Exploring ‘The Prudent Question’

The Prudent Question is One Half of Wisdom

Sir Francis Bacon

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh philosophy professor Laurence Carlin, who specializes in the history of modern philosophy and science, shares his thoughts about human nature and the quest for knowledge throughout history.

Have we always been a “questioning” people? How far back does this trait originate?
It is
difficult to say precisely when this trait started to manifest itself, but as far as we can tell, humans have always been curious questioners. This is clear, for example, when we consider the ancient Greeks. But this human tendency to question surely predates even the ancient Greeks. I think it is fair to say that our tendency to question things and pursue knowledge is one of the qualities that makes us human. The ability to question leads us to create things, to engage one another’s perspective and to do many other things that we typically understand as human endeavors.

Who have been some of the great thinkers in terms of “questioning” how the world works?
There have been many great thinkers in the past who knew what kinds of questions to ask. Isaac Newton, for example, was a great thinker who asked (and answered) a number of questions about the behavior of objects in our universe. Immanuel Kant was a great thinker who asked important questions about how human beings should treat each other, questions about what underlies our judgments about moral and immoral actions. The questions these thinkers asked have furthered our understanding of the world in dramatic ways.

But if there is one question that has stood the test of time, it is perhaps the most fundamental theological question: Is there a god? Almost all of the best thinkers from the past have wrestled with this question, and of course, many engage it today. This is perhaps not surprising since the answer has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of ourselves, our origin and our place in the world.


What is the value in questioning? Do you have to find an answer for it to be valuable?
I believe there is tremendous value in the questioning itself. It forces one to embrace multiple perspectives, to evaluate one’s own beliefs in light of the evidence and to appreciate the complexity of the world and the complexity of the issues we face.

 I reject completely the idea that we need to find firm answers in order for these big questions to be valuable. Regardless of whether we arrive at firm answers, the process of questioning makes us better critical thinkers and more sympathetic to viewpoints that differ from our own. It also provides a deeper understanding of the world by an examination of the potential answers. In doing this, we are often forced to reevaluate our own beliefs and desires–the very things that we use to confront our experiences and the very things that make us the persons we are. It is the process of questioning, I think, that is valuable, since it promotes a deeper understanding of ourselves, the world and our place in the world.

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  • Carlin rocks! Take any class from him: he’ll blow your mind. And isn’t that what college is supposed to do? GEMIN