Pondering The Big Questions

By: Steven Gillman

Do you ever ponder the big questions, like "What is consciousness?" or "Why do we feel motivated to do good?" Doing so really takes no more brainpower than balancing your checkbook, and although you are more likely to be satisfied and certain with the result of the checkbook balancing, thinking about these things is not just good brain exercise. It gives you insight and perspective.

How do you think about these things, though? How do you get more deeply into the big questions and develop a more profound understanding of them? One of the easiest and most effective ways is to do like children do and keep asking "why?"

Big Questions -? Why? What? How?

Maybe a child has done this to you. He asks you why you have to leave, and you say, "To go to work." He then asks you why you have to go to work, and you answer, "To make money." He then asks you why you have to make money, and you answer, "To pay for food and a house and clothes." Of course it doesn't stop there. If you let him, the child may lead you right up your hierarchy of values to the meaning of your life.

In the case of a "what" question, you would continually define each new explanatory word as it was used. For example, "What is happiness?" might be answered, "A feeling that everything is all right." Then you ask what a feeling is and what "all right" means. If you were to say that "all right" means "as it should be" you are lead to the question of "What does 'should' mean?"

This technique of repeated questioning that children use is great for creating an explanation (or many).

It is also good for pointing out assumptions that we may not have previously stated or been aware of, such as "Going to work makes me money which buys things we need which will make me and my loved ones happy," or the shortened version "Going to work produces happiness." But simply explaining and making assumptions more conscious isn't necessarily very educational or enlightening.

To increase our understanding, and to point out possible errors in our thinking, we can start with this technique to outline the logical chain of ideas in our reasoning. But then we need to challenge each of these ideas to see if there is a better perspective or an error in our thinking that we can correct. We can ask "Does going to work produce happiness?" for example, or "Is there a better way to make money?" Let's look at another example.

Why do you want to exercise your brain? The answer to that might be something like, "To be more intelligent." Why do you want to be more intelligent? Maybe to solve problems more effectively. Why do you want to solve problems more effectively? Maybe to have more control over your environment, to make more money, or to create better things and situations in life. Why? To be happier, perhaps?

Now as you look at each of these steps in the reasoning, you can identify a number of assumptions - ideas which may or may not be the best ones to operate on. It might be a valid question to ask if exercising the brain actually improves intelligence, for example, or if only certain kinds of mental exercise are effective for this. You might also ask whether being more intelligent really helps you solve problems more effectively. Perhaps learning specific problem solving techniques is more important than one's level of intelligence.

Besides challenging any and all assumptions, you can also look for new perspectives and approaches by moving up the hierarchy of ideas and seeing if there are other ways to re-create this logical chain. For example, if the end result is supposed to be happiness, what other approaches make more sense than exercising one's brain? Or without going that far up the hierarchy, what about having more control over your environment? Is increased brainpower the best approach to that, or are there specific actions that will get you there faster?

This process will give you new insight into any of the big questions or even not-so-big questions of life. Create the logical chain of ideas first, by asking those "whyScience Articles," "what" or "how" questions repeatedly. Then challenge each assumption and look for other ways to get to each point in the hierarchy of ideas that your explanation creates.

Motivation
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