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On Answers

You do not have to be around universities very long before you encounter the notion that “questioning” is the real “reason” for education. “We ‘question’ everything” actually becomes a reason given for going to such an institution. Actually, it is a better reason to stay away from it.

Poor Socrates is pictured as wandering around the streets of Athens blithely asking questions with great abandon. Aquinas is famous for asking some ten thousand questions in the Summa alone. Lord knows how many more appear in his other works. From all sides, including churchmen, we hear of dialogue, of questioning our basic “values.”

But if we ask the question – “Why do we ask questions?” – the proper response is not so that we can ask more questions. It is rather so that we can find an answer to our question. It may be quite true that the answer to one question leads to another question, but only if the answer is a real answer. That is, only if it is true. Obviously, if the answer is not true, new questions will arise also.

The purpose of mind is not to broadcast a kind of universal fuzziness in which everyone goes about affirming “I don’t know” on every conceivable issue. The simple fact is that there are things that we do and should know. If we, like the famous political party, “know nothing,” we are barely human. Even Descartes, when he set out to doubt everything, did so in order to find something that he could not doubt – which turned out to be himself thinking. On this basis, he hoped to build a world bereft of doubt.

In the Gospels, Mary asks questions: “How can this be?” So does Christ: “Who do men say that I am?” Both get or give answers. Philosophers tell us that in the beginning our minds are empty. The only thing there is a mind with nothing in it.

Questioning Children 1949 by Karel Appel 1921-2006

This situation quickly changes. A two-year-old is infamous for asking his mother question after question. She is there not just to feed and care for him, but to answer the questions that each unique child asks of her. Sometimes we suspect that this may be her most important motherly function. Chesterton said that the difference between a mother and a teacher is this: A teacher teaches a hundred children the same thing, while a mother must answer a hundred questions of one child.

Sometimes we reverse roles. Instead of a question seeking an answer, we say: “Now this is the answer, what is the question?” Obviously, answers do not just sit out there. An answer is a response to a question. The two belong together. Indeed, to recall Aquinas again, we do not understand the answer to any question unless we also understand the arguments against the truth as given to the question. An answer to a question is aware of other possible answers that are not true or only true in part.

If we go behind this question-and-answer business, we understand that the mind is made to function in this manner – step by step, one answer building on another. When we ask a question, we expect an answer. That is, we assume the world is so made that answers to our questions exist. It is our life’s journey to find them. So this journey includes asking the important questions, not that there is anything wrong with frivolous questions. Indeed, it may just be that what we once thought were frivolous questions turn out to lead us to the important answers.

One more curious aspect of questions and answers must be touched on here. While we do seek answers, we also are alert for answers that we suspect might be true, but that we do not want to hear because they would require us to do something about the answer as given. So what do we do? We invent a series of questions whose answers yield the answer we want, not the answer that is true. This is what Plato meant about having a lie in our souls.

It turns out that not every answer to a question is true. There is no such thing as “my truth.” There is only truth that I affirm or reject. If everyone has his own “truth,” then we cannot have anything in common. We cannot be friends. We cannot even live in the same universe. The denial that some answers are true ironically makes “every man an island.” We are all floating about in our own universe with no way to make contact with one another.

The question is important because it generates an answer. But it is the answer and its truth that make any question worth asking, any life worth living.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.