Why ask questions?
Questions are everlasting and indispensable tools in the search for understanding
and growth and human development
This article came from the enquiry: Why is it that people ask
questions and what is the importance of asking questions? It led us into a
live exploration, which is by no means finished. The territory within which
this exploration takes place is the proposition of human development, to ask
what role do questions play in the development of an individual and of people
as a collective? And as we pursued this a trace started to unfold.
Why is it that people ask questions? It is a very natural, but also a very
human phenomenon. As far as we know there is nothing else on this earth that
asks questions, but it starts at a very early age in children, and it continues
right up to the last moments of a life. Questions can lead a person to understand
why they do what they do, questions can unlock understandings about the way
things work, questions can lead a person to contemplate the meaning of life,
questions can help a person revisit notions taken to be true and show how there
is more to understand about them.
What are questions?
Socrates is well known for using
questions as a technology and a method of reasoning. He used to call himself
'the midwife of men‘s thoughts' (and he had had close experience of the work
of a midwife, as his mother was one). Socrates saw his task as helping people
to 'give birth' to new insights, since it was his conviction that real understanding
must come from within. Socrates was of the view that everybody can grasp philosophical
truths, if they just use their innate reason.
Whenever a person asks a question they are searching for something and the
question is asked to help them find it. When a person asks something they open
themselves up in the hope of getting what they are looking for. Some questions
are simply to gather a fact the person needs at a particular time, like 'what
time is it?', 'where are we going to tomorrow?' 'what does the weather forecast
say?' 'what is that beautiful piece of music?' It is endless. People continually
gather information they need to put a picture together, make a plan or projection,
or form up an idea about something. It is the question that opens the window
for an answer to enter the person's mind.
For different kinds of questions sometimes the information isn't readily available
and it can cause a person to go on a search, like the question that someone
asked in the 15th century: “If the earth is flat, then how come that
when I look out over the sea and in the distance a ship is coming in, I first
see its top sails, and only when it comes closer do I see also the lower sails
and finally the whole ship? Why don't I see it approaching as a whole?”
Questions open a person's mind. Perhaps they can be likened to fishing lines,
thrown out from the person's mind. Some questions will bring in small fish,
other, more potent questions will bring in big fish, or thoughts and ideas
that can change a person's state of mind. Would we have known that the earth
revolves around the sun if it hadn't been for the inquisitive minds of people
like Copernicus and Galileo? Would we have known so many things which are now
thought of as definite facts, for example that microbes can cause diseases,
that atoms are like small solar systems with a nucleus in the centre and electrons
hurtling around it, that the force of gravity exists, that light holds energy?
The known and the unknown
The fact that people ask questions indicates that we are not meant to know
it all as soon as we are born, we are meant to ask questions to seek and find
and learn and to grow by. An old proverb goes: 'He that nothing questions,
nothing learns'. This gives a very direct and profound insight into why we
If you went to a major scientific library and saw the incredible
number of books written about all that people have come to know over the
ages, you would realise that you will not live long enough to read and get
to know them all. And furthermore these books only speak of what is known,
but as any true searcher will confirm, the more you come to know about a particular
subject, the more you realise how much you don't know. It is probably fair
to say that for all that a person knows there is a much larger part that they
be likened to climbing a mountain, down at the bottom, where you set off, there
is a small patch of forest to see and to get to know, but the higher you go
the further you can see, and there is the valley, other mountains, large patches
of forest, cities and roads, so much more to get to know. What this points
to is that whilst we learn and get to know more during the course of our life,
actually the greater part of life is unknown. There is a settlement therein,
for this is the same for every person. Accepting the fact of this great unknown,
liberates us from the oppression of thinking that we should know everything.
It sets us free into the interest and excitement of having the faculty to explore
within it. The fact that people can ask questions means that they can venture
into that large unknown part, to learn, to grow and by that form themselves.
It says that we are not finished.
Trusting one's ability to work things out
The state of not knowing is very familiar to all people, we do not know at
all what will happen to us next year, tomorrow or even the next moment, a fact
that does not seem to block our ability to get on with life. And in a state
of not knowing, the human systems have the ability to work things out at the
point. We have all met this when presented with riddles or word puzzles, when
watching or reading detective novels, or even when presented with practical
and technical problems. The process consists of putting existing parts together
into a new pattern. These parts are to be found in the huge loom of reference
and the extensive experience that simply comes and grows through living a life.
Some questions show up what a person hasn't thought or reasoned about. Some
questions can lead a person on a journey of discovery inside their experience
and lead to thoughts they didn't know they had. Questions into causes, significance
and purpose will not have singular answers, but call for a process. With these
kinds of questions a person travels into what is not yet fully known, putting
thoughts together whilst they search. In order to work with these kinds of
questions a person needs the space and freedom in themselves to tread outside
of the territory of what they already know and put it together afresh.
This freedom is described by the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf in one
of her books: Once a group of children in a classroom were in the middle of
a test taken by an outside teacher, and they were asked the following question:
'What are the stones in the local river like?' The children searched frenetically
in their minds for what their regular teacher had told them about these particular
stones, but, as the writer puts it 'the darkness in their brains remained'.
But one little girl thought for a moment, and then said 'Wet'. In her mind
she had gone to the river and made conscious her actual registration of the
stones in the water.
Young Francis asks his father:
“Why is the grass green?”
Father: “I don't know”
“Why is the sky blue?” “I don't know”
“Why do I have 5 fingers?” “No idea.”
“Daddy, do you actually mind me asking questions?”
“Of course not, if you don't ask, how will you ever learn?”
Denying immediate answers to come to new insights
Some questions allow an almost meditative searching state, and when a person
can resist the urge to stop at the first answer, they can start to rummage
around in the ingredients they have gathered and see what it says to them now,
or how it forms up. It is a way of allowing what is inside to come to the surface
and speak, often in the way of 'coming to know of something'. For as a person
goes through life, they grow and change, and the experience and understanding
of today may throw a different light on what they thought they knew yesterday.
Great discoveries in science have often been made, after years of active pursuit,
in a moment of being still and listening, in which the realisation is made
conscious. For it is not as if gravity, or electricity or magnetism, or chemistry
didn't already exist and work perfectly well before humans discovered it. It
did. But by that person searching in the way they did, they opened themselves
to registrations and experiences that allowed it to be put together and become
conscious in them. We need reference and experience if we wish to come to know
of things at a deeper level. It is like journeying to the place where answers
live, whether in nature, in a book, in a picture or in a conversation. Just
imagine if Newton had not been under the apple tree to watch the apple fall,
just at the time when the question of gravity was so burning in him?
Why ask questions?
As we said before, questions are like instruments. They provide the opportunity
to appreciate something completely anew, they help open our minds and prompt
us to use what we have gathered to come to today's understanding. Questions
can allow a person to escape the prison of what they think they know, and lead
to an interested and interesting life.