One of the unique attributes of humans is that we ask questions. Not just straightforward questions, like “What’s for dinner?” but deep questions, like “What is the meaning of life?”
This human trait of question-asking begins almost as soon as we learn to talk. Even young children can sometimes confound their parents with their rapid-fire questions — often including the word, “Why?” Questions we often hear from children include: “Where did I come from? “Why is the sky blue? “Are we there yet?” Or simply, “Why?”
We may not know for certain what’s inside their minds, but I can’t imagine even the most advanced animals asking any profound “Why?” questions. Animals seem to exist for the most part in an interdependent, settled relationship with the physical world. When one observes animals or birds, they don’t seem to exhibit any of the angst or unrest or metaphysical curiosity typically associated with abstract “Why?” questions.
What’s the Significance of Asking Questions?
I believe that only a conscious mind with its own will and an awareness of something beyond itself can formulate a genuine question. I’m trying to be careful with my words here, because a chatbot, for example, could easily be programmed to ask any number of questions that may be identical to ones we ask. But the questions even a child asks arise from an inquisitive mind — something far different from a programmed output.
What is required of a mind to be able to ask a significant question? Inquisitiveness is surely part of the equation. This implies a desire to learn about something beyond our current experience. Even a cat can exhibit curiosity about what lies behind a closed door, however. But significant questions usually sit at the door of imagination and faith leading to a realm we long to enter but the weight of our physical being holds us back. We wonder what the meaning of life is, believing and perhaps hoping that it’s more than just our temporal existence.
Exploring the nature of physical reality has led us to uncover evidence about the beginning of the universe, the forces that form and power stars, and the laws governing the motions of the planets. We have learned much concerning questions our ancestors asked and speculated about.
In science, progress is usually dependent upon researchers asking the right questions. Again, inquisitiveness is part of the picture, but imagination and a belief that there is more to discover also supplies the drive to further scientific discovery. In Einstein’s words,
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
Scientific questioning, coupled with belief in accessible answers, has uncovered the nature of matter and the world of chemical interactions. Electronic technology, and inroads into a knowledge of the biochemical complexities of the cell, have also come as the fruit of our questing investigations. Posing additional deep questions and a desire to find truth holds promise for greater knowledge and its benefits.
But gaining knowledge of the natural world doesn’t answer all our questions. I gained some insight into this when I taught introductory astronomy at the university level. I often started the semester by asking my students to write a response to some open-ended questions that could lead to further discussion.
One question I asked prompted them to formulate their own questions: “What one question would you most like answered?” Hundreds of student responses to this and other questions resulted in an article suggesting that we can build bridges of communication with students by engaging them at the level of meaningful questions.1 The largest category of questions my students asked always touched on the metaphysical realm. Some examples typically included: “What happens after we die?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Is there a God?” and “How did the universe and life begin?”
Questions such as these touch on the essence of our human experience, suggesting that we long for something beyond the natural realm. The biblical narrative depicts humans made in the image of God. Perhaps part of this image is our propensity to ask questions, or to ponder them. Considering a question can be the first step towards deeper understanding.
Throughout history, people have pondered questions tied to our significance, attempting to find explanations for the deeper aspects of our existence. Questions such as the following are still on the frontlines of our efforts to make sense of it all: Are humans more than a cosmic afterthought? What is the nature of reality and how do we comprehend it? Why is there evil and where is God when it hurts?
To Live and Thrive
Evidence uncovered from our study of nature, from the vastness of the cosmos to the molecular complexities of the cell, has shown layers of the fine-tuning of physical parameters within a narrow range just right for us to live and thrive. Information within DNA and irreducible complexity of biological systems is consistent with intelligent design and something beyond materialism. Questions about our place in the universe are being met with answers from scientific investigations pointing towards an intentional origin of life and a purposeful design of our lives.
Does our propensity to ponder significant questions speak to human exceptionalism?
An AI chatbot can have access to all the knowledge available on the Internet, but getting answers to questions still requires a person with imagination. Highlighting the unique question-asking abilities of humans, the use of AI chatbots has given rise to the need for people skilled in “prompt engineering”:
Throw a question from the top of your head at ChatGPT and it may provide a satisfying answer, or not. Prompt engineering involves considering the idiosyncrasies of an AI model to construct inputs that it will clearly understand.2
Being human means asking questions. If anyone ever tells you to stop asking questions, it’s time to pull out the old standby — “Why?”
- Eric R. Hedin, “Questions from the Edge: Using Informal Surveys to Build Rapport with Students,” Journal of College Science Teaching(January/February 2007): 60–62.
- Callum Bains, “AI Prompt Engineering: Learn How Not to Ask a Chatbot a Silly Question,” The Guardian.