Quora answer: What does a good question on Quora look like?

Jan 30 2012

It is interesting that there is a question answered by Quora staff about good answers but no such question about good questions. The answers are not the problem here on Quora, but I think this shows that the staff is not looking at the problem of the questions being sub par. So following up on the post about good answers I thought I would give a similar answer about good questions.

A good question is rooted in a problematic. That is to say it is not something you pull out of the air. I get the picture that people get on Quora and they suddenly feel as if they must ask a question, so they think uha….What is Existence? Typing the first thing that comes into their head. And of course many of those questions are full of assumptions and biases and are really not true questions that are worth answering.

For instance, just taking a random example:

“Why are Republicans not as intelligent as Democrats, on average?”

But people like me take these crazy and seemingly worthless questions that pretend to be philosophical and go to town with them because they are just begging to have substantial answers just to show how ludicrous they are. The disparity between the questions and the answers are somewhat laughable.

So how do you ask a good question?

First you have to know something to ask a worthwhile question. So the first thing is to attempt to learn something, by reading, living, exploring, all the good things that make life worth living in what passes for civilization.

It is not true that there is no stupid questions. We see them here on Quora all the time, they are questions that reek of bias and assumptions and actually have no other content. These are stupid questions. And they create a lot of clutter and they are part of the nihilism of quora. So one way to spruce up your questions is to take out all the bias and ungrounded assumptions that are pointless. They merely show your ignorance and that is really not something you want to show in public. Just because Quora in their wisdom decided to make questions anonymous is no excuse. It is still you that people are thinking about when they see a really dumb question that is yours.

But what can we do, if we actually want to ask a decent question?

Well once we get rid of the biases and unfounded assumptions then it helps to have a real question in mind. In other words it is a good idea if you really want to know the answer. Genuine questions have a ring of truth about them or at least earnestness. So just ask yourself if you really care about the answer to the question, and don’t ask any that you could care less if someone answered. Even simple questions that are genuine are readily accepted by those who know. In other words if you genuinely want to know something, and ask a straight forward question about it, people will be generous with their knowledge. Knowledge is something painfully acquired ( as in the book by Lo Chen Shun), but no matter how one has struggled to attain it, everyone with genuine knowledge is happy to share what they have discovered, because everyone was ignorant once, no one was born with knowledge. And so everyone knows what it is like not to know, and they are happy to share what ever they have learned, if they are wise as well as knowledgeable.

Now once we have gotten rid of as many biases that we can, or are aware of, and attempted to free our questions from unnecessary assumptions, and we really want to know the answer to our question, then the next thing that helps is to have a problematic. In other words good questions don’t just pop out of thin air, but are in fact born from an exploration, or intellectual adventure, or experience, or suffering, or something going on inside us that drives us toward knowledge of some specific domain of knowledge. So the next thing is to figure out what the problematic of your question is and to state that as part of the context. Quora helps us to do that by providing a place to give more information about the question. But also you can write a post that talks about what you are passionate about learning and why. If you go to the trouble to offer this context people will see a lot more in your question, rather than thinking that it is merely some passing thought you might have had. If you are thinking about something yourself, and you ask a question at the limits of your knowledge, then that is the best way to advance your thinking, but it is difficult to guage where someone is coming from and going to from one line questions with no context. They are just as bad as one line answers with no explanation, rationale, or point worth making.

Now if you want to know what your problematic is just think about what fascinates you. What ever that is, is the central vortex of your problematic, no matter how refined your approach to the subject might be. It is best if you consider yourself as being on an intellectual adventure and attempting to go beyond the horizons of your thought. Then when you are pushing that boundary is when you are most likely to ask a deep question, that is universal. Universality for humans flows from their particularity. Humans are variety produces as Stafford Beer has said in The Heart of Enterprise. Thus everyone will have a different point of view, and interpretation of questions and answers. But it is that peculiarity that comes from this natural variety production that takes us deeper into our humanity, and that is what good questions are bound to do for us.

Now there is a recognition of the intelligence of a good question. A good question makes us think. It makes us stretch our own viewpoints, assumptions, biases, and problematics by recognizing the variety which we have together. As Heidegger said thinking is thanking. In other words we thank the person who has asked a genuine or even deep question by answering it, and through that we recognize kindred spirits who are on intellectual adventures of their own, and want to go beyond the horizons of their current habits and plateaus of knowledge into unknown realms of deeper knowledge.

Now the next step is to realize that an answer can be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of a polemic, and a good place to have those realtime conversations is Namesake.com, which supports realtime conversation. So it is good if one can engage the others who are interested in a question in Dialogue. Comments here on quora don’t really cut it. They are pretty lame. But I guess it is better than no interaction between the members of Quora. Of course, there are always personal messages as well. It is best to make contact with those with whom you share an interest.

We occasionally see follow up questions here. And in fact it is through follow up questions that matters are clarified. Sometimes comments are used for this purpose. And what I do is if the answer to a comment is worth while I include it in my original answer. That way the answer does not get lost in the comments section which few look at. It would be good if one could link questions. But the only way to really do that is to put links in the questions themselves. But the person who is asking the follow-up question has no place to put that link as
Quora is now constructed. This is poor design in my view. But what is needed is for the follow up questions and answers to form a braid of linked questions and answers, like a thread in email. This kind of braid of dialogue consisting of questions and answers is called a dialectic. We see these in Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. But the best model of it is the Skepticism of Sextus Empiricus. That school developed what can be thought of as the Buddhism of Q&A which in Buddhism is called Skillful Means. I won’t go into that here but Hegel was influenced by Heraclitus and Skepticism in his development of the Dialectic of Sublation (Aufhebung). Hegel said that moving through us is an Absolute Spirit which was an expression of Absolute Reason. It is that which we embody according to him when we partake in genuine discourse. Genuine discourse about what we care most about and what fascinates us in our pursuit of knowledge on our intellectual adventure should be the driving force behind the questions we ask and the answers we give.


Sextus Empiricus



Briefly the philosophy of Sextus Empiricus, Pyrhoism, has as its goal to keep the conversation going. the Skeptic finds peace in the ongoing conversation and will do anything to keep it going including playing the devil’s advocate, i.e. say things he himself does not believe just to egg others on to deeper and more conversation about the topic under discussion. The goal of Skepticism is to keep the conversation going at all costs, even if the means leads to nihilism. Because he recognizes that is the way that everyone continues to learn the most and to mature into deeper knowledge though mutual instruction.



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