The First Question

Douglas Adams might’ve known The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, but I know the question. Getting there will take a some effort, but with a little bit of attention and a few visual guides I think we can get there together. 

Amidst all the chaos we’re onboard a rocketship constantly propelled forward in time and space, most of the time on autopilot, and some of the time actively steering towards our next destination. What if this time when we disengaged autopilot and stepped away from the vehicle, we went straight to the heart of it all? If we decide to hop off this joyride, and hop onto deliberation express, what’s the first stop? What question comes first? 

This question is what I’m calling the First Question. The First Question is the question all other questions assume an answer to, excluding questions of definition. It’s the thread which, when pulled, untangles our tapestry of beliefs. That is, unless lazy thinking leads to its unraveling.

Of course, we want to avoid questions of definition from our search as endless definitions ultimately end up being circular and largely unhelpful. I will, however, clarify key terms as needed.

Descriptive and normative questions

How do we start our search for such a fundamental question? Where do we begin? For starters, we should probably understand what types of questions there are to choose from. Maybe with some useful distinctions we can begin eliminating contenders in batches. Personally, I like to split up questions into two groups: descriptive and normative questions. 

Descriptive questions are questions you might want to ask a scientist: 

How far away is the sun from earth?

At what speed does light propagate?

Why do objects fall to the ground when let go of?

They can even be mundane questions that require only a bit of careful observation or recollection:

Who was at the door?

Is that a cup on the table?

Will my package arrive today?

In short, they’re questions about what is, what was, or what might be. Normative questions by contrast ask about anything that has to do with values: 

Am I a good person?

Which political system is better?

What constitutes good evidence?

What reason do I have for accepting this claim?

Normativity can be about questions relating to epistemology/knowledge (is this better and worse evidence for this belief?), morality (which action/character trait/rule is better?), anything pertaining to standards of any kind like a game (what’s the better strategy for winning the semi-finals against a team like Barcelona?), laws (which right takes precedence?), or rationality (given my personal values, what’s the best strategy to maximize them?). Normativity is the genus, parts of morality, epistemology, games, legislation, and rationality are the species. 

Relationships between different types of questions. Some overlap is possible but left out for simplicity’s sake.

Looking at these groups of questions, my first intuition is that while the normative questions feel more “important” in some sense, descriptive questions get at something “deeper,” or more “fundamental.” If what we’re after is a question which all other questions assume an answer to, some good places to start would be:

What exists?

What is everything else made up of?

Which logic is reality constrained by?

While initially appealing, these questions all assume something very subtle. In fact, not just these questions, but all descriptive questions assume an answer to a prior question. All descriptive questions assume that asking those questions is something we should be doing in the first place. So with one fell swoop, we can eliminate all descriptive questions from our search!

“But wait”, I hear you cry, “doesn’t that same argument hold for all normative questions too? After all, all normative questions assume that asking them is something we should be doing in the first place!” And you would be right! Almost right. There is one question that avoids this assumption. In fact, this question avoids assuming that we should be doing anything at all. 

The first question is normative

This question avoids the trap of assuming we should be doing something because it’s precisely the question that asks what we should be doing! Specifically, the First Question is: what should I do? This question can’t assume we should be doing anything because that’s exactly what it’s trying to figure out in the first place. Well, we could assume an answer to this question, but that would be circular. I’d also like to emphasize where this question is located in the diagram above. This question can be asked as a generally normative question (what should I do given X values?), a rational question (what should I do in order to achieve my aims?), or a moral question (what should I do, full stop?) Which one it is depends on the context/how it’s asked. More on that later. 

So there we have it ladies and gentlemen, the First Question is “what should I do?” Case closed. We can move on to answering it, right? Well, not so fast. In true philosophical fashion, we have to define some terms first. I won’t condescend you by explaining the words “what” and “do” to you. You know how to use the word “what” and you know what actions are for the word “do.” With regards to the pronoun “I” I could go on a tangent about the self, personal identity, extended cognition, agent-neutral reasons, and similar topics. While these questions are interesting in their own right and have profound consequences, they’re not really necessary for what we’re trying to do here at this stage of the program as the conventional use of the term “I” is enough to get us off the ground. While we will be sure to come back to the question of personal identity, for now, we will operate on the common meaning of the term “I” which points in the general direction of a person’s mind + body in the present moment.

That just leaves the question of “what does should mean?” This question just might be the mother of all loaded questions, second only to the First Question. In trying to understand the word should, we’ll be squaring away a concept so fundamental to normativity, morality, and rationality. Getting our bearings here will take some time (and another chapter) which is why you’ll have to keep reading to find out.

The Implicit vs the Explicit

Before continuing there’s an important objection I’d like to address. The objection is that asking the First Question in the is a sign that something’s gone wrong in the first place. Thinking this explicitly about what to do next is a failure mode we’re knocked into when when the default mode of simply being and acting is disrupted. Normally we exist in a state of action: an auto pilot of sorts. So when our executive function kicks in, when our inner philosopher rears its ugly head, something must be amiss. 

I actually agree with this objection to a certain extent. Concrete conceptual thinking is a failure mode. But that doesn’t diminish its importance. We have that tool available to us because it’s useful. Ultimately we want to revert back to the implicit way of being, but it takes effort to build the habits which get us there. So in times of reflection, when we’re booted out of “just vibing” we need a clear system for thinking through what went wrong and how to correct the mistakes our body is signaling to us all the while using useful concepts to help us steer the ship back on course again. Besides, assuming we should “just vibe” is also an assumed answer to the First Question. Now on to defining “should”. But first, in the next post we need to discuss how not to understand a moral word’s meaning.

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