The art of asking the next question

Thinking is like music. It too has its own technique, structure and harmony that any average person can pick up if pointed in the right direction. Few people can ever be great thinkers, but most can thereby become competent ones.

Thus started Global Warming

Yet they don’t bother. They don’t even realise there is becoming involved, a technique to be learned by lengthy application. No one is born knowing how to play the violin, but everyone is born knowing how to think, goes the popular misconception.

Thus misled, most people waste their whole lives on the cerebral equivalent of trying to play Beethoven sonatas before learning how to finger scales and arpeggios. As a result, their brains produce the cerebral equivalent of cacophony – but they aren’t even aware of it.

One thing they never learn is an essential element of cognitive technique: the art of asking the next question. Thus, even someone like Richard Dawkins, a man burdened with advanced degrees, is capable of writing that Darwin’s theory of evolution “explains everything”.

So it may, if one stops asking questions at some arbitrary point long before a serious explanation is reached. However, asking that next question will show that the real explanation is like a desert mirage: it moves further away the closer one gets.

I was fortunate to stumble on this realisation when I was a little tot growing up with no friends my age. Since my father was banned from living in Moscow, we kept moving from place to place too often for me to develop a social life.

Hence it was my parents who provided the only outlet for my inquisitiveness, my mother willingly, my father reluctantly. He had more important things to worry about, like putting food on the table. But I was relentless, and one dialogue led me to the art of asking the next question.    

“Is there a god, Papa?”

“Do. Not. Be. Stupid. Of course there bloody well isn’t.”

I wouldn’t let him get off scot-free, especially since I was having daily conversations on that subject with my nanny. That illiterate old woman always crossed herself when walking me past the local church converted to a furniture warehouse.

“If there is no God, then who created man?”

“Man originated from the ape. It’s called evolution, and there was this Englishman, Darwin, who proved it conclusively in his book The Origin of Species. You’ll read it when you grow up.”

“And where did the ape come from? The one man originated from?

“From another ape, you know, a lower order of ape.”

“And where did that one come from?”

I’d thus lead Papa all the way down to the amoeba, making him resort to the rhetorical fallacy of telling me I’d find out all those things for myself when I grew up. He was right about that, but the answer to my ultimate next question was provided by neither Dawkins nor Darwin.

The art of asking the next question also comes in handy when dealing with matters transient, not just transcendent. Take politics, for example.

The interrogative chain reaction can be set off by an observable empirical fact, a technique first recommended by Aristotle. The fact in this case is that most of our leaders aren’t qualified to lead.

Yet we dutifully go to the voting booths every few years, hoping that this time things will change. Thereby we walk chin first into the uppercut of Einstein’s terse adage: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

We aren’t insane, Einstein was too harsh there. We simply haven’t been trained in the art of asking the next question. Our minds are so lazy that we accept as axiomatic certain propositions that are so open to questions that the draught of folly blows through unimpeded.

In the case of politics, the questions are as obvious as they are uncomfortable:

  • Are all modern governments becoming more centralised? Yes.
  • Isn’t it true that, the more centralised the government, the more important are the personalities of those at the centre? Yes.
  • If those personalities are consistently inadequate, doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Yes.
  • So how do we consistently end up with inadequate personalities in government? We elect them.
  • What does ‘we’ mean? Whoever is qualified to vote.
  • And who is so qualified? Anyone aged 18 or older, except prisoners serving sentences of over 12 months.
  • About 80 per cent of the population then? Yes.
  • Including those who don’t know the first thing about government and understand even less? Yes.
  • Are such people in the majority? Yes, an overwhelming one.
  • So on what basis do they select their leaders? Usually on the basis of promises the aspiring leaders have no way, nor indeed intention, of keeping.
  • What happens if they break their promises? They are either re-elected anyway or replaced with others whose promises will be broken in the next cycle. That’s called one-man-one-vote democracy.
  • How long has this been going on? With one or two accidental exceptions, at least for a century.

Most people are capable of getting this far, especially if they have no ideological commitment to any particular party. But then comes the art of asking the next question, and few ever dare ask it:

“If the system keeps producing bad results, surely there must be something wrong with the system?”

Serious political thinking and study start with that question. This may lead to an intellectually satisfactory solution or it may not. But if this question is never asked, no such solution will be possible.

Intellectually satisfactory doesn’t of course mean practically achievable – too many unaccountable variables come into play. But no problem can be solved unless it’s properly diagnosed.

The same Socratic art of asking the next question could put paid to any woke fad, such as anthropogenic global warming. The questions could follow this progression:

Is global warming caused by our rapacious consumption of fossil fuels? If so, did it start with the Industrial Revolution, which increased the consumption of such fuels no end? If so, can we assume that there had been no periods of global warming before that time?

That would be it. For, alternating with assorted Ice Ages, there were many such periods, most notably the Roman Warming and the Medieval Warming. Moreover, the Earth has been warmer than it is now for about 80 per cent of its existence, when nobody drove SUVs or used aerosols.

Hence the current interglacial period isn’t caused by SUVs and aerosols. It’s caused by other, natural, factors, and the book Heaven and Earth by Ian Plimer explains them all. Yet no one who hasn’t mastered the art of asking the next question will even think of reading it.

The same trick can work with just about every modern obsession, from sex and racial discrimination to the NHS.

Now, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but could it be that our moron-spewing educational system is specially designed to make sure no one knows how to ask the next question? I wonder.

10 thoughts on “The art of asking the next question”

  1. Unhappily your unanswerable analysis, which is not novel, leads nowhere useful. And no-one, including Marx and similar pontificators, has found a really useful answer.

    That is why the popular vote and electoral democracy are the commonly-adopted solutions. They lead to widely acceptable, but often sub-optimal solutions and do not lead (inevitably) to undemocratic, dictatorial solutions.

    1. Is it really the case that the only alternative is between democracy in its current form, on the one hand, and some sort of totalitarianism on the other? Can we not use intelligence, common sense and historical knowledge to at least improve on the system we now have? One reform that would probably help was suggested by H.L. Mencken (among others) decades ago. As he said, we ought to frankly “recognize the fact that universal suffrage will never work, and … take steps to convert the right to vote into an admitted privilege, which it obviously is.” He added that if citizens had to “earn [the right to vote] by some reasonably useful service to society, it would be much greater esteemed than it is now, and exercising it in a reckless or selfish way would become more or less shameful.”

      1. I couldn’t agree more. Post-pubescence (barely) shouldn’t be the sole qualification for taking part in government. And Mencken lived at a better time, before the franchise chickens really came to roost. What would he say now?

  2. “the Earth has been warmer than it is now for about 80 per cent of its existence, when nobody drove SUVs or used aerosols.”

    Correct. Normal weather as we call it today has been only the norm for the last 20 million years or so [if you accept the old earth hypothesis]. Prior to that for maybe a half billion years the temperatures were about 10 centigrade higher across the globe. Oxygen and CO2 levels also higher than now.

      1. I have always felt that people who rely on the government for some percentage of their income (over 50%?) should not be allowed to bribe… oh, I mean, vote. It may not be a solution, but it might be a place to start the conversation.

  3. A conspiracy to keep the masses from becoming educated? Perhaps. But I usually dismiss such theories as they give the leaders of such conspiracies too much credit. I just don’t see any of them as smart enough to devise and execute such plans. Maybe I’m naive.

    However, I also tend to dismiss theories that state the people responsible for much of our misery are acting in good faith and that things just did not work out according to plan. I recently read something about the racism of Democrat Party leaders here in the U.S. Lyndon Johnson was left off the list (for reasons I did not understand). Knowing his reluctance to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and then the reason behind his changing his position, I know how racist he was. The “War against Poverty” was never intended to end poverty, it was meant to swing elections. So, maybe they are smart enough, after all.

    Another thing about education… I am convinced that all the mathematics textbooks are written by people who did poorly in that subject and felt it was the fault of their teachers. Their mission in life (as non-mathematicians) became to explain it in a way their (underdeveloped) minds could understand. Good idea that: have someone who does not understand the subject write the text. I suppose it happens in all disciplines. (One example from last year’s book for 1st Grade: subtract by adding. No, subtraction is the inverse to adding. It is a separate operation and has rules on how to proceed.)

    Sorry for the rambling post. ‘Twas ever thus.

    1. In Texas, he was called ‘Landslide’ Lyndon. He won his first congressional election by just a few votes, and ever since was in the pocket of Mr Brown, of Brown & Root. As to War on Poverty, it’s like all other wars ever declared by politicians, such as War on Drugs. A result exactly opposite to the one declared is almost guaranteed.

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