2 On Questions

One way to characterize philosophy is as the art of questioning.  Few solutions may come from philosophy, but many of the most important questions have.   The assumptions of an entire culture or generation can be altered by the posing of new questions.


Folks taking this introductory philosophy course sometimes tell me that “It is all just opinion.”  That is an interesting claim, though I have to note that questions (genuine, serious questions) are not opinions.  They have a different function in thought and culture than opinions do.


Questions are often not welcome.  One way to deal with questions is by force of authority:


*Many times I have witnessed young children asking questions which the attendant adults dismiss as irrelevant, silly, or worse.


*History shows many situations in which asking certain questions is dangerous to the individual.  For instance, authoritarian religious leaderships have often equated questions with doubt and then unbelief.  In cases such as The Inquisition, questioning is dealt with by severe force.


*Sometimes when people ask questions of their governments the reactions are strong.  In some cases, when the questions probed too deeply or challenged to much, they are not acknowledged at all but rebuffed with accusations; such as “You are (anti-Soviet, anti-Turkish, anti-American, Enemy of the People, etc.)”


*In interpersonal situations, among friends and family, unwelcome questions (i.e. those which challenge the status quo) may be met with anger, ridicule, or denial.


*Questioning ourselves to ourselves can be very difficult.  Some thinkers have aptly described mechanisms of the human mind that resist change and challenge.  It is not hard to test this on yourself by trying to seriously question your most basic and cherished beliefs in a sustained way.  The defenses go up pretty fast – and they really are convincing when we are the ones putting them up.  Here is one simple way to detect a defensive shield against some area of questioning in yourself: study some topics that are quite different from your usual interests or invest effort into understanding views that are opposed to your own.  If you find yourself reacting with strong and involuntary emotion, especially with immediate and intense judgement of the topic’s “worthlessness,” “pointlessness,” “stupidity,” etc.  – chances are you have identified a personal defense system that protects you against new thought and potential change.  Self-knowledge of this sort is very valuable.


*Even in education we can find questions to be unwelcome.  In 3rd grade I recall learning what was then called “New Math.”  The teachers showed us the various symbols of operations including =, >, <.  One symbol was called “less than or equal to.”  I asked; “Since there is already an equal sign and a less than sign, what is the use of the ‘less than or equal to’ sign?”  The teacher was angered by this and told me; “Stop asking stupid questions and just learn the lesson!” Instead, I responded by refusing to learn any more lessons from her.  At that moment I closed my mind to math altogether.  Have paid the price for that defensive reaction my whole life.


I realize now that the teacher really did not understand my question.  I meant it honestly.  I suppose she thought I was smarting off (I was also known for asking unwelcome questions in catechism [i.e. religious doctrine] class).  Even as I look back on this experience, I think that my question made sense.  I know now that there was a mistaken assumption in my question, but that did not make it a poor question (much less a stupid one).


The problem was that I was not asking a question that fell within the domain of assumptions.  If I had asked a question that accepted and made use of the symbols, how to work within the system, the teacher would have likely been glad to show me what to do.  My question, however, was about the givens.  It challenged the reasoning for the system itself.  If you want to get yelled at, shunned, ridiculed, fired, failed (not in this class, though!), etc., an excellent approach is to ask serious, intelligent questions about the assumptions of the given system.


When thinkers ask questions such as “what is reality?” and “what is thinking?” and “what is language?”  and “what is truth?” they are asking to open the system itself to examination.  They are calling our most basic givens into question.  It is natural that some people will receive such questions as ridiculous, irrelevant, and a waste of time.  Like my 3rd grade teacher, some folks are inclined to say; “Stop asking stupid questions and just get on with it!”  To be fair, perhaps those folks have a point worth considering.  Maybe some things are not meant to be questioned.  Maybe it is impossible (nonsensical) to pose some sorts of questions.  But see?  Even by opening this possibility I am doing it again! I am inclined to take their thought seriously even if they dismiss mine as worthless.


What is your own experience with questions?  What are your most important questions?  How have those questions been received by others throughout your life?  Do you have an idea about how questioning will influence your future?


It seems to me that a question is a form of openness.  By asking a genuine, serious question, one presents oneself as incomplete and uncertain.  There is a vulnerability in the true question and an assumption that the universe remains open-ended in some respects.


I think that the idea of an open-ended universe populated by incomplete minds comes into conflict with some other ways of addressing reality.  One common view (or my interpretation of that view) assumes that most of the important questions have already been answered and all that remains is filling out the details.  Asking questions such as; “What is truth?” – “What is reality?” – “What is Good?” – or “What is reason?”  are impertinent and silly from that perspective.


I believe that how we respond to such questions shows much about our assumptions concerning the structure of reality, the relationship of the individual and authority, and the limits of human possibility.


My plea is this: when you encounter a question that evokes intense reaction such that you are inclined to dismiss the value of the question entirely, consider the possibility that your interpretation of the question and associated ideas is incomplete.  Maybe it is not, but this is always a hypothesis worth testing.