the art of the question

When I was young, I came across the statement, the belief, that if one were to phrase a question just right, then the answer would be obvious. I’ll admit that I’m not sure I ever actually believed this, but it’s something that I’ve always carried with me.

Looking back, I can see that this belief has always lurked in the background of my mathematical life. If we can find the right way of asking the question, then we will be able to see the path to the answer. But it has always been in the background, and this is not a danger free path. It is possible to spend a lot of time looking for that correct formulation of the question but never then get to the question itself.

This is a more interesting line of enquiry (inquiry? I need to remind myself again of the distinction) when I think of aikido. I’ve been studying aikido for a few weeks more than a quarter of a century at this point, and what’s interesting there is that I’m not sure of the question I’m trying to answer.

I didn’t begin aikido with a question. I began aikido because I’d always wanted to do a martial art, and I found myself with time I need to fill and a friend who was in the local aikido club, and once I started it just took. I’ve enjoyed it since and I enjoy it still, and I’ve moved through the ranks at a reasonable pace, but I’ve now (probably long since) reached the point where I am asking the question, why.

Why this among all other things, and going back to the beginning of this rumination, that isn’t the right question. Why in general is a strange question, because it’s so very non-specific a question. How can I move in a way to move someone else, is a better question. It’s still not the right question, but it’s closer. The quest continues.

Writing is more like mathematics, in that there isn’t a single question. In both, I have a number of different directions of wanting to understand. With mathematics, I want to understand structure, how this particular thing came to be, though there are many individual questions to formulate here.

But with writing, my questions are much less coherent. The human condition is complicated and multifaceted, and writing is an exploration of that condition. There are so many questions, from how we get through individual days to larger meaning.

Looking back, I can see that I’m still dancing around the formulated specific questions; I can see the things I want to understand, on distant hilltops, and I’m still working to formulate the questions that set out the paths to be able to find their answers.

~ by Jim Anderson on 13 November 2022.

5 Responses to “the art of the question”

  1. Ooo, what an interesting one! Asking the right question can be both the source of insight and the product of insight, and Right Questions are wonderful things, to be treasured. But are there also Wrong Questions? And here I am thinking not about ignorance or stupidity, but about the scene with the Foretellers in Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, in which attempting to answer a Wrong Question will leave the group unfixably damaged, if not completely destroyed. And this makes me think of Godel’s phonograph-breaking records in GODEL, ESCHER, BACH. The Wrong Question can destroy a system of axioms or a world-view… or maybe enlarge it. Is it always right to challenge the boundaries and try to destroy the system? Classical scientific methodology says Yes, which produces an interesting image of scientist (and mathematician) as revolutionary-by-default. Aux barricades, mes amis! But do we defend them, or tear them down..?

    • Many thanks for the kind words and the comment. For me, Gödel is a different sort of things. It’s not that a wrong question system destroys a system of axioms; rather, it’s that the systems didn’t behave as we thought they should, and this was Godel’s insight. I’ll admit that it’s been too long since I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but yes, there are wrong questions which might prove interesting to think about but they take our time and energy in an ultimately unproductive direction. But it can be hard, very hard, to distinguish a wrong question from a right question when we ask the question.

      • …now you have got me thinking about Right Questions and Wrong Questions. It seems to me that yes, there are a large number of unproductive and pointless questions that can be asked about any subject (although the more I think about it, the more I feel that many of those questions that I would initially dismiss as “stupid” are actually rather interesting; my first grab at formulating an example of a “stupid question” was “Why is a straight line straight?” and I then thought “cue Riemann? What do we mean by “straight line”? Oops, this is more interesting than I meant it to be…”) Is there a difference between questions posed within a formally-defined area of thought bounded by carefully-formulated axioms, and, um, oh my goodness, is it just that I *don’t recognise* the axioms that bound most of my thought, or are there really unbounded/ undefined/”free” ideas or experiences or whatever out there?

      • Thanks for the comment and I like your example of straight line, because that’s a question that’s driven the development of new fields, one of which is the one I work in. And I don’t think there’s a difference along the lines you lines you describe above. For me, the bigger difference is between the closed question (a question for instance with a yes/no answer) and an open question (more along the lines of, what happens here). As the deliberately leading name implies, I think the open question always leads to another question. And I like the questions that lead to other questions. But I’m drifting off topic here. I think that sometimes, even the wrong question leads to something interesting, it might just be taking us away from the topic at hand, and so the existence of a wrong question might then imply that there is a preferred direction of travel?

  2. […] week, I wrote about the Art of the Question. As is often the case, the act of writing served to agitate the settled bits in my brain and the […]

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