The World is Transformed by Asking Questions [draft]

Socrates /

Posted on: March 20, 2014 / Last Modified: September 25, 2021

The world is transformed by asking questions, not by providing answers.

Politics, religion, and even philosophy, have promised us the answers for millennia. But the value of the answers delivered has always been contextual and temporary.

There is no answer that will last forever. [Though there might be questions that do.] For as long as we can think, we would have questions. The moment we stop having questions is the moment we stop being human and become stupid robots. I say stupid because contemporary computers can still give you only answers. But they cannot ask any intelligent questions. And it is precisely our ability to ask great questions that makes us human. [Going on a tangent – being able to ask intelligent questions is a good Turing Test for a “thinking” machine.]

It is far easier to provide answers than to ask questions because it takes more intelligence to ask a good question than to give an OK answer. And so, if intelligence is asking questions that others did not think of, then, genius is perhaps asking questions that others could not even think of. [For example, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity overthrew 2 centuries of Newtonian physics by asking if space-time is curved  and whether it is possible to observe and prove such an outlandish idea.]

There are no eternal truths or answers. There are only relative truths valid within a certain [space-time] context. Each new answer reached, is only the starting point for asking much better questions. And so, all progress is based on the never-ending process of asking better and better questions, based on relatively better but never perfect answers. [For if we ever reach perfection, there would be no more progress.] Therefore the value is in the process of asking the questions and not so much in the answers we find, because each good answer is only a stepping stone on the road of asking deeper and better questions. [It really is about the journey and not about the destination.]

answer and question

And so, the most important principle of progress – the engine of our civilization, can be summed up in the following way:

“Look for a good question to ask. Follow up with several of your best guesses in the form of falsifiable hypotheses. Test your hypotheses by experiment and observation. Reject the ones which fail. Build on those that pass the test by asking better questions. Repeat the process and follow the evidence no matter where it takes you. Most of all, question everything.”

A civilization that has embraced this scientific method of ever more sophisticated questioning will never stop evolving and transforming into something better. It will never stop making on-going progress because the process of progress is perpetuated by asking questions, not by sticking to answers.

Reject the scientific method, and deliberate progress becomes all but impossible.

Now, having no permanent answer is not comfortable. We hate to be uncertain. Being uncertain takes humility. It takes courage. It takes acknowledging that we don’t know.

Most of us are uncomfortable not knowing.

Just think about it: Wouldn’t it be nice and easy [or boring?!] if we knew the answers to all the important questions?

Who am I? Is there a God? What is his name? What is the purpose of life? How do I live the good life? What is justice? What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?!…

Knowing is much more comfortable (and easier) than not knowing. That is why most people put great effort to not ask questions but instead try to convince themselves that they do know the answers.

Yet, as Voltaire presciently noted “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

It is absurd to take things on faith, without questioning, doubting or testing them in any way.

It is absurd that you will be able to accomplish anything worth mentioning simply by accepting other people’s answers and without any personal contribution, struggle, discomfort or risk.

It is absurd that we can find out everything there is to know by listening to our parents and elders or by mindlessly reciting someone’s holly book.

Religion, politics and even philosophy are often convenient and easy ways out of our discomfort. They are the fast food equivalent in our hunger for grand answers and spiritual fulfillment – we may get short-term relief but even greater long-term damage to our ability to think and ask questions. It is this, more than anything else, that explains my type of atheism.

Said Nietzsche:

“I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: it is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers — at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!”

Not knowing, just like other cases of being uncomfortable, is a great incentive for personal growth. Progress always comes at the point of resistance. Getting uncomfortable and willing to be uncertain, to not know, to ask questions, to err and to fail, is the best and only way to learn, grow, progress and move forward.

Why? Because as Richard Branson has demonstrated over and over again: “There is always a better way! The fact that something has been done the same way for years is a sign of lazyness or neglect.”

So not knowing is always the very first step on the way to knowing – a destination that we [should] never really reach.

“I know that I don’t know. But you don’t know that you don’t know, and that is why you think you know.” is what Socrates used to say.

This was the path the ancient Greek sage walked along with his companions and eventually triggered a revolution in culture, science, religion and philosophy that is still on-going.

Each technology, each tool, each social and economic system is an answer in its own right. It is valid and has its merit but only within a specific context.

Doubt-and-Not-KnowingCapitalism is an answer. Christianity is an answer. Libertarianism and Marxism are answers. But those are the answers to questions asked by dead thinkers, asked from within the context they lived in. But as the context evolves and changes so do the questions and, inevitably, the answers. A small world means small [-minded] questions. Bigger world means bigger questions. As our world grows so do the number of questions that we can possibly ask.

No truth is sacred or eternal. This is the process of evolution – no pinnacle is ever attained but each new development is just a snapshot, a point in time.

It is a journey of perpetual transformation where the cosmos itself asks the questions and provides answers only to ask new questions. It is a path that only has a beginning – e.g. the martial arts concept of “DO”  [the way], and no end in sight.

Lack of intellectual stability and certainty is not comfortable but that is the very nature of progress. Change is always painful in one way or another. But look around us. The ever-prescient Mark Twain noted that it is not the things that we are not certain of but it is the things that we are darn certain of that usually get us in trouble. Thus it is not change but stagnation and refusing to change that is the path to failure.

So let us not be so damned sure. In anything. Instead, let us focus on asking questions, not on attaching ourselves to any particular answers, no matter how compelling they may be. Let us commit to asking questions because that is the path to the future. Committing to answers, any answers, is committing to the past.

Authority and stagnation always hide behind answers. But revolutions are made by rejecting authority and asking radically new questions. Eventually, successful revolutionaries become established authorities in their own right and get attached to their answers rather than the consequent questions. And new rebels must fill the lines and ask new questions in order to change the world. And so, all progress is based on the fact that our curiosity is an endless black hole never filled. That we don’t get stuck with an answer but, on each occasion, continue to ask new and better questions.

And so, as long as we are more committed to asking questions than to sticking to any particular answers, the world will continue to make progress and be transformed for the better.

Let us embrace a culture where we teach our kids the value of asking questions rather than force-feeding them the answers that we have found for ourselves. Then, to the extend that they accept some of our answers, it will not be because of our authority. But because they have understood the process of getting there, as well as the fact that these answers are merely a stop along the journey. This kind of wisdom is what will take them beyond the horizon.

The future is not someplace we are going, but one we are creating. It is not a destination, but a journey. Each point is but a single rest-stop along the way. And though each point can and often does change the world, ultimately, transformation is a process. And so is progress.

The world is transformed by asking questions. Let curiosity be our never-ending guiding light…

Author’s note: This essay is my submission to Visions for a World Transformed: 99 Ideas for Making the World a Better Place – Starting Right Now. Please note that it is a work in progress and so far I am not happy with my submission. Still, I believe it is fair to make it public so that, by gathering your input, I can hopefully improve it.

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