What is the feeling between the two magnets? There's something there.that an interviewer asked Richard Feynman during the Fun To Imagine program was a good or well-defined one. I am in the camp of the "resounding No" and in this text, I want to enumerate a few dozens of things that are often (or usually) wrong with the questions that are being addressed to scientists or that are even marketed as building blocks of the scientific process. Some of the observations apply outside science, too.
I believe that it's a part of the intellectually degenerated "postmodern" education promoting the humanities and the political correctness that people are led to believe (i.e. they are being brainwashed by the meme) that it's never painful to ask a question. In fact, we often hear that a question is always important, one should always be applauded if he asks a question, there are no bad questions, and it's always the fault of the person who is answering the question if a question leads to no constructive exchange.
Well, I beg to differ. Every single statement in the list above is wrong; questions may be bad and a large percentage of questions actually are bad; if questions are treated as contributions to the research, it's necessary to judge their quality just like we quantify the validity of hypotheses and the value of the answers; asking a stupid question may be a sign that someone hasn't learned something important that she should have already learned; quite generally, if we ask a question to someone, we should have some respect for his or her time and work a little bit to increase the odds that the question-and-answer exchange will lead to something useful (for us or perhaps also for others).
This culture of worshiping the questions for their own sake leads to the habit of ignoring the answers, ignoring the truth, and reducing the conversations and question answering to mindless exercises in which someone replies by a statement to a question and no one really cares what the reply is. But there are many other things that should be said about this topic. Let me start to enumerate the frequent flaws of questions.
Here is a partial list. Questions are often ill-defined, worthless, or demagogic for the following overlapping reasons, among others:
- The words used in the question are ill-defined.
- The words used in the question are ambiguous.
- There are no settled rigorous enough definitions of the words or phrases in the question although the answer depends on them; only the formulation in terms of rigorous enough mathematical concepts would make the question meaningful.
- The question wants to reduce one of the most fundamental concepts to even more fundamental ones, not realizing that the efforts are counterproductive verbal exercises if we're not guaranteed that this process stops at some point.
- The question implicitly makes some invalid assumptions about the insights that are already known.
- The question implicitly makes some probably invalid assumptions about the format of a future explanation of something.
- The axiomatic system i.e. the set of possible true propositions that may be used in an answer is completely unclear – the context or target audience for the answer isn't specified. Even the author of the question has no idea how a satisfactory answer could look like; he must know that the question won't lead to anything sensible.
- The question doesn't have a sensible level of difficulty that could produce a meaningful answer: it's either too primitive (something that the author of the question should have known) or too ambitious and it's asking about a point that shouldn't need an explanation at all or, on the contrary, a topic that needs hundreds of pages to be properly covered (which seems to expose the disrespectful assumption that the person who is answering may be "demanded" to spend much more time than the author of the question).
- The question isn't meant to be a real question – a sentence designed to find some information – but rather as a rhetorical question to spread a certain way of thinking or emotion, usually a misconception.
- The question is just an attempt of its author to pretend that he or she is smart but he or she isn't really interested in the answer.
Of course that the world doesn't work like that at the end (those hated "they" are either eliminated or they remain in the positions of power and become able to control what questions are allowed to be asked by "us" etc.) and it couldn't work like that but the totally distorted view that it "should" work like that is a testimony of the insanity of the left-wing, postmodern populist ideologues that have contaminated the intellectual atmosphere in the Western society in the recent 80 or 50 years or so (80 if I count the fascists).
The list above is in no way complete. Indeed, questions suffer from many diseases. It shouldn't be shocking that most questions that are being asked are garbage; if we live in a culture without any "natural selection" for questions – if the authors of questions are never "punished", regardless of the questions' very bad quality – it's sort of inevitable that bad, worthless, sick, stupid, and demagogic questions are guaranteed to "flourish" and contaminate the intellectual landscape. In principle, every single illness of a question in the list above could be understood as a lethal one – but you find many people whose questions suffer from every single disease in the list.
A few extra words about the illnesses and some examples follow.
Physics vs philosophy: ill-defined words
First, "ill-defined words". This is a frequent problem with the ancient philosophers' and armchair philosophers' questions and their approach to questions. This problem is really the primary reason why physics and philosophy had to divorce. Philosophy was no good because it was stuck in the "research" of tons of meaningless questions that could perhaps satisfy the rules of syntax but whose content was vacuous.
For example, philosophers may be obsessed with repeating enchantments involving the "free will", "background independence", "reality", and so on, and so on, and they ask whether these concepts are true or whether they exist. It depends on what these words actually represent. And there's no reason why Nature should associate a well-defined meaning with any sequence of words or letters such as these ones and thousands of others.
An essential fact for a scientist to realize is that there's no reason why a syntactically or grammatically legitimate sentence should be valuable or should deserve a well-defined answer or truth value (if it is a Yes/No answer). The language is a tool by which humans (or others) exchange some information. But if one uses it incorrectly, no information is being communicated, the sentences are meaningless, and it makes no sense to spend hours by trying to find answers. Some hard work and "assurances" are needed for a language or a more general framework of communication to be useful. If these conditions aren't met, the sentences won't be useful – they won't be useful for practical lives of the people; but they will be useless in the plan to learn the truth about Nature, too.
Philosophers – including philosophers who pretend to be interested in science but they are still just philosophers because of the unscientific character of their thinking – often misunderstand these basic facts. So they keep on solving questions that are ill-defined because the very words and phrases used in these questions have nothing to do with the fundamental concepts that the state-of-the-art scientific description of the given topics uses. They implicitly use an obsolete "theory" to talk about various things in the Universe.
Do we have a "free will"? I don't know what the question means. The fact that the Universe obeys some laws of physics (even though their character is probabilistic) could be interpreted as the answer that any "free will" is an illusion. But one may define the free will more specifically as some properties of spacetime regions and their ability to produce their own data and in quantum mechanics, the "free will theorem" may be proven to argue that these spacetime regions really "invent the answers" to the quantum mechanical measurements themselves. Clearly, the amount of sophistication in the "free will theorem" goes well beyond the naive mode of thinking that a typical author of the question "Do we have a free will" have in mind. So if you offer the free will theorem as an answer to a typical person's question about the free will, it's destined to be an example of throwing the pearls to the swines.
Philosophy – in the modern sense, i.e. the discipline of the humanities that has already lost its beef (natural sciences) – is largely based on the mindless worshiping of some human "authorities".
Sometimes their patently wrong answers are being preserved many centuries after their invalidity has been demonstrated; the very obsession with Aristotle's teachings has made a greater disservice to the emerging science, one that decelerated the birth of science more dramatically than the obsession with the life story of Jesus Christ. But even when the philosophers only worship the questions as something they should spend years of thinking with, it's often worthless questions. They don't want to admit that e.g. most of the would-be deep things that Aristotle said and asked about Nature were just naive stupidities at the level of an average educated teenager in 2013, artifacts of the stunning primitiveness of the description of Nature that was available when he was alive. This very simple observation is treated by some people – the "philosophers" – as a heresy you shouldn't even consider so you can't be surprised that such people haven't really made any progress in their understanding of Nature during the last 2,000 years. It's their very own, fundamental decision not to make any substantial progress. At least, the value of the questions asked centuries or millennia ago can't be questioned. In this respect, the philosophers are as dogmatic and incompatible with the process of learning as deeply, fundamentalistically religious folks.
The second item in the list above talks about ambiguous words. The situation is even worse when one meaning of the word may meaningfully appear in a question but the question is actually asking about another meaning of the word. It's sometimes very important for the well-definedness of the answer to decide which exact meaning of a word is meant in the question. Such a fine dependence of the answer on the detailed adjustments of the question automatically makes the question "less rigid" and therefore "less important" (it's obviously not the only aspect that can make a question less important, however). In some cases, only a rigorous enough reformulation in terms of nearly mathematically, rigorously defined concepts becomes the only way to make the question meaningful. Needless to say, the "philosophers" and other humanities-worshiping invaders into science often hate mathematics and they just don't like the self-evident fact that the language of mathematics is the only language that can turn many vague sequences of words into well-defined questions.
Some foundations or true propositions are always needed
Several items in the list above are talking about this widespread problem. When we want to understand a certain topic, e.g. the reason behind a phenomenon such as magnets' attractions (and it doesn't matter at all whether we start the question by the words "why", "how", or "what is the feeling"), we should always have some knowledge i.e. some propositions that we consider true and that the person who is answering the question is allowed to assume.
If we don't have any propositions that we accept to be true or concepts that can be used without further questioning, it simply means that we have no knowledge and there can't possibly exist a legitimate way to answer our question, whatever the question is! This utterly simple and logically self-evident point is clearly misunderstood or underestimated by many authors of various "why" questions who seem to believe that one may answer questions so that the answer depends on no assumptions whatsoever. If we respect the validity of no facts, we may always ask "why" after any sentence that the person who is answering adds. We may "question" every statement he makes, whatever the statement is. In such a situation, it is totally clear that such a conversation can't possibly lead to any meaningful outcome. We're caught in an infinite loop (a smart enough girl from the kindergarten should be able to see the proof why the loop is infinite!) and we're clearly wasting our time (and sometimes also the time of another person who is not as stupid as we are and who really didn't want to waste his time!).
So one must always have some axiomatic system, a collection of propositions that we can verify to be true or a whole methodology (e.g. one based on observations or rigorous mathematical derivations) that allows us to verify the validity or invalidity of whole classes of propositions we haven't previously encountered. We may often be more certain or less certain about various propositions in which case the confidence level (subjective probability of a sort) between 0 and 1 replaces the binary truth value that may only be 0 or 1. But there must be something like statements with a truth value or with a confidence level, otherwise it makes no sense to discuss the validity of any other statements or explanations. More strongly, we should also have some idea about which statements are more fundamental as components of an explanation than others; this idea is needed to decide whether some answers and explanations are actually representing progress in our understanding why certain things are the way they are.
Needless to say, the humanities-oriented education encourages people to know no hard facts like that (they prefer the superficial form, they prefer to train folks to master the tools to pretend that they're smart even if they are completely uneducated imbeciles) – and, which is even worse, to be proud about this complete ignorance of theirs. Their brains' being an example of the vacuum still doesn't prevent them from writing their "opinions" about many things. That's, for example, why most science journalists are writing about topics they don't know anything about, except for two or three (usually invalid) slogans and clichés.
When the situation of the author of the question isn't that hopeless, she or he has some axiomatic system to build upon. But even in that case, it should be made sufficiently clear what the system is. The guy who asked about the magnets didn't specify what he knew if he knew something at all. So of course that the appropriate explanation of magnets is different when the target audience are typical 6-year-old kids, curious 15-year-old teenagers, college students, graduate students, or peers of the theoretical physics Nobel prize winners.
This dependence of the appropriate explanation on the target audience is something that is hard to swallow for many people, too. They would love universal answers. But only the most advanced answer may be really superior, in comparison with the more primitive and less accurate ones. But a vast percentage of the people simply doesn't have the background to understand these most advanced and accurate explanations.
In this context, I must also defend the schools. At basic schools or high schools – and perhaps in the colleges – kids are taught some simplified answers to questions that use a somewhat more primitive system (e.g. classical mechanics with forces or something even simpler), oversimplified methods to reason, approximate and obsolete models of the physical world, and not the most accurate mathematical tools to calculate the answers. But this is really inevitable. If a 6-year-old girl can't understand a more accurate explanation (e.g. because she hasn't mastered quantum field theory or string theory yet), it would simply be a waste of time to provide her with an advanced (e.g. quantum-field-theory-based) explanation of a certain effect. It would be a case of torturing kids if she had to memorize an explanation based on M-theory. This is true not only for 6-year-old girls but also for 50-year-old men who just don't know certain prerequisites (and for everyone else, too). The very fact that their background knowledge has some limitations – i.e. that they're qualitatively analogous to the 6-year-old girls – is something incompatible with the pride of many adults (and teenagers). But their pride can't change anything about the fact that they may only understand certain answers and explanations that are optimized for the background they have already mastered.
The interviewer asking about the magnets hasn't explained what his background was. His talking about "feelings" indicated that he knew nothing about physics at all, not even the things he should have learned at the basic school. In such a situation, it's hard to answer a question that sounds like if he wanted to understand the deepest reasons behind magnetism. One simply can't understand the deepest answers about the Universe with the shallowest possible knowledge and the most modest skills he can possibly have. These are incompatible things. The interviewer's attempt to suggest that he's thirsty for the deepest explanations even though his knowledge seems to be the shallowest is a hint that he's one of the pompous fools that Feynman couldn't stand – and I can't stand them, either.
There are no feelings between magnets. Magnets are manifestations of the magnetic field constructed from the aligned magnetic fields of the electrons' spins (in the case of the bar magnets i.e. ferromagnets; diamagnets, paramagnets, and electromagnets would require three other explanations) and the magnetic field (which appears in all these situations) is one of the most fundamental things that exist in Nature. One may reduce the electromagnetic field to things that are "somewhat more fundamental" than just the postulated electromagnetic field but one must first learn physics to understand the electroweak theory, the grand unified theory, and/or string theory. Except for the string theory case, one "reduces" the electromagnetic field to things that are generalizations of the electromagnetic field, anyway, so one doesn't really discover any genuine simplification.
But if one doesn't know the tools to follow the electroweak theory or the harder things, he should just accept that the electromagnetic field is one of the most fundamental things in the Universe and it is, on the contrary, all the everyday processes (like all of chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, or the pressure exerted by a finger, among others) that should be explained in terms of electromagnetism, not the other way around! Physics isn't trying to reduce the magnetic forces to "feelings"; on the contrary, physics and biology are reducing feelings to electromagnetic forces. And I think that this fundamental importance of electromagnetism is such a basic, game-changing part of the natural science that a person who doesn't know that electromagnetism is this important and "unquestionable pillar of science" simply failed to learn physics at the basic school level. We're not talking about any state-of-the-art physics research. We're not even talking about the college-level physics. We're talking about the question whether one listened to and understood some basic physical facts that were said to him when he was 10 years old – and for the interviewer, the answer is almost certainly No. That's why it's immensely annoying if such a child who was left behind is trying to look smart by asking similar would-be deep questions about the "feelings causing magnetism".
Demagogy, rhetorical questions that should be real questions, hidden wrong assumptions
Several items in my list are dedicated to the questions which aren't asked in order to find any useful information at all. Some of them may be designed for the author of the question to look smart (or deep) and/or curious even though he self-evidently is neither smart (or deep) nor curious.
Other questions are designed to promote invalid assumptions about physics that is already known. For example, when Lee Smolin asks "How to get a background-independent theory of quantum gravity", he wants to promote his lies about string-theoretical dynamics' not being background-independent. He has been repeatedly caught as admitting that he realizes why these propositions are lies (David Gross gave a detailed monologue about this fact to other folks at a conference) but he still finds it useful if the brainwashed laymen who are actually ready to pay for Smolin's garbage books – the children who were left behind – are being indoctrinated in this way. So his questions aren't really questions. They are references to some lies he has made at other places. These would-be questions are encouraging the brainwashed readers and listeners to repeat the lies they have been exposed to in their heads. It's a part of his Goebbelsian effort to sustain the lies that are convenient for him.
He is a dishonest jerk and a demagogue and of course that most demagogues are using various loaded questions as very effective weapons in their propaganda wars. A whole category of these "sick questions" are rhetorical questions that shouldn't be rhetorical at all. Many people often ask a question and they don't really expect an answer – even though there actually often exists a very solid, satisfying answer to the question (in this sense, the situation is the opposite one than the situations described in the early portions of this essay). They just mean their questions as attacks.
There are lots of diseases that questions may suffer from and they often do and I could talk for hundreds of hours. But I want to emphasize the basic point: if we want to count questions as intellectual contributions, we must care about their quality, too. As soon as we start to think about questions a bit less uncritically and to compare their quality, we're already on the right way to avoid some of the traps (or all of them).