Questions must be grounded in ‘quest for answers’

Questions must be grounded in ‘quest for answers’ Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green. Photo: William Murphy
Everyday Philosophy

The Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green used to have an eye-catching poster: it said something like: “We ask the big questions: we don’t preach answers.”

They’re not the first to claim that as a badge of honour. Being more comfortable with questions than with answers is, for many, a mark of intellectual sophistication, of open-mindedness and subtlety of thought. The ambiguities of life don’t always lead themselves to straightforward answers: better to spend time pondering questions.

You’ll find this kind of thinking everywhere from motivational posters to the minds of philosophy graduates. I used to be favourably disposed to this way of thinking myself: I thought of myself as more of a question-ponderer than an answer man. I now look back at this attitude with something between bafflement and mild horror. Why? Because answers are the point of questions. To be more interested in questions than answers is like being more interested in cooking than in making tasty or healthy food. It’s not clear whether a person saying this could be properly interested in questions at all.


When I ask a basic question like “what’s your favourite colour?”, “who is the president of Paraguay?”, or “when will we have dinner?”, what I’m doing is looking for an answer. If you were to respond to the first question with “my favourite colour is red” and I replied “oh, I’m more interested in questions than in answers”, you’d look at me like I had two heads. That’s not even a matter of your particular desires: the very nature of questions like these is to seek an answer.


My claim is that this basic feature is maintained across almost all types of questions, no matter how deep or sophisticated. If you sincerely ask a question like “what’s the meaning of life?”, “is there a God?”, “what is the nature of beauty?”, you’re still looking for an answer. The answer might be vastly more complicated or harder to discover, but to seriously consider these questions is to seek out their answers.

Sure, there are some questions that aren’t meant to be answered: rhetorical questions like “is the Pope Catholic?” or nonsense questions meant to provoke a laugh (I would volunteer “what’s the difference between a duck?” as an example, but for the fact that that actually does have an answer: “one of its legs are both the same”). But these aren’t the kinds of questions that questions-not-answers people are thinking about. The questions they want to spend time considering aren’t posed flippantly: they’re deadly serious. But asking a question without hoping to find its answer is fundamentally unserious. It’s at best a kind of parlour game, at worst a complete waste of time. It’s not genuine inquiry, and it’s not philosophy. An intellectually curious person is concerned with finding the truth, not indulging a penchant for cool-sounding questions that they have no intention of trying to answer.


Now, to be charitable to the unitarians, motivational poster-makers, and my own past self, I think that what people may mean by ‘questions are better than answers’ talk is that we should resist moving too quickly or easily to answers to deep questions. There is a real danger of treating fundamental questions like threats, to be neutralised as quickly as possible with a neat textbook answer that leaves your treasured pre-existing beliefs unbothered.

A version of this kind of thinking is unfortunately common among the traditionally religious. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “an open-mind is like an open mouth, made to close again on something solid”. That’s not wrong, but there are wrong ways to read it. It’s not that ‘questioning’ is some kind of brief transitional phase to be moved through before you settle down with your nice solid answers – a sort of adolescence of the mind. Gaining knowledge always involves posing new questions and almost always involves re-pondering ones you’ve already thought about. A person who stops asking questions is intellectually dead.

But the problem here is ultimately that answers that are too pat, too trite, or too simple are bad answers to the questions they are attempting to resolve. What makes deep questions meaningful and challenging, with the potential to upend your worldview and shatter your certainties, is that their answers are important. To defend the value of searching and challenging questioning by abandoning the search for answers is not to defend it at all.

The answers, of course, may not be easy to find. The fact that a question hasn’t yet yielded a universally accepted answer (or even an answer at all) is not a reason to abandon it. We may think we have an answer only to learn something new that forces us to abandon it. In this world, the necessity of asking questions will never come to an end: but it’s a necessity grounded in our quest for answers.