The Problem with Questions

Asking questions is a good thing. It is what enables learning, it helps to clarify doubts or ambiguities, and more.

Today, however, after reflecting about some things, I came to the realisation that questions are like a double-edged sword which can either be constructive or destructive.

It can be very easy to tear apart something by firing a series of questions one after the other. Answering them, however, can be very very difficult. But it is important for us to remember that a lack of an answer does not equate to a successful demolition of a point. There are many possible reasons why no answer can be given. Either the person is unprepared (or does not know enough); the question has indeed found a hole in the argument; OR the question is unreasonable precisely because the question makes some unreasonable assumptions that makes it difficult (or prevents) good answers from being formed.

What many of us do not realise is that every question assumes something.

If I were to ask, “How do you know X?”, I am assuming that you already know X, and I expect an answer in such a direction.

Were I to ask, “Why did you do this?”, I am assuming that you did it with a purpose in mind, thereby expecting a good reason for your actions (or else…).

If I asked you, “Who did X?”, I assume that some human person did it, and I do not expect the possibility of an animal or some natural cause to have caused it to happen.

These are but some examples to demonstrate the assumptions made when asking questions.

Most of the time, the assumptions that are coupled with the questions are reasonable and we have little problems giving a straightforward answer.

It’s not too bad if the assumptions are inaccurate because answers can still be given, though probably, more explanation is required to justify the answer so as to meet the expectations of the question.

But sometimes (or for some people, all the time), the assumptions are just so far off or bizarre that no straightforward answer can be given. Some times, the assumption may be invalid to the extent that no answer whatsoever could ever be produced.

An exaggerated example will be: “Have you stopped beating your wife today?”

The question assumes that you have been beating your wife in the past. The question makes a very unreasonable assumption which puts you in a tight spot. Regardless of whether you answer yes or no, you unfortunately end up validating the assumption. You could save yourself by giving a long answer so as to prove that you have not been beating your wife, but you’d probably end up sounding very defensive thus proving the assumption right by your defensive tone. Furthermore, a lot of effort is needed to debunk the false assumption, especially if the questioner strongly believes in it. Only when that assumption has been debunked will the questioner be opened to your answer.

But even if you do get around the question with a long answer, the question may not be satisfied because the expectation of the question was not met. So, in the mind of the serious questioner, the given answer may not be fully acceptable.

When it comes to the hard questions about life, sometimes we feel as if we have hit the dead end. We ask a series of questions and we find no answers or no satisfying answers. It is frustrating. Surely, if a question can be asked, we should be able to get some sort of answer, right? Even if it’s a negative (e.g. no), it’ll still be an answer. But time and time again, many of us fall into what seems to be an existential crisis because we seem to find absolutely no answers to the important questions about life.

But perhaps one possible reason for not being able to find answers (or satisfying answers) is that the assumptions made in the questions are invalid, either because they are inaccurate assumption, completely wrong (or bizarre) assumptions, or wrong assumptions made due to a lack of understanding of the situation.

Perhaps the next time we have faced with a question which, for the life of us, we are unable to find an answer, rather than getting distressed over the lack of an answer, it might be useful to clarify the question, examine the assumptions made, and see if these assumptions are indeed valid in the first place. Because if they aren’t, no answer can ever satisfy the question requirements.