Tag Archives: questioning

Angels on a pinhead, and other philosophical games

It’s good to ask questions, to ponder, imagine, daydream, reinvent. Most human achievement comes out of thinking, while acts born of stupidity and ignorance are frequently not a good thing. But does this make all questions equally valid or useful? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking questions will not make you into a wise old philosopher of the future, unless the questions you throw yourself into have some capacity to foster wisdom within you. Any question about some facet of your life, will have some use. Why do I do this? Could I do differently? Better? Less? More? What makes me happy? Is this working for me? You can poke around such issues at length to good effect. And subjects like politics where you have scope to contribute to a process makes sense as well. Many other potential examples spring to mind but the commonality is that seeking answers engages us with life in a meaningful way. Even when we can’t hope to find answers – what happens after death, is there a god? In the process of asking we consider the implications and explore how we want to live.

There are some questions that do not give us this. Imagine, for example, spending hours of dedicated thought creating what you imagine to be the perfect educational system. Now imagine that you do not work in education, are childless, and are not a politician. You have no intention of sharing your vision with anyone. It was an intellectual exercise. It may indeed have given your mind a workout. However, untested as it is, never offered up for criticism, never explored in practice, it sits inside your mind as ‘proof’ of an intellectual superiority that could be sadly lacking. It’s noticeable that ivory tower academics at least tend to talk to each other, and argue with each other. The issue of the angels on the pinhead was one people debated. At the very least that gives it an interesting social component.

Then there are the questions that cannot be answered well because they are loaded. “Why is my product better than anyone else’s?” “Why are you losers worshipping hedges and fields?” A question based on misunderstanding is not one that can lead directly to good answers. Asking good questions is a skill in its own right. Are you shutting down the options, or enabling genuine feedback? Is the question reinforcing an assumption? If we ask why children who drink cola do better at school we haven’t actually established that children who drink cola do better at school. It’s a crude example. In our own heads, we may be asking “Why am I such a failure?” “Why am I always wrong?” “Why does nobody love me?” without questioning the premise of the question.

There are questions that serve to divide and irritate and which cannot give us much that is productive. The vast majority of exchanges I have ever seen between atheists and theists would fall straight into this category. When the point of asking questions is not to share knowledge but to establish superiority, you’re never going to find good answers. The only good answer in that scenario is to escape from it.

Abstract thought can be interesting, and can lead to concrete consequences. However, I think it’s important to question how much time we pour into intangibles, hypothticals and imaginaries as opposed to real life. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? What on earth difference does that make? Yet people will debate such questions for hours. If we had no big questions needed brain time, then the intellectual exercise would be justification enough. While we have disease, hunger, crime and extinctions, Superman and Batman need to shuffle their overly muscled arses down to the back end of the queue.

What we think about matters. The inner worlds we create inform who we are and help shape our life choices. If you pour hours into working out how best to lead your imaginary army across the Roman Empire, again, that is part of who you are. If you poured just a little bit of that time into contemplating how to get on better with the people around you, how to reduce your consumption levels, or help a local charity, you’d be an entirely different sort of person. Making the hypotheticals important while the real is allowed to suffer, is not, I think, a very good life choice.

Some lines of questioning will bring you insight, soul and a richer life. Some will enable you to twiddle your brain cells. The latter may make you feel clever (you did conquer Rome, after all!) and important (your design for a new education system would surely have solved everything!) but they don’t make you real. Ask how much good you can get out of today, and let the angels on the pinheads take care of themselves.


Zen and the art of druid maintenance

I’ve just finished re-reading Robert M Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ so forgive the blog title, but this book is probably going to prompt a few blogs. If you’ve not read it, the relevant bit for today’s meander is that it is a novel about philosophy. I also like Jostien Gaarder, who writes YA fiction of a philosophical persuasion.

Philosophy is a subject that has always appealed to me as an idea. I’ve read all sorts of things over the years, in an unstructured way and aside from folk writing on the pagan side, I don’t really engage with it as well as I want to. I spend a lot of time here, and other places, writing blogs that are products of deep thinking, and I don’t even have ‘philosophy’ as a category. I’ve not felt able to.

‘Zen and the art’ has crystalized something around this for me, and I wanted to post it and see who bites!

‘Philosophy’ is a Greek word. Pick up any book on the subject and you start with the Greeks, logically enough. What I’ve encountered of later writers exists in a framework that harks back to those Greek models, and uses the language from there. As an author, a bard, I care about language and would say that in other fields – dabbling along the fringes of the sciences, for example, I cope adequately with unfamiliar technical terminology. Not so philosophy, and re-reading ‘Zen’ I crashed headlong again into how hard I find the terms. I first read the book in my teens, and struggled with it. This time I found the concepts easy enough to grasp, still struggled with the subject-specific language, and then realised what the problem is, and it isn’t really the language at all, it’s the assumptions inherent in the language.

The kinds of questions in ‘Zen’ and in other things I have read have a hardness to them. There’s an underlying assumption of solidity, that there are clear lines to be drawn, truths to be pinned down, facts to reveal. This is not my world view. I want to explore thinking about the universe and my experience of this tiny bit of it. What I want is the act of thinking, not someone else’s definitive answers. I’m not even necessarily looking for answers, I’m looking for the experience of contemplating the questions and considering the implications of the myriad possibilities for answering it.

This is what I want – and if it exists somewhere and you can point me towards it, please, please do.

I want a discipline that exists to help people learn what questions to ask of themselves and how to think about experience, emotion, relationship, value and so forth. I want a discipline that does not give me a world view or views, but gives me the tools to construct my own, and that will not allow me to then imagine I have the monopoly on truth. I then want to find there are a whole bunch of other people doing the same thing and willing to swap notes about it, a shared intellectual journey into deeper understanding of self in which authority remains within the self.

Every now and then a small voice in my head pipes up ‘that’s Druidry, isn’t it?’

I think the answer to that currently is ‘it’s what I want Druidry to be.’ I think there is a lot in druidry that does prod a person in the direction of independent thinking about things (I need a word for this, philosophy is not the word) and the all important emphasis on the non-dogmatic is there, but not the tool kit. I have a potentially irrational belief that the tool kit for this could be assembled and shared. It would be a toolkit that doesn’t have a long history of mind-body dualism to contend with, and isn’t obsessed with categorising things or defining them. This would be the tool kit that enables you, me, to make a whole new thing.

Where is it?