Thursday, December 14, 2006

Question this answer

Do you want answers or do you want questions? The answer to this will say a lot about you. All of us, at one time or another, will want one or the other but most of the time will seek one more than the other.

Take the internets and some of the things found in its tubes - things like wikipedia.

A while back, wikipedia came under attack by some who said that it was full of errors and that a system that depended on a group of people to write collectively of about such a huge range of subjects could never be trusted. Most of the argument was centered on the biography of an individual who was erroneously dipicted in a harsh light. Later, several studies were conducted and it was found that wikipedia was actually more factually correct than a certain, highly-respected encyclopedia.

The argument continues, but I think that ultimately it comes down to a difference between those who wish to have only answers and those who wish to face questions.

Stepping back a bit, I should explain that this whole thing started with a few minutes on Dbackdad's blogsite. He's got a little 'what I'm reading now' section and I followed the link of one of the books, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid to a wiki on the book. From there I clicked over to a wiki on Zeno's paradoxes. They're a series of paradoxes proposed by Zeno that mathmaticians and physicists believed were resolved, but it turns out that on a quantum level it is impossible to resolve them.

My favorite is Zeno's arrow paradox.

"In the arrow paradox, we imagine an arrow in flight. At every moment in time, the arrow is located at a specific position. If the moment is just a single instant, then the arrow does not have time to move and is at rest during that instant. Now, during the following instants, it then must also be at rest for the same reason. The arrow is always at rest and cannot move: motion is impossible.

Whereas the first two paradoxes presented divide space, this paradox starts by dividing time — and not into segments, but into points. It is also known as the fletcher's paradox."

My second favorite is the dichotomy paradox.

"Suppose Homer wants to catch a stationary bus. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.

This description requires one to complete an infinite number of steps, which Zeno maintains is an impossibility. This sequence also presents a second problem in that it contains no first distance to run, for any possible first distance could be divided in half, and hence would not be first after all. Hence, the trip cannot even begin. The paradoxical conclusion then would be that travel over any finite distance can neither be completed nor begun, and so all motion must be an illusion."

Zeno - it turns out - is fun to ponder. Fun, if you like to find questions and ask them. Not so much fun if you like answers. How can you - if you like answers - like something that says that there might not be an answer?

It's probably not hard to see that I fall into the seeking questions camp.

Anyway, it occured to me that there is something at work that runs through our society itself. It is these two different world views. Those who crave answers and those who crave questions.

To simplify it, some people want - in fact need - to have the world boiled down to simple answers. Uncertainty creates tension and anxiety in these people. Uncertainty is to be avoided, explanations need to be found, and order imposed.

On the other hand, are those who need to question. Uncertainty is part of life for these people and often the idea of arbitrarily imposed order runs against their nature. For them, paradox is understandable because it is not understandable. Order isn't bad in itself, but applying it simply for it's own sake is.

I think this root difference is the basis for our current culture clash, particularly as it being played out in the religious arena. It's nothing new. Take the early Jews who were divided into several groups with different worldviews - the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes for example. Without going into much detail, it could be argued that these three groups provide excellent examples of answer people and question people - the Pharisees and Sadducees being the answer folks and the Essenes being the question people.

And to generalize a bit more, the Pharisees and Sadducees (who were extremely order and rule concious) are the rough equivalant of today's Evangelical right. For these people, specific rules are more important than general concepts. The contemporary counterpart to the Essenes would be those Christians who believe that the general concepts of Christ's teachings are more important than specific rules.

When the statement is made that Christianity is under attack today is made, it is really more that the worldview of the modern Pharisees is what is being attacked. Presenting a paradox to a Pharisee is the same thing as attacking their worldview.

The same scenario can be seen on the political stage as well.

The Bush administration can easilly be seen as answer people - Pharisees. They have proposed rules or maxims and those rules are more important than generalities. For these answer people, to even question the rules is to question their worldview. Their rules must be defended because their worldview depends upon it. In fact, defending these rules is part of their worldview and has become an ingrained principle.

They have counterparts on the other side of the political spectrum too. There are those with politically liberal viewpoints that will defend their rules just as staunchly.

A fun aside, at this point, would be to ponder a little paradox I like to call Shawn's Hippy Uniform Paradox which asks:

"If wearing a uniform makes one part of the establishment, then does the fact that hippies dress alike make them part of the establishment?"

More on this paradox on a different day.

In the mean time, ponder - if you will - whether you fit into the question or answer camp. I believe that most people fall somewhere in between and sometimes lean one way or the other, perhaps depending on the circumstances or the facet of life being considered. I also believe that we all tend to lean one way or the other to varying degrees.

As I've said, I know I tend to lean pretty far towards the question camp. Paradoxes interest me and I believe that life itself is a paradox of sorts. I seek answers, of course, but to me it's the asking of the questions that's important.


Madame said...

Oo, somewhere, you just pissed off some hippies.

Shawn said...

I'm picturing that somewhere there are some hippies passing around a glass pipe in a patchouli incense filled room saying something like...

"Duuuuude, how can he call this a uniform? My Dead t-shirt is totally dancing bears and yours is the skull and roses."


"An' Dave's always wearin' a Phish shirt..."


"Awwww shit... Did I remember to send off my VISA payment? Dad's said I gotta pay it myself..."


But, I could be wrong.

Laura said...

Great post. I will have to mull it over a few times before I might be able to offer more in depth comments. Suffice it to say - I am a questionner - a point of contention between myself and much of my family who simply don't understand why I have to constantly debate everything.

Secondly, the critique on Wikipedia comes from our very Western view of knowledge production - the believe that only "experts" can produce "real" knowledge. Therefore a bunch of people coming together and collaborating on a topic in a public space is somehow seen as qualitatively different than a bunch of academic or scientific "experts" doing the same. Not so. We need to learn to value all forms of knowledge production.

Blogger login is really starting to piss me off now... btw

dbackdad said...

How very socratic. Great post. I'll have to check out that link that you followed.

Those paradoxes make my head hurt. It's a Friday, so I think I'll just have a beer and ponder them tomorrow.

tshsmom said...

We've raised our kids to always look for the "shades of gray" in every issue. Questioning is what brings progress. Sometimes progress isn't a good thing.

I think we ALL have areas in our life that we want to keep static, our personal comfort zone. Some people view ANY changes as personal affronts to their comfort zone.

I'm with Laura; I'm getting totally pissed at blogger! I can't comment on Beta blogs anymore. It's a conspiracy I tell you! They're cramming Beta down our throats, and old blogger is MY comfort zone! ARGHH!!!

Laura said...

TSHSMOM: To link this post and the previous together the answer to the login problem is that you have to have, and remain logged into a Google account (b/c google bought blogger). I refuse, however, to remain logged in to my Google account because (here's the link to the previous post) they save all the information on searches people do and actually have them in a huge database that can be mined for information.

Shawn said...

Laura - I feel the same way. And - if it's any small consolation - I've been having a lot of problems logging onto Blogger to comment too. I think I'm supposed to log into things first, then go off reading and commenting.

As far as datamining and stuff... I tend to go the opposite way and let them have too much information. Most of it's b.s. though, sort of like signing up for a grocery store card with a different name and address every time you go in to buy groceries. That used to one of my guilty little diversions.