Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.



The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.