Why Do You Ask?
So much of how we make sense of the world starts with the questions we choose to ask. At the same time, the questions we choose to ask are shaped by the way we make sense of the world.
Which came first, the question or the answer?
A great example of how one can trace the source of our questions to our frames of reference can be found in Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Abbot invented a two-dimensional world populated by various polygons as a satirical commentary on the social hierarchies of Victorian culture. In world of Flatland, the more sides you have, the higher your social status. I’ll spare you the sexist parts, but be forewarned that the book is none to kind to women.
The story of Flatland is narrated by a square. I’m not passing judgment on the main character, he’s literally—or, should I say, literarily—a two-dimensional polygon with four equal sides and four equal interior angles. We learn about life on the plane from the square. One day the square is visited by a sphere, a three-dimensional occupant of "Spaceland," and the square’s life is turned inside out.
Think about the experience of encountering a three-dimensional object from the perspective of a two-dimensional object. When the sphere speaks, the square hears a voice that seems to come from all directions at once. From the vantage point of three dimensions, the sphere can see the inside of the buildings as well as inside of the inhabitants of Flatland. When the sphere gently touches the interior of the square, the square experiences the interaction as a sharp sudden pain in his gut. In an attempt to describe the nature of three-dimensional objects to the square, the sphere passes through the plane of Flatland. From a Flatland worldview, the intersection of the two worlds looks like a point that turns into a circle. The circle grows in size then shrinks to a point and disappears. Eventually, the square becomes enlightened and even challenges the sphere to consider the nature of life in worlds of more than three dimensions. Naturally, our four-sided hero has difficulty explaining the phenomenon to other Flatlanders and is eventually jailed as a heretic.
I’m fascinated by the questions that arise when the square encounters the sphere. Seemingly straightforward questions, like "Where are you?" and "Who are you?" can’t be answered in a way that would satisfy the square because the sphere and the square don’t share a frame of reference. Other questions that the square might be tempted to ask represent a profound misunderstanding of what’s happening. When the sphere passes through Flatland, the square may be tempted to ask the sphere, "How do you change your size like that?"
Consider another example: let’s say you leave a glass of water outside on a hot dry summer day. You return several hours later and notice that the water level in the glass has dropped. Let’s also suppose that you missed the day in science class when the teacher covered the concept of evaporation; the missing water genuinely puzzles you. You ask someone, "Where did the water go?" The question seems reasonable, but misses the point. As we understand the process, the water didn’t go anywhere, some of it changed from liquid to gas. As long as there’s someone around to reframe the question, there’s little risk associated with how we phrase what we want to understand. It’s when we collectively share a frame of reference that we have no way of knowing whether the answers to our questions will widen or narrow our understanding.
Many people share a frame of reference predicated on a worldview that authority equals power. People who presume that individuals with authority make or fail to make things happen see nothing wrong with the question, "Who’s to blame for the state of our economy?" Others share a frame of reference predicated on a worldview that we operate in systems where actions and influences follow patterns that cannot be controlled or perfectly predicted by any single element of the system. From a systems orientation, the question "Who’s to blame for the state of our economy?" is a nonsensical question.
Listen carefully to the way people phrase the questions they ask. Hidden behind the question lies a set of assumptions about the world and our place in it. We recognize the worldview of a child who asks, "What did Santa Claus bring me?" We frequently miss the worldview behind many of the questions comprising our daily headlines. What should we make of these questions?
- How do we make our schools more competitive?
- How do we keep people from crossing our borders illegally?
A lot of shared meaning underpins a conversation about the answer to those questions.
What questions have you been asking lately?