Philosophy (the study of ideas… about knowledge, truth, nature and meaning) is one of the oldest-practiced sciences in human history. source
…And that’s because questions like where did we come from, what is the meaning of life, and how does our universe work are deeply embedded in our human curiosity. source Think about it:
Our desire for meaning and knowledge fuels us to learn, to get ahead, and to become better people, right? That’s why asking philosophical questions is so incredibly important for people to do… it powerfully helps to fuel your desire to learn about yourself, humanity, and the universe.
I’ve gathered 19 of those deep, thought provoking questions below, and written a brief description of each one. Those descriptions are meant to jump-start your thinking about them… but then you can use your new thoughts in any way you like: to start conversations with friends, to journal about, or simply to meditate and expand your mind.
The Top 19 Deep Philosophical Questions
These are philosophy questions… and don’t have definite, ‘correct’ answers (and it’s better that way, right?) You can’t be right or wrong… but you do have to build your own arguments, and think deeply about what you believe to come up with your answer.
…So for each of these deep philosophical questions, I don’t even attempt to give you an answer.
Instead, I explain some history of the question, cite some existing theories on them, and even prompt more questions, to give you more material to think about.
Questions About Human (and Animal) Nature (8 Questions)
These are 8 questions that make you think. They’ll help you think about what you believe about the nature of human emotion, experiences, souls, and how we’re like/different from animals.
1. Does Free Will Really Exist?
Now… I know what you’re probably thinking:
“Of course I have free will! I chose to read this article, didn’t I?”
But the idea of free will isn’t that simple.
It’s not just your ability to make everyday choices… it’s questioning whether your actions/decisions are predetermined by a chain of events influencing your current state.
What does that mean? Here’s an example to clear it up:
George is a dog-loving, pizza-hating accountant who recently decided to move to New York.
According to the theory called causal determinism, everything about George’s life has been pre-determined by cause and effect and previous occurrences completely out of George’s control.
- Does George like dogs because he grew up with one?
- Does he hate pizza because it gave him terrible food poisoning as a child?
- Did he study accounting because an enthusiastic teacher sparked his interest in numbers?
- Did he move to New York because his close friend already lived there?
Basically… did George actually decide anything about his current lifestyle and preferences… or was it all determined for him by years and years of random circumstances?
…And so, here’s the bigger, even more thought provoking question:
If that kind of cause and effect influences your every moment and decision, then do you really have free will?
2. What, Exactly, Makes You… You?
You probably have an idea of what you define as your identity… what makes you you, unique from everyone else.
For example, you might think your identity lies in your body, since your body is unique, and you control every movement of it… but since almost all of your individual cells die and are replaced consistently, source would you want to claim that your identity lies with those dead cells?
…So then, your identity probably rests in your personality, which is definitely unique to you… but here’s the question that makes you think:
Did you create your personality? If it’s genetic coding (nature), you didn’t… your parents did. And if it’s your environment (nurture), then you didn’t… everything in your life did. source
I know it’s confusing, so here’s an example of that concept:
Phil is an excellent tennis player with a short temper who’s really bad at writing. Now:
Is he good at tennis because he was born with the right genes… or is it because his dad forced him to practice for 3 hours every day as a child?
Does he have a short temper because he’s neurologically wired that way… or because he constantly observed his mom’s anger?
Is he bad at writing because his brain favors math and science… or did he simply have bad grammar teachers as a child?
In other words:
Did nature give Phil his personality, or was it other people/circumstances?
…And if outside circumstances defined who you are, is that how you want to identify yourself?
3. Why do we dream?
It’s been suggested that everyone has dreams source (the vivid pictures and sounds you experience in your sleep, not aspirations).
The ancient cultures of the world almost all believed that dreams were sent from the gods, or were a connection to them (click here to see 7 of these extremely interesting ancient theories on dreams).
But more modern theories try to connect dreaming to other things besides gods. Here are 4 of those dream theories to explore:
- Freudian dream analysis. Dreams are your mind’s way of fulfilling wishes, often using symbolism. For example, you want to pass your final exam, so you dream about a coronation where you’re crowned a king (and the crown symbolizes the passing grade).
- Contemporary Theory. Dreams are indicators of emotion, and the more emotions present, the less clear the dream is. For example, a trauma patient in the hospital dreams about being swept away by a tidal wave (the emotion of overwhelming, traumatic fear lead to a dream of an overwhelming, fearful situation).
- Activation-synthesis hypothesis: dreams are the brain’s attempt to logically string together brain activity, just like when you’re awake. Your dreams are all ‘illogical’ because your neurons continue to fire while you’re asleep, and your brain is so driven to be logical that it tries to piece together a story/meaning of your random brain impulses.
- Parallel universe dream theory: dreams are portals into the lives of ‘counterparts’ that are created according to many worlds theory. For example, you dream about visiting a graveyard with your ex-landlord because that’s what a ‘you’ in a parallel universe is doing.
…And there many more dream theories (here are a few). After looking at all of them, why do you think we dream?
4. Why Do We Experience Emotion?
Emotions exist for almost all humans… but why do we have them?
Is it an evolutionary benefit? It can be argued that emotions like fear kept our ancestors alive, and emotions like joy made them want to mate.
But on the other hand, plants have existed/evolved for thousands of years, and even though they don’t have emotions, they’ve still survived. source
So… maybe emotions evolved from an evolutionary benefit to a social one. Think about it:
We’re extremely driven by society… we want powerful, beneficial relationships, and emotions motivate us toward those relationships (happiness around others motivates us to stay around them, anger motivates us to leave a relationship, loneliness motivates us toward relationships out of isolation). source
But on the other hand, emotion can hurt us just as much as it can help us:
A study had subjects complete half of a test, then be told they’sd either done excellent, poorly, or average compared to the competition… and on the second half, those with no emotional influence (the ‘average’ ones) performed better than both emotional groups. In other words, any emotional state hurt their ability to perform well.
So, if emotion can hurt us just as easily as help us… why do we still experience emotion? Will we eventually ‘evolve past’ emotion?
5. Do Animals Have Souls?
For this philosophical question, we’re assuming that the ‘soul’ is the spiritual or immaterial part of a person that lives on after death… not another way to say ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ (because most would agree that animals have those things).
So, is that kind of soul reserved for just humans?
Certain animals (especially pets) seem to have feelings… we even think they feel love toward humans, and even other animals (mostly because of their protective/affectionate actions toward us, like these).
So, the deeper question to ask is… does the fact that they have feelings, especially of love, mean they have souls?
How else could we detect if a creature has a soul, if it’s not through the existence of feelings like love?
…And do you have to detect a soul in a creature (animal or human) to know it exists? How do we detect our own human souls? If we can’t… do we even have them?
6. Can People Change?
Now… it’s obvious that people change in some ways: they grow physically, their brains mature and develop, and people even claim to ‘change their minds’ about certain things.
…But if you don’t count physical growth and maturity as ‘people changing’ (since these things are the brain and body changing, in a way without consent of the person), do people’s minds/souls ever change?
Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘Of course! I change my mind about things all the time.’
But (and bear with me here)… do you really? Or does your highly efficient brain just recognize higher logic?
Take this example:
A woman and her husband get in a fight over where to spend Thanksgiving holiday. At first, she argues to spend it with her family… but by the end, she decides that since her husband’s sister is very sick, they should spend Thanksgiving with her. She tells her husband she’s ‘changed her mind’ about spending Thanksgiving with her family.
The question is, did she change her mind, or did she just recognize that it’s more logical to spend time with his family this year?
…And now let’s make these examples more personal:
Do you ‘change’ to become more courageous, or do circumstances force you to see that courage is the logical way to face fear? And do you ‘change’ to stop liking an old hobby, or did you realize it’s not logical to continue it?
Basically, do you ever really change, or are you just reacting to circumstances logically?
7. How do you explain consciousness?
There’s no doubt that we’re conscious (even if you believe that we’re conscious in a simulation).
Consciousness just means that while we’re moving through time, we’re aware that we move through it. A plant, on the other hand, doesn’t seem aware that it moves through time.
Consciousness is confusing for scientists because it doesn’t fit into scientific explanations of the world… while physics explains how chemistry works, and chemistry explains how biology works, and biology explains how psychology works, consciousness doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
And it’s extremely difficult to test theories on consciousness… since science is objective, and everyone’s consciousness is subjective, and those ideas conflict. But that hasn’t stopped scientists and philosophers from developing theories, like the theory of pansychism.
Pansychism claims that every system has a level of consciousness (even down to microbes and photons), and the more information the system can process, the more consciousness it has (so humans are more conscious than dogs, which are more conscious than plants, which are more conscious than photons… but everything is still conscious). source
…And since everything in the universe has a level of consciousness, consciousness is as fundamental to the universe as time, space and mass.
Now… what do you think about consciousness? Why are we conscious… and are all things conscious to a degree?
8. What Gives Life Its Meaning?
To answer this thought provoking question, you first have to decide if life has meaning.
…So is life a random occurrence in the universe, and consciousness just an evolutionary quirk that means nothing? If that’s what you believe, the answer to this question is easy: nothing.
But if you believe that life isn’t random, and our consciousness has a fundamental purpose in the universe, then what gives life its meaning?
Is it time? Is it the condition and fulfillment of your soul? Is it death?
Or is there no meaning to anyone’s life at first… instead, do you have to create your own meaning? source
…Look, here’s the thing with this question:
No matter what you think gives life its meaning, you’re defining all life in the universe by that scale. Is all life equally meaningful by your scale?
Questions About the Universe (3 Questions)
We know our universe is huge, expanding, and a huge mystery… but how does it work? And is it the only one?
9. Does Time Have a Beginning or an End?
This is question that really makes you think:
Humans know a lot of facts about time, mostly due to studies testing Einstein’s theory of general relativity… like that space and time are actually connected in the ‘fabric’ of space-time (that can be warped by gravity, etc. I highly suggest you click the link to learn about Einstein’s theory, if you don’t know about it already).
…But I’m not asking what we know or can even measure about time. I’m asking what we specifically can’t know: did time ‘begin’?
We have a pretty good idea (backed by some strong evidence) that the space-time fabric of our universe violently burst into existence about 13.8 billion years ago. But what about before then?
If all the universe was condensed into a tiny dot (or didn’t exist at all), was there a time? In other words, since space-time is a woven fabric, can time exist without space?
…And the philosophical question actually gets deeper:
10. Is Our Universe ‘Real’?
Some forward-thinking scientists, like Elon Musk, have argued that an advanced civilization could create a simulation so advanced that the simulated ‘life’ inside it could gain consciousness… and that this has actually already happened (and we’re inside the simulation… like in the Matrix).
Musk’s theory goes like this:
Basically, if you assume any rate of improvement on our current virtual reality (and our virtual reality is getting pretty damn real), we’ll reach a point where virtual realities will be indistinguishable from actual reality.
Others argue that Musk’s theory has some flaws. They say that if something like an apple was so far simulated that it actually fed those in it, the apple isn’t even a simulation anymore… it’s real.
11. Is There Only One Universe?
So we’ve discussed the possibility of different realities above… but what about different universes? Are they the same thing?
Now… obviously, there are only two overarching theories to this philosophical question… either we’re in the only universe there is, or we’re not (there are universes besides this one).
…And the one universe theory is pretty simple… our single universe exists, and it likely stretches on infinitely.
Now, this theory does have one interesting quirk… since there are only so many ways particles can be arranged, in an infinite universe, the particles must repeat at some point, meaning billions of light years away, there’s another Earth, and another you. source
…But on the other hand, you have multiverse theories, like these:
Bubble Theory: different universes exist, but so far, we can only observe this one. The other universes may be too many light years away to see, or they may have different laws of physics that prevent us from seeing them, or they may even be inside black holes.
Membrane (String) Theory: the different universes are 3-dimensional objects in a 4-dimensional universe, and they’re stacked on top of each other, like the pages in a newspaper.
Many Worlds Theory: each thing that could ever happened has in fact happened, and the universe ‘splits’ into another universe (or alternate timeline) each time an action takes place.
…Now I get it:
These theories are incredibly complicated. Some scientists actually spend their whole lives trying to understand these concepts. But this video can help explain each theory above with helpful illustrations.
Which theory do you think is true?
Questions About Morality (4 Questions)
Where did the idea of morality come from? These 4 are questions that make you think about the real nature of morality, and help you come to conclusions about what you believe about how moral humans are.
12. What Are the Universal Human Rights?
What this question is really asking is what does every human in the world deserve?
Are all humans guaranteed life, and that’s it?
Or does it go farther than that? Do all humans also deserve liberty, and/or property?
Maybe every innocent human deserves those things… but what about murderers? They probably don’t deserve the liberty that an innocent person does… do they deserve justice?
…And if every human in the world deserves justice, and nothing more, then it’s fair to say that humans decide their own rights with their choices.
So, if I decide to never murder, steal, or harm any person in any way, do I have the right to a better life, free of punishment, than someone who made decisions to harm?
It’s a complicated philosophy question (and obviously, has many follow-up questions), but it’s an interesting exercise to try to make a list of what every human has a right to. Is it only justice, like I explained above? Or is it liberty, property, peace, clean environment, or happiness? Or is it nothing?
13. Are We Obligated to Help Others?
Now, with the above question:
If humans do have rights, are we responsible for making sure each human retains their rights? If so, when did we assume this responsibility for other human’s rights? Why are we not each responsible for just enforcing our own individual human rights?
Think about those questions as you keep reading:
There are a couple of beliefs that people can choose (like a code to live by), that tell them how to treat human rights. For example:
The Golden Rule states that you should do for others exactly the things that you’d want them to do for you… and that that attitude of giving will hugely benefit our society.
Utilitarianism, on the other hand, states that the best action toward others is the one that makes the most sense for the greatest number.
Now… those two beliefs could overlap, but here’s a powerful example of when they’re highly different:
A tsunami is about to hit a crowded city. People are running away from the beach through the crowded streets, including you and your family.
…And right behind you, a man trips, falls, and starts to get caught under the feet of the people running past him. He’ll be trampled to death in a few seconds.
Now… if you’re a believer in the Golden Rule, you’d stop running, and you and your family would turn and help this man. That’s what you would want if you were him, right?
…But if you’re a believer in utilitarianism, you’d probably think that risking your life, the lives of your family, and the lives of the people you’d inevitably slow down is not worth it to save the life of just one man.
Can you see how each principle would dictate you act in a different way?
…So what do you believe about our responsibly to help others? Do we follow the Golden Rule, utilitarian principles, or do we even have an obligation to help others? And if everyone believed like you did, how would it change our society?
14. Do the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few?
A thought experiment called The Trolley Problem has been used for years to visually demonstrate this question:
Imagine that a runaway train is on track to kill five railroad workers. You’re standing next to a switch that can re-route the train to a different track, saving the lives of five people. But here’s the problem:
If you do re-route the train, a single worker on the new route will be hit by the train.
…So the question becomes:
Is one death better than five deaths? Or are they both equally bad?
And more importantly… are decisions (like whether or not to pull the switch) only morally right because of the positive outcome (saving five people)… or should we take into account how we get to the outcome (murdering one person)?
If you believe in utilitarianism, then you’d answer no, it doesn’t matter how we get to the outcome. The greatest good (living) was done for the greatest number (five people).
…But a believer in deontologist principles would say that since killing is always wrong, it’s better to allow the train to run its course, rather than intentionally murder a person.
Here’s the bottom line, guys:
You can focus on the outcome of the circumstance (five people saved vs. only one dead), or the action it took to get there (murdering a person). Which do you believe is more important?
15. What is a fair society?
The word ‘fair’ can actually be broken down into two categories:
Equal and just. source
An equal society is just what is sounds like… everyone has the same everything (wealth, health, punishments, rewards).
…And a just society is one where everyone has what they deserve: hard work means more wealth, better habits mean better health, and wrongful actions result in punishment.
See the difference?
The problem is that people define ‘fair’ differently when they talk about a fair society… and different people value equality and justice at different levels.
So, what society would you live in? Do you value equality, and want to protect every human’s rights, or do you believe that justice is the only human right that matters?
Questions About Intangible Concepts (4 Questions)
Intangible means that something can’t be touched… it’s not physical. The intangible concepts these 4 philosophy questions explore are love, beauty, truth, and art.
16. What Is Love?
Love was one of the most-debated philosophical topics among ancient philosophers… and even with a scientific understanding of how the brain processes love, it’s still a philosophical question without an exact answer.
Here’s some philosophical theories on what love is:
Aristophanes (Greek playwright around 400 BCE) source claimed that love is a pursuit of ‘wholeness’… and even that humans were once four-legged, four-armed, two-faced creatures (like two humans sewn together), but after an act of Zeus split them in half, they long to be reconnected with their kind. source
…In other words, love is the pursuit of your missing half that was split apart from you. It might sound silly with that visual example, but a lot of people still believe that love is searching for your missing half… a soul mate.
Another Greek at the time, the philosopher Socrates, strongly disagreed with Aristophanes. He thought that love is the way humans have evolved to ‘live forever’, because love for one another causes people to have children, protect each other, provide for each other, etc. source
…And more recent scientists claim that love is just chemistry:
Love releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, and our brains pick love mates for us based on whose chemical composition matches ours. source
But what do you think about love? Is it a search for your soul’s mate, a desire to keep our society going, or simply a chemical attraction?
17. What is truth?
Now… I know this one seems obvious, if you look at the definition:
Truth is being aligned with facts or reality. source We all know that.
But what I’m asking here is what is true? How can we tell? And who decides what is true?
Take that last question… do each of us, individually, decide what is true? We all have different opinions on what is right (or true) in some things, such as what flavor of ice cream is the best… and we all know that what’s true for me might be false for you (if my favorite is vanilla, and yours is chocolate, etc.).
On the other hand:
Is truth real outside of individual people’s heads (is there objective truth)? Can some things in the universe be absolutely true, no matter who considers them?
…Or maybe the only ‘truth’ that we know for sure is that we exist (Descartes’s famous conclusion that ‘I think… therefore I am’). Everything else outside of that undeniable fact could be an illusion… so do we know that anything else is ‘true’?
PS. Here are a few more (complex) theories on truth to help you consider this question.
18. What is beauty?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
…Or in other words, beauty is subjective. This means that each person defines what is beautiful to him or her, and things can be beautiful or not depending on who you ask.
The evidence for this is that people commonly disagree about whether a person, place or thing is beautiful. Right?
On the other hand, beauty could be objective, meaning that whoever’s looking at it (if anyone is), it’s still beautiful no matter what. There’s actually some evidence to support this beauty is objective theory:
This test explains how math can make faces more beautiful (in the form of the Golden Ratio), and shows how ‘beautiful’ faces through history follow the same mathematical organization. That would make beauty universal and timeless.
…So what do you believe:
Is beauty subjective (in the eye of the beholder) or objective (universal and timeless)?
Or is beauty something else entirely, like a measure of usefulness (Aristotle thought this… that a poorly-made golden shield is less beautiful than a perfectly-made toilet), source or just familiarity (like this survey, which shows people perceive familiar-sounding foreign languages as more beautiful than strange ones).
With all those theories… subjectivity, objectivity, usefulness, familiarity… what is beauty?
19. Why Do We Create Art?
This is a great, and surprisingly thought provoking question:
Art in any form (paintings, sculptures, theater, music, construction) is something that almost all humans enjoy.
…But even though art has existed for thousands of years, our ancestors certainly weren’t artists to survive… they were hunters, gatherers, fishers, etc.
So… since art doesn’t help anyone who’s not a professional artist to survive, why do we create it?
Humans actually go a step further than just creating art… we’ve applied artistic principles to things like sex, cooking, and movement. Things that are only supposed to keep our species alive have now become ‘art forms’ (for example, instead of eating whatever we can find, we spend a ton of effort to create a delicious, beautiful meal).
So, we definitely have a desire to enjoy and create art, but why? Aristotle thought that happiness was the purpose of life, and that art (both enjoying and creating it) was an attempt to reach that goal. source
…And that suggests that enjoying beauty (in nature or in art) are innate desires of humans. We all desire happiness, and beauty and art make us happy. source
But… why are we the only creatures on the earth that create art, and not just merely survive? Why does the source of our happiness lie in our creation, and not just in the world that already exists (outside our creation)?
These 19 thought provoking, philosophical questions aren’t completely answered here (they were chosen because they’re questions to make you think), to give you the room to think or write about what you think about each one.
…And by thinking deeply about each one, you can continue the ancient tradition of trying to understand humanity, immortality, and our universe.