“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” -Voltaire
When I came back to Wisconsin from Los Angeles, I came back to a 15 year old brother who had a young curiosity about the world and was very inquisitive. I don’t bypass many opportunities to openly share my ideas and reasoning, much less when I am asked. When I began touching on certain subjects, I could sense the quiet, youthful propensity to accept my words unchallenged. When indulging myself to others in the past, I’ve gotten the same sense that at a certain point I started talking over somebodies head. When exposed to areas we’ve not entertained before, we tend to be more prone to persuasion. It’s a natural reaction when you feel you are learning something, not always considering that there exists a contrary view. It’s at that point I feel it’s important to stop and change course, even going so far as to tell people not to believe what I’ve told them, that it’s nothing more than my opinion.
Maybe I’m too sensitive to influencing others and feeling that I am taking advantage simply because I’ve spent more time thinking about a subject or dwelling on a semantic than somebody else. Sharing thoughts is important, but more important is allowing somebody to consider your position and work through it on their own. At this point, instead of continuing to explain my own philosophies and biases to my brother, I decided it was a good opportunity to explain the value of questioning. I tried to explain that the answers do not often matter. Sometimes in our haste to find them we tend to accept any that are given to us or the first one’s we arrive at. The tragedy is that this is where the questions typically stop instead of when they should intensify.
Perhaps I was being too abstract when expounding how the question is the most important component. If I told him the answer was 4, what good would that do? Is the question what is 2 plus 2? The square root of 16? 17 minus 13? How many periods are in football?
What then if somebody challenged your proclaimed answer? How would you be able to support and reason without understanding how you arrived at that conclusion? Chances are “somebody told me” isn’t going to do you much good, especially if you are to admit your willingness to accept whatever is told to you. Don’t get me wrong, we all have people whom we trust, admire, and allow certain influences over us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the point of mental exercise should be to challenge one to think for themselves, not obstruct their ability to do so or attempt to do it for them.
I understand why this can feel like a threat to some. People all have views that they are empowered by, feel righteous with, and wish to see grow in influence. A powerful way to do this is molding a growing mind and installing the foundation by which your philosophy can entrench itself.
This is not to say it’s necessarily a negative thing. Any parent will explain to you the importance of raising a child with a good foundation of morals and respecting boundaries. What I am more specifically referring to is when something is concealed, not to protect somebody but to protect the idea.
An illustration I see often that concerns the broad value of a question is in polling. The way a question is asked will directly influence which answers are received. Below are a couple examples of what I mean:
A. Do you believe ____ exists?
B. Do you believe ____ could exist?
This is actually a relatively subtle example, but the word “could” can change the entire dynamic of the question. Instead of making the answer an absolute, the polled individual might consider the possibility even though he doesn’t believe the example exists. Based on the results we can be mislead to believe that X amount of people believe Y exists even if the wording of the question implied differently. The question and how it is presented matters, and matters when trying to understand the answers. Something as simple as a word can change our entire thought process and make us apprehensive to what we truly might say. Nobody wants to answer a loaded question that would assassinate their character or give them an unfair label. Framing the discussion is an old logical fallacy that many often fail to detect. I don’t mean to imply that there is malicious intent or even purposeful bias in every case. Still, if the question is framed differently, the answers can vary.
When talking about the importance of the questions over the answers, I am reminded of when I was confirmed catholic in my youth. At the time I was beginning to question such things and actually had verbal confrontations with my mother who was adamant that I be confirmed. She felt she knew what was best for me based on what her choices were, and I was acting out my youthful defiance. In the end I wound up going and part of the process was to attend CCD classes which we commonly refer to as bible study. I had attended many of them while I was growing up and actually didn’t mind them. Instead of just reading from the bible, some of the instructors were very open to discussion.
When being confirmed, I had a particularly open instructor who actually enjoyed that I processed the information, formulated questions, and had little reservation in expressing them. It wasn’t just defiance, I genuinely felt these were important questions and one’s in which I couldn’t find the answers to, so I raised them as politely and reasonably as I could. This is not to say that by asking I found any answers, or found them to this day, but thinking critically on my own instead of taking answers from anybody else was incredibly rewarding.
Some people find this vulnerability dangerous. To them it endangers their views and attempt to control their environment without entertaining the possibility that the questions are an important piece of the puzzle. As I discussed in my post about labels and boxes, a great way to strengthen your core values is to question them. The fear is that if you question, you might realize weakness in your presumptions and change them. I protest that we all must face those possibilities openly or we refuse to grow.
We cannot pretend to have all the answers. If we did, none of us would have the disagreements we do. Having different experiences and backgrounds makes us all think differently in some form or another, and sharing a general opinion with somebody does not mean your reasoning for that belief can’t be completely different, as well. This is what makes us interesting and unpredictable.
The true beauty in questioning is not finding the answers; it’s encountering more questions.