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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
I Know That I Am Able6/07/2007 00:52:17
This is the latest chapter from my book in progress, How to Ask Questions. It is the first chapter of the second section, which comes after a rather philosophical introduction to the nature of questions.
Most good question askers probably didn't get there by working at it. Only rarely in this world is asking questions talked about as a thing somebody should try to get better at. It comes naturally or it doesn't. But now, as far as this book goes, my great year-long do-or-die attempt, the time has come to start. Having discovered what are questions, all of that can be forgotten in the interest of asking—for every good musician knows that nothing has been really learned until it is forgotten, until you get up on stage with a good band and the bright lights and start blowing.
At first, it may be that trying to get better makes you feel worse at it than before, less intuitive, less comfortable. Trying might end up highlighting the weaknesses that never showed themselves beforehand. The amazing thing, though, that musicians also know, is how practice actually works. It seems so hard to believe because once an instrument has been learned, playing feels like an ability one was born with. Of course this is true of all skills, since learning them is not really different from revealing and discovering capacities that were always lurking around to begin with, like an undiscovered species of deep-sea creature, as ancient as the water. The unearthing of one skill only demonstrates the bewildering infinity of what other skills lie beneath, waiting to be assembled into somethings, given names and put to use. Human beings can't do a lot of things, but there are infinitely many that we can, and the only thing between us and those is bothering to try.
In any great practice, there are tips and there are skills. Tips are what we can offer each other and what we can try on ourselves. On their own they don't take us very far, except for the fact of having them and repeating them. Skills, though, are what we ourselves grasp hold of and incorporate--literally, absorb as part of our mental bodies--and then remember, carrying them with us more or less intact as we move from skin to skin, year to year.
Collecting tips about how to ask questions, then, is the only way a book can start, but it sure isn't much. Really coming into asking, though, with one's actual self and actual body, leaning in to ask, needing to ask, doing so authentically—this is a transforming skill. Without a few tips, though, and a lot of practice, some of us might never get it. I keep holding out hope for myself, practicing tips and more tips.
They say that the best way to learn something is to try and teach it. If what you're teaching is nonsense, then you'll see it immediately because the person who is trying to be taught won't get anywhere. And teaching a thing means you've got to have it down cold. That is the only option because the alternative is to look foolish. Now one possible way I could write this "practical" part of the book is to keep on going the way I have been, dressing up unjustifiable assertions and building something up that may be nothing at all. I think I'd rather do something different, to teach at the risk of looking foolish. And I know this is a real risk because I can feel it creeping on me now as I write, I can feel the possibility of the whole thing failing and turning into a big mess.
As we go, I am going to try and write a computer program, and I am going to try to teach it how to ask questions. You've got to know, first of all, that I am no great programmer by any means. My technical skills remain a generation or two behind that, and I have been slow to catch up. I've got a few friends in town to help me get started, and the internet too, so that will have to be enough. It seems to me that computer programs have a lot to offer to a person's thinking, because they don't tolerate nonsense. Either the program works or it doesn't. If it works, but works poorly, the problems make themselves manifest. Hopefully by the end this will be a good program, and at least by some standards it will work well. If it does, I think, if it asks decent questions and shows us how to do so also, I will take it to be a very beautiful thing.
The program is called Abel Asker. I call it Abel first of all because it sounds like the English word that means can-do. Second, it is the name of the primordial shepherd in the Bible, who was killed by his brother Cain. When the deity comes looking for Abel, Cain asks the first question addressed to God in the whole text, in the whole mythological human history: "Am I my brother's keeper?" It is an inauthentic rhetorical question to be sure, but its distinction stands.
So now we will learn together. You, me, and Abel the computer program. Some things may come easier to some of us more than others, but others will be more natural to the others. Taking the journey with someone of a different species, the machine, may help reveal what would otherwise go unnoticed if us humans went alone.
All Abel will have to do is ask questions. I've started out by making the basic shell—just a loop that takes typed input in, puts it through a handler (whose job is to come up with the next question), and then invites the next input. This is how I've phrased it:
When the program runs, it puts this out:
There is, here, the strange issue of authenticity of Abel's asking and Abel's questions. This whole discussion up to now concerned people exclusively with no real mention of the questions a program might ask. For the moment though, if I had to decide, I would say that Abel's questions are perfectly, pristinely authentic until there comes reason to decide otherwise. We will see what arises of violence, of inviting, and of need.
I should say one final thing before continuing. What is the skill in question here, precisely? Most manuals I have come across about questioning are focused on how to get particular answers or to compel a certain kind of thinking for the purpose of persuasion. Journalists trying to fool politicians to say something clearly, or salespeople trying to arouse the buying instincts. The skill I am after in this book, rather, is authentic questioning. Because of the deep nature of authentic questions, this means that the discussion cannot be limited to simply how to phrase questions effectively, or how to get Abel to do so. Having established what are questions, the skill of asking them authentically means also cultivating the sense of curiosity itself, cultivating the need for the world out of the long loneliness. For that reason, I will not spend a whole lot of time getting the questions Abel asks to sound quite right, as if a person said them. Computer programs exist that can convincingly seem like people asking questions. It is a technical challenge I don't want to bother with. Instead, I want to focus on cultivating the whole process of Abel's authentic questioning, and ours in the process also.