I’m not sure if I’ve covered this before. I imagine I have, often I feel like a broken record going on and on about the things that interest me. At the end of the day I’m just beating a universe sized horse fruitlessly waiting for it to twitch. Also in advance forgive the odd typos, I’m almost literally typing blind as I write from across the room on a 42 inch television. The font is coming out as a few pixel tall slits of black on a canvas of white for me.
Luckily as a kid I used to stay up late writing, this meant that my eyes would burn. So what I would do is type with my eyes closed, envisioning the words in my mind and using my fairly automated knowledge of the keyboard. It was nice, I could see the story unfold in my conscious while the text was being prepped for its inevitable loss in one of the many hard drive reformats of the time. Because, I wager, no parent figured their kids had anything meaningful saved on the PC.
At least I can think of no other reason to reformat without asking everyone in the house if they have something important saved. But I digress, we were sitting on a few hundred floppies, I should have learned then to make backups.
So, with that digression out of the way, I would like to talk about what makes a good question and what makes a bad question. Folks often say, at least when the topic arises, that there is no such thing as a dumb question. I’m not entirely convinced but I do know there is something at least indistinguishable from a bad question.
But how? How can a search for answers ever be a bad thing? How can someone who constantly spurts from the chops about the importance of learning and of curiosity be telling you now that there is such a thing as a bad question. In fact I think there are some questions that are downright destructive, they waste your time, something that is extremely precious as a mortal.
Worse still people think these questions are deep, insightful, meaningful. This gives them unearned weight in the grand scheme. When people say something profound you darn near invariably here someone say “Oh yeah? Well what about X?”
Richard Dawkins put it best: “Why is a Unicorn Hollow?” Now I >know< this has been said before on here. But it is a solid point, it is a question, but in the end it is utterly useless. It doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding anything. And worse still this question can be asked in any universe.
This is where you discern a good question from a bad one. I highly doubt this rule is universal but it works as a soft filter. IF a question can be asked in any universe and still be basically equally relevant, it is a bad question.
For instance “Why Here?” People ask this as if they’ve come across a profound realization. Why Earth? Why not Mars? But if they took a second they’d realize it doesn’t matter what planet you live on. The question would always be just as valid. IF we were in a universe where we lived on Mars we’d be MArtians saying “Why here? Why not Earth?”
It’s a profoundly bad question, it leaves people bantering on for hours into what basically ends up being either “I don’t know” or “Because.” There is nothing to gain, if the hope is to push an agenda well that is equally futile. Anyone convinced by this sort of question is not likely someone you want joining you for tea. Unless all you want is their money on Weekends, then I could see their ability to be influenced being critical.
Another good one “Why Life?” Why do we live, Why is there any life in the universe? For about 10 seconds it seems like it’s a solid question. Oh my goodness, my eyes have been opened to the truth, I must accept it! Until you realize again that in any universe where the question can be asked the question will be asked. It’s not productive because it brings nothing to the table. In any universe without life no question can be asked and thus it is equally valid in its empty value.
These questions feel good, let us gloat about our own self perceived importance. That our tiny dusty residence is somehow profoundly important in the universe. I’ve said before that I think we are supposed to make ourselves important instead of feeling it is a birthright. Humanity fails for as long as it feels it is inherently something fantastic.
We die just like a snail beneath the heat of a nuclear bomb, we choke just like a frog with the loss of our atmosphere, and we fade just like the leaves at the ends of the Earth. For as long as we are just as easily snubbed we are hardly anything of greatness (in relation to something as vast as the universe).
My personal favorite in terms of empty questions is “What is the meaning of life?” Really? This is it, this is the thing that keeps people up at night? Does nobody realize you can darn near replace the word Life for anything else and it sounds silly? “What is the meaning of Toaster?” Now you could respond and tell me what a Toaster does, or what goes into a toaster, or the history of toaster. But that’s not what I asked, I wanted to know the meaning of toaster.
How about the meaning of Dirt, or farts, or the setting of the Sun. What does any of this mean? If I can ask this question equally well about basically everything then it isn’t a very good question. Worse still it is a question with infinitely many answers.
IF we are just looking for time sinks I can provide everyone with enough Sisyphean tasks to last an eternity.
I’m not saying that someone should stop being curious, or that Philosophy doesn’t have its place, but giving unearned weight to completely asinine questions is something we should abhor. These questions only seem profound because of just how open ended and weak they are. They overwhelm our senses by being so utterly disconnected from the rational. Your brain hears these questions and pauses “Wait. Did I really just walk the body into this thing? I should really rethink my operations because I have failed in my duties as conscious.”
An optical illusion is interesting, for a moment it can overwhelm your brain as it tries to figure out what kind of wackiness it was just assaulted by. A hollow question is no different. It is a (usually positively intentioned) form of troll logic.
When these questions lead you to thinking about other things outside of the box that is great, but more often than not dwelling on them is an incredible waste of your time. Because you could be just as well replacing the subject of the sentence with anything else and getting just as much done. The main trope that all these kind of questions have in common is they insist upon some level of inherent value. They praise our existence in one manner or another. They are, as the internet likes to call it, circle jerks.
They are built by people who wish to feel better, for people who wish to feel better, and at the end of it all all they are is a form of mental masturbation. A way for people to smile and feel like every molecule of space and time was put into place solely for them.
It’s narcissism, it drives me batty, and I think if ever there was a thing in my mind that was a “peeve” this certainly falls into it. Children tend to be told that at some point they should grow out of playing imagination, but that’s all these questions are. I’m a fan of keeping a child like mind, just don’t wrap it up and act like its some deep philosophical treasure chest just waiting for the next great mind to unlock it.
At best it is a box of cracker jacks. But not the cool old kind that came with a bird whistle or a green army man. No it’s the modern kind where it’s a piece of paper that folds to show you a picture of a cracker jack.
No magic card today…Venus ate one of mine. (Can you tell?)