Why do we ask questions?
“An unexamined life is not worth living” -Socrates
Why do we ask questions? This is not something easy to address since I can only answer it by asking a question, which is the case with most things. We want answers to certain things that are not inherently obvious. One can ask: what is obvious? The instincts and reactions that are built into our DNA represent responses that we consider obvious. For example, if a predator approaches us, we either run or, if possible fight the predator. But if equipped with nothing, we tend to run. This is an obvious response to this type of situation, and it is built into all humans around the world. Not only that, it is built into most, if not all, animals around the world. And the reason that this is the case is because, often times, it is the creature that runs away and hides that survives and is able to pass on their DNA. The animals that either fought a predator without much chance of success or took too long to run away or ran too slowly all died out. The instincts built into us are essentially the responses that worked most of the time.
Another important thing to highlight is that these instincts are ways for creatures to respond to certain situations without much thought (such is the definition of an instinct). The creature that, upon seeing a predator approaching, decided to flee quickly may have had a better chance of surviving than the animal that sat down and pondered which direction to nearest safe location is shortest given the local terrain. In addition, any animals that would have asked questions would have also died. This is because nature does not favor animals who do not know the answers, or responses, to certain situations. If an animal does not know how to respond to a potentially dangerous situation, they will most likely die and will not pass on their DNA. Back to humans, it is interesting now to wonder why we ask questions. After all, we have the genetic information needed to survive. However, we also have more complex brains than most other animals and, as such, ingenuity is another factor that can act as an advantage. When humans controlled fire for the first time, we could scare away predators and establish places of community around the bonfire. It granted us the time to think and ask questions. As we became farmers in the Neolithic Revolution, we stored food in larger quantities and established the very first societies. With excess food, we had more time to ask questions to which we had no answers. At first, they were related to improving ways of life. For example, how could they use the flooding of a river (such as the Nile) to benefit their agricultural systems? With this question came irrigation. With agriculture, we realized that calendars are extremely useful as they allowed for the planning of crops into the future. And so the first astronomers built observatories to look at the sky. Questions and answers allowed for new solutions to be found that improved our way of life.
Of course, we must also consider the role of religion in this question. The goal of religion is to also seek answers. However, according to religion, the answers already exist and so there is no need for the individual to live without knowing something. This is represented in most, if not all, religions with a religious doctrine or holy text of some sort (such as the Bible or Quran) that capture the messages of their god to humanity. There are also rules on how to behave so as to become holy. Any phenomena in nature can be attributed to a god, and so there is no real unkown. This is comforting for many people, so much so that they are willing to overlook many contradictions in their holy texts just to continue believing in a god.
Sometimes, however, religion can spur on the asking of questions and the pursuit of knowledge. One major example is the Islamic Golden Age, between the 8th and 13th Centuries, during which scientific exploration was encouraged and new mathematical theories blossomed. It was in this time that algebra, geometry, optics, astronomy, and even the beginnings of calculus were studied. Although some of the work, such as astronomy, was used for religious purposes in creating accurate calendars for religious holidays, it still created an environment that promoted learning.
In conclusion, asking questions is something we do to improve our lives, to explore the unknown, and to reach out from our basic genetic instincts to a more advanced and fulfilling pursuit of life. Those who do not ask questions are content with the answers that exist, without considering whether those answers are correct or not. Those are the people who accepted the works of Ptolemy and Aristotle for hundreds of years despite their works both being largely incorrect. Those are the people who listened to the Church without thinking about what else could explain reality. Of course, many times the Catholic Church was very oppressive and restricted any form of thought which they considered heretical (as was seen in their avid censorship of many books that strove to better understand reality). In addition, those who live in difficult conditions tend to be more willing to accept any answer as long as it is an answer to a question, to an unknown. This breeds ignorance and hampers scientific exploration. It is in our human nature to seek answers as answers provide security. As such, we are willing to accept lies as long as they provide the illusion of truth. Asking questions means that one is willing to not find the answer immediately. It takes time to find answers. But when we finally understand something, it is a truly profound moment and it is a testament to human endeavour.
“I would rather discover one true cause than gain the kingdom of Persia” — Democritus