Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

“It’s the Questions, Stupid”


Like most people, there are a few points in my life that I seem to remember vividly.  The year 1968 is one of those points.  Historically, it was a year of great political upheaval – Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered.  There were riots at the Deomocratic National Convention.  The Vietnam War was spiraling out of control.  The world seemed to be on the proverbial brink.

I had just gotten out of the army, I was resuming my education while working fulltime, and my wife was pregnant for the first time.  In short, a lot was going on.  In the midst of all this, I went to see a movie.  It was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  I should note that I went alone.  My wife didn’t like science fiction of any kind and, because of her “condition”, was uncomfortable sitting for any length of time.  Anyway, I loved the movie.  Like most people who saw it, I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was great stuff.  So I coerced my poor wife, her mother, and her two sisters to come with me to see this wonderful piece of cinema.  Big mistake.  To this day, they all still get a big laugh about “that stupid movie” that I dragged them into.  It made no sense, they said.  What was it supposed to mean?  Why were the apes in it?  What were the monoliths supposed to be?  And the baby in the bubble at the end?  All laughable and all incomprehensible.

Fast forward a few decades (well, actually 4 decades).  I’d been called into a manufacturing site to consult with some engineers on a problem they’d been having with their primary process – a problem that had been creating a great deal of waste and costing them a great deal of money.  After being briefed on the technical details for 2 days, I was getting ready to leave the plant when the chief engineer came up to me and said that he hoped that I could help them “find the answers”.  I replied that I would consider my work successful if I managed to come up with the “right” questions.  Needless to say, I got a bit of a strange look as I walked out the door.

Somewhere along the way, apparently, I discovered that questions are more important than answers.  Now, I’m not talking about questions like “What’s for dinner?” or “What’s on TV tonight?” or “What color is mustard?’.  No, I’m talking about questions that relate to how we think about things.  I’m talking about questions that don’t invite glib answers, but instead force us to consider and reflect on what it is that we actually believe.  I’m talking about questions for which there are often no easy answers, no hard truths, no absolutes.

If  someone for example says that “the sanctity of life” and “the laws that govern civil society” are “truths”, then he is suggesting that those things are answers to a question about the value of human life.  If I ask 100 people how they value another person’s life, I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, will say that human life is “sacred”.  And they won’t take much time to think about it.  It’s an easy answer and is, in a sense, “correct”.  In my opinion, however, it’s the wrong question.

Before I get to what I think is a better question, I would ask the person who tossed out “sanctity of life” as a truth what exactly they mean by that.  Is he saying that life is sacred in the context of “Thou shalt not kill”?  If it’s not a biblical reference, is it more in keeping with the “civil laws” reference?  There are, of course, problems with both.  While “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty simple and direct, there are countless incidents in the same book that seem to contradict that sentiment.  Blood, violence, and death are not exactly uncommon events.  It would appear that life is only sacred if you’re one of the “good guys”.

Civil law sometimes gets a little vague as well.  In New York state, I’m essentially free to kill anyone who enters my home without an invitiation.  That is, if I consider the intruder to be a burglar I’m allowed to use deadly force, even if I’m not being directly threatened.  There is almost no chance that I would be prosecuted for taking that person’s life.  If, on the other hand, that person is standing in my driveway, the issue becomes a lot less clear.  In this case, I essentially have to prove “self – defense” (or that I was protecting a third party).  In effect, the intruder’s life is less sacred if he’s in my house than it is if he’s outside my house.

Asking someone how they value human life is, I think, the wrong question.  It provides little or no insight into how the respondent thinks or what they believe.  A much better question, in my opinion, is:

“Under what circumstances would you take another person’s life?”

It’s hard to come up with a quick, easy answer for that one.  You’re compelled to think about it.  You must, if you’re honest, think about and come to grips with what you believe.  Under the right circumstances, all of us will kill.  Push the right buttons, and we’ll all pull the trigger.  Most importantly, there is no single “correct” answer.  It would be nice if there was.  It would be great if every single person believed that there was no justifiable reason (ever) for taking another person’s life – we could instantly eliminate murder, war, capital punishment, etc.  But that ain’t going to happen.  So don’t tell me that “sanctity of life” is a truth.  Tell me instead when you believe that it’s morally right to kill.  That’s a discussion worth having.

If you’re of a philosophic bent and still interested in the ideas of Truth and Reality, you might want to check out the allegory of Plato’s Cave (no, that’s not where Mark Hobson lives, although I think he visits there frequently).  You can actually find some videos of the story on Youtube that are pretty good.  One even seems to be narrated by Orson Welles, which makes it worthwhile, I think, no matter what you believe.

On a somewhat related note, Brooks Jensen did a podcast the other day entitled “The Light of Truth”.  He doesn’t really come down on either side of this discussion, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting perspective.

(I apologize, but at the moment I can’t access the Lenswork website so I can’t leave a link.  Just go to the Lenswork site and look for “Podcasts”.)

(Update: the podcast link is here )

And if you’ve never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or haven’t seen it in a long time, you might find  the questions it poses concerning “Reality” to be of interest as well.  Like a good photograph, the film provides little in the way of answers.  It does, however, ask a lot of good questions – questions that are still relevant today.

You might also want to revisit the original “Matrix” movie.  While scientifically flawed in some respects, it is easily the mother of all reality flicks.  Again, lots of good questions.


2 Responses to ““It’s the Questions, Stupid””

  1. Martin Doonan

    Sometimes it’s in the the means of delivery. I didn’t get 2001, the movie, at all on first viewing. I read the book and all became clear. I now find that the movie and the novel pose very different questions of me. We need to be aware not just of the question but the way in which it is asked (a lesson I learnt again this morning at work).

  2. Paul Maxim


    You’re right. I hadn’t really thought about it, but how a question is asked is very important. Questions asked visually (as in a movie) can be very different from questions asked in print. Not to mention tone and context when a question is posed verbally. Anyone who’s ever been married understands how tricky that can get.

    I don’t know that “2001” ever became “clear” to me. Like a good photograph, I think there are multiple possible interpretations. I used to think, for example, that when the ape touched the monolith in the beginning of the movie, something happened in that instant that triggered an evolutionary step (the creation of a tool). But now I think it was a kind of red herring – it’s too easy, too pat. The ape would have found the tool regardless. The monolith was just a symbol for the transition.

    I still love that film. It’s like rereading a good book – there’s always something new. I still can’t get anybody to watch it with me, though.


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