Opinion – Álvaro Machado Dias: How to ask the most important questions and be guided by the search for answers


Turn of the year, time to create some goals not to be met. But if you’re looking for one to take seriously, here’s my suggestion: invest in better questions and, of course, some answers crafted in the same spirit.

I know it’s a goal that doesn’t make you lose weight or fill your wallet, but it can reverse intellectual inclinations that have been doing us a lot of harm, which is no small feat.

A few years ago, conversation circles began to incorporate real-time fact-checking. The first ones to pull their cell phones out of their pockets and search for the definitive answer to whatever it might be did so in a shy way, so as not to spoil the fun of others. However, it didn’t take long for embarrassment to give way to habit, under the principle that truth is what it appears to be, in 30 seconds, on a cell phone screen.

This was at a time when the credibility of social networks reached its zenith, high street stores began to transform themselves into e-commerce showcases and newspapers faced bleak forecasts, such as those that followed the acquisition of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos (2013).

Four years later (2017), fake news was chosen as the expression of the year and the enthusiasm with the consumer-creator turned into deep disquiet.

Today, the tendency to treat the internet as a pocket oracle is seen as one of the most challenging dimensions of the global disinformation storm, which had its first boom in the 2016 US election campaign and its moment of glory during the pandemic, when it helped to asphyxiate multitudes.

The idea that you just need to Google or search TikTok for everything has contaminated the questions we ask each other and those we ask ourselves, in the same way that WhatsApp stickers created new family dynamics and the sexual algorithmization of Tinder started to give rise to the tone for singles’ sex, even among those who don’t even use the app. The proposed goal is to turn the tables.

But, after all, how to elaborate questions that serve as a guide for what, by definition, is not indexable? How to be more and more free, in an increasingly algorithmic world?

Principles for better questions

Three interlinked intellectual practices can help realize the 2023 goal: prioritizing open-ended questions, removing a prioris, and identifying dissonance.

Prioritization of open questions

What characterizes the algorithmization of thought is its reduction to a sequence of stimulus-response interactions with memories and external sources of information.

Open questions, in turn, tend to be aloof from precise fittings, which causes them to branch out through the mental life of those who cultivate them, in contrast to the logic of questionnaires that guides thought shaped by the relationship with algorithms.

As researcher Arash Emamzadeh has pointed out, “asking too many questions in too short a time signals a preference for short, less detailed answers.” The use of alternative strategies to this mentality is central to the goal that I am disclosing, still without sponsorship.

Open questions are key in interpersonal relationships. “In our social or professional life, exchanging information is crucial, and objective questions represent one of the most efficient ways to do so. However, when questions are too direct, people can become reticent, omitting information, declining to answer, lying or straying off topic,” researchers Maurice E. Schweitzer and T. Bradford Bitterly wrote (2020, p. 966).

In addition to increasing frankness, open questions return to the idea that people can have converging preferences and be existentially divergent, and vice versa. They are the opposite of match, which is the logic of bubbles and thus polarization.

The search for answers to open questions goes against the grain of digital immediacy, which feeds the feeling of information dependence and the chances of manipulation. Such convolutions of thought expose the impossibility of absolute truth, bringing us as close as possible to its essence.

All that this part of the 2023 goal advocates is resuming the habit of asking questions without defined answers and letting thoughts flow without too much haste, using the hyperlinks that our minds make available, when the axons of affective memories meet those of reasoning and those of the imagination. I believe you can create your own, but, for conscience sake, here’s a reference to help.

Removal of a prioris

The second part of the goal involves not applying a principle, but inhibiting it.

When we approach a notion or someone, the necessary conditions for the interaction to be meaningful seem to spring from distant areas of the brain. In a way, this is true.

The areas that store the relevant memories are pre-activated and the brain starts to generate preliminary interpretations of the situation, from its most general aspects to the most specific ones and vice versa. Thus are created the conditions for a quick understanding of reality, which is almost miraculous.

The problem is that this leads us to inadvertently inject understandings wherever we go. When we hear the description of a conflict, we tend to ask: “was he very angry?”, instead of “how do you think he was feeling?”; facing someone who has been injured, wanting to know immediately if he “is hurting a lot” and so on. The contamination of questions with prerogatives inhibits the generation of genuine answers.

“The way the question is asked provides information about the expected answer. This includes questions that point in a specific direction and others that give clues about what the correct answer would be. In both cases, the respondent’s beliefs can be suppressed” ( wrote VanEpps and Hart, 2022, p. 02).

The same thing happens when we put our own attitudes under scrutiny. If we could take x-rays of thought, we would see that a huge portion of the population spends the day ruminating about the past or the future, based on questions that cannot be answered and, thus, return to consciousness incessantly.

Why don’t I have the courage to face this bar? Why am I like this? Why do these things only happen to me? What is wrong with me? This is a classic form of self-harm, using questions instead of whipping. It hurts more.

A prioris inhibition is needed to inquire into the specific motivations that drive other people and the reasons behind things that happen to us.

It has a prophylactic role, preventing inadvertent scratches from further opening the wounds of others and the one we produce in ourselves. Without exaggeration, it is the main measure for those looking for a little more emotional intelligence. Here is its great merit.

Identification of dissonances

Cultivating open-ended questions and a taste for their ever-provisional answers, forged silently or together, is a more poetic than programmatic perspective.

The idea of ​​removing a prioris refines this picture, pointing to precise relational, intellectual and affective gains, but its scope is restricted to the negative of things, to the limits to transformation established by not doing.

With a little more effort, it is possible to take the jewelery of valuable investigations much further, by identifying the circumstances that positively stimulate them. This is the last dimension of the goal, the only one that depends on a method of recognizing high-potential questions.

Consider the cup that forms two faces around it (Rubin’s vase); see how the patterns are rich and it depends on each related pixel? Impactful reflections tend to have an analogous character. They inspire concatenated insights, with a high level of organization and low redundancy. In them, each small piece of mental representation amplifies and is amplified by the whole.

The great ideas, including the most sophisticated theories, initially seem to burn out quickly; but, as we go in head first, they start to unfold in obligatory and totally new consequences.

This increases our involvement and even instigates the proposition of addendums, which go beyond the scope of the original. Umberto Eco explains this dynamic very well and points out that it is necessary to know how to recognize meaningless conceptions and even hallucinations that arise in this way.

Powerful questions are those that favor the emergence of well-connected trains of thought that, due to excesses, become hallucinations. That is, their importance is not inherent, but determined by the outcomes they stimulate.

There are different strategies to find them. The one I like best adopts the preliminary identification of what is dissonant or antithetical, as in “why is X happening if, under the circumstances, the expected would be Y?” —works well in autobiographical terms, as well as in generating questions about shared reality, but works even more well when these two conjunctures converge.

For example, a little over ten years ago, I had a lightning kidnapping, which turned into a particularly tense situation. I was left with a revolver serving as a buckle, while two of the bandits discussed whether to kill me.

I remember saying “Nonsense; killing makes the biggest mess, noise, better let go”. After that, it was as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t paranoid about security, nor did I have violent nightmares.

A few years later, I experienced a new situation of tension, which made me somatize some strange things. I thought I was going to die; I panicked at that possibility. Therein lies the dissonance: how can a person who is not afraid of death in some contexts be so afraid of it in others, death being just one?

Do you see how the question seems to cry out for a particular and universal explanation, for which the measure of truth is what binds internally and at the same time has independent value? Do you understand how it gives that feeling that you can talk a lot about it, without rodeos or redundancies?

This is not an isolated case. Dissonances inspire questions that produce concatenated insights, many of which are universally particular and particularly universal. Of course, this doesn’t always work.

The secret, counterintuitive, is to look for those that permeate the most idiosyncratic biographical records or aspects of shared reality that seem to be of no interest to anyone else. If you do this for a while, you’ll notice how common correlations are.

It’s curious, but our internal contradictions don’t usually contradict each other. The same goes for those we see in the world. Questioning them openly, without the weight of many a prioris, can lead to their serial dissolution.

I think this dissolution sets a good target for the rest of the decade. Happy 2023!

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