Discover more from Abundant Game
Rethinking how to ask
We’re often told, whether in school or at work, that there are no bad questions. How could a genuine question be bad? Questions challenge one’s perspectives and demand us to think critically. Coming up with an answer—good or bad—usually teaches us something.
One question that seems especially good and important: What is the source of our knowledge? If we can find the correct answer, we’ll be able to employ the best approach to attain knowledge.
Philosophers have long debated this question. Some, including Bacon and Locke, argue that we gain knowledge through observing the world around us, treating nature as an open book. Others like Descartes believe knowledge comes from our intellectual intuition, formed by clear and distinct ideas.
Karl Popper disagreed. He believed both answers were wrong, for the problem of the source of knowledge is not a good question to begin with.
In his book Conjectures and Refutations, Popper pointed out that focusing on the origin of ideas doesn’t necessarily validate their truthfulness. And the question implies knowledge has an authority, whether it’s the authority of nature or the authority of human intellect.
That is similar to asking “Who should rule?”, which begs for an authoritarian answer such as “the best”, “the wisest”, “the people”, or “the majority.” Popper argues it should be replaced by a completely different question, “How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers cannot do too much damage?”
Instead of asking “What are the best sources of our knowledge”, it’s better to ask “How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?” Because all sources are prone to mislead.
* * *
So what’s the problem here?
A question is flawed if its underlying assumption is wrong.
For example, when someone asks me “Which company are you working for now?” I can only say “I’m working for none.” To the question of the source of knowledge, Popper answers “There are all kinds of sources of our knowledge; but none has authority.”
* * *
The obvious takeaway is, before trying to answer a question, question the question.
I remember Shane Parrish calling this “owning the frame”: be careful how we frame a problem, and don’t let others frame it for us. For example, instead of asking “Should I quit my job”, it’s better to ask “What is the best place to invest in my career to reach my goals?” The Framing Effect tells us that not only should we question the content of the question, but also how it’s framed.
The way we frame solutions matters too. We often get stuck choosing between two options. A more effective approach could be to create a third.
Alright, thanks for reading this short musing. This topic certainly deserves a deeper understanding that I hope to share in the future.
Any thoughts on the topic? Happy to discuss more!
Have a great week,
Thanks DALL·E 3 for creating the thumbnail of this post.