Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | November 5, 2013

Questions

My son was about 4 when he discovered the power of the question, “Why?”

Why Daddy?

Because of A and B, son.

Why Daddy?

Because of X, Y, and Z son.

Why Daddy?

???

Of course, “Why?” can be asked ad infinitum, with no end to the regression to justify the justification for the justification for… back to the justification demanded for the statement being questioned. Likewise its variant, “What’s your reason?” Likewise, demands for justifying evidence, or any other demand for justification. Each justification simply provides more targets for further questions, no matter how good the justification is.

The power of endless demands for justification involves an implicit fallacy: that unless all the questions get satisfactory answers, (“satisfactory,” of course, determined by the questioner,) room to doubt and plausibly deny the statement remains. It’s a fallacy because no statement could ever pass that test–not even those of the questioner.

Questions are great, but they can be used to evade as well as illuminate. So the real question, when used like my son did, to give him a plausible reason to disagree with me or at least delay the inevitability that he’d have to comply, is: Why opt to evade instead of discover? The fact that we want to evade but choose to pose as the opposite–as someone curious to discover, interested in the justification for a claim–is the inherent hypocrisy of this patently unsatisfiable use of questioning. If we already decided that we don’t like what we heard, we should just say so. Admit it’s a matter of preference, not reason. Questioning it to death when we’re not interested in answers–only in the ruse that no amount of answers can be sufficient–is neither honest nor constructive.

A man who lives in a desert village decides to find out what lies on the other side of the mountains, the foothills of which his village lies nested in. He leaves and doesn’t return for weeks. His fellow villagers give him up for dead. Then he returns with stories of a gigantic lake surrounded by fruit-filled jungle–the end to their food and water worries! All they have to do is traverse the mountains and relocate on its shores.

Instead of curiosity and interest in improving their lot, his fellows react with suspicion. The elders and leaders are doing quite well, receiving homage from the other villagers as they do. The mountain crossing frightens others, even though the explorer assures them it’s passable and fairly safe. Familiarity and fear prove formidable opponents to progress.

The villagers demand proof of the lake and the fruit-filled jungle. So the explorer climbs the mountains again and returns within a week with water and fruit. But they aren’t convinced. He could have obtained them from a stream where a few fruit trees grow up in the foothills. They’ve found similar stands around themselves–just not enough to sustain the village. He might never have crossed the mountains, for all they know, let alone found a lake, a jungle, and food.

As long as they refuse to explore for themselves and satisfy themselves, citing deficiencies in the explorer’s story as reason to avoid the risk of gathering their own information, they’ll stay put and little will change.

The ironic part is that regardless whether the explorer provided lots of evidence, little evidence, or none at all, it would have no bearing on whether or not a lake surrounded by a fruit-filled jungle in fact lied on the other side of the mountains.

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