by Jonathan Y. H. Sim
We begin our journey of enhancing our metacognitive abilities with Philosophy. As a philosopher, I have over the years encountered many people expressing negativity towards Philosophy. The most common objection to Philosophy is: “What’s the point of studying something where there’s no definite answer, where everybody’s just disagreeing with everybody and there’s never any resolution? That seems like a waste of time!”
But wait a minute, aren’t there many issues in our personal lives and in the world where there are no definite answers? Issues like how to maintain a relationship, how to be a better person, how to raise a child, how to be a good supervisor or boss, etc., have no definite answers. We see issues like these debated over the Internet all the time. Even in Aunt Agony columns (relationship advice), we find topics that invite a spectrum of responses. Here’s a juicy example to illustrate the point:
I caught my best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her with my sister! Should I tell my best friend about it? Should I confront my sister? Should I confront the boyfriend? Or should I do nothing at all?
Here we have four different possibilities, each with their own consequences. If you were to discuss this scenario with your family and friends, you’d soon realise that you’d all have very different answers because of differences in your system of values. If you tried to convince the other about who’s right and who’s wrong (or who has the better solution), you’d soon find yourself doing Philosophy, and debating like philosophers, with no definite end in sight.
1. What is Philosophy?
What is Philosophy and why should we even bother with a discipline that gives no definite answers? The great philosopher, Bertrand Russell had this to say:
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves.
This brings us to the point and meaning of philosophy. Etymologically, “philosophy” comes from two Greek words: “philos” (love) and “sophia” (wisdom). But what is wisdom? Etymologically it comes from “wis” (good judgement) and “dom” (domain or specifically authoritative rule over a territory).
Thus, Philosophy is the love of wisdom, the love of the authoritative domain of good judgement. From this perspective, the value in aiding us to make good judgements in the future comes not from the answers themselves, but from examining and understanding the questions and how they lead us to those answers. In other words, the value isn’t in the answers but in the process by which we arrive at those answers. There are more insights to be gained from the question and its process.
Another way to look at Philosophy comes from the Japanese words invented to refer to the Western understanding of Philosophy, due to their influence in the Eastern sphere. By that time in history, Western cultures had made Philosophy a separate discipline from the other academic disciplines. The situation was much different in East Asia at that time. They had no specific word for Philosophy because it was still considered part and parcel of everything that they studied. Because of this, the Japanese invented the word, and after which, the Chinese and Koreans adapted it into their vocabulary.
That word is: 哲學 (tetsugaku in Japanese, and zhexue in Mandarin).
Let’s have a look at the first character, 哲 (tetsu in Japanese, zhe in Mandarin). It is made of the characters 折 (break, snap apart) and 口 (mouth). In other words, tetsu is to break things apart with your mouth.
The second character, 學 (gaku in Japanese, xue in Mandarin), depicts a person at table studying the Milfoil leaves (used in divination) to understand the world. It is the character used to refer to learning, or studying.
Thus, tetsugaku or zhexue is the discipline of learning how to break things apart with your mouth (or mind if you’re not the vocal type). I quite like the Japanese imagery of Philosophy because it represents quite succinctly what Philosophers do. In order to learn the art of wisdom, the art of right judgement, one must be able to break things down into parts to gain a better understanding of a concept or a situation.
2. Socrates: Wisdom Stems From Knowing That You Know Nothing
Both notions of philosophy are best exemplified in the person of Socrates, perhaps the greatest philosopher in all of history. So great was he, that all that we talk about in contemporary Philosophy today can be attributed as footnotes to Plato:
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
(Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality. p. 39, Free Press, 1979).
Do allow me to share with you a short story about Socrates. After all, if you’re going to be exposed to Philosophy, you should know the legendary story of one of its greatest philosophers.
One day, the Oracle of Delphi revealed that Socrates was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates was deeply puzzled by this revelation, and quite sceptical of it as well. He was consciously aware of just how little he knew. So surely there must be people in Athens who knew more than he did, and surely that would suffice to conclude that they were wiser than himself. Thus, Socrates made it a personal life mission to prove the Oracle wrong, and went about questioning everyone he could find, especially those who claimed to be wise. But it was only after questioning them that he discovered that these people – including those who were supposed to be the wisest of Athens – didn’t have much of a clue about things.
Like the supposed wise people of Athens, we use a lot of concepts and ideas, like “justice,” “equality,” “fairness,” etc., but when questioned and made to give a definition of what these terms mean, we stumble and struggle. How is it that we can use these ideas without having a decent idea about what they really mean?
It turns out that Socrates was the wisest of them all, not because they knew more than he (it turned out they were equally clueless), but that Socrates was wise because he recognised that he knew that he knew nothing.
Wisdom begins when we recognise just how little we know about ourselves and the world around us. This is the attitude and awareness that we should hold if we are to successfully discover what “I don’t know that I don’t know (unknown unknowns),” and what “I don’t know that I know (unknown knowns).”
Conversely, the greatest mistake is to have the arrogance of the self-proclaimed wise guys in Athens who thought they knew everything, who thought that they were 100% right about particular issues, who thought that they possessed the whole picture of truth. Not only does it make it harder for us to learn anything new about that subject matter, it becomes close to impossible to discover all the ways that we could be wrong about a certain matter. Ignorance may be bliss, but:
“Stupidity is the deliberate cultivation of ignorance.”
– William Gaddis
Allow me to cite another quote that helps to further emphasise this point:
“If you can’t see what you’re doing wrong, then you have two problems to solve.”
Wisdom is knowing when to do the right thing, at the right time, in the appropriate way. Yet, the beginning of wisdom is to have that conscious awareness that we do not know everything, and for what little that we know, we are fallible and potentially prone to error. This is the attitude that opens ourselves up to cultivate right judgement, and to constantly improve ourselves.
3. A Short Theory of Questioning to Get Us Started
Just like concepts of justice, equality, or friendship, we use these terms a lot, but we rarely put much thought into them. And surprisingly, if we try to question what these concepts really mean, more often than not, we find ourselves at a lost, as we grapple to explain them.
Allow me to facilitate this discussion. Is it possible for us to question without having to express those questions into words or some other physical gesture? In other words, can you be questioning in your mind without expressing it in question form? If we accept that this might be possible, that there can be a somewhat unconscious process of questioning, this perspective will radically change the way we think about questions! If questioning can be an unconscious mental process, how is it related to reasoning?
Do questions trigger our processes of reasoning, or do our reasoning processes trigger questions? It’s tempting to conceive this as a chicken-and-egg problem as a quick way out. Another way out of this chicken-and-egg trap is to consider whether questioning is a subset of reasoning. If so, to be a better questioner, one must be improve one’s reasoning abilities. Or we could consider reasoning as a subset of questioning. In which case, to improve our reasoning abilities, we need to improve our questioning abilities.
This is important because if we can identify which is fundamental, we can then accurately focus our efforts to improving our mental processes. If all we need to become a better questioner is to improve our reasoning abilities, then we can stop this course and study Logic 101. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case. People who are good at logic aren’t always the best at asking questions. So maybe it’s the other way, maybe to be better at reasoning, one should focus one’s efforts at developing one’s questioning abilities.
Allow me to reframe the issue a bit differently. Which is more important? Figuring out what’s a good question, or figuring out what makes for a good answer?
Let’s start with questions. I love this quote about bad questions:
“There is an irony to bad questions, in that they can be more difficult to answer than a good question.”
– Terry Heick
Have you ever been asked a question that is so bad or so mistaken, that you don’t even know where to begin? It’s as if someone were to ask, “Where do I find the bus that will fly me to Australia via an underground tunnel through the moon?” That’s a really bad question. Your brain would hang for a moment before you exclaim, “What?!”
If bad questions are incredibly difficult to answer, does this mean that good questions are those that are easy to answer (or at least not so difficult)? Not so. We recognise that good questions can be just as hard to answer. Good questions yield new information. Bad questions merely solicit information that we already know. Yet, there are questions that yield new information that we do not regard as good questions, either because the new information is not impactful or insightful. No matter how urgent we might feel, the question, “Where’s the toilet?” is never regarded as a good question. It is useful, yes. But not to the extent that we regard it as a good insightful question. In that case, it would seem that the evaluation of questions are highly dependent on the answers it yields. Is the goodness of a question based on the goodness of an answer? If so, a question that has no answer cannot have an evaluation until we arrive at an answer.
But that seems like a rather odd conclusion! A question can potentially yield thousands of answers, some of them good, and some of them bad. I might have the misfortune of asking a potentially good question to someone who gave a really bad answer, which thus gives the wrong impression that my question was bad. And if I am very lucky, I could ask what others think to be a bad question, but yield a really good answer from a very insightful person. Yet, if the goodness of a question is so highly dependent on the quality of the answer (or the expected answer), then perhaps we shouldn’t be too distracted with figuring out what makes questions good, but to figure out what makes answers good instead.
How do we tell apart good answers or solutions from really bad ones? That requires us to know how to examine those answers, to question those answers. It seems that we’re back at square one, since we might need to know what are good questions. But thankfully, that’s not the case. We don’t need good questions to assess whether answers are good. We just need a conceptual toolkit of higher-order questions, that a skilled questioner who, like a surgeon, can employ these tools to surgically dissect and probe the subject.
4. Negative and Positive Classes of Questioning Tools: The Wrecking Ball and the Pillar
What then are these tools? Well, for starters, imagine if Socrates (or your professor) were to probe your understanding of a particular concept, e.g. justice or free markets or cellular division. At the point when you suddenly felt that you don’t know enough, or what you knew is not quite correct, did that feel rather destabilising? Discomforting? In some cases, a question might cause you to feel as if your world is crashing down.
Like a wrecking ball that smashed the foundational pillars of what you thought you knew, of what made you so confident about a particular issue, questions have the ability to undermine and negate what we think we know. Some questions reveal that what we know is incorrect, or wrong. Some questions are so powerful that it reveals to us that we’ve gone down the wrong path. That’s the negative power of questions. (Negative, not in the sense that it’s bad sense, but in the sense that it cancels out what we know.)
A wrecking ball demolishes a building, so as to pave the way for a new structure to be constructed. Similarly, questions that function as wrecking balls pave the way for a new understanding or approach to things.
But is that the only value of questioning? Are there questions that do the opposite?
Consider the case of the researcher gaining new insights on string theory through questions. In this case, questioning does not “demolish” what the researcher already knows. Rather, when used in this case, questioning functions more like a pillar that holds things up to support what we already know so that we can construct new knowledge on top of that pillar. That’s the positive aspect of questioning. Some questions can take us further, to develop new insights. In academia, research revolves around such questions. The Principal Investigator lays down a question that guides the work of entire team of researchers. There are questions that are so massive and great that they set us on a journey. “Who am I?” is one such question. Some people spend years and years doing things just to find an answer to such a question.
So these are the two modes of questioning: one demolishes to pave the way for a new understanding, a new approach to things; while the other is constructive and provides the necessary support that allows us to build on top of what we know, that sets the direction of what we do.
What does it take to be a good questioner? Should we just focus on the demolishing effects of questioning (like Socrates), or the constructive effects of questioning (like most academic researchers?) Or is this one of those things where we need to seek a balance of the two? I’ll leave you to think about this. In this course, I’ll expose you to various questioning tools that function as wrecking balls and as pillars.
5. Negative Questioning: Confirmation Bias and the Value of Disconfirmation
Let me share with you a rather amusing story about Singapore’s healthcare system. If you ever work in a Singaporean hospital (or know relatives or friends who do), you’d discover that the doctors, nurses, and administrators have very very strong feelings against the eating of steamed buns (commonly referred to as a 包 bao) in the hospital. They argue that if you were to eat a bao (steamed bun), you and/or your colleagues will have to bao kar liao (包裏了, a Hokkien/Fujian dialect which means: to do everything) all the night emergency cases.
Now, this sounds like a crazy superstition. Yet, let me remind you that this is very widespread and prevalent amongst our highly trained and very intellectual doctors – people of science, the smartest of the cohort who have gone to the top universities to study medicine. Several academic papers have been published about this, and it is quite amusing to note that a handful of doctors expressed “concerns about a potentially heavier on-call workload” as a result of consuming such steamed buns in a study to examine the relation between steamed bun consumption and an increased in night cases (Tan M.H. et al, 2008).
So why would doctors, some of the most rational and scientific people, have reason to believe that there is actually a relationship between bao and bao kar liao? It has to do with this funny little thing called: confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that compels us to: (1) search for evidence that confirms one’s pre-existing belief or hypothesis; or (2) interpret evidence in a way that is favourable to one’s pre-existing belief or hypothesis. Basically, it is a bias that compels us to cherry-pick evidence, and it if we are not careful, can be an obstacle for us to discover what we don’t know we don’t know, or even to realise what we don’t know that which we know (or should know).
Confirmation bias happens to even the best of us. Why do doctors and nurses believe that eating bao will lead to bao kar liao of night emergency cases? Well, if we are rational about it, it is a hospital, so night emergency cases are pretty frequent. What happens when confirmation bias kicks in, is that we place so much premium on the presence of the bao, and we only take notice of the night emergency cases that happen when a colleague consumes a bao, that even the most rational people will accidentally mistake there to be a causal relation between the two.
Just to prove this point further, let’s play a game! I have a rule in my mind (the ordering of the numbers matter) and I will give you a glimpse of this rule by giving you a sequence of three numbers. My rule has generated the following three numbers: -3, -6, -9.
Can you guess what my rule is? I want you to guess my rule by proposing a set of three numbers. And I will tell you whether your numbers conform to my rule or not. And we’ll do this until you’ve figured out the rule.
Are you ready? (No peeking at the answers below)
Your first guess was probably -12, -15, -18.
To that three I would say: “Yes, that follows my rule.” Let’s try again!
You might be tempted to guess another three numbers that’s negative, descending order, and multiples of three. And I would once again respond: “Yes, that follows my rule.”
But let me add one more comment: Congratulations! You just committed confirmation bias! You’ve been operating under the mistaken assumption that as long as you keep proposing numbers that follows your suspicion of the rule (negative, descending order, and multiples of three), you’d be one step closer to the truth. The reality is that you are actually quite far from it. Every “yes” I give you does not give you any new information about what the rule in my head actually is. All it does is that it makes you feel good that you are closer to the truth, when in reality, you haven’t got anywhere close.
Confused? That’s ok. Let me explain. For every phenomenon, that is an infinite number of theories that could possibly explain that particular phenomenon. For example, a really heavy rainstorm can confirm the following hypotheses: (1) this is a normal weather phenomenon; (2) this is caused by climate change; or (3) some top secret evil organisation bent on world domination is testing its weather machine. How do you know which is the right hypothesis?
Confirmation of a hypothesis based on whatever evidence that we have is important, BUT it does not tell me whether the hypothesis I currently hold is the right one. It could well be wrong. Similarly, your hypothesis that the rule for the number game is negative, descending order, and multiples of three is consistent with my rule. Unfortunately, that is not my rule.
What this means is that we need to go beyond seeking confirmation. We need to change our strategies a little and look out for disconfirmation instead.
Let’s fight against the urge to seek confirmation and change your hypothesis a little. What if we try ascending numbers that are negative, but multiples of three? Say: -9, -6, -3. Here, I’d respond: “No, this does not follow my rule.”
Eureka! You’ve learnt something new. You’ve now learn that my rule definitely involves descending numbers. Ok, let’s tweak the rule. How about descending numbers, but positive multiples of three? Say: 9, 6, 3? Here, I’d respond: “No, this does not follow my rule.”
Wonderful! Once again, we’ve learnt something new. My rule must involve negative numbers in descending order. But what about the suspicion that it’s multiples of three? Well, let’s try number sequences. Say: multiples of two: -2, -4, -6. Here, I’d respond: “Yes, this follows my rule.”
That’s very strange. So it works for multiples of two and multiples of three. Does this mean that it doesn’t have to be a multiple of any number, that it just has to be descending negative numbers? Well, let’s test that: -1, -7, -13. Here, I’d respond: “Yes, this follows my rule.”
Ah! At last! You’ve figured out my rule for the game! This was a lengthy exercise, but I hope it demonstrated the value of disconfirmation in helping us go against our tendencies for confirmation bias.
6. Confirmation Bias and Disconfirmation Revisited: Problems with Confirmation in Real Life
Let’s try to apply this to something more realistic. A common advertising message is: “If you drink beer, you’re cool.” Let’s treat this advertising message as a hypothesis.
Hypothesis: If you drink beer, you’re cool.
If we parse this into logical form: IF beer THEN cool
And if we parse this into mathematical notion: B -> C
Below, I will present you with four scenarios. Can you tell me whether each scenario confirms, disconfirms, or does nothing to the hypothesis?
Scenario 1: You see a cool guy drinking beer. Is it confirmation/disconfirmation of the hypothesis? Or does it do nothing to the hypothesis?
Scenario 2: You see a cool guy drinking Yakult (or whatever your favourite non-alcoholic beverage might be). Is it confirmation/disconfirmation of the hypothesis? Or does it do nothing to the hypothesis?
Scenario 3: You see an uncool guy drinking beer. Is it confirmation/disconfirmation of the hypothesis? Or does it do nothing to the hypothesis?
Scenario 4: You see an uncool guy drinking Yakult (or whatever your favourite non-alcoholic beverage might be). Is it confirmation/disconfirmation of the hypothesis? Or does it do nothing to the hypothesis?
Let’s start with Scenario 1. If you drink beer, you’re cool. You see a cool guy drinking beer – yup, it confirms the hypothesis alright.
Scenario 2, where you see a cool guy drinking Yakult (or some other non-alcoholic beverage), is a bit difficult. From having taught this module for four semesters, I noticed that students are always divided about what this scenario. The hypothesis is: if you drink beer, you’re cool. It doesn’t say anything about other drinks and coolness. So, the correct answer is that this statement does absolutely nothing to the hypothesis. Cool people will remain cool whether they drink beer, Yakult, or fresh milk. If you thought that this scenario confirms/disconfirms the statement, then you have committed confirmation bias, under the mistaken impression that as long as you keep your eyes on the cool guy, you’d find some way to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis. Gotcha!
What about Scenario 3? If you drink beer, you’re cool. Yet, here we have an instance of a really uncool person drinking beer. If the hypothesis is right (and depending on how you interpret the sentence), either the beer would make the person cool (which it didn’t), or only cool people are allowed to drink beer (but here this uncool guy has violated the regulation).
The moral of the story of disconfirmation is, if you are presented with a situation where a hypothesis can be parsed as: IF a THEN b, what you need to disconfirm it is to find evidence of a and not-b.
Now that we’ve got the first three scenarios out of the way, I’m really excited to talk about Scenario 4. It’s not as easy as it seems! Here we have an uncool guy drinking Yakult (basically, non-beer stuff). Some of you might be inclined to think that this has nothing to do with cool people and beer, so it does nothing to our hypothesis. But in reality, it CONFIRMS our hypothesis!
Let me explain. In logic, there’s this thing known as a contrapositive. The statement, “IF a THEN b” is equivalent (not similar – equivalent, exactly the same) as “IF not-b THEN not-a.”
If you enjoy truth tables, here’s the proof:
- a=1 and b=1. Therefore, “IF a THEN b” = 1 and “IF not-b THEN not-a” = 1
- a=0 and b=1. Therefore, “IF a THEN b” = 1 and “IF not-b THEN not-a” = 1
- a=1 and b=0. Therefore, “IF a THEN b” = 0 and “IF not-b THEN not-a” = 0
- a=0 and b=0. Therefore, “IF a THEN b” = 1 and “IF not-b THEN not-a” = 1
Thus, the statement, “IF beer THEN cool,” is logically equivalent to its contrapositive “IF not-cool THEN not-beer.” (To avoid confusion, please do not interpret “THEN” as a causal relation.)
As crazy as this may sound, it’s precisely the kind of logic we employ when we say things like, “Only cool people drink beer. Look at that uncool guy drinking his uncool syrup drink. He’s not cool enough to drink beer.” Thereby affirming the original hypothesis “IF beer THEN cool”
But this reveals a huge problem with seeking confirmation (and why we shouldn’t be too focused on seeking confirmation in the first place). The philosopher, Carl Hempel, first discovered this with what he calls, “The Raven Paradox” (Hempel, 1945).
Suppose I have a hypothesis: “All ravens are black.” You’d think that all I need to confirm this hypothesis would be to find black ravens. Yet, the contrapositive, “All non-black things are non-ravents,” implies that non-black, non-raven things, like a white table, a green chair, or a brown shirt, would also confirm the hypothesis. This means that almost everything could potentially function as confirming evidence for whatever hypothesis I might have.
This proved to be a huge problem for philosophers and scientists. To avoid getting into more complicated matters, one way to resolve the problem would be to argue that context matters. If we are studying ravens, only things relevant to birds are important. And that’s the context by which we shall determine whether something counts as relevant evidence or not. That sounds good, doesn’t it?
But if you think about, context is a very subjective thing. What I think is relevant to ravens may not appear relevant to you. Years ago, we didn’t think that food was that relevant to our behaviour. But recent medical studies have found that our gut bacteria play a significant role in determining who we are. What you eat may benefit or harm your gut bacteria, and that in turn will affect your mood and your behaviour. As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.”
If that’s the case, how do we even know what’s relevant? We may think brown shirts, or blue jeans may have absolutely nothing of relevance to ravens. But maybe there is, but we just haven’t quite figured that out yet. Thus, part of the problem has to do with us. It’s not that certain relations are impossible or unlike, but rather, we lack the creativity to imagine its possibility.
So maybe, before you decide to dismiss something as irrelevant, do be open to the possibility that there might be some relevance. Maybe that brown shirt could be the next Nobel prize-winning discovery!
I have said quite a lot about negative questioning. Confirmation bias can indeed stand in our way from discovering unknown unknowns and unknown knowns. And so the only way forward is to challenge our biases by constantly seeking disconfirmation rather than confirmation. Every time we disconfirm a pre-existing belief or assumption in our minds, we learn how we are mistaken about an issue, be it a false assumption, or an inaccurate theory. And thus, such an approach can help to wreck whatever false beliefs or theories that we may hold, and pave the way for constructing something better.
7. Positive Questioning 1: Breaking Ideas Apart for Clarity
Now, I wish to discuss some conceptual tools of positive questioning that can help us construct and build up from whatever we have. The first two conceptual tools I wish to discuss are: (1) vague and (2) ambiguous.
When we say that a term is vague, we mean that the meaning of a particular term is uncertain or unclear (e.g. “what do you mean when you say X?”, or that the lines of definition are imprecise (e.g. “how do you distinguish East from West?”)
“Vague” is often contrasted with “ambiguous.” A term is ambiguous if there can be more than one interpretation. For example, when a person demands “equality,” is that person demanding equal opportunities; equal outcomes; or something else? The same can be said about the word, “good.” What do we mean by “good”? A good table is not the same as a good computer, and it certainly isn’t the same as a good-for-nothing.
These tools are useful in helping us discover what we don’t know we don’t know. Most of the time, often without realising it, we hide behind the veils of vagueness and ambiguity to mask the fact that we don’t fully understand an idea or issue.
Friendship is a good case example. We may call ourselves “friends,” but we might each have a different understanding of what that friendship means and what it entails. By leaving some room for vagueness and ambiguity, we pretend that we share the same understanding. But what do we really mean when we say “friends”?
The term is ambiguous because a friend could be an acquaintance, a mere friend, a best friend, a best-friends-forever (BFF), a boyfriend, a girlfriend, or lately, a term that is used quite frequently, friends with benefits (FwB). When you say that I’m your friend, what kind of friend are you referring to?
Here, notice how I just resolved the ambiguous situation by laying out all the various distinctions. This is what philosophers do, and it can be a very enlightening process as we try to come up with all the various possible interpretations of a term before determining which is the right fit.
Yet, even if I can clear the ambiguity by laying out all the distinctions of friendships, friendship is a rather vague thing. At what point does an acquaintance become a friend, and at what point does a friend become a best friend? The lines are unclear. When philosophers encounter a situation like this, they tend to set clear definitions of what they mean so as to avoid misunderstandings.
Here is an example of clearing the vagueness: “When I say that you are my friend, what I mean to say is that you are not an acquaintance, since you are someone whom I stay in regular contact with, and hang out on a weekly basis. Thus far, we’ve had lots of fun and exciting interactions hanging out and talking on the phone. However, you aren’t quite on the same level as a best friend. A best friend is one whom I share a lot of my intimate thoughts, secrets, and concerns with. While I do share some of them with you, I am still rather reserved as we have not had much heart-to-heart moments of sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other.”
These two tools might seem rather trivial, but only because we do use them from time to time in our day-to-day interactions, seeking clarifications from others when we are unclear. The point of this section is to give you the awareness of the two conceptual tools that we use when we are seeking to understanding things. That by being able to identify these two processes by their names, and precisely what they refer to, we can gain greater flexibility in using them like surgical tools to dissect and gain a better understanding of our own thoughts and that of others.
8. Positive Questioning 2: Necessary, Contingent, and Sufficient
Now, let’s move on to another set of conceptual tools: necessary, contingent, and sufficient. These tools are used to dissect an idea and study the relationship of its sub-component conditions. These are some of the more fundamental analytic tools that philosophers employ when trying to understand something. Whole books have been written just by questioning whether something is necessary, contingent, and/or sufficient.
A condition is said to be necessary to a statement when that condition must be present for that statement to be true. E.g. chicken is necessary for Hainanese chicken rice. Without the chicken, all you have is just the rice.
A condition is said to be contingent to a statement when that condition is not necessarily required. The statement can still be true without that condition. E.g. Cucumber is contingent to Hainanese chicken rice. Whether we add cucumbers to the dish or not, it will remain unaffected.
A condition is said to be sufficient to a statement when the presence of that condition is enough to make that statement true. Usually, when discussing sufficient conditions, we are on the lookout for a set of conditions that would satisfy the statement. E.g. while chicken and rice are necessary for Hainanese chicken rice, it is not sufficient to simply present a chicken and a bowl of rice (or briyani rice and tandoori chicken, for that matter). Only when the chicken and rice are prepared and cooked in the Hainanese style will it then be sufficient to refer to the dish as Hainanese chicken rice. These conditions are both necessary and sufficient for defining Hainanese chicken rice.
These tools are very useful for understanding how a condition is related to an idea, and they help us to refine our definitions of things.
To exemplify how these tools are useful, here is a statement that is probably quite controversial:
“All friendships are transactional. It involves both parties mutually satisfying each other’s needs.”
A colleague presented his definition of friendship to me some time ago, but I couldn’t agree to it, there was something strange about his definition.
Before you read on, it would be great if you could pause here for a moment to think about the statement my colleague made. Is the transactional quality a necessary and/or sufficient condition to friendship? Once you’ve done some thinking of your own, you may proceed to read my demonstration.
Here, I will demonstrate how a philosopher might question a statement like this:
In the first place, let us pick out the vague and ambiguous terms. Previously, I mentioned that “friendship” is both vague and ambiguous. But so are the terms, “transactional,” “satisfying,” and “needs.”
For clarity, and greater strength in my arguments, by friendship, I shall refer to close friends, including best friends and boy/girlfriends – where these friendships involve a high level of trust, respect, and a a close sharing of heart-to-heart issues. By transactional, I do not mean “economic transaction,” but rather that we give and take in a relationship as an exchange of needs. And by needs, I do not mean basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing, but rather to higher level needs, such as emotional needs, and the need to establish a sense of identity and belonging. And by satisfying, I mean to say that we fulfil these high level needs based on the kinds of activities of friendship, like talking, hanging out, exchanging gifts, etc.
Having laid down all these definitions, let us now examine the relation of ideas. Are all friendships NECESSARILY transactional? Based on the above definition of friendship and transactional, it would seem that way. So I am willing to grant that the transactional nature is a necessary condition for friendship, however, I am reluctant to declare it a sufficient condition. I could potentially exhibit such friendly transactional qualities to strangers or people whom I encounter on a regular basis, such as a cashier, or the friendly neighbourhood butcher. But that does not make them close or best friends with me. Whether I behave that way to them is CONTINGENT on whether they are friendly in the first place. If they are open and friendly, then I am willing to extend that level of friendliness in return. Thus, while friendships are necessarily transactional, the transactional quality is NOT SUFFICIENT to elevate the relationship to such close/best friendships.
I hope the above demonstration helped to give you a good idea of how philosophers positively question and come to discover deeper insights into things.
9. The Power of Questioning Ourselves
A common assumption concerning questioning is that it is rooted in curiosity. Curiosity spurs questioning, and as grown-ups, we ask less questions because we are less curious. But is questioning and curiosity one and the same? Or are they two separate things? Must one necessarily need to be curious in order to question? Conversely, can you be curious without questioning?
Allow me to make an audacious claim: No, you can question without being curious. They are two separate things altogether. Consider the times when you are trying to solve a difficulty. Questions arise as to how you might resolve it. Or when you discover that you don’t know something, you’d question to get an answer, so that the answer can put you at ease, or help you do a certain task better. Were those questions motivated by curiosity? Not necessarily. They could be motivated by other factors. Questions can arise without having to be curious.
Interestingly, apes exhibit curiosity but scientists found that they do not ask questions. They understand questions when humans ask them (the apes learnt to communicate with humans through sign language and are capable of inventing new compound words – they’re really smart, with the IQ of a small child), but they have never once been observe to question. So one can be curious without questioning, although given how we’ve grown up asking questions our entire lives, it’s hard to imagine how that might be possible (but we can thank the apes for showing us that it is possible).
This brings us to yet another interesting question. What’s so special about questioning that we humans do it, but other creatures can’t seem to do it? Whether you believe it’s an evolutionary feature or design by a higher being, we’re capable of questioning, but most animals including apes which are one of our closest cousin can’t.
As humans, we are able to question and improve ourselves. Where we are today is the product of a long list of questions that have led to great improvement. But these questions are not questions about science or technology. These questions are questions about ourselves.
Questioning ourselves. Yes, this sounds like the stuff you hear in motivational talks. But there is something very different happening whenever we question ourselves, as compared to questioning people or the things around us (either investigation for the sake of knowledge or problem-solving). When we question ourselves, with self-reflection, by asking questions like, “Can I do better?”, we may have answers, or we may not have answers. But these questions are powerful. Providing the positive support that propel us forward, and compel us to find new solutions to problems, new ideas to understand things better.
Perhaps we get too carried away by the other types of questioning that we forget that we can question ourselves, and that questioning ourselves might be an important exercise, more important than any other questioning activity.
One amazing thing about questioning ourselves is just how many questions can arise in our minds. Not only does it drive us ahead in new directions, it is THE very activity that generates more questions. Perhaps more powerful than mere innate curiosity itself!
The conceptual tools of Philosophy – confirmation bias and disconfirmation, vague and ambiguous, necessary, contingent and sufficient – are important positive and negative tools of questioning. They help us to probe deeper into what we know to uncover new insights, but they also help us to discover what we don’t know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we know.
Though this applies only to the realm of knowledge, the realisation of what we don’t know is powerful. By bringing the unknown to the realm of what we know, it empowers us to be able to go forward in questioning and seeking answers along the way.
A philosopher, by the name of Francis Bacon, said: Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is power). Knowledge has the power to change our perceptions, our decisions, and ultimately, our actions. Knowledge is incredibly powerful, especially when we begin to be aware of just how little we know. As Socrates himself demonstrate, the greatest ignorance isn’t in not knowing enough, but in thinking that we know enough.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom. And wisdom begins when we recognise just how little we know about ourselves and the world around us.