18 The Dynamics of Discussion

[Field]The Craft of Inquiry

“All philosophy begins in wonder.”

—-Aristotle.

 

1. QUESTIONS

 

Questions are a way of inviting communications from other people. We can seek to learn more about them, how they think, and why. We may also question a text, the world, and ourselves. Basically, any constructive question opens the way to a path of inquiry; thus a potential discussion. In this way we find questions to be an essential part of human creativity. Learning how to construct questions well is key to our intellectual development.

 

Try this Thought Experiment:

Imagine a world in which questions could not be asked. People could make all sort of claims, state their opinions, give descriptions, arguments, explanations, and expressions of all sorts. The only verbal form lacking was the form of a question.

 

What would that world be like? How would the communications between people change? Would any other limitations come along with the absence of questioning? How would people go about finding out things they did not know? Would science be possible? Philosophy? Would purposeful change be possible?

 

Note that I follow the proposed thought experiment with a series of questions. That is just one of the functions of a thought experiement, to provide a context in which certain questions may be raised and discussed. Without the possibility of asking questions, the method of the thought experiement would be useless. I suspect we would lose a great deal of other intellectual abilities we take for granted as well. Constructive questions create openings and it is by exploring those openings that much of our intellect and knowledge develops.

 

CONSTRUCTIVE QUESTIONS

Here, already, I have pointed to a distinction. I specified that constructive questions have a key intellectual value. This implies a distinction from non-constructive questions. It is a main objective of The Craft of Inquiry is to make that distinction clear and provide you with some of the tools for using it. Let us lay this distinction out plainly.

 

CONSTRUCTIVE QUESTIONS are questions that open fresh aspects of an issue. They create a basis for sustained and constructive discussion.

NON-CONTRUCTIVE QUESTIOINS are designed to block inquiry and sustained discussion. They close (not resolve) an issue to further consideration by presenting a conceptual obstacle.

Any form of question can be constructive or non-constructive. What we need are criteria for judging the constructiveness of a question. Three such criteria are proposed in this text: The Craft of Inquiry.

 

Next, let’s consider some of the forms of questions we may encounter and raise in philosophic discussion.

 

2. QUESTION CONSTRUCTIONS

 

First let’s consider some of the forms of questions we may ask (since our world is not limited in the way that the above thought experiment pictures.) We consider here five question forms that are important to philosophic inquiry:

 

Informative Questions

Interpretative Questions

Evaluative Questions

Speculative Questions

Combative Questions

Each of these five forms are considered in detail in the following pages. It is important to recognize and understand these different forms. In my experience as a college professor, students seldom ask certain questions that may help them better understand a reading or problem. Most all students will ask questions like;

 

“When is this assignment due?”

“Where can I get another syllabus?”

“How am I doing in this course?”

But the same students seldom ask questions like;

 

“What is the difference between reason and experience?”

“What does Plato mean by idea?

“Is the concept of freewill consistent with the laws of physics”?

FORM & CONTENT

I claim there is are crucial differences between these last three questions. They are different in form, not just in content. I’ll try to explain this difference.

 

Consider the first set of questions from above:

 

“When is this assignment due?”

“Where can I get another syllabus?”

“How am I doing in this course?”

These are certainly different from one another. You could have the answer to one of them while not having the answers to the other two. Yet there is a parallel direction for all three of these. All three seek to gain some information about the course. They will be satisfied (answered) when the relevant information is gained. I want to say that these three questions all have the same form: they are informative questions. What differs about them is the content which is determined by the specific information they are designed to get. Each of these questions will be relevantly answered when some item of information is provided. To wit:

“On next Wednesday.”

“From the Department office.”

“So far you have a passing grade.”

Each answer provides a specific item of information (a time, a place, a status) in response to the question. And the receipt of that information (in these cases at least) satisfies the question.

While these three questions have different content (i.e. the information they are seeking) they have the same form (i.e. they all seek information.) Consider now the second set of questions from above:

 

“What is the difference between reason and experience?”

“What does Plato mean by idea?”

“Is the concept of freewill consistent with the laws of physics”?

I claim that these three questions differ not only in content but also in form. They are designed for different purposes and open different kinds of inquiry. In the following pages, I examine these question forms and the criteria we may employ in judging their constructiveness.

 

We will study each of the five question forms in turn. First. let’s consider a subject matter about which these questions may be raised: the philosophical issue of Free-Will

 

3. INFORMATIVE QUESTIONS

 

Informative questions seek information about something. As answers we may accept facts, details, and descriptions. Asking someone what they believe is asking for a sort of information. Asking for their reasons is another. Here are some generic instances of questions of the informative form that one might ask of another person’s beliefs.

 

What is the difference between x and y?

What do you believe about this issue?

Do you agree with this claim?

What do you think this claim implies?

What evidence do you think there is for this claim?

Here are some informative questions that might be asked of the author of Free-Will is an Illusion.”

 

In denying that we have any free-will, do you mean that no-one has the ability to decide whether or not to go to class in the morning?

Supposing that we are mechanisms, do you think there is something about being a mechanism that precludes having any free- will?

Do you agree with the French Philosopher Baron d’Holbach’s statement; “Man’s life is like a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant.”

What implications do you think your view has for issues of individual responsibility for our actions?

What do you suppose accounts for the feeling and conviction most of us have that we are able to choose?

In all these examples, the kind of answers sought will provide additional information about the details and content of the person’s belief. The answers may not explain what is meant or give reasons why. But we should be careful to recognize what sort of question is being asked and just what we can reasonably expect as an answer. A lot of confusion is created in the world simply by people not making the effort to find out what another person actually believes. Informative questions provide that opportunity. Once such information is received, we can dig deeper via interpretative questions, evaluative questions, and speculative questions.

 

A Key Point of This Page:

Informative questions seek information about something. As answers we may accept facts, details, and descriptions.

 

4. INTERPRETATIVE QUESTIONS

 

Interpretative questions seek clarity about the content of someone’s belief. When you ask an interpretive question, you are asking for an explanation. Of course, it is possible (and common) to try to overload someone with demands for explanation as a way of attacking their view. To be constructive, interpretative questions must focus on significant aspects of a claim. They must be genuine efforts to find greater clarity. Attacking someone’s view by a never ending chain of explanatory demands is a move towards confusion, not clarity. Here are some generic instances of interpretative questions:

 

What do you mean by this word?

Are you using this word the same way as it is used in the following example….”

Does this word and this other word mean the same thing in your statement?

Is the following example consistent with your claims….?

Is the following analysis of your argument a fair interpretation of what you mean?

Could I paraphrase your central claim as the following….?

Here are some interpretative questions that may be asked of the author of passage Free-Will is an Illusion.

 

You say; “The world is a mechanism set motion by random forces.” I’m not clear what you mean by “random forces.” Do you mean natural laws such as gravity?

Do you mean the same thing by “free-will” and “ultimate control”?

In what ways would a being with free-will be different from a mechanism?

Is it a fair interpretation of your view to say that “the future is fixed and pre-determined”?

The above examples are based in the claims given and seek further clarity of those claims. They set out to provide opportunities for others to explain their meaning in more depth. There is no guarantee that they will be able to do so. But a well constructed and honestly intended interpretative question leads to new levels of philosophic inquiry. With sufficient information and clarity we may further pursue the inquiry through evaluative questions, informative questions, and speculative questions.

 

A key point of this page:

Interpretative questions seek clarity about the content of someone’s belief. When you ask an interpretive question, you are asking for an explanation.

 

 

5. EVALUATIVE QUESTIONS

 

Evaluative questions ask for a value judgement about a claim or position. The value involved may a matter of truth, consistency, morality, aesthetics, reasoning, among others. Here are some generic instances of evaluative questions.

 

Is this claim true (false)?

This claim consistent with this other claim?

Is this action right (good)?

Is this a strong argument?

Is this a meaningful claim?

Note that in all these cases the answer will involve an value judgement about the related issue. It suprises some people to note that true/false, sound/unsound, meaningful/meaningless, consistent/inconsistence, clear/unclear, and so on are included as values. When people think of value judgements they often think exclusively of those involving moral values (e.g. good/bad.) Perhaps this is the reason that people often overlook the fact that the words “right” and “wrong” have a variety of uses and meanings. This fact will be further noted in The Power of Analysis. Also note that the above questions may ask for more than a simple affirmation of one’s judgement. Philosophically such questions are asked with an expectation that some reasoning will accompany the answer. This leads us to consider what ways we might show that our claim is true, consistent, meaningful, and so on…. It is possible to hold that we can never give any valuable evidence for any claim whatsoever (some people seem to claim just that.) But even that claim needs some reasoned support:

 

Just saying so doesn’t make it so

 

Here are some evaluative questions that may be asked of the author of Free-Will is an Illusion

 

Do you think that your view of non-freedom is consistent with individual moral responsibility?

Do you think the following claim is true; “Learning increases our ability to avoid past mistakes”?

Do you think the comparison between pebbles in a stream and humans in time and space is strong given the difference in complexity between them?

Do you think that any one action may be judged as better than any other?

All these examples ask for value judgements about some specific idea. Having the answers will give us more material to work with in the effort of inquiry into the issue. Notice that these are not meek or restrained questions. They seek to get at what the questioner regards as important and interesting in the other person’s view. but they are also honest attempts to do so. They are not asked simply as a tactical way to undermine the view of the other. That is what Combative questions do. We will consider that form shortly.

 

Key point of this page:

Evaluative questions ask for a value judgement about a claim or position. True/false, strong/weak, beautiful/ugly, good/bad, consistent/contradictory, sound/unsound, meaningful/meaningless, clear/unclear, are among the possible values one may ask to be judged.

 

 

6. SPECULATIVE QUESTIONS

 

Speculative questions seek to draw relationships between ideas or situations. The general model of speculative questions is the “What if….?” type of question.

 

What if humans were incapable of asking questions?

Such a question opens the way to speculation about the possibilities. Such speculation (and the reasoning behind it) are part and parcel with philosophical activity. Please note that the “What if….?” model is only a conceptual model. Speculative questions need not be phrased that way at all. Here are some generic instances of speculative questions:

 

Suppose that the circumstances were like this, how would that affect your view?

Does your claim imply that….?

How does your claim work given the following example….?

Given that you (your claims) are right, does this other claim also follow?

Here is a speculative question that may be asked of the author of Free-Will is an Illusion.

 

Your view against Free-Will seems to depend on a certain notion of science: that everything that happens, happens in accordance with strict natural laws. But science changes. Suppose science discovers that not everything in nature is fixed and determined by a causal chain. How would your view of Free-Will (or the lack of it) accommodate that?”

If people do not have Free-Will to choose their actions, is it possible to hold anyone morally responsible for what they do?

It seems that your view renders all effort worthless. Is that so?

Speculative questions are usually detailed and directed toward a specific aspect of the issue. How they are answered can tell us much about how a person’s beliefs are related to other beliefs and situations.

 

A Key Point of This Page:

Speculative questions seek to draw relationships between ideas or situations. Asking someone to respond to hypothetical cases or draw consequences from their claims are ways of invoking Speculative questions

 

7. CONSTRUCTIVE QUESTIONING

 

So far, we have considered instances of:

 

Informative Questions

Interpretative Questions

Evaluative Questions

Speculative Questions

 

Each of these is different in form and purpose. Each allows the possibility of a genuine and satisfactory answer. Note here the key role of “possibility”. In distinguishing these question forms we are not saying that answers to such philosophical questions are available or even attainable. It is possible that some questions are forever beyond the human ability to answer. However, just saying that a question cannot be answered is not sufficient to show that. We need some explanation as to why a question is unanswerable, if we are to reasonably accept that claim.

The forms of the questions themselves point to the sort of inquiry that is being invoked. Even if we cannot give the answer, and even if the answer can never be found, we still have a notion of what form of answer would suffice.

 

To put it clear as I can:

 

When we recognize the form of question we are asking, we can specify the form of the answer we are looking for.

And that means….

 

We can more clearly understand what our philosophical activity is and how it relates to our lives.

I am suggesting here something that may seem pretty radical. The philosophy may well have less to do with the finding of answers, than with the forming of questions. And most important: with the recognition of the nature of our asking.

 

The reason I think this may be considered a radical suggestion, is that philosophy is often measured by people in the way they measure the worth of a scientific or factual investigation. One surveys the history of philosophy (or the diversity of philosophies in any historical period) and it may appear we are dealing with an entirely non-constructive topic area. For thousands of years, people have been asking the same and similar questions. To date, few if any answers have been established. What, then, is the point?

 

My answer (to that preceding informative question) is; the point is in part to extend our questioning capacity and continually open new paths for constructive discussion. If constructive discussion came to an end, the state of human beings would be entirely different. In what ways I cannot be sure, but I am sure the difference would be profound. Just as much as if the thought experiment where the human capacity to ask questions disappeared became reality. We need constructive discussion and in order to sustain it we must be able to formulate and ponder constructive questions. You can probably tell that I do not consider this a trivial matter. Nor do I expect to settle it here or to merely convince you by saying so.

 

Consider then, a very different form of question: the Combative Question. In thinking about this form of question the values and meanings I have been ruminating about may deepen for you (maybe not.)

 

First, however, let’s think about how we might distinguish constructive from non- constructive questions. I present next three constructive criteria for that purpose.

 

8. CONSTRUCTIVE QUESTION CRITERIA

 

Criteria are means by which we judge the value or status of something. In this case we want to be able to judge the constructiveness and non-constructiveness of questions. Recall what is meant here by these concepts:

 

Constructive questions are questions that open fresh aspects of an issue. They create a basis for sustained and constructive discussion.

Non-constructive questions block inquiry and sustained discussion. They close (not resolve) an issue to further consideration by presenting a conceptual obstacle.

 

 

Even given these definitions we need some method to tell when a question is constructive or not. We could simply wait and see how the question affects the discussion. But that method has two flaws. First, there are so many additional factors in the success of a discussion that we could never be sure whether it were the question creating the effect. Second, to promote successful discussion we want to be able to spot non-constructive questions before they enter the discourse. this requires a method of pre-judgement and sorting.

 

THE CRITERIA

There is another way. We can derive our criteria from the purpose of questions and the nature of constructiveness. If the difference between constructive and non-constructive questions is the furthering and blocking of discussion, then the constructive question must have three features:

 

1) Constructive Question must be Answerable

In constructing a productive question we ought to be able to say in advance what sort of answer will satisfy the question. Of course, we will not be able to say what the answer is, just what sort of answer we are seeking. If you raise a question and cannot tell yourself what sort of answer will do (what an answer here would be like), then you should be suspect of the quality of the question.

 

2) Constructive Question must be Open

The productive question allows for a variety of possible answers. Questions may be formulated so as to narrow the range of possible answers. They may even presume the answer in advance. Such an extreme case commits the fallacy of Complex Question, in which the answer is presumed in asking the question.

 

3) Constructive Question must be Relevant

Your questions should derive from the issue and material at hand. Sometimes we are tempted to import questions from assumptions we make about others and issues that seems related to us. A clear, respectful line of inquiry takes stock of what the other person says and directs questions to that. There is nothing wrong with changing the topic at times, but to do so abruptly and without acknowledgement can create great confusion.

 

So there they are. Dorbolo’s three criteria for constructive questions. They are open to debate and certainly need to be refined. But I do believe they are both sensible and serviceable guides in practicing the Craft of Inquiry.

 

SOME EXAMPLES

Let’s consider further by sampling how these criteria for constructive questions may be applied to some specific cases (which I have taken from other parts of this text.)

 

First let’s evaluate some non-constructive questions by these criteria. Since the constructiveness of questions relies on the satisfaction of all three criteria, it only takes a failure in applying one of them to show a question to be weak. Consider the following three questions addressed to the position expressed in Free-Will Is An Illusion.

 

Who’s to say whether humans have free-will or not?

The “Who’s to say” question is one of the most popular retorts to philosophical ideas. Yet it is an odd question primarily because there really seems to be no answer whatever. What would count as an appropriate answer here? “I am.”? “You are.”? “Socrates is.”? This really seems a primary case of a question that is asked primarily because it has no adequate answer. The implication of someone who asks this question (and it is usualy presented as a challenge) is that “No-one is to say” and that there is no point in pursuing a line of inquiry in which no-one has any say. Consequently such a question can only be used to block discussion. this question fails the test of Answerability.

 

If we do not make our own choices, then who does?

This question seems to pose a challenge, but it really only makes a presumption. The question is formulated in such a way that only one type of response is possible. However answered, it will be implicitly granted that we do have “choices.” The issue is shifted from the matter of whether we have choice at all, to the matter of where that choice comes from. The difference is subtle but significant. This question fails the test of Openess.

 

Where is it written that the “universe is run by random forces”?

Another favorite in the combative questioner’s repertoire (have you ever heard this one?) Maybe that claim is written somewhere, maybe not (actually it is written in the passage under consideration.) Either way, it simply isn’t relevant. That someone did or did not write; “universe is run by random forces” gives it no more truth value than if it has or has been previously said or thought. Of course, this question is not really asking for a bibliographical citation, it is asking for a justification of the claim. But if that is what is wanted, then it is clearer to ask; “What reasons do you have for thinking that ‘universe is run by random forces’?” The where is it written…. question makes a kind of appeal to authority as if we had in the end to take some expert’s word on the matter. The author of the passage is presenting a position. The claim; “The universe is run by random forces” is part of that position. We do not need to look for additional authorities here, but rather should seek out the author’s meaning and reasoning for this claim. This question fails the test of Relevance.

 

EVALUATING CONSTRUCTIVENESS

Now let’s consider how to evaluate some questions that have a fair degree of constructiveness to them (at least in the present context.)

 

Supposing that we are mechanisms, as you say, do you think there is something about being a mechanism that precludes it from having Free- Will?

 

InformativeSpeculative

EvaluativeCombative

InterpretativeConstructive

 

 

This is an Informative Question because it is asking for more information about the position. Specifically, whether there is something about “mechanisms” that make them inherently unfree. The expected answer here will provide some information about the author’s idea of a “mechanism”, so it is Answerable. There are many possible answers and none are presumed in the question, so the question is Open. The passage directly speaks of “mechanisms” and implies that they are not free, so the question is Relevant. This is a constructive informative question.

 

Do you mean the same thing by “free-will” and “ultimate control”?

This is an Interpretative Question that seeks to explore the relation of meanings of two parts of the passage. The possibility of answering here is clear, these mean the same or they don’t. So the question is Answerable. While “yes” and “no” are but two answers, the “no” answer is open to an additional variety of explanations saying how the two differ. The question is Open. Both notions “free-will” and “ultimate” control occur in key claims of the text, so the question is Relevant.

 

This is a constructive interpretative question.

Do you think that your view of non-freedom is consistent with individual moral responsibility?

This is a Evaluative Question asking the author to judge the consistency of the position with another idea. We can see from the question what sort of answer will be appropriate, so the question is Answerable. The answerer has at least two options for answers and perhaps more, so the question is Open. The relevance of this question must be judged by how connected the notions of “freedom” and “individual moral responsibility” are. Supposing there is a strong connection (and I think there is), this question will be judged Relevant. This is a constructive evaluative question.

 

Suppose science discovers that not everything in nature is fixed and determined by a causal chain. How would your view of Free-Will (or the lack of it) accommodate that?”

This is a Speculative Question. Potential answers to it have a wide range. It is Answerable. By the same token the range of possible answers shows that it is Open. And since the passage bases a lot on the idea that the universe is a mechanism with fixed laws, asking what would happen if that condition changed is Relevant. This is a constructive speculative question.

 

How the criteria for constructive questions are used in particular cases has a lot to do with the context of the position, question, and discussion. What is important to note here is that there is the distinct possibility of applying evaluative criteria for judging the constructiveness of a question. This possibility is key to the purposeful promotion of successful discussion. Now let’s consider some common techniques for producing non- constructive questions in the form of Combative Questions.

 

9. COMBATIVE QUESTIONS

 

Combative questions are tactical uses of questioning to undermine another person’s view. They are often deceptive in that they appear to be genuine requests, when in fact they are really intentional attacks on the view. Consider the three criteria for constructive questions.

 

Constructive Questions are:

 

1) Answerable

2) Open

3) Relevant

Combative questions can be evaluated by their failure to satisfy one or more of the three criteria for constructive questions (i.e. they are always un-constructive). Combative questions are typically questions for which no possible answer will be accepted; questions that already have the answer built into the asking; or questions that are not relevantly connected to the issue and material at hand. All of the following are combative questions. Do you recognize the form from these generic instances?

 

*Who asked you?

*Who’s to say that….?

*How can you say that….?

*Where is it written that….?

*Where did you get such a crazy idea….?

The list can go on a long ways. Note that some of these instances may not be non-constructive combative questions under certain conditions. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to challenge a person’s right or authority to make certain claims. But in philosophic inquiry we are much more concerned with the claims themselves. To switch the subject to the individual’s personality is usually to introduce an irrelevant issue. Consider how these may play out in relation to the Free-Will is an Illusion passage.

 

*Who’s to say what the universe is like?

*How can you say that we have no free-will?

*How can you prove that the world is controlled by “random forces”? Where did you ever get the idea that humans lack free-will?

* By what right do you seek to rob people of their precious freedom?

* Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you lack free-will but other people have it? *How did you become such an expert on this topic?

*If no one can choose one way or the other, why then are you bothering to write this at all?

*If we do not make our own choices, then who does?

 

Get the picture? Each of the above examples departs in some degree from the criteria for constructive questions. The last one presumes that “someone” makes the choice and demands to know who that someone is. That is already positing an answer in advance of asking the question. Such a question is suspect and really doesn’t deserve a serious response.

 

The best defense against combative questions is to consciously practice The Craft of Inquiry. Pay attention to the questions you ask. Check in advance to see if you are clear in yourself on what sort of answer will satisfy your asking. Make sure the questions are open to a variety of possible responses. Focus on the issue and material at hand to judge the relevance of your line of questioning. The more able you are to ask productive questions of others, the more able you will be at detecting the flaws in combative questions that target you. In a contentious world such as ours, this is surely a valuable practical skill to acquire.

 

A key point of this page:

Combative questions are tactical uses of questioning to undermine another person’s view. You may determine whether a question is combative or not by checking whether it passes the tests of the three criteria for constructive questions. Combative questions are non-constructive. They purposely block discussion

 

 

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