Wednesday 31 August 2011

Asking questions


Q: Is asking questions good or bad?

A: Neither: it depends on the reason for asking.

Are we questioning from belief, or from skepticism?


But in mainstream public discourse nowadays, most question-asking is skeptical, and it is bad - because it is motivated by pride.

The skeptical self is unquestioned: to question is to hold others to account.


Modern skeptical questioning has become a lifestyle - people get locked-into a stance of going through the world, assuming their own rightness, holding to account other people and different ideas; and this state may persist for decades, for their whole lives...

And it is all-but impossible to escape-from or eradicate this state, once fully-established.

A habit of skepticism applied to the non-self becomes the structuring principle of life.

This is the supreme, invincible arrogance of modernity.


As C.S Lewis pointed-out, modern skeptical atheism is incorrigable precisely because it put God in the dock and judges God by the standard of modern man - naturally, intrinsically, inevitably then God will be and is found deficient: He fails to provide satisfactory answers on interrogation.


I can perceive that the skeptical and questioning stance is a reaction to the amount of nonsense and dishonesty in the world; but it is the wrong answer.

What we should do about nonsense and dishonesty is ignore them (or, if possible, detect, denounce and suppress them) - but not question them!

Why should we be concerned by the answers of idiots and liars?


The proper motivation for questioning is not from skepticism but from belief.

The essence of proper questioning happens when we question authorities that we trust, to discover more concerning that which we believe.

Ideally we should question only those whom we trust; otherwise the answers are more likely to harm than help us.



James James said...

1. How does one decide who to trust? Surely only through skeptical questioning. One must skeptically question those one trusts in case they turn out not to be worthy of trust, and one must skeptically question those one does not trust in case they turn out to be worthy of trust. Bruce, presumably there are authorities you used to trust before your conversion to Christianity whom you no longer trust, and vice versa.

2. "Why should we be concerned by the answers of idiots and liars?" One can question them, not in order to find out their answers, but in order to "detect [and] denounce" them.

Bruce Charlton said...


1. One can only start from a position of knowing whom to trust - at least one person or authority - otherwise nothing can even begin.

So, you already know the answer to this - or else you know nothing at all (which is impossible).

2. Yes, but this is the work of a moment - then you can move onto other matters. It must not become habitual - must not become a 'skeptical stance'.

Of course, if or when one achieves a spiritually advanced state of holiness, then things may well change (presumably). I'm talking about a basic strategy for beginners.

The Crow said...

Interesting premise.
Interestingly put forward.
I realized, a while back, that I no longer ask questions. At some indeterminate point, I simply stopped doing it.
Very odd.
My stance now seems to be: if I need information, it will present itself to me, as needed, and strangely, it does.
Along with an advanced problem-solving capability, I find nothing needs answering from an external source.
I simply seem to have no further questions...

The Continental Op said...

James: you also trust yourself. Why? You've never been wrong about anything? I'm sure you would never assert such a thing.

If anything, you KNOW all the ways you've been wrong, and you KNOW why and how, and how your own motives were deficient. If anyone should be mistrusted, it should be yourself, because you know best your own failures.

I know for a fact that there are times when I was wrong, even while I've had only good motives.

If there's skeptical questioning, it should begin with one's own self, because you know best how untrustworthy your own self is. It's not a bad thing--it's an opening for faith in the one who is utterly trustworthy.

Why should we be concerned by the answers of idiots and liars?

This I think is near Nietzsche's comment on staring into the abyss. You will find the abyss staring into you.

The Crow said...

CO: One may be either connected to, or disconnected from, The Source.
Disconnected: one is inevitably unable to trust one's puny ability to get it right.
Connected: one is not directing oneself, but is directed and advised by the infallible Source.

This is one area where taoism connects with Chrisianity: The idea of "Let go and let God", says it rather well, if simplistically. Directed by The Divine, one becomes an instrument of The Divine, rather than a bungling free-agent.

The Continental Op said...

Crow: well-put. I had edited out a comment (I was getting too wordy) that the Skeptic Who Trusts Himself is, more than anything, lost and getting loster. I think of someone in a pit of quicksand--the harder you thrash trying to get out, the deeper you go.

Daniel said...

When trying to find some sort of solid ground from which to base one's questioning (to address James's dilemma of how to know who to trust without using skeptical questioning in the first place), one is often best served listening to the heart.

The heart is not foolproof — or at least the way in which we interpret the heart is not foolproof. But we can detect truth with organs other than our analytical brains. In music, in silence, in certain places and in certain words, and in the faces and mere presence of certain other people — we can find a basis for trust.

This is not to say we cannot then follow up with analytical inquiry — sometimes we can mistake charisma for deep wisdom, and to completely shut off one's brain is a bad idea! But the brain is not on this journey alone! The heart, the skin, the gut... they are at least as important.

(I have always believed something along these lines, but Dr. Charlton's blog has helped me clarify this and act on it more consistently in recent months.)

Wm Jas said...

I would only question someone whom I trust in the sense of believing him to be honest and reasonably intelligent and informed. But I don't necessarily have to trust him in the sense of holding him to be a reliable authority.

Intelligent, honest, informed people who disagree with me (i.e., whom I think are wrong) are extremely valuable people to discuss things with. They, more than anyone else, are likely to teach me something fundamental that I didn't know before or to help me discover an error in my own thinking.

If I followed your suggested policy of simply ignoring or suppressing people whom I thought were purveyors of nonsense, I'd still be living in PC la la land.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - My own experience was that I was led-into PC la la land from relative common sense precisely by exposing myself to a barrage of skeptical, modernist propaganda: the 'serious' media, the 'best' of novels, plays and movies and contemporary art and music, the most prestigious philosophy etc.

I did this - not because I regarded the advocates as trustworthy or authoritative - but because I fell for the line that it was a good thing to be skeptical, questioning, wide-ranging; it was wrong to be narrow, dogmatic, unyielding.

I did this because I thought 'there must be somthing in it' if everyone else takes it so seriously.

So, for instance, I spontaneously experienced Heidegger and (especially) Foucault as evil charlatans; but persevered with reading and engaging with them because I assumed that everyone else in academia must be right that these were major thinkers of our era; with the result that I was substantially corrupted by them.

We live in the most skeptical age in human history - and yet ever more skepticism is advocated. That can't be right.

Skepticism is the problem not the solution. We need a completely different basis than the habit skeptical questioning for challenging falsehood.

We need, I think, to get back to what is inevitably a small basis in trustworthy authority, and build slowly from there.