Why questions (good and bad) matter


Children are naturally inquisitive and tolerant. Many constantly ask questions. At some point, most of them – most of us – just stop.

Why does this happen?

It’s not as if the world starts to make perfect sense after several years of living. There are social pressures to stop. To succeed, to be recognized as smart, children typically feel pressure to stop asking questions and start providing answers. What is 2+2? How do you spell “cat”? What time is it when the big hand is on the 11 and the little hand is on the 5?

But no one should ever stop asking questions. I say this as someone whose job it is to ask them, and to help college-aged students and adolescents develop the skills to ask questions insightfully.

I believe that asking questions should be of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about themselves or others.

A threat to inquiry

During the summer of 2020, on TikTok, a young woman named Gracie Cunningham mused about the origins of algebra and about whether math is “real” while applying her makeup. The video went viral when, in a since-deleted tweet, it was posted with the caption “dumbest video ive ever seen.”

Gracie’s musings were mocked – until they weren’t. After being ridiculed by many who saw the tweet, others came to Gracie’s defense, including professional mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. More people then defended Gracie in light of the authority of the mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. For not even they, the savants, knew the answers to her questions.

I think this episode is worth examining for what it indicates about questions and the importance of tolerating inquiry.

Given the comments the tweet provoked, Gracie’s questions initially appeared silly to many who heard them. Such mockery – even the mere threat of being laughed at – is a significant deterrent to asking questions and to inquiry more generally.

In response to her critics, Gracie admirably made another attempt to question math.

She seemed like an easy target. Her questions were directed at something that is widely supposed to be unquestionable: namely, basic mathematics. Few of those who defended Gracie did so on the grounds that her questions were sincere or revealed a genuine inquisitiveness or were insightful.

It seems the primary reason the questions came to be deemed good is just that it was noticed they did not have easy answers.

Questions good and bad

Lots of very good questions have easy answers if you ask the right person, though. Often, a good question is just motivated by curiosity, asked in order to understand better something in the world, including oneself. By this measure, Gracie’s questions were good ones all along.

So are all questions good?

No. Despite the cliché to the contrary, there are plenty of bad questions. A question asked while someone else is talking is usually not a good one (though it might be good to interrupt to ask “Is there a doctor here?” if someone nearby passes out). Nor is the same question asked over and over again, such as “Are we there yet?” or “Is it time?” I say this as a father of two small children with a tendency to ask questions for which the answers are clearly not the goal.

Still, maybe these questions aren’t good because of the context or their impetus. Perhaps every question asked from a place of curiosity is a good one?

This isn’t so either.

Consider whether it’s appropriate to ask: “Why do you look like that?” “Why do you cry so easily?” “Were you brought up in a barn?” “What are you?” – when querying someone’s ethnicity, race or gender. “Are you sexually active?”

Not all aspects of the world are open to inquiry by everyone. And some inquiries can be harmful.

Philosophy as critical thinking

In short, there are good questions and bad ones.

Those who would inquire fruitfully need to be able to tell the difference, not only for their own edification, but for the good of all.

Much hangs on the possibility of unreservedly asking (good) questions. Doing so is essential to thinking critically, which is crucial to solving problems big and small. It is a common misconception that philosophy is a subject matter, a bunch of disputable truths or the views of (mostly) dead (mostly) white men.

Philosophy, however, is actually an activity – critical thinking – that turns on challenging both what seems obvious and what is mysterious.

Asking questions is not just for kids or students or philosophers. Everybody needs to inquire critically and to be tolerant of the apparent ignorance of others. So when you hear a question that strikes you as ridiculous, don’t immediately presume it is. Instead, try to imagine a context, by supplying tacit assumptions, that would make that question meaningful – even urgent – to the person asking it.

The ability to do this is invaluable. It requires taking up different perspectives, making one fluent in doing so, and is all-important to thinking critically. It also promotes tolerance.

The importance of inquiry

The world we all share is propped up by unexamined presuppositions. This might be fine if one could be satisfied with the world as it is. The least bit of reflection, however, would likely prompt anyone to want to do better.

If those in a community, this one or any, are to do better, they must be able to inquire freely and naïvely. They must be able to hear questions as questions, not as assertions, and to react tolerantly, even charitably.

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If someone cannot hear a question – “How would you, like, start on the concept of algebra?” or “Why do you choose to not wear a mask?” or “Why would you vote for someone who seems to have so little respect for the rule of law?” or “Why would a police officer shoot point-blank seven times at an unarmed man?” – as an invitation to examine something someone else finds perplexing, and can regard it only as confrontational or an opening for contempt, everyone will suffer.

If there is disagreement but no questions, there can be only disagreement. The problems that seem intractable will be.

Author Bio: Marcello Fiocco is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine