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June 15th, 2020


Where do questions come from?


It’s without a doubt that the very notion of a question arises very early in our development, as evidenced by the interminable string of why’s, what’s, and how’s that come from children.  Many of these questions are more requests for information from adults.  Why does the sun rise?  How old is Grammy?  What is an accountant?  Children realize very quickly that there is a whole universe of information that adults have, a universe that they wish to learn and understand.


What’s fascinating is that animals don’t pose questions.  Certainly a dog or a cat can notify you of their hunger, and animals can likewise be unsure about whether someone or something is a friend or a foe, but other than these instances that might be like pre-questions, there is only one instance where an animal has ever asked a question.  It was bird, a parrot named Alex.  Apes have been taught sign language, but even though such primates are perfectly capable of answering questions that they have an answer for, they never use the capacity to seek more information from a human.  The parrot named Alex, however, apparently looked in a mirror and asked the question “what color?”.  The parrot was told the color “grey” 6 times in a row, and apparently learned that the color of its own plumage was grey.


Other than this one solitary instance of curiosity, there is no record of query among animals.


Returning to the notion of a pre-question, we’ve all been party to the instance when an animal is unsure about another creature, for example when we try to coax a timid animal to eat from our hand.  The squirrel may approach and then skitter away, and then come closer and closer.  We must wonder: is this a question about safety being asked over and over, or is the animal responding to fluctuating levels of comfort, hunger and a sense of danger, all of which are being toggled by cues in the environment.


Dogs also seem to have an ability to tilt their head to the side, so as to convey confusion.  Perhaps there is the kernel of question buried in this gesture, or perhaps it is an evolutionary adaptation, one used to provoke a change in the human who is witnessing the gesture.  Hard to say.


What’s clear is that human curiosity is orders of magnitude beyond what animals exhibit.  Our use of the question, from the very start as infants extends far beyond the realms of hunger, safety and danger.  Our brains spend a tremendous amount of energy investigating things that are of no obvious nor immediate relation to our needs.


What’s perhaps most fascinating here is how indeterminate that answer to the original question is: where do questions come from?


The resolution here is not at all obvious, and answers like curiosity, or wonder are fairly unsatisfying.  They are just proxies: where does curiosity come from?  Or wonder?


Does it have something to do with the size of our imagination?  And our ability to imagine the presence of something we don’t know?  How do we as a species look at the world and somehow implicitly suspect that there’s something more to it than immediately meets the eye?




This episode draws heavily from Episode 390: Question about the Question

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 792: Birth of a Question

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