“There are no stupid questions.”
Who here has heard this saying before? Let’s have a show of hands.
Yes, I thought so. It is quite a common phrase.
For good reason too – it is certainly a useful phrase. It’s used often by teachers; students aren’t as likely to learn if they’re afraid to ask questions. After all, what if the question they have in mind is a stupid question? How embarrassing!
Yes, the phrase is definitely useful and, perhaps because it’s in such common use, seems to be a popular belief. But is it true?
I don’t think it is. I think some questions are “stupid questions”, or at least some questions are the wrong questions. I think, when it comes to why a particular question is a stupid one, the person asking it is to blame. Sound harsh? Let me explain…
Ignorance is not stupidity. To ask a question that betrays one’s ignorance is not stupid, but quite the opposite. It demonstrates a desire to correct that ignorance, and if any desire should be considered virtuous this must surely be the foremost. Questions of the form “is that true?” are, in my opinion, the noblest of questions.
No, ignorance does not beget stupid questions. It’s misplaced confidence that leads to them. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say I want to get from my home to the home of a friend of mine. Let’s also say that my friend lives on the other side of the motorway from me, and that I own a bike. However, I don’t know how to get to my friend’s home from mine.
A smart question to ask in this case would be…
How can I get to my friend’s home from my home?
This question demonstrates my ignorance. After all, it shows that I don’t know how to get to my friend’s home. The only important assumption (i.e. ignoring such trivialities as “I assume the person I’m asking can understand English”) it makes is a reasonable one – that it is possible for me to get from my home to my friend’s home. This is a good question.
In contrast, a stupid question might be…
How can I bike across the motorway?
This question, too, demonstrates my ignorance, but it also demonstrates something else. Instead of trying to correct my ignorance, I have gone ahead and assumed that I know the best way to do what I want, but I’m not sure how to do some part of that so I ask only about that specific part.
You’re always going to have to make some assumptions. In order to avoid asking stupid questions you must avoid making bad assumptions. Better assumptions will lead to better questions. Of course, the best way to avoid making the kind of assumptions that lead to stupid questions is to temper your thoughts with scepticism.
Stupid questions are particularly common in superstition and pseudoscience, both of which are rife with bad assumptions:
- How can I free this child from the demon possessing them?
- How can homeopathy cure my cancer?
- How did all the animals fit on Noah’s ark?
- How did Jesus turn water into wine?
- What colour is my aura?
- What is God’s favourite colour?
- What quality is the fabric of the emperor’s new clothes?
- What is the purpose of life?
These questions may be asked in an earnest attempt to correct one’s ignorance, but the very thing that makes these questions stupid is also what’s stopping a direct answer from being truly enlightening. In cases such as these, it is the assumptions underlying the questions that should be questioned:
- Do demons exist and, if they do, can they possess people?
- Can homeopathy cure cancer?
- Is the global flood story of Noah’s ark true?
- Was water ever turned into wine?
- Do auras exist and, if they do, do I have one and does it have a colour?
- Do any gods exist and, if so, do any of them have favourite colours?
- Does the emperor wearing any clothes at all?
- Does life have any intrinsic purpose beyond that with which we endow it ourselves?
The answers to each of these questions is, as far as it’s been possible to tell, a resounding no. Of course, this is precisely why the original questions could be called “stupid questions” – each of them is simply the wrong question.
Even if these questions are asked in earnest search of enlightenment, direct answers will always fall short because they don’t deal with the initial stumbling block of that rotten underlying assumption. Without the presence of mind or, sometimes, the courage to question bad assumptions that have become accepted, the advancement of knowledge will remain obstructed.
History is full of such stories. For many centuries it was assumed that the Sun and other celestial bodies all orbited the Earth; we were the uncontested centre of the Universe. It wasn’t until the time of Nicolaus Copernicus that this assumption was properly questioned and, ultimately, shown to be false. There was some 1 400 years between the time of Ptolemy, who presented his version of the geocentric (centred about the Earth) system in the 2nd century AD, and the time of Copernicus, who put forth the heliocentric (centred about the Sun) system in the 16th century.
Surely though, in this modern post-scientific revolution era, one would think society had moved past such terrible assumptions? I’m afraid that’s not the case at all. For example, many universities (which one might hope and reasonably expect would be at the forefront of humanity’s search for knowledge) offer degrees in theology.
What’s wrong with theology?
Unlike the arts, which have their own legitimate place in these institutes, theology is a discipline that claims to share science’s aspiration of endeavouring to search for truth. This is both a bold claim and a noble aspiration, but how does the field live up to it?
Theology attempts its search for knowledge by “studying” religion. The main methods it employs, at least for theology in Abrahamic religions, are essentially thinking about God and analysing scripture.
Where science attempts to learn about reality by looking at reality, theology attempts to learn about reality by looking at God. The assumption underlying the scientific method here is fairly sound: reality exists and can be observed. Theology, though? The assumption upon which theology must be based is that their god exists and can be observed, yet this has never been shown to be true.
Theology, in contrast with science and precisely because of the assumptions underlying the entire field, has never – not once in the entire history of humanity – advanced our knowledge of reality.
The branch of philosophy dealing with asking and attempting to answer stupid questions based on religious assumptions.
Unfortunately, society is filled with bad assumptions. Once a bad assumption becomes accepted, it can take a long time before anyone dares to properly question it, allowing knowledge to truly progress. We are, all of us, terrible at questioning our assumptions. This is precisely why we must rely on a system as rigorous as the scientific method to further our knowledge of the Universe.