The Book of (mostly good) Questions

The Book of Questions is an interesting read. It presents itself as a compendium of questions to contemplate (mentioned in the introduction) sugar-coated as a book of conversation starters. Any conversations started using the questions listed in the book, however, won’t make for pleasant conversation. This is a good thing. The book is essentially a set of prompts. These prompts appear innocuous but are crafted to stimulate the mind and do so with great results.

As a sampler from the book, here’s a question, a supposed conversation starter which is a trojan-horse for greater questions one would generally like to avoid:

Would you rather lose the use of all motorized vehicles all telecom devices and computers or one of your hands?

This question can be answered in two contexts: (i) I lose all my privileges but no one else does, or (ii) Everyone loses all their privileges. Since the question revolves around personal agency, I would say the former would be closer to the original intent of the author asking the question.

In order to answer this question we need to see what roles motorized vehicles, telecom devices, computers, and hands play in our day-to-day lives, then we have to assess the pros and cons of losing them in different contexts. The loss of a hand will have more lasting consequences both emotionally and physically. Losing ease-of-access privileges might directly relate to life expectancy.

Then there is the question of friendship and its role in such a case, because if you lose the privileges but no one else does, it should be possible to cooperate, which is also possible with the loss of a hand. This is complicated by our essentially social minds that will revolt against being left out which can transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to less likelihood of finding people who would cooperate. And this brings us to the fact that human lives are interdependent and at any point in time there are thousands of variables affecting all areas of our lives. It is easy to knock a human life off kilter with so many interdependent variables involved which then depend on how they stand with regard to the larger social group.

The larger context of individuals behaving as a lesser degree of cyborg is important. We are dependent on technology and we co-operate and co-ordinate with it to solve problems. Even though devices are not directly implanted to our physical bodies, we are already behaving like technologically enhanced humans. Our interactions with technology are natural: unlocking a smartphone requires a negligible amount of conscious thought and losing a phone feels like losing a limb. The era of the cyborg is already upon us.

All of which means that losing access to technology and losing access to a hand are two concepts that are not as dissimilar as they superficially appear to be. This further complicates things for us the chooser as we’re pitted in a debate about man vs nature. Is it better to lose the acquired limbs of entrenched technology or if losing a limb would be, in some ways, better? It is not an easy question.

So the superficially easy, and somewhat politically incorrect, question which seems innocuous touches so many aspects of human life that you can’t tackle it without going into the most fundamental of all debates: nature versus civilisation.

The author’s introduction says that the questions are not to be answered trivially with a simple yes or no response and that is a good rule-of-thumb for this book. It is unsettling to work through the questions one by one. And this itself raises a good question: how do we know what we know is true? The definition of truth is often the domain of religion and philosophy which again leaves you with a question: are all truths fundamentally religious?

Asking these questions, or those of its ilk, means that the book meets spec. It does what it says i.e. hones one’s ability to question everything.

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