Ray asked:

What does it mean to say that there are no definitive answers to philosophical questions and why might this be a good thing?

How do philosophers decide which answers are worth considering?

Answer by Tony Fahey

The first thing that has to be said in response to the first of the above questions is that it points to a paradox, that is, in arguing, as certain philosophers do, that there are no definitive answers to philosophical questions, one is making a definitive, and thus contradictory, statement. However, whilst I acknowledge the anomaly in this remark, I would defend it by arguing that although, at certain times, in their search for truth, philosophers appear to attach themselves to, what appear to be, incontrovertible truths, ultimately, following what Karl Popper calls ‘the law of falsification’, they accept that, given further evidence, they may have to concede that that which they have heretofore held as valid is in fact no longer sustainable. (We should remember that history is replete with examples which support this view, not the least of them being, of course, evidence that showed that our world is not flat, and that our planet is not the centre of the universe.)

Thus, it can be said that it is a good thing to hold that there are no such things as definitive answers, because it means that philosophy is (or should be) always open to the view that its theories, ideas, beliefs, and/ or worldviews may be have been built on sand.

How do Philosophers decide which answers are worth considering?

With regard to Ray’s second question, firstly, let me say that if I am to respond to this question directly, I would say that the answers that philosophers decide are worth considering are those that deal with questions such as: Who am I? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a God? Is the mind, at birth, a blank slate? Are there such things as innate ideas or concepts? Are there limitations to human understanding? How ought one behave? Are there really such things as inalienable rights? What is truth? What is beauty? Which is the most convincing argument for the creation of the universe: Creationism or the ‘Big Bang’? What is the purpose of human existence?, and so on.

However, it seems to me that rather than asking which answers are worth considering, what really is at issue here is which questions do philosophers consider worth answering. Given that this is the case, I would say that it should be remembered that philosophy is concerned primarily with a search for wisdom and a love of truth. Thus, any question worth answering from a philosophical point of view would have to fall under this particular rubric. And falling under this rubric we find such categories as epistemology (the theory of knowledge; the branch of philosophy that inquires into the nature and possibility of knowledge: what can we know?); ethics (the branch of philosophy concerned with codes of behaviour, the study of the moral value of human conduct: how ought one behave?); aesthetics (the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the concepts of beauty and taste: what is beauty?); logic (the branch of philosophy that analyses the patterns of reasoning), and metaphysics (an inquiry into that which comes after physics, or what lies beyond nature).