Emily Sturgess is the Development Officer for Christians in Science. She studied biology at Oxford, is an ecologist by training, loves nature, and can identify enough species of moss on-sight to elicit mockery from family members. Today she considers how we go about answering life’s big questions.
How do you answer the big questions in life?
Everyone has them…Where do we come from? Why is there so much suffering in the world? What happens when we die? What is reality? What is truth? Why do we love?
There are a lot of aspects to being a human, a creature that is able to think outside of itself in an abstract way, that definitely aren’t simple. The whole of the abstract world, and even a lot of the physical world, is not easy for us to get our heads around; and it often seems like the more we investigate and ask questions, the more we realise we don’t know, and the more questions we end up with!
It’s really good to look beyond the bubble of our own existence (reading your Twitter feed doesn’t count in this instance!) and ask these big questions. They can be overwhelming and bewildering to begin with, but exciting to engage with. It’s part of who we are, trying to work these things out.
So where do you go for answers when you’re asking questions like this? Do you ask a priest? A philosopher? A scientist? The trouble is, big questions aren’t just the realm of one discipline. And most of these questions will have more than one answer too, depending on who you ask.
For example, let’s say I ask three people ‘Where did I come from?’ One is a doctor, one an evolutionary biologist, and one a sociologist.
The doctor might explain the genetics of how two half-sets of DNA combined, one from my mum and one from my dad, and grew in my mum’s womb – starting as a single cell and multiplying rapidly over 9 or so months. They could tell me about how different parts of that bundle of cells differentiated off into different organs, all sorted and grown just in time to be birthed, a healthy and screaming bundle of baby.
The evolutionary biologist might tell me about my ancestry on a much longer time-scale: about how humans evolved over tens of thousands of years from hominid-, and before that, primate-ancestors…and if they had time might tell me about shrew-like mammalian ancestors hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of years before that too!
The sociologist might take a more personal approach, and answer the question by looking at my background and upbringing. In my case, they might say that I come from a British, relatively-well-educated background, with the influences of a stable family and an east-midlands culture.
Each answer answers the question fully, yet completely differently. Does it mean only one of them can be right? It seems one question can have lots of different answers, with none of them being wrong. So when we ask big questions about how and why things are the way they are, we can get lots of different bits of information that we have to piece together, layer by layer, from different directions.
What do you think? I’ve come to realise that when it comes to the Big Questions in life, no-one seems to have any of them fully explained. It makes sense to ask as many people as you can, from lots of different disciplines, what they think. Just because they give different answers doesn’t mean they’re not just explaining the same thing in a different way. Don’t just ask science. Don’t just ask religion. Don’t just ask your gut instinct. See what they all say, and how they might be speaking the same truth in a different language.
Can you think of any other questions that have different, but equally true, answers depending which way you look at them; and what those different answers might be?