The Power of Questions

The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask. Here’s how to improve your questions.

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When we run our once-a-year Re:Think Europe event, 10 participants work with us for a month before the event to hone their questions. This is the most intense event we run for a reason. Each person brings a problem or challenge to the table for others to help with. Participants research each other’s problems before the event. Before they even show up, refining and iterating the questions often helps the participants make huge leaps forward.

As a society, we tend to focus a lot on answers. Answers are solutions to problems. We tend to give less prestige to questions. Everyone has them. They’re easy. It’s the answers that take the work.

This overlooks the power of questions. Asking questions gives you a better understanding of everything: the situation you are in, the challenges you are facing. Life.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class in university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”

Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid [read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Asking questions means you want to learn. You want to understand and know. So where do you start? Anywhere you want. But don’t feel pressure to begin with the big questions, the ones we all confront at one time or another, like the meaning of life, or what exists beyond our physical experience of earth. There is a significant amount to be learned from the seemingly mundane ones, questions that seem so basic, once we reach about age 12 we no longer bother asking them—because we either think we know the answer or are afraid of admitting we don’t.

Consider the following three questions:

  1. What is a horse?
  2. What is green?
  3. What is a point in time?

At first glance, these don’t seem difficult. They’re grade school stuff. But these are actually really hard questions that can show us how much is to be gained from asking them.

First, what is a horse? Most people will list the physical characteristics that horses have in common, saying, “A horse has four legs, and a mane, and you can ride it.” This is definitely true of some horses, but we would reasonably consider a three-legged horse still a horse. And a horse doesn’t cease to be a horse if it can’t be ridden. It doesn’t become some other animal.

There is, I think, some component of DNA that is the same for all horses, a bit of code that tells the cells to form the horse. So why don’t we reference a specific gene sequence when we are explaining what a horse is? Because it wouldn’t in any way communicate what we mean by the word horse. Horses have properties that relate to our experience of them. The problem is, they all don’t have the same properties.

So what we do is fix a vague concept in our minds of horseness. It can’t be an image, because then it would be a specific horse, and it can’t be explicitly defined because we wouldn’t encompass the whole category. So we keep it at a fuzzy level that, despite its lack of precision, is extremely useful when we have to communicate in any way about horses. The abstract concept must stay abstract to retain its utility.

So, are you being pedantic when you ask, “What is a horse?” Not at all. You’re actually doing something very important. You are assessing the understanding of the person you are talking to in reference to yours. And you discover that it’s never going to be a perfect match.

As for the second question, what is green? This one is definitely more painful. The easy answer is, a color. But that’s not a good answer, for what is a color? A quality that objects possess? Ooh cool. Where can I get some of this quality? Ah. Nowhere. Green is a quality that does not exist outside of the objects that possess it.

There is no place you can see green without seeing something being green. How unfair is this? I know green. I see it all the time. But it is not a thing I can hold. A change in the way my eyes process light and there could cease to be green [related: How do you know that you know what you know?]. But greenness would always be out there, a property of the interaction of light and molecules that can be so vivid but doesn’t actually exist on its own.

Does this make asking, “What is green?” a waste of time? No. Wanting to get a handle on the fundamentals is never a waste of time. You can learn what you can influence and what you cannot. In this case you learn that you can change the color of an object, but you have no powers when it comes to color itself.

Finally, what is a point in time? This one really hurts. First, we should ask what is a point? Conveniently, Euclid provided some definitions over 2000 years ago.

  1. A point is that which has no part.
  2. A line is length without breadth.
  3. A surface is that which has length and breadth only.

From this, we can conclude that a point has neither length nor breadth. That’s okay. It’s just this thing, and if you connect two of them with length you get a line. Euclid also said, “The extremities of lines are points.” It all works. Conceptually, it makes sense. I can wrap my head around it enough to do basic geometry. Great.

But if you actually think about it, your brain could explode. A point has neither length nor breadth? Then what does it have? It has to have something, in order to be something, doesn’t it? But anything that occupies space must have length and breadth, however infinitesimal. Since points have neither, they cannot occupy space. But then how can they form the ends of lines? How can they be?

The same thing happens when we try to conceive of a point in time. It’s something we all get. We say things like “going forward” as if there is a specific moment that we can measure all other moments against. But how exactly would you describe a moment in time? To say that implies that there are many moments, all of which could be distinguished from each other. But can they be? What fills the space between them? And if you say nothing, then how can the points be distinguished at all?

Are we unreasonable, then, when we question, ‘What is a point in time?” No. We can’t question everything every day, as it would likely put us in a state of paralysis, but asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straight forward path to learning.