Those who know me probably wonâ€™t be surprised to hear that I used to get into trouble at school, not because I was a juvenile delinquent, but for asking so many questions â€“ too many, as far as some of my teachers were concerned. They expected us to absorb all the facts, dates, grammar and maths they taught us, and not to spend too much time questioning where all of these things came from, and what they were for, and whether they were likely to be any use to us. Questions like that tended to hold things up, so that my class might be in danger of failing to cover the whole of a carefully planned syllabus, and risk failing an exam. Iâ€™m sure that some of my teachers regarded me as a confounded nuisance.
I used to drive my parents mad too. If they didnâ€™t have an answer to one of my questions they sometimes answered â€˜becauseâ€™ in exasperation â€“ just one word â€“ and left me frustrated at their lack of co-operation. â€˜Because what?â€™ Iâ€™d say. â€˜Because we say so,â€™ theyâ€™d answer. As I grew up, I realised that they didnâ€™t have all the answers â€“ in fact, they hardly had any. It was a disappointment until it dawned on me that parenthood doesnâ€™t make you the fount of all knowledge, and that libraries are a good place to look for answers.
Iâ€™m still asking questions that donâ€™t all have answers. Many lead to more questions. Itâ€™s childish to imagine that someone or something has all the answers, yet many people do. Itâ€™s arrogant to imagine that you have all the answers, yet many people are. The Greek philosopher Socrates liked to say that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. An ignoramus will believe he or she knows or understands something while demonstrating that he or she doesnâ€™t. Socrates wasnâ€™t stupid; he was only teasing when he said he knew nothing; he knew, for example, that it was important to be clear about what we mean by the questions we ask, otherwise all we end up with is a muddle, not an answer. Sometimes, as Iâ€™ve already said, there is no answer.
Itâ€™s no good expecting a sceptic like me to accept anything you say unless you can give me a good reason to believe it. As the Scots philosopher David Hume said, â€˜A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,â€™ and you donâ€™t have to be super-intelligent to be wise. Itâ€™s amazingly easy to be foolish though, if you never ask questions, and the world is full of people whoâ€™ll exploit your gullibility, cleverly disguised as priests, potentates, and politicians.
Photo: Bust of Socrates