and it is not always the most appropriate. Questions such as ‘why are we here?’, ‘where are we going?’, or ‘what is the purpose of existence?’ are significant questions that have occupied humanity for millennia. Importantly, these questions remain unanswered, not because there are no answers, or philosophers have used the wrong method, or that we have not applied ourselves with the necessary vigor, but because of the nature of the question does not allow for stable or final answers.

Some questions are for answering, and some are for wrestling. Gauguin wrestled with these questions, not in anticipation of an answer. I will not speculate on the kind of answer that would have satisfied Gauguin, but I will venture to suggest that Wilson’s eusociality would not have sufficed. This is not because eusociality is necessarily wrong, but that it is an answer to a different question. Eusociality tries to describe how social interaction evolved. For Wilson, the ‘why’ of human social organization is that it is adaptively advantageous. This may be correct but it does not and cannot address questions about why this is so, who we are and what should we do. Gauguin’s questions are about existence, meaning and purpose, not description, process or mechanism. As evidenced by Gauguin’s own approach, they are to be wrestled with over a lifetime.

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