Questions as tools for thinking

A generative provocation from @DavidSHolz:

Questions even come with their own markup — “?”.

To dedicate a whole mark to questions? This suggests questions are special.

To use a programming analogy, if facts are like data, then questions are like functions. When you ask the question in different contexts, it generates different answers.

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.
Clayton Christensen

What if we embraced this, and started with questions?

Questions as a primitive

How might we make questions a first-class primitive?

Perhaps we could start by collecting every sentence in our notes that ends with a question mark? We might pose these questions in new contexts. We might even use these questions to discover new questions.

Some questions are generally useful, like standard functions in a programming language:

  • What if?

  • How might we ________?

  • What might this be true of?

  • What does this remind me of?

  • How does this relate to ________?

  • What does this contradict, correct, support, or build upon?

  • Can I combine this with ________ to create something new?

  • What new questions does this trigger?

What if we collected such general-purpose questions? What if we posed them during key moments?

Every search query is a question. A search reveals useful dimensions across latent idea space. Could we use search to construct new questions? What if Google, but it responds to questions with more questions?

Asking questions of data

What if we could use questions as literal functions? There are programming languages for doing this, called logic languages. Datalog is one logic language. It structures understanding as facts—logical relationships between things—and then lets you ask questions about those facts. For instance, I might jot down that Xerces is a parent of Brooke and Brooke is a parent of Damocles:

parent(xerces, brooke).
parent(brooke, damocles).

Once I have these facts, I can ask questions of the data, like who are all the X that xerces is an ancestor of?

?- ancestor(xerces, X).

This is a simple example, but in Datalog facts can be composed, allowing you to build up deep relationships and ask complex questions about them.

Could my whole notebook become a living network of facts over which I can pose questions?

Questions as data

What if we went a step further, and saw questions themselves as a kind of useful fact?

Jeff treats query as data. When a query is made against the context, and gets no response, it’s stored in the database. Later if data shows up that matches the query, you get a match. Treating queries like data makes it so you don’t have to ask every question every day.
Advanced Analytics in the Anonymized Data Space, Windley, 2007

If questions are data, and we can ask questions about data, then we can also ask questions about questions. Questions could be composable, and if questions are composable, then perhaps we might be able to cause them to self-organize, evolving more complex questions from simpler ones.

Questions as creative partners

The crucial requirement is for the self to allow the other to “speak back" and to accommodate the unexpected so that self affects other, and other affects self. Avoiding requisite variety, both get partially "out of control" in a mix of positive and negative feedback, thus conversing along non-determinable trajectories to arrive at previously unknown destinations.
Design Cybernetics”, Fischer, Herr, Ed. 2019

Questions can act as creative partners. They can cause us to walk back over familiar terrain, and see it from a new angle, to get lost in the land of ideas.

Questions as lenses

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

Every question is a way of seeing. The question acts as a lens around which we factor our understandings. By developing our questions, we learn to see… first in black-and-white, then in shades of grey, then perhaps in color.

Questions as un-answering

‪The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.‬
James Baldwin‬

Perhaps a tool for thought isn’t so much a tool for collecting answers, as a tool for asking questions? Can a tool offer new ways to uncover the important questions we can’t yet articulate? I think so.