Some people won’t give it a rest. They’re never satisfied. Whatever question you answer, they’ll ask another question. They’re smart alecs like the kids who respond to parents’ demands by stalling for time with an endless string of Yeah, but why? questions.
Asking too many questions makes you a smart alec, but asking too few is a problem also. Some people give it a rest too easily. Like impulse shoppers, they’re satisfied with the first answer they find, regardless how flawed. They refuse to think beyond the bare minimum.
And actually it’s not different kinds of people so much as topics. We all have some topics on which we’re easily satisfied and others on which our curiosity runs persistent. On some topics you’re a smart alec; on others you’re an impulse shopper. Sometimes you drive people crazy with too much curiosity and sometimes with not nearly enough, at least for their taste.
In debates and arguments, we attack each other over how much curiosity we demonstrate. We say “Aren’t you at all curious? You’re going to settle for that lame answer?” or we say, “Oh, get over it. Stop asking so many questions!” Our shouting matches are often doubting matches, each of us demanding that our opponents doubt and question themselves more and us less. We shout as though we are authorities on some objective line, the right number of questions to ask, as though we know who falls over and under the line.
So where is that line? How many questions should you ever ask? I have an answer to this question though you are welcome, of course, to question it.
Let’s start by asking how many questions there are. Is there an outer physical limit? On this question, philosophers, concur with the smart alecs having decided that there isn’t. No matter what answer is provided, you could always ask another question. At minimum, about any answer you could always ask Yeah, but why is that so?
Why? is sometimes actually a How? question. Why does a car move? for example. But most often Why? means For what benefit? or With what value? as in Why should we do that? Why? is a values question.
That you can always ask another Why? question is terrible news for anyone who wants to nail down absolute final answers to values questions. History is a battlefield strewn with trampled absolutes on value answers, answers like Because God and the Universe say it is good, to which some heretic inevitably asks Yeah, but why?
Which is why history is also a battlefield strewn with trampled heretics.
The philosopher Richard Rorty notes that all values questions lead ultimately not to an imposed outer limit, but to someone saying, in effect Just shut up. Stop asking me why. Rorty calls this our final vocabulary. You encounter your own final vocabulary when you answer a values question Why is it good? with It just is. It’s good because it’s good.
Generally, philosophers call such answers tautological meaning that the answer is simply a reiteration of, or variation on the question. Why do we like sugar? Because it’s sweet (meaning it’s a substance we like). What is this swollen rash I have? It’s dermatitis (meaning it’s a swollen rash). Why is this valuable? Because it’s good (meaning it’s valued).
Philosophers guard against tautological arguments, and yet they also admit that given the infinitude of questions one could ask, tautology is the ultimate endpoint of even the most stubbornly persistent inquiry. We never get to an absolute answer. We exhaust ourselves well short of the infinite, and cry uncle. saying for example on values questions, Good is good, so just shut up!
Years ago, I wrote this limerick to capture this:
Always Next Dilemma (A.N.D.)
After finding solutions that fit
I like to kick back and just sit
on my laurels but then a
proves questions in life just don’t quit.
But, like I said, I have an answer. First, to constrain impulse shopping I’ve long advocated inventorying the questions that follow from our answers or solutions: Rather than kicking back after answering a question, think about what your answer entails–its consequences and the resulting dilemmas or questions that follow from your answers.
This weekend I noticed a formula for asking not only the always next question but also the last one you need to ask on values questions. My formula is based on the 2,600 year old Liar’s Paradox, the statement I’m lying, in other words This statement is false, or It’s true that this statement is false.
For these 2,600 years we logicians and philosophers have found the liar’s paradox very troubling. Since Aristotle we’ve been committed to the idea that a statement can’t be both true and false at the same time. And yet the liar’s paradox seems to be just that, in that if it’s true, it’s false and if it’s false it’s true. That is, if it’s true that I’m lying, then it’s not true that I’m lying, in which case it’s true that I’m lying, in which case it’s true that I’m not lying. The liar’s paradox is an eternally oscillating question. It’s like a reciprocating engine in that each of the two answers (A, not A) triggers its opposite answer.
The liar’s paradox has three essential features:
- It’s self-negating: It’s true that it’s not true.
- It’s self-referential: It’s about itself. It says “This statement is…”
- It has two parts that take turns determining the truth of each other and thereby to the whole statement: It’s true that… and …this statement is false both apply to each other and to the whole statement.
After 2600 years struggling to decide whether the Liar’s Paradox is true, false, or simply avoidable, philosophers have concluded that its an unavoidable undecideable. The Liar’s Paradox can not be turned into a stable stationary answer that is either absolutely true or false. Rather it’s a question that keeps toggling its answer.
If we think of the liar’s paradox not as a stable stationary thing but as an answer over time, it’s an oscillator, each of two answers triggering its opposite. Oscillators can be very useful. For example, a thermostat oscillates, turnig on a heater which makes the heater prone to turn off, which makes it prone to turn on. Likewise, a reciprocal engine’s piston’s expand causing their contraction, causing their expansion. We find such oscillators everywhere in organisms and the things organisms make.
I work as part of an origins of life research team whose molecular model for the missing link between non-life and life is reciprocating like this. When our autogen is closed and seed-like, it’s prone to open and grow; when open and growing, it’s prone to close.
I work on values questions too. I believe that we can make an ultimate answer out of the liar’s paradox.
Here’s the recipe for baking yourself a nice liar’s paradox:
Start with an answer to some question. We’ll call it A.
This statement is true.
Now, we negate it, in other words, Not A:
This statement is not true
And then tack onto the front of it the original statement, so we have A that not A.
It’s true that this statement is not true.
And there you have it: A liar’s paradox. Our answer A that Not A is an oscillator, in that its first clause keeps toggling between true and false:
If A that not A (It’s true that this statement is not true)
Then Not A that not A (It’s not true that this statement is not true)
Then A that not A (It’s true that this statement is not true)
Then Not A that not A (It’s not true that this statement is not true)
Now let’s apply this recipe to a value statement. For example, take the values answer:
Step one: Negate it.
Step two: Tack the original statement onto the front of it.
Be tolerant of being intolerant.
Being tolerant of intolerance has its problems. Should we tolerantly just accept bigotry, racism, cruelty and oppression? No we should:
Be intolerant of intolerance.
In other words, not A of not A.
But that’s hypocritical isn’t it? How can you be intolerant of intolerance without tolerating your own intolerance? So:
Be tolerant of intolerance.
In other words back to A of not A, and the oscillation begins again.
Tolerance, often touted as an absolute ultimate and supreme value is what philosopher’s would call an undecideable: When to be tolerant? When to be intolerant? We oscillate back and forth on this one, relaxing and tightening our standards on tolerance.
I’m often accused of not giving it a rest, of being a smart alec. I give it a rest but in a restless place, my liar’s paradoxes of values. I consider them more fundamental than any absolute values, both the beginning questions and the ultimate undecideable answers, the outer limits on the questions we need ask. Here are a few more of my favorite Values Paradoxes:
Commit yourself to flexibility
Convince yourself that you are not a self
Be persuaded that people can’t be persuaded
Be convinced that you should think for yourself
Do not be negative
You shouldn’t be judgmental