"Why are unicorns hollow?" On language and meaningless questions
Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer. [emphasis mine]
That quote above, by Richard Dawkins from this Salon interview, is one of my favorite, and it demonstrates quite well the theme of this post.
Language is tremendously useful thing, but it has lots of problems. The one that I'm interested in is that words can be strung together without meaning anything (sort of like Chomsky's famous "green ideas sleep furiously", except less obviously meaningless).
For instance, "what existed before the universe?" That question is meaningless, even though almost no one think so. Or how about "What's outside the universe?" Totally meaningless, because not only can we not exit our causal universe, but if we could anything "out there" would be part of our universe by definition. I've touched on both of those things before, in Nothing Doesn't Exist, and won't continue here.
Another good example of this happened earlier this week, with an IDiot asking what us crazy Darwinists would do if evidence of irreducible complexity (IC) was found. On its surface this seems like an excellent question, since we could either admit that something is IC and admit Intelligent Design (ID) is true, or we can deny that it's IC and then confirm that we irrationally hate ID. The problem is that IC scientifically can't exist as they define it (it would simply be a gap in our knowledge), and it's already been shown that evolution produces IC (as one would expect with even a cursory understanding of evolution). What appeared to be an excellent question was just another meaningless one.
The sad thing about these questions is that most of the "important" ones fall into this category. Questions about the nature of existence, the purpose of life, all of those large existential questions just aren't meaningful. "Why are we here?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?", to take the two that pop into my mind, are just unanswerable because they start with terrible premises (that there's a reason for us to be here and that nothing is a preferable state for the universe, when it's almost certain that there's never been nothing).
The distinction between meaningful (why is the sky blue?) and meaningless (why am I here?) questions is an important one to keep in mind, because the meaningless questions seem to carry lofty importance because they're so difficult to answer. Once you realize that they're difficult to answer because they're meaningless they seem less lofty and more banal, and that realization is key to defeating arguments (like ID) that, due to lack of their own merit, use the meaningless question as a defense against intelligent attack.