“Many people over time have wasted their lives pondering questions which they would not have been asking themselves if only they had known more stuff about the world. In my model of the world, people need to rely on knowledge to ask good questions, and the more one knows about the world, the better one gets at asking the right questions about it. Thinking about stuff is different from knowing stuff, and the payoff schedule related to ‘knowing more stuff’ for most people will look very different from the payoff schedule related to ‘thinking more about stuff’. People in general have much less knowledge than they ought to have in order to support the opinions they already hold. … [If] you’re repeatedly engaging yourself in the activity of asking questions to which no answers exist, you’re in my mind… quite likely to be asking the wrong questions and to be wasting your time.”— US, ‘The Problems of Philosophy‘
I find myself very much in agreement with the position delineated above, though I’d like to quickly discuss some related points.
I would like to begin by noting that philosophers are not the only ones who are guilty of spending their time pondering questions to which there are possibly no answers. There are many scientists today who occupy themselves with questions to which no answers presently exist or are likely to exist in the foreseeable future (if ever). However, it is nonetheless undeniably the case that at least these questions are of vital importance if we wish to make progress in science — e.g., the interpretation of quantum mechanics to which you subscribe would have unavoidable implications on your views regarding how research in sub-areas like quantum gravity should be undertaken. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics are of course less problematic than others, but it suffices to say that, at present, we simply do not have evidence of adequate strength in any direction so that we may comfortably eliminate all interpretations but one.
Such epistemic uncertainty is partly attributable to the limits in our experimental capabilities — e.g., the existence of the Higgs boson took almost five decades to be experimentally verified. If only we could experimentally detect whether any kind of collapse actually takes place — then our worries about the nature of quantum mechanics might be assuaged! In response to such lamentations, one may propose that, instead of engaging in premature ruminations on theoretical inquiries, more brainpower (and funding) should just be committed to research in experimental physics instead. I think this suggestion is extremely sensible (and not just for the trivial reason that building sophisticated experimental equipment is obviously many orders of magnitude more expensive than purchasing stationery), but there are of course some caveats worth highlighting:
Firstly, experimentation is aimless in the absence of instruction from theoretical scientists. Currently, theoretical physicists have yet to work out the characteristics that would render each interpretation of quantum mechanics uniquely falsifiable. Additionally, there are crucial terms that still await elucidations by theoreticians in the form of formalised definitions — e.g., what does the notion of a wave-function collapse actually entail? If it turns out that there is no such collapse, what other tests should we perform to individually verify each of the non-collapse interpretations? Without answers to these questions, even if we had access to sufficiently advanced technology, we would still be at an utter loss at figuring out what to look for. If no one had predicted the existence of Neptune and performed the requisite calculations to approximate its position, we would not have known the direction in which to point our telescope; and if we did discover Neptune fortuitously at first try, it would be due to luck and nothing more — and that is assuming that we would have recognised it as Neptune in the first place.
Secondly, while our confidence in a theory doubtlessly increases once it receives the imprimatur of experimental confirmation, the lack thereof does not always spell doom for theoretical progress. E.g., until today we have yet to obtain experimental confirmation that Hawking radiation is a real phenomenon, but physicists have nevertheless accepted it as very likely true, on the basis that it coheres superbly well with those parts of physics for which we do have extremely strong evidence. Of course, while coherence is desirable, it is not enough — experimentation should still be the final arbiter of the veracity of any scientific theory, and that is why physicists continue to be interested in designing experiments that would allow them to observe Hawking radiation in action. This ties in with the point I made previously — theoretical work is necessary for the purpose of informing us of the things to which we should be paying attention.
Thirdly, while it would be really nice if theoretical physicists also spend more time in the laboratory so that progress in experimental physics may hopefully be expedited, it is nonetheless highly probable that their comparative advantage simply lies elsewhere, and that much more efficiency would be achieved if they devote their careers solely to the contemplation of theoretical issues.
It is important to note that the theoretical questions asked by these scientists might yield fruitful insights, or they might turn out to be completely wrong-headed. One problem is that, in general and not just in science, it is usually really difficult (if not impossible) to distinguish in advance between potentially fruitful questions and utterly misguided ones — after all, if we could always tell them apart, then there would probably be no need for asking questions at all! More often than not, our investigations will lead us to dead ends, and only a small handful of us would have the privilege of making breakthroughs — but it is often only in retrospect that we are able to realise which questions are worth asking and which are not. Knowledge progresses when we encourage people to ask lots of different questions and pursue myriad research paths, but doing so creates another problem — it is really not easy to figure out what stopping rules we should employ. If we have only the faintest idea of how inferentially distant the answers are from our existing knowledge, how would we know when to acknowledge that doing any more work on a given question is futile because a fundamental piece of the puzzle is missing?
Here is where the heuristic proposed in the quoted passage above becomes relevant: If your investigations consistently fail to yield any answers, you are probably asking the wrong questions. One approach would be to break them down into smaller and more manageable parts so that you may more easily check the assumptions that underlie each of them. You might discover that the intractability of your question is due to confused terminology, logical impossibility, scientific implausibility, or ignorance of some very essential information — or maybe even all of them. The importance of asking meaningful questions could hardly be underestimated, and I can think of at least two things that one could do to improve the quality of one’s questions: 1. As pointed out in the quote, one should place more emphasis on acquiring more knowledge about the world. The more knowledge you gain, the more you will come to know what you do not know — and this would inevitably help you (i) limit the scope of your question and (ii) come up with premises that square better with reality. 2. One should always strive for clarity and precision in one’s use of words. Doing so will ensure that the terms in your question are clearly defined, and that they do not rely on equivocation of different senses of the same word. Any question worth asking is worth the effort of careful formulation.
So far, I have very briefly written about how doing work on theoretical questions may be justified even when there is a dearth of experimental results. I have also quickly explained how one may improve one’s chances at asking good questions, insofar as ‘good’ is understood as ‘likely to generate useful insights about the world’. Now I would like to turn to an issue that belongs on the meta-level: The issue of understanding the motivation behind asking certain questions or framing them in certain ways. This becomes especially relevant when it comes to questions that involve potential attempts at manipulating or distorting our epistemic states — and such questions may not only be posed by others to us, but also by us to ourselves.
Consider political debates: A common tactic used by politicians is to rivet people’s attention to a less important question so that the more important ones will hopefully go unasked. E.g., by repeatedly questioning Obama’s patriotism and adherence to Christianity, the Republicans divert attention away from themselves — the media resources that could have gone into unearthing potential transgressions made by members of the Republican Party during Bush’s presidency now go into writing inane tabloid news about Obama instead. (I apologise if this example makes me seem partial to the Democrats — I assure you that I really do not care a whit about defining my political views along ideological or party lines.)
Politicians are not the only ones who make such dishonest moves — disingenuous people can also be found in other walks of life. Dishonesty often occurs when gains would accrue in the questioner’s self-interest if he can convince his listeners that his query is worth pursuing. So a desperate and unethical scientist, in order to boost his chances of winning grants, might tell half-truths (if not outright lies) about why his research is focused on asking really important questions and answering them.
Sometimes it is not necessary that the questioner and the listener are two different people — they could be the same individual, as is the case when we are pondering to ourselves. While there is no lack of people who try to fool us, I suggest that it is most pernicious when we ourselves engage in dishonest thinking, because it is presumably more difficult to recognise deceit (albeit unintentional) in ourselves than in others. Consider Daniel Kahneman’s two-system model of how we think: Thinking in System 1 is quick and intuitive, whereas thinking in System 2 is more deliberative. Kahneman noted that, whenever we are confronted with a complex issue for which there is no immediate resolution, we tend to substitute it with a related question that is far easier to answer. E.g., if you are thinking about what position to adopt regarding taxation policies, rather than studying the intricacies of microeconomics (as well as other relevant fields like sociology), you might just take a short-cut by asking yourself, “How do I feel about having my money taken away from me?” (Actually, this might account for the invention of the libertarian slogan that taxation is theft.)
Falling prey to such cognitive traps only serves to hinder your ability to understand the world as well as humanly possible, because you answer the questions you want to answer instead of the questions that you should be answering. Over time, it also erodes your willingness to grapple with complexities — for you would already be used to taking short-cuts, and engaging in deliberative thinking would become unappealingly effortful and time-consuming to you.
To become skilled at asking meaningful questions, then, you have to learn tirelessly about the world, strive fastidiously for perspicuity, and also get into the habit of asking yourself meta-level questions about why you have chosen to ask the questions you ask, and to frame them as you do.