Should We Be Afraid to Think and Ask Questions?

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Every college-going student will have at some stage learnt the saying ‘where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.’ The battle against ignorance continues to this day, and will never cease as long as there are humans who dare to ask questions that other humans dare not ask or are prevented from doing so for, most often, religious reasons.

That religion has been an obstacle to knowledge is well known, preferring ignorance which leads to fear, superstitions, taboos and practices that have blighted the lives of countless numbers of human beings through the ages, and even animals for that matter that are ‘sacrificed’ in the name of some God or the other. As one sage remarked, ‘why do they catch a goat or a lamb to sacrifice, why don’t catch a lion?’

The onus of fighting ignorance and obscurantism has fallen mainly on science, and it is to their honour and credit that scientists are the first to recognize that the more they seem to know, the more there is to know. The playwright George Bernard Shaw, in a dinner toast to Albert Einstein, declared that in science, every new discovery raises 10 new questions, as is pointed out in an article in the April 2012 issue of Scientific American by Stuart Firestein, Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. The title of the article is ‘What Science Wants to Know’, and we learn that in the ensuing 350 years after Isaac Newton, ‘an estimated 50 million research papers and innumerable books have been published in the natural sciences and mathematics’, constituting a veritable ‘impenetrable mountain of facts.’

It goes without saying that given this situation, one has to specialize and even sub-specialize – but even then it is almost impossible to keep abreast of all the developments in one’s speciality. This should make one more humble, although some people develop the opposite attitude of arrogance, when they are clearly ignorant about so many other things happening not only within their speciality, but in other fields of human knowledge and endeavour. One cynic has defined a specialist as ‘someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing!’ Cool, isn’t it?

The starting point of knowledge is two-pronged: curiosity and ignorance, and Firestein goes on to explain that science leads us to develop a ‘cultivated, high-quality ignorance’, as captured by the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell when he said, ‘Thoroughly conscious ignorance… is a prelude to every real advance in knowledge.’ And every such advance pushes further the frontiers of knowledge by extending the limits of our ignorance. Knowledge, it has been said, is a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere. Knowledge, in other words, is infinite.

Here we must make a distinction between lower knowledge, which is the objective, scientific knowledge we are talking about, and higher knowledge, which is subjective knowledge or, as the sages call it, Self-knowledge: another story altogether. But the quest for both involves asking questions, and no question is excluded. As has been observed, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

One of the roles of a teacher is to arouse pupils’ curiosity by paying heed to their questions, and the younger they are the more direct or ‘natural’, and sometimes even apparently stupid are their questions likely to be, such as the one that was asked by the youngest of Captain von Trapp’s daughters to Maria when she had just finished the waltz with the child’s father in the film The Sound of Music, and the couple were looking into each other’s face, ‘why are your cheeks so red?’

Richard Feynman, who won a Noble Prize in physics, used to say that he preferred to teach in the lower classes because children asked him questions for which, at times, he didn’t have an immediate answer, and so had to search the answers to these questions before he addressed them again.

I myself remember that very senior teachers used to take my class when I was in the lower forms. It seems that nowadays there are only star teachers who are specialists in teaching only upper forms, and will not teach lower forms. If that is true, I wonder if that is one of the ills of our educational system? I’m only asking the question…

In certain down-to-earth matters, one may have the definitive answer, but in the search for knowledge, most times it is not possible to have a yes-no answer, and one has to explore deeper. As Firestein says, ‘answers tend to be the end of the process, whereas questions have you in the thick of things.’ In this great adventure that has been going on for the past 15 generations, as he concludes.

On board everybody, towards the ocean of knowledge…


* Published in print edition on 13 April 2012

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