Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 17, 2010

The Answer to the Ultimate Question

By N.S. Palmer

In Douglas Adams’s brilliant novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything was ’42’.”

The novel’s characters who asked the question found that answer a little obscure. Therefore, in my capacity as a philosopher, I’m going to give you a clearer statement.

But I can only state the question and describe what the answer is like. The answer itself is different for everyone, though “42” isn’t a bad approximation.

The simple fact is that we can never know for sure what the universe and life are about, if anything. We don’t have certain knowledge of their purpose or even if they have a purpose.

We don’t know for certain why we live, or even if there is a reason. We don’t know why things happen to us, or even if there is a reason. We don’t know why we die, or what happens to us when that occurs.

We don’t have certain knowledge, in the scientific sense, that God exists and even less do we have any certain knowledge of what He is like.

We don’t have certain knowledge of right and wrong. We can’t prove our moral beliefs to anyone who doesn’t already partly agree with us: which means that we can’t prove them logically to ourselves, either. All our moral arguments are either:

  • Emotional persuasion, or
  • Attempts to show people that their moral beliefs are inconsistent, and that adopting the belief we recommend would make their beliefs consistent.

Evidence exists about all of those issues, but is insufficient to prove things one way or another. We can speculate, we can hypothesize, we can interpret the evidence in this way or that, but we can’t prove any of it.

Religion Gives Equivocal Answers

We can look to the Bible, or the Qur’an, or our religious traditions for guidance, but they don’t give us unequivocal answers. Some passages seem to command love and forgiveness; others seem to command hatred and mayhem. That’s why believers in the same faith often disagree about what their faith means. They latch onto different parts of the tradition to justify different world-views and different moral beliefs.

None of this is news. Sixteen centuries ago, St. Augustine said that in this world, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” In the 20th century, Rebbe Menachem Schneerson said, “G-d created the universe in a manner in which we perceive our own existence as the intrinsic reality.”

Science Gives Equivocal Answers

We can look to science for guidance, but that’s no help, either. Science studies the physical universe and how it works, so scientists are experts about that subject. As human beings, scientists also have opinions about God, the purpose of life, and why the universe exists.

Because they think in scientific terms, that’s how scientists express their religious and moral beliefs. But it’s important to understand that their religious and moral beliefs are not based on scientific evidence and are not supported by science. Atheism is a belief held by some scientists, but it is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a personal belief.

That’s why some eminent scientists don’t believe in God while other eminent scientists do believe in God. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, denies God’s existence and wrote a book to argue for his viewpoint. Francis Collins, a physician-geneticist who directs the Human Genome Project, believes in God and wrote a book to argue for his viewpoint. Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest physicists of our time, denies the existence of God. Isaac Newton, one of the greatest physicists of all time, spent much of his life trying to understand the Bible and what it revealed about God’s plan.*

All those scientists look at the same evidence. The atheists interpret the evidence as denying God’s existence. The theists interpret it as supporting God’s existence. If the evidence can be interpreted equally well to support contradictory conclusions, then it doesn’t prove anything about those conclusions.

What I Believe

Here’s my faith. I have reasons for believing these things, but the reasons are not logically conclusive. I can’t prove any of these beliefs to people who disagree with them:

  • God exists. He is the infinitely good, infinitely loving, infinitely intelligent, infinitely powerful creator and sustainer of the universe.
  • Our intelligence is so feeble compared to God’s that it’s not even comparable to His. We cannot understand God’s plan, nor should we expect to understand it beyond the baby-talk version He gives us in the Bible and other sacred texts.
  • Our identities as people transcend our physical existence in a manner of which we cannot be certain and probably can’t understand.
  • God put us into this world where we can experience and share love, joy, kindness, and even physical pleasure. But it’s also a world where we are exposed to hatred, sorrow, cruelty, pain, and death.
  • And it’s also a world where we can’t know for sure that God exists, what He wants us to be, or how He wants us to live.
  • Those are the basic facts of our lives, and they’re not going to change as long as we are in this world.

Those facts put us in a situation of radical freedom. If we knew for sure that God was looking over our shoulders and that He wanted us to live in a certain way, then we’d pretty much have to do it. What sane person would pick a fight with the creator and sustainer of the universe?

But we don’t know for sure. In the vernacular, “we don’t know jack.”

And Now: The Ultimate Question

Nobody with real authority will tell us how to live. We have to choose what kind of people we’re going to be and how we’re going to treat other people. We have to choose what moral and spiritual values we’re going to follow, if any.

And that leads to the ultimate question:

How do you choose to live?

Will you lay up treasures on earth? Will you treat other people just as things to satisfy your own selfish desires? Or will you thirst for righteousness more than riches, treating other people with love and kindness?

Will you see the world as meaningless, or meaningful?

Will you see each person, including yourself, as nothing more than an intelligent animal? Or will you see each person as an infinitely important child of an infinitely good and loving God?

Will you treat each encounter with another person as a chance to get something for yourself at his or her expense? Or will you treat it as an opportunity to share love and joy with that person?

I can’t give you the answer, because the answer has to come from within you. It has to be your own free and authentic choice.

What will you choose? For you, that is the answer to the ultimate question.

I can’t prove that you should, but I hope that you will choose the path of love, joy, kindness, and faith in God.

* Interestingly, Hawking held the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at Cambridge University: a position established in 1663 for, and first held by, Isaac Newton.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Hear, hear!

    • Hi, Leesis —

      Thanks very much for your kind words!

  2. I like very much your point about the radical freedom God has given us. And it’s true, we can’t prove God. It’s possible to look around and see things that we might call evidence, but the very nature of inductive reasoning dictates that at best signs point to God. But then we have to make the leap of faith to choose to believe in him.

    • Hi, Jim —

      I think that’s the point of the exercise. God wants us to make our own authentic choices, not to choose a certain way because we know He’s watching. And ultimately, the point is for us to learn how to make the right choice. We can learn better by doing and making mistakes; and fortunately for us, God forgives our mistakes. He only counts our final grade. 🙂

  3. […] bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it the […]

  4. […] bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it […]

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