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The World is Transformed by Asking Questions [draft]

What is the best singularity tagline?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 The World Transformed: the Abridged Edition. 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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  • Peter Voss

    Questions are a *starting* point to usefulness. However they need to make sense, they need to be answerable. Without good answers you spin your wheels. Then without acting on your answers you’re wasting intelligence and time.

    Useful knowledge is certainly possible. What we know (contextually) beyond doubt we call ‘certain’ or ‘truth’. Wishing for acontextual, absolute, eternal truth is a strawman.

    As you point out, the useful and impressive thing about humans is that they build on knowledge, and refine it. Why would we want to keep asking if Earth is the center of the universe, if everything is made of earth/wind/fire (or whatever), or if there is a soul — once we know the answer?

    What is really important is that we have the motivation to ask questions like ‘what killed those people?’ or ‘how do we desalinate this water?’ or ‘why is rationality a virtue?’ — to find answers, and to act on them.

    Then to move on to the next set of question/ answers/ actions.

  • It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here Peter.

    At any rate, what I am trying to stress is the importance of never being satisfied with what you get and persisting in asking more questions.

    My goal is not to depreciate the importance of answers or the usefulness of knowledge.

    Still, I do argue that knowledge is accumulated in a process where overall in the long run questioning is the most important thing.

    This does not intent to suggest we should still keep questioning whether Earth is the center of the universe but rather that we did not stop our questions after we had the answer to that question. Therefore this answer was not sufficient in its own right but was merely a stepping stone on our way to discovering the milky way, the universe, the multiverse and whatever comes thereafter…

  • Peter Voss

    I totally agree with “… the importance of never being satisfied with what you get and persisting in asking more questions.” But questions are a means to an end.

  • Yes Peter – an end we never reach.

    Just like every step of the way is important on the way towards our destination but what matters in the end is the journey.

    And the major journeys in life, philosophy or science have a beginning but no end – hence the Japanese concept of “do” – the way… [Each mountaintop reached only allows us to see another, even higher one somewhere out there in the horizon]

    …Our ignorance will always dwarf our knowledge, though this of course does not mean that our knowledge has not grown at an amazing pace as it has…

  • CM Stewart

    “Follow the evidence no matter where it takes you.”

    That exceptionally compelling thought has been in my mind for the last couple of years, and that thought is attached to your writings on this blog, Nikola! Sometimes destinations are quite uncomfortable. Inconvenient, even. Why should we expect the next answer to always fit into our comfort zone? Why should we expect the next answer to validate our beliefs? Don’t let your history dictate your future.

  • Fantastic points Cynthia – indeed, we can’t expect that the next answer will fall comfortably within our expectations and we should beware confirmation bias…

  • Mark Larkento

    Recently, in discussions in FB’s ST, Occam’s razor has been cited as the reason a particular answer is the correct one.

    I would be less concerned about this if the claim werre not being made by an AI developer.
    My point here is that even those ostensibly devoted to logic and the scientific method are subject to human foiables that they cannot see.

    Might I suggest a subsequent article or interview that delves into techniques for addressing human limitations in applying the scientific method.

    Good article!

  • Knotanumber

    Thanks for sharing this post, Socrates. I strongly agree with the point you’re making. However, I have a couple criticisms on how it is put forward and elaborated upon.

    First, I think the “answer” and “question” terminology is too broad and inconsistent to frame the argument.

    For example, the following are all forms of answers:
    -42 (the answer to life, the universe and everything, of course)

    And these are all forms of questions:
    -What binds quarks together in protons?
    -Why is the sky blue?
    -What kind of cheese is the moon made out of?

    As a result of this fuzzy, open-endedness, I think your essay has a tendency to meander and resort to over-simplifications. Not all answers are dogma and not all questions lead somewhere. Many things can be either questions or answers depending on your perspective. For example, evolution is both an answer and a framework for asking questions. So which is it?

    I think the discussion could be better framed in terms of certainty vs. discovery, outcomes vs. exploration, dogma vs. doubt, or some other comparison that is not so rigid and prone to being misunderstood. And I would have liked to see some specific, even personal examples that drive the point home rather than sweeping pronouncements.

    Which leads me to my second point… I think you use too broad a brush at times. By equating answers to “dead ends” and then labeling entire creeds such as capitalism, Christianity and libertarianism as “answers,” you dismiss them out of hand. Regardless of where one stands on Christianity or other major world religions, they are remarkably resilient and adaptable, no less evolving than society itself, and hardly just the calcified dogma of dead thinkers. In some cases, modern religious practice would hardly be recognizable to its first founders and practitioners. And religion has, at various times in various places, been both a proponent and antagonist of scientific discovery. So I don’t think we are in a position to say “religion=dead end” any more than we can say “politics=dead end.” Neither is subject to falsification except in rare situations such as Biblical accounts that can be corroborated or disproven by science or archeology. Granted, the debate over intelligent design (religion) or the dispute of global warming (politics) are embarrassing and high profile examples of clashes. But these are the exceptions. Religion, politics and philosophy are largely outside the purview of science.

    There is an interesting juxtaposition here:
    -Religion achieves certainty by virtue of what cannot be proved (you can’t prove there is not a God)
    -Science arrives at certainty through its proofs (you can demonstrate photons act as both waves and particles)
    Both religion and science produce dogmas. At least with science, there is an empirical basis for testing dogmas and there is always a chance they can be overturned through new or better experiments.

  • connor1231

    I’m posting this question on a few articles because I’m hoping someone will see it and have an answer.

    My main concern with future technology is it’s unequal distribution, where poor don’t get it, and an “underclass” forms of unenhanced humans. Ive seen this question posed on many blogs and websites, and I have only ever found brief and unconvincing answers. So my question is this: let’s assume that future technology is not equally distributed. I know some people will claim that with coming technology, scarcity will disappear and it will be widespread and cheap, blah blah but for a moment let’s assume that doesn’t happen. After all, we can see today what a poor job the government does in equally distributing resources, look at the gap between rich and poor that is only growing. In a future with a wealthy elite upper class who can afford to enhance themselves, and a poor underclass of unenhanced humans, how would a poor person work his way into the enhanced class? Would social mobility even still exist? Menial jobs that may help someone work and save money today probably won’t exist in a century. And education might not be as valuable: what would an educated poor person do to compete with a wealthy individual with brain implants and smart pills and other forms of cognition-boosting tech.

    In this world, how would a member of the underclass possibly work their way up so they could enhance themselves? Or are they doomed to feed on the crumbs of the enhanced humans forever. That is a scary thought to me.

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  • ‘However they need to make sense, they need to be answerable.’ – Do they now? Isen’t sense just my own intelectual limitation? (Hopefully ther’s a lot beyaond that.) And do they need to be answered, or is the question merely fuel for a line of thoughts, of wich some are usefull, but not nesserely answers the question?

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