Where questions stop

A few days ago I was listening to a biologist who recounted a philosophic conversation. In it the philosopher asked a man who had gone to the market why he was there.

“To buy vegetables”, the man answered.

“Why do you want vegetables?”, the philosopher continued.

“So that I can eat”

“Why do you want to eat?”

“So that I can be healthy”

“Why do you want to be healthy?”

“Because I will be unhappy if I am not healthy”

“Ah, you are in the market so that you can be happy”, said the philosopher and stopped his round of questioning. The end of our endeavours is to be happy and the puzzle of why the man was at the market was solved.

The speaker who was narrating it subscribed to evolutionary biology. He argued that many of us are unhappy because we are nervous and worried about what would happen to us. But then, unhappiness has a purpose, he argued. Those who are nervous and unhappy constantly watch their environment and look out for risks. It may make them miserable most of the time, but then they have greater chances of survival. Unhappiness is thus an acceptable human trait. With it, this speaker reached his stopping point: survival.

There seems to be a point of harmony at which academic questions can take a rest, and this differs across disciplines, fields, cults and other belief groups. We interpret and reinterpret the world around us till it confirms to our points of harmony. The romantic son of an economist once told me that he believes that Shajahan built the Taj Mahal for love, but his mom thinks that it was a public works programme taken up during a depression. It is not difficult to see how these points of harmony make us see a very different world around us. Knowing where questions stop can provide us with insights about disciplines, cults, individuals and what not.

I thought I should figure out Dr. K’s worldview by finding out what her points of harmony are. When she suggested that evening that I should make tofu for dinner I started my questions:

Me: Why do you want to me to make tofu?

Dr. K: Because I said so

Me: But why do you say so?

Dr. K: Because I say so.

I tried this experiment on a variety of issues and the stopping point was always because I said so. In a way it is not surprising. I believe that she considers herself the figurehead of a cult that I have christened Kristinanity. With that comfortable explanation, my point of harmony was reached and I ceased to question further about Dr. K.

Evidence & science

Jokes apart, this method of our enquiry has curious implications. Evidence based arguments have a great appeal in our culture today, but then the search for evidence starts when one is puzzled about some phenomenon. The search continues till the collected evidence arrives at a state that is harmonious with the pre-existing beliefs, and in the process makes these beliefs stronger: after all, evidence is confirming it all the time!

Thankfully our belief structures continue to form and are not just “given” for most of us. The moment they change, we interpret the world in different ways, and we accept different sets of information as evidence.

My kind of social theory

Over the last few years I consciously tried to expose myself to different disciplines, and in the process my view of why human beings do what they do expanded. The result of this was a fascinating time during my fieldwork where I was able appreciate so many little things that my discussants brought up. I also asked questions that I would not have asked a few years ago. For example, I would never have sought to understand the role of caste based violence in order to understand the provision of water, healthcare or education. With exposure to Feminist and Dalit scholarships, I asked my discussants about violence with surprising insights.

My experience at the field convinces me that a good social theorist should be able to find harmony with a wide variety of behaviour, and should not rest comfortably till a broad array of explanation is sought for. This conviction will define what kind of a social theorist I will be, and will shape the world as I understand it. Others, I guess, will find comfort in coming to the smallest possible insight that can interpret the entire world. But to say the least, finding out where one rests in harmony will help us see how the theorist came to the understanding that she did.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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