The biggest questions in life cannot be answered

Whereof one cannot answer, one must remain silent

Philosophy, at its core, is all about tackling the big questions. The meaning of life, the nature of being, good and evil… philosophy has wrestled with these problems for centuries. As our inquiries reach their crescendo, as our investigations are about to come to a head, we often find that the best response is to remain silent. Writes Mauricio Suarez.


“I ask: "Why should this essence exist? What results from the fact that it is and will be?" ... Philosophy not merely fails to answer, but all it does itself is to repeat the same question. And if it is genuine philosophy then the totality of its labour lies in the attempt to put this question clearly.” (Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Confessions, Part V).

“And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must be nothing hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §109)

A long, distinguished, and very rich philosophical tradition (more precisely: a rich collection of ethical, juridical, philosophical and religious traditions and movements across diverse cultures through history), suggests that the answers to the deepest questions are beyond human reach. These are metaphysical questions regarding the meaning of life, the essence of being, and the nature of things. The human predicament lies precisely in our capacity to formulate inquiring and unsettling questions of this type that can receive no answers. For we are then left in a position where mental balance and peace can only come from an acknowledgement that such questions must go unanswered. At the point of the grandest ambition, where stakes are highest, our inquiries can only go quiet, and we must stay resolutely silent.


Quietism must not be confused with nihilism, solipsism, radical or global scepticism, or any kind of antirealism.


It is not that the questions must be met with denials. In other words, it is not that we must answer that there is no meaning to life, no essence to being, and no nature to anything. Quietism must not be confused with nihilism, solipsism, radical or global scepticism, or any kind of antirealism. In fact, quietism stands at the greatest distance - the exact opposite - of any of these views or positions. For all these views do in the end provide answers of a negative sort, which then paves the way to despair. Quietists by contrast refuse to answer – thus avoiding despair and finding balance and peace of mind. In his autobiographical Confessions (1880) Tolstoy says that he only ‘regained’ a proper life once he saw clearly that his questions could not be coherently formulated in any form that permits an answer. On the contrary, Tolstoy claims, when metaphysical questions of this sort are finally formulated coherently it becomes evident that the only way to put them to rest is to end the quest. Questions regarding the meaning of life are paradigmatic; only when we stop asking them to live, do our lives make sense.

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Throughout the history of philosophy, questions in ethics about the values that must guide our life, often seemed to lack answers – or, rather to receive a satisfying answer only when it becomes clear that it is not within our powers to resolve them. But one may wonder if this sort of quietism is still alive and well today, in the era of technoscience. What could quietism nowadays contribute to our enquiries? We seem less ‘quiet’ than ever: Our public conversation is as loud and noisy as it can get. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly when one thinks carefully about our increasing need to remain focused), quietism is in robust good health. In philosophy – certainly within the philosophy of science – it perhaps was never in better shape. A lot of the recent trend towards philosophy of science in practice involves acknowledging metaphysical quietism and moving away from the sorts of explanatory frameworks decried by Tolstoy and Wittgenstein. Thus, philosophers have in recent years relinquished explanatory attempts to define away causation, representation, free will, the mind and mental intentionality, reference, measurement, chance and probability, and even things as prosaic as chemical element, evolutionary fitness, well-being. Instead, they are now pointing to features of scientific practice and inquiry where those notions have use, including the various methods employed in the natural and social sciences to identify, measure and quantify causes, represented or denoted targets, free options, mental states, measurements, elements, fitnesses, chances and probabilities, well-being.

Causation is perhaps paradigmatic (Suárez, 2024). A leading metaphysical issue concerns the definition of the relation between causal relata (i.e., between cause and effect, often understood as events). The history of causal metaphysics of course goes back to Aristotle and the ancients. It involves an array of attempts to build a comprehensive philosophical theory that explains how an event can cause another. Throughout the 20th century theorists have outcompeted each other to define causation in terms of regularities, counterfactuals, probabilities and statistical correlations, or processes. To say that none of these theories has been successful would be an understatement: They are all plagued with antinomies and counterexamples. Yet, philosophers of science have provided plausible and illuminating accounts of the sorts of interventionist methodologies that scientists typically employ in finding out causes – of whatever sort. The methodologies do not seem to greatly vary, even when we suspect different types of causes are at stake.

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The upshot is that it does not matter much what causation is in fact – what its true nature or essence is. The methods that reveal causes and distinguish them from their effects are reliable across vast swathes of our sciences and ordinary cognitive lives regardless. Philosophy is of great help if it carefully lays out those methods, their assumptions, and changing contexts of application. Metaphysical quietism comes to our rescue at this point, not only as therapy to release us from the burden to have to explain away causation. It also helps not to advance any theory so that descriptions of our practices of causal inference can freely reveal the norms and standards that govern them. That sort of knowledge is certainly philosophical but emerges only when unencumbered by any predetermined attempt to cast causal inference within one or another metaphysical theory of causation. For once the alternatives present themselves to us, it becomes evident that the question is sterile and can receive no definite answer. The questions that do have answers concern the integrity, suitability and reliability of our causal inferential practices. An attitude of metaphysical quietism helps to re-direct philosophical inquiry towards such questions and thus allows us to ‘regain’ our inquiring lives.

Tolstoy is clear that the questions that call for a quietist attitude are metaphysical in nature; they are the questions of ‘speculative’ philosophy. But not all philosophical questions have this character, and of course most scientific questions do possess answers. Others in the diverse range of quietist schools have not been so clear. Wittgenstein was a quietist all his life – it is possibly the one solid commitment that runs firmly through his entire life’s work. The latter Wittgenstein seems at points through the Philosophical Investigations (1953) determined to quiet down any philosophical inquiry, metaphysical or otherwise. Thus, he writes, “the real discovery is the one that makes me capable to stopping doing philosophy when I want to” (1953, §133) and most famously “philosophy leaves everything as it is” (1953, §124). Richard Rorty notoriously interpreted such passages as the attempt to put an end to any philosophical quest, and he urged the elimination of analytical philosophy altogether. Willard Van Orman Quine can be similarly interpreted as defending the replacement of philosophy – or at any rate epistemology - with empirical science, including the psychology and physiology of perception. Quietism is thus often conflated with a kind of radical naturalism that forces all meaningful inquiry into line with the methods and aims of the empirical sciences. It is not farfetched then to identify radical forms of empiricism through the ages as quietism. The neopositivists’ verificationist criterion of meaning would seem to qualify since it aims to show that any statement that does not reduce to sense data (or the protocol sentences that describe our sense data) lacks any cognitive content. Even Hume’s call to bring scholastic philosophy to the flames has on occasion been read in this way. This sort of “eliminative” quietism is in fact often the target that many of its fiercest critics have in mind.


Philosophy’s indispensable role is in the precise formulation of questions.


But the identification of quietism with eliminative naturalism is an error (Spiegel 2021), and does poor justice to most quietist thinking through the ages. (At least in Europe: I leave aside 20th century American post-analytical ‘quietists’ such as Quine, Rorty and their followers, since in my opinion they hardly merit the label). Hume certainly does not condemn all of philosophy, not even all scholastic philosophy, and in fact both Hume and Kant largely built their epistemologies in response to, if not on the back of, scholastic doctrines regarding nominalism, perception, and logical syllogism. The earlier Wittgenstein intends only for speculative metaphysics to remain silent as regards the central question at stake in the Tractatus (1921), namely the logical form that propositions share with the world they picture or represent. As many commentators have noted – not least Russell and Ramsey in their own exchanges with Wittgenstein at the time –, it is remarkable how much Wittgenstein himself has to say about issues in the vicinity of those that are supposed to remain intractable. The late Wittgenstein, as Simon Blackburn (2010) shrewdly points out, betrays any claims to a general philosophical quietism in his own practice, a relentless and enduring attempt to philosophically illuminate critical distinctions.


When it comes to the metaphysical questions, if done properly and proficiently, philosophy shows that the answers to such questions are not possibly within our reach.


Many have supposed that Wittgenstein’s quietism has roots in Viennese neopositivism, but it is the connection with Tolstoy – whom he was reading in the trenches during WWI – that is most illuminating. Philosophy’s indispensable role is in the precise formulation of questions. These questions are not at all meaningless or senseless, even if they may not have precise verification conditions. But when it comes to the metaphysical questions, if done properly and proficiently, philosophy shows that the answers to such questions are not possibly within our reach. It is only through their philosophically precise formulation that we can then regain our lives, and a measure of peace. This is arguably what the late Wittgenstein intended – in full Tolstoy mode – by ‘philosophy as therapy’. What philosophy shows as regards those metaphysical questions, cannot be stated without creating new questions that will need to be precisely formulated as well – only to then be done away with too. Ultimately, the regression may only end in the acknowledgment that silence is the appropriate response. This is when our lives are ‘regained’: In the silent contemplation of all that we can achieve by way of our actions, without uttering virtually a word about, never mind articulating a full theory of, those actions. Silentium est aureum.



Blackburn, Simon. 2010. Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays, Ch. 11: “Wittgenstein’s Irrealism”.

Spiegel, Thomas. 2021. Naturalism, Quietism, and the Threat to Philosophy. Shwabe Verlag.

Suárez, Mauricio. 2024. “Quiet Causation and its Many Uses in Science”, in Federica Russo and Phyllis Illari, Eds., Routledge Handbook in Causality and Causal Methods. London Routledge.

Tolstoy, Lev Nicholayevich. 1880. Confessions.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1921. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations.

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