Sometimes it is said that it is natural for human beings to ask questions of the world: How did we get here? What are the origins of the universe? What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? What is good? What is right? What is wrong? Of what is the moon made? The sun?
I don’t happen to believe in a static notion of “human nature” — I think that what are called human beings are diverse enough over time and culture that statements such as “humans are inherently good”, “humans are naturally evil”, “humans are naturally selfish”, and so on are prejudicial, or at the very least indemonstrable. The most we can say is what we observe of contemporary humans in particular cultures, and what we can extract from history — in other words we might be able to characterize human-in-situation but not Human Being capitalized (all human beings at all times, past, present, and future, and in all places).
As such, I don’t buy the characterization that human beings are always and everywhere naturally curious. But there is another side of curiosity, the “end” as it were, the desire not only to question, but to have such questions answered definitively. While curiosity manifests in humans, it seems to me that at least as strong can be the drive for certainty, for indisputable answers.
The problem with the drive for attaining indisputable answers is that its force often exceeds its means, in other words the lust for answers overpowers and obscures discussion of what we are capable of explaining definitively. Better to have a wrong answer than no answer, seems to be the attitude. This sort of thing is evident far and wide in such instances divergent as politics, church, and the workplace. “You better have some answers” is the phrase often leveled at people (rather than “you better ask some questions”).
But there is a danger in offering up an answer prematurely, especially when that answer is said to be “correct”, definitive, or “right”. This danger is that the answer is in fact not correct, not definitive, or not right.
An example of my point may be found in what is known as “the Final Solution”, Hitler’s answer to “the Jewish question” — the Holocaust. This is far from being the only example in which the drive for answers exceeds the capacity to answer rightly, but it serves as stark example of the irreversibility of actions that are conducted under the rubric of a fallacious certitude either about ethics or about knowledge or both.
In this article, a middle ground will be found, that of upholding the spirit of asking questions, but avoiding some of the pitfalls of demanding definitive answers immediately.
1. Ask Questions For Ethical Reasons
If nothing else, asking questions in and of itself can help to stave off imprudent answers, premature and rash solutions, some of which could have devastating impact upon history. This is the type of questioning that is meant by the phrase “Smith questioned the policy”, or “Jones had the courage to question authority”. Manifest doubt can forestall conclusions or solutions that may be premature or half-baked.
2. Ask Questions For Less Highfalutin Reasons
This is the sort of questioning that one might call highly practical or technically oriented – the kind that helps in day-to-day problems and that might get you (eventually) patted on the back by your boss or spouse. Are we sure we should ship all of these orders before we confirm them? Is the drainage capacity of this property we’re considering building upon good enough? Is it a good idea to have another child during these economic times?
3. Accept that Questioning Has Its Detractors
This is pretty common knowledge, that in Step 1 you’re bound to rub some people the wrong way (or worse) when questioning policies and authorities. Egos, agendas, and ambitions are attached to those issues and institutions that you’re questioning. On perhaps a lesser scale, similar may happen in Step 2, you’re considered indecisive or a killjoy — as one TV commercial puts it disparagingly, you’re ideating instead of doing.
4. Note that Questioning Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Answering
This is the part that drives some people crazy: They may say “don’t question x unless you know y” (where x is the status quo and y represents a definitive correction). This is the demand for answers exceeding curiosity, plain and simple. It’s the will to a wrong answer being better than no answer.
5. Give Impatience for Answers Its Due
In some situations we’re virtually forced to come up with an answer right now rather than waiting for more consideration, more data, more contemplation, more conferencing. This I’ve read is part of MBA training, making immediate decisions when there is no guarantee of certainty.
6. Distinguish Between Decisions Made In a Pressing “Now” And Decisions Based Upon Certitude
We do sometimes have to rush in our decision-making processes, but I think in fewer times than is often believed. And even if we have to rush in decision-making, we may not have to rush in declaring such decisions to be obviously correct.
For instance, we can embark on applying a policy while still holding doubts about its efficacy or ethical status, keeping it under review even while implementing it. The Iraq War and the associated policy of Bush notoriously referred to as “stay the course” is an example of making a premature policy decision (which we might forgive under circumstances other than cooked-up intelligence) but failing to hold it under continued study, questioning, and scrutiny. In such a case, an answer, maybe even a particular answer, is desired more so than is avoiding a wrong answer, an unethical solution, a faulty policy.
7. Separate Questions Which Must Be Answered Now From Those We Can Continue to Mull Over
Returning to the more philosophical or grandiose questions exemplified in the introduction — these are generally the types of questions to which we don’t need immediate answers. We don’t need them answered “yesterday”, nor today, and maybe not even tomorrow. Questions about the nature of the universe, whether there is a God, how “we got here” and so on rightly entertain our attentions. When they go wrong is when they are answered with prematurely declared certitude and result in practical action that is based upon a pseudo-certitude.
Returning to our brief discussion of human nature and the possibility that there is no such thing, or that it’s dynamic rather than static, there is a concept/method in philosophy known as epoché, that goes as far back as the ancients. Simply put, it means the reservation of judgment, the bracketing of truth claims, the suspension of belief. I’ve broached this reservation of judgment elsewhere; please see “Resources” (right margin).
The interesting thing about epoché and discussion of the dynamism of human nature is that the ancient skeptics recommended the suspension of belief (epoché) as a means of attaining quietude, or peace of mind. Dogmatism produced perturbation, epoché relieved it. Somehow though, this seems today counterintuitive – it seems common that people are anxious in the face of suspension of belief, that they want a quietude that comes from certainty and that is endangered by the ambiguous environs of suspending judgment. Hence the cult mentality, or similar but more common, the herd mentality. This is a coalescing around a series of truths taken to be certain, or at the very least a coalescing around others who live as if there is a certainty of truth (i.e. cults, religious fundamentalism, “family values”, “traditional values”). Today this certitude about foundations of bedrock is said to lead to peace of mind, whereas the ancient skeptics found the opposite.
8. See Where the Ancients Were Both Wrong and Right
Perhaps the ancients were looking more to quietude in a social sense, than to a quietude of the individual taken in a vacuum. The ancient world was far more communal than we are now. What I mean by this is that while one could argue that assuming certitude about the answers to “the big questions” may relieve persons individually of the anxiety associated with ambiguity (see French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir for more on that), I think we could make a pretty good case for dogmatic certitude’s proclivity for producing social or global strife. The certitude of Hitler, of religious conviction, of Manifest Destiny, of Soviet Communism, of many views from right to left and from culture to culture, have produced more destruction, more war, more utter lack of quietude than ambiguity could ever produce in and of itself.
First, make a distinction between the questions that have to be answered immediately, today, and those that provide leeway for continuing to research and discuss. In the case of the former, you may have little choice but answer such questions today, but acknowledge that you’re answering them for practical reasons rather than because you’re certain, and as such that you hold such answers to be “provisionally true”, that is they are corrigible (correctable) and subject to continued critique, review, and change.
In the case of questions that need not be answered today, don’t answer them definitively today unless you’re definitively certain about the answers! In these cases, it is more prudent to reserve judgment, to suspend belief, than to leap to conclusions when you don’t have to leap. As for the individual anxiety engendered by living without answers to the “big questions”, this too can be addressed based upon the provisional answer, the practical answer that is still subject to review and debate. Granted, acknowledging that answers are “only” provisionally true isn’t going to alleviate anxiety in the sweeping manner that opium or religious conviction might, but a little anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing.