TED Conversations

This conversation is closed.

Problems of idealism; Is there such a thing as an unnecessary question?

As the old age sentiment goes, "Dear student, there is no such thing as a dumb question."

I think most of us would agree that in fact there most definitely is. Throughout the average day we might come across a few of these redundant, repetitive, or intentionally idiot,/misleading (yes, some people ask obvious questions for reasons other than actually wanting to know the answer) ramblings spouted by our coworkers, students, peers, etc. For example, there is always the individual in a meeting or classroom that, for some reason, always seems to miss the direction or content of every other sentence.

These instances aside, though, could there possibly be this sort of phenomena occurring in philosophical discourse?

The types of questions I am referring to merit the labeling of "philosophical mind games." We can look to the instances of most of our first encounters with "philosophical thinking" for examples of what I'm speaking about; "Whoa bro, what would happen if I took a picture, of a picture, of a picture?, or "What if we're all dreaming right now and when we think we're having dreams, we're having dreams within dreams?". These youthful utterances are usually followed by the phrase "That's deep."

Admittedly, the first encounters with infinite regressions spark the intellectual engines and we have ridden into more sophisticated scopes of inquiry. I must also note that the philosophical spirit of questioning is very valuable and I in no way am arguing for the lack of this or diminishment of creativity.

But I find these sorts of questions quite dangerous when used for the foundation of philosophical paradigms. Solipsism, for eg., by exploiting perceptive limitation, comes to the ridiculous conclusion that there is nothing outside of ourselves. This similarly occurs with argument for idealism.

Could we not entertain these ideas as students of philosophy and critical thinkers without taking them any more seriously than a critical thinking exercise?

Share:

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Sep 10 2013: Necessity is a function of the prevailing conditions, not an absolute marker. We can only evaluate the necessity (or validity, or relevance) of a question if we can understand the context in which it is asked. Is the questioner a child? If not exactly a child, what is the questioner's level of sophistication or maturity? What is the purpose of the question? How does that purpose meet the needs of the situation in which it is asked? Who gets to make the determination that a particular question in a particular circumstance is necessary or appropriate?

    One of the first steps in any philosophical inquiry (or, for that matter any scientific, aesthetic, moral/ethical, or pragmatic inquiry) is to determine the parameters, to define and qualify the boundaries. This not only provides a basis for identifying necessary and appropriate questions, it provides a basis for further discussion, criticism, and re-examination of the process and conclusions of the inquiry.
    • thumb
      Sep 10 2013: Yes, David, I know.
      I realize that the comments below are lengthy and that you might have not had the to skim through them, but let me clarify the context for which, in this case, i'm asserting that questions that lead to fantastical flapdoodle are unnecessary ones. Let's not play semantics with this one, David.

      Here are the conditions by which, and have discussed in other comments, I am arguing that these sorts of questions are, if not unnecessary (they might be if we argue that by definition, philosophy asks us to consider all sides) they are counterproductive.

      Although I used many examples throughout the comments, let's use Deepak Chopra's "Quantum quackery" for this example:

      1) The questioner isn't a child.
      2) The questioners self-proclaimed level of sophistication is at the highest level in academia, a doctorate degree--although, his degree is in Endocrinology and not Physics. He also claims to have Philosophical merit at the highest degree. (Deepak is a generalization for many mystics I have encountered. I have 3 professors at my university who spout the same non-sense about Quantum Theory but have not even the slightest clue about the physics behind their claims.)
      3)Purpose: to undermine Western Science's Materialism, to confabulate Eastern Spirituality and Western Science (Physics) in order to promote New Age mysticism, In Deepak's case--to make millions off of book sales and lectures off of his bestselling alternative to traditional religion.
      4)"Who gets to determine that a particular question in a particular circumstance..." Well, because Mystics invoke both philosophy and western science to support their claims, the authority within the discipline gets to make this determination. The authority in both these circumstances happen to be a community of people rather than an individual.

      David, your definition of inquiry is great. It is thorough , clear, and concise. I agree with you fully.
      Now that I have defined the parameters, where do you stand?
      • Sep 10 2013: I don't think it's "playing semantics" to point out what I see as a problem with how the question is asked. (To be honest, though, I am retired professor of communication with a particular interest in semantics.) The questions I asked were, of course, illustrative, not exhaustive with respect to possible considerations of context.
        There is still the reality that different authorities within any discipline might disagree as to the relevance or validity or need of any question or the argued answers to that question. It is the rare thinker, however, who can understand the complexities of significantly different disciplines well enough to effectively combine them. This doesn't mean that the questions are necessarily ridiculous or nonsensical, only that they need scrutiny that has the same kinds of cross-disciplinary expertise they claim as support.
        I guess what I'm saying is that I have no quarrel with your criticism of the specific questions or arguments when you ground those criticisms in your disciplinary perspective. I might argue, though, that it is not the questions that are at fault it is the shallowness or bias or lack of intellectual honesty of the questioners that wastes our time.
        • thumb
          Sep 10 2013: David,

          I concede on the issue with the wording. Another TED commentator made this same point.

          "...it is not the questions that are at fault it is the shallowness or bias or lack of intellectual honestly of the questioners that wastes our time."

          This is perfect, David. It encapsulates what is essentially my point. The reason I had to tread carefully, though, is because i'm accustomed to arguing with people who won't admit that some extrapolations of philosophy and science are ridiculous in the first place. At that point i run into relativist and pluralists who refuse to scrutinize anyone. If you see what I mean, I am used to having to jump multiple hurdles before even discussing criticism within a context-whether it be an academic discipline or not. I must say I am quite excited to be speaking with someone who places the same value on intellectual honesty and coherence-as you demonstrated in your first post and description above.

          Again, I concede to the lack of clarity in the question itself.

          Thanks David,
          Shawn

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.