Is Discussing an Unanswerable Question a Good Idea?

philosophy-discussionYesterday on Facebook my friend posted a philosophical question about the nature of reality and I replied with a long post. He responded this morning with another interesting question. Is it worth discussing at all?

It’s a good question. The original query is largely unanswerable. Yes, we might be living in the Matrix but there is no empirical way to determine if this is true. Perhaps we are living in the Matrix or some other construct. On the other hand, maybe the evidence we gather with our senses and repeated trials is real. Arguments can be made endlessly but, in the end, neither side can prove their point.

So why bother with the argument, or dialectic, my friend asks?

Why indeed.

If the question cannot be answered, isn’t it a waste of time and energy to discuss it at all? Shouldn’t we move on to something more productive?

This time there is an answer to the question and one that is emphatically true. Yes. We not only should, but essentially must, have such debates. This despite the fact we are aware there is no final answer.

The first reason such debates are useful is because they exercise your mind in the same way a physical workout exercises your body. Riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, participating in a yoga class; all these things make you stronger and better in any number of ways. I’ll not diverge into a discussion of cardiovascular health, I think we can all accept the idea that physical exercise is a good thing.

This training of the mind helps you analyze situation through critical thinking and contributes greatly to your ability to find resolutions. In this case there isn’t one, but frequently in life when presented with a problem, there is a correct solution. It is imperative to think through any obstacles and derive a resolution. This behavior will help you navigate life successfully.

Another reason to engage in such civil discourse is to practice having disagreements without resorting to name calling and general rudeness. People are going to disagree with you on a fairly regular basis. We see all too frequently today an immediate and angry descent into attack dialog. Anyone who dares disagree with me on any point is the enemy. They must be ridiculed and destroyed! This sort of behavior is being exhibited virtually everywhere you look, and it is leading to unthinkable divisions in this nation and the world as a whole. When people can no longer disagree with civility, we are in trouble.

Another reason to have such discourse is that it teaches you to listen to ideas that you might not have considered. When we just shout at each other, there is no learning going on. When we engage in the back and forth of discussion we sometimes learn new things, we sometimes change our opinion, and that’s a good thing. New information doesn’t always change an opinion but sometimes it does. It’s important to get into the habit of listening to those who oppose your point of view, not just to avoid angry confrontation, but to actually increase your own understanding of the situation.

The answer to my friend’s question is simple. Yes. Have the discussion. And maybe a tumbler of Booker’s bourbon while you’re at it.

Tom Liberman

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