Learning how to ask the right questions is a lot like figuring out how to treat an illness instead of just the symptoms. If the root of the problem or dilemma is not at least partially understood and addressed, attempts at progress are at best hit and miss, but quite possibly detrimental. Do you suppress vomiting when it is ridding the body of dangerous contaminants? Does it make sense to take a cough suppressant when the body is trying so hard to expel germs? If you do either of these things, it is aiding the enemy of yourself.
Habits can be useful, but not if they hinder thinking because of false assumptions. There are ways to evaluate questions and issues, to get past any facade of wisdom. Use the list below to jump start this. After a while, you will get better at it.
1. Who stands to gain by the standard approach or answer? Whose power base does it bolster? Is it someone who wants to control others? A good example of this is education. Much of the discussion about it has been framed and standardized by government because through their model of “education” they have a huge influence on how people think about everything from natural resources to serving in the military. When you realize there is no need for government to be involved, it opens up an expanse of creative opportunities, assuming they haven’t been outlawed. The government is pretty good at criminalizing alternate ways of thinking while telling people it is for their own good.
2. Are all of the words adequately defined? Do you understand the fuller meanings of them, or just the popular “socially” acceptable ones? Really, who doesn’t want to “care for the poor.” But the definition of “care” is assumed or left wide open. One person’s idea of meaningful help is frequently at odds with how another thinks it should be done. (This essay on being a patriot shows how that word can mean opposite things to people.)
3. What are the implied limiting factors? One of my least favorite questions is “where do you go to church?” It is based on a paradigm that has nothing to do with real faith or fellowship. I’m not saying those ideas are not being pursued by some people in religious buildings, but it is similar to asking, “Where do you go to friend?” These things cannot be provided by a building or ceremony.
4. Are you aware of the historical and cultural options? Did you know that the United States government only began limiting immigration in the late nineteenth century, when it wanted to exclude Chinese people. Up until then, basically anyone could come and go as they pleased. However, since about 1914, governments have increasingly been telling where we can live and travel. Now, it seems radical to people to be free in this regard. Many people have become so “well adjusted” to the idea that they get mad if other people move about freely.
5. Where did the information come from? Almost everyone understands to be skeptical about research results from a company that wants to sell something, but not enough people question what they are taught by institutions that maintain their status by those very teachings. Is there any particular reason a university education is better than learning from someone who makes a living actually doing a thing? Is licensing and accreditation by a government better than word of mouth about someone’s competency? Those is positions of power and influence tend to control and limit the flow of information as much as they can get away with. Just because someone wrote it in a book, doesn’t make it true.
6. What is the implied outcome? Do you want that outcome or do you need to ask a question that gives you the option of another outcome? Can you really know the outcome or is trying to predict the outcome a way to limit the options? I think career counseling tends to fall in this category. At the most, such sessions should be brainstorming about interests and possible jumping off points, but to talk about a “career path” before it has happened can be misleading and stifling. New inventions and discoveries should be expected. Too often such counseling is a way to channel student studies for the benefit of current industries.
7. What rhetoric or social pressure is being exerted? Plays on words can be insightful and thought provoking or they can be attempts at deception. While there probably are many good examples of “tough love,” it is highly unlikely that there is such thing as a “benevolent (human) dictator”. Rearrange the words using different synonyms and see if it holds up as well. A kind tyrant? Is there such a thing as a public park (belonging to the community) when a select group make and enforce the rules of using it?
8. What fears are being played on? If someone tells you the only way you will be safe is if you pay them to take care of you, you have to wonder about the nobility of their intention. The concerns may be real, but there may be possibilities that are better but depend on your freedom to act on your own behalf.
9. Is there any evidence that a supposed outcome is achieved? This depends some on definitions, as mentioned in #2. If a power group “defines” an activity and outcome, they have the upper hand. However, since they are often trying to imitate a real need, there are at least subtle signs to help evaluate what is really going on. This helps when we question things like costly and confining public education for children from a young age, isolated from their parents for most of the day. We may have to keep pointing out that “socialization” should not be measured by how well a child (or young adult) can survive days on end in large, basically impersonal surroundings, being herded around and told what to think. But no matter how irritating it is to those who want to take over our children’s lives, we can keep mentioning the questionable results of government “education” establishments that suck up money like a desert absorbs water. (Read here for more about what education really means.)
10. What are the perspectives on the meaning of life and the value of humans? Do these perspectives result in meaningful hope about life? Do they discourage or stimulate responsibility? Can they hold up to scrutiny of subsequent ideas? For instance, people talk about the “common good,” but what is common good if individuals don’t have particular, unique value? If they do have this value, then is common good a necessary concern? Along the same lines, can society have a personality distinct from the individuals that make it up? Can “society” have characteristics, or is it always a collage of the individuals. Can “society” be responsible? Or can only individuals do this?
What questions and issues leave you dissatisfied? Maybe it is because you aren’t asking the right questions? Here are some current questions that either I am evaluating or I get frustrated with hearing people dance around when discussing issues:
- Are people inherently good at heart or do they just want to be good?
- Why do the governments (people in power) think it is okay to control where people go (immigration, permits to assemble)?
- Why can the government punish people for not wanting to continue working for it (as soldiers, jury members)?
- When do children become adults?
- Why shouldn’t children spend more time at home?
- Why do people (still) expect government schools to care what they think about how their children should be taught?
- Why do people associate shoes with prosperity?
- Would wild animals be taken better care of if they were allowed to be owned?
- What is war versus any other sort of violence?
- Why can the government tell people if they are allowed to drive or not?
- Why do other people think they are better suited to make decisions about my children?
- Why can I not just be in charge of my own health care?
- How much is aging due to time versus lack of activity?
I am actually making progress with my questions and being able to understand the root problems of many of these things. Even if I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Utopia in this present world, there is some peace in knowing what is really going on. It’s not like I’m the first one to learn these things. I find the answers in old and new places, like this essay on asking the right questions about wealth and poverty. Unfortunately, throughout history, it seems that a lot of people really don’t want to ask the right questions and they don’t want other people to, either.