THE QUESTIONS WE ASK
“One-half of wisdom is the prudent question.” — Francis Bacon
A question is a powerful tool when used wisely since a question opens the door of possibility. For example, it was not possible to go to the moon until someone asked: “Is it possible to be to the moon?” At that moment, going to the moon became possible, albeit no one knew how. To be effective, each question must: (1) have a specific purpose, (2) contain a single idea, (3) be clear in meaning, (4) stimulate thought, (5) require a definite answer to bring closure to the human relationship induced by the question, and (6) explicitly relate to previous information.
In a discussion about going to the moon, one might usefully ask: “Do you know what the moon is?” The specific purpose of this question is to find out what, if anything, a person knows about the moon. As such, the question contains a single—an inquiry into the extent of a person’s knowledge about the moon. The question stimulates thought about the moon and may spark an idea of how one relates to it; if not, that can be addressed in a second question. The question, as asked, requires a definite answer, and the question relates to previous information.
A question that focuses on “right” versus “wrong” is a hopeless exercise because it calls for human, moral judgment, and everyone is right from their point of view. A good question, therefore, would be to ask if a proposed action is good or bad in terms of something, such as caretaking a particular forest, imposing a quota on a certain species of oceanic fish, etc. To find out, we must inquire whether a good short-term economic decision is it also a good long-term ecological decision and so a good long-term economic decision. Such questions are important because a good short-term economic decision can simultaneously be a bad long-term ecological decision and so a bad long-term economic decision, one that generations of the future would have to pay for. The point is that we must ask before an answer can be forthcoming.
In essence, every question is a key that opens a door to a room in the human mind, a room that is filled with mirrors, each one of which reflects a facet of the answer. There is, however, a single question per room, and the totality of its answer can be found only in the collective reflection of all the mirrors. Leave out the reflection of one mirror, and the answer is incomplete—and always will be. Nevertheless, “it is still true,” as Louis Pasteur said, “that a well-posed question is half resolved.” This said, however, we must understand and accept that if we want a really new answer to a question, we must risk opening a new room with a new key by asking a fundamentally new question.
On the one hand, we need to know. On the other, we’re afraid of knowing and thus live by surrounding ourselves with informed denial, which keeps us asking the same, old comfortable questions, opening the same familiar door, and looking at the same known and safe reflections in the long-familiar mirrors. On a rare occasion, when we think it safe to feel “feisty,” we may use a little cleaning agent to polish the aging mirrors and hope thereby to find a new and different meaning from the worn-out answer to a question that is so tired we’re no longer quite sure why we’re asking it—like an old person hoping to see a youthful image when looking into the mirror. Or we might think we can mix and match by picking the lock and stealing a mirror from a different room with the hope of stumbling onto a new, workable answer to some threadbare question. But the world doesn’t work that way.
The old questions and the old answers, which have led us into the mess we’re in today, are guiding us toward the even greater mess we’ll be in tomorrow. We must, therefore, look long and hard at where we’re headed because only when we’re willing to risk asking really new questions can we find really new answers and leave the future something better than we are today creating for ourselves.
Heretofore, we have generally been more concerned with getting politically correct answers than we have been with asking fundamentally wise questions. Politically correct answers validate our preconceived, economic/political desires. Wise, farsighted questions would lead us toward a future wherein options are left open, so the generations to come can define their own ideas of a “quality life” from an array of possibilities.
A good question is a bridge of continuity across the generations. While a different answer may be derived every decade, the answer does the only thing an answer can do—brings a greater understanding of the question. Although an answer cannot exist without a question, by the same token, no answer resides completely within a question. Rather, a partial answer is all we can derive from the information we temporarily glean as an illusion of having “answered” the question.
Consider, for example, that when we think we understand a pathogen sufficiently to control it, based on knowledge acquired through the questions we have thus far asked, it mutates and causes us to redefine the original question about controlling it by forcing us to ask more and different questions. Clearly, therefore, other facets of the answer of how to control the organism lie hidden in questions yet to be asked because knowledge is always relative, never definitive, whereas the Creative Principle is forever active, novel, and open-ended. And so it is that another question is always required to approach more closely the ever-incomplete answer.
In the final analysis, the questions we ask guide the conscious evolution of humanity and its society, and it’s the questions we ask—not the answers we derive—that determine the options we bequeath to the future. Answers are fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow, but questions may be valid for a century or more. Questions are flexible and open-ended, whereas answers are rigid and dead-ended. The future, therefore, is a question to be guided by questions and thus defined and determined by questions. The irony is that every answer to every question the human mind can think to ask is only partial, despite appearances, because one must be able to understand, in a single instance, the cyclical-curvilinear nature of the whole universe as an interactive system in order to understand the whole of any given answer to any given question at any given moment.
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© Chris Maser, 2011. All rights reserved.