Why Do We Ask Questions? By Michael “Vsauce” Stevens (Transcript)

In the 1950s, Harold Edgerton took a series of amazing pictures of nuclear explosions. This is the detonation, just milliseconds after happening with an exposure time of 1 billionth of a second. You can see the energy of this plasma ball, the energy of the explosion is vaporizing the metal wires holding up the tower, that’s where these glowing spindly legs come from. His work attracted wider and new interest to physical phenomenon simply because he featured something that people couldn’t help but want to look at, a moment you couldn’t witness alone. He famously said the trick to education is to teach in such a way that people only find out they’re learning when it’s too late. Works for me.

So recently I took on the most difficult question ever but also the most requested — how do I know that the colors I see are the same to you? Okay. How do I know that when I look at something red, you don’t look at the same thing and see what I would call green but you call it red because that’s what we’ve always heard and we both agree and go on our separate lives never knowing just how different our perceptions were. There is no such thing as a stupid question but there are questions that make us feel stupid. And this is one of them because there is no way for me to crawl inside someone else’s mind to see the world as they see it. I thought it might be frustrating to my viewers that there really wasn’t a good answer, I couldn’t finish this once and for all.

So I started looking more generally into questions. And the more I read about them and their history, the more I realized that questions might be quite unique to humans, apes that have been taught to use sign language can communicate with us. They can answer complex questions. They can convey novel thoughts and they can express their emotions. But an ape who knows sign language has never been observed to ask a question. Soliciting information from an organism belies this assumption that other organisms in some way have access to information that you don’t that they have different unique intentions or desires. It’s often called the theory of mind and it is incredibly difficult to show that animals have such a thing. But of course we intuitively feel that we do.

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Chimpanzees are clever but they fail a pretty simple seeming test, deciding who to go to, to get food that has been hidden in a room. A person who was literally in the room and saw where the food was hidden or a person who was also in the room but he’s had a bucket on their head all day. So whether or not animals have the capacity to ask questions is still being debated but after reading all of this, I realized that questions are very special. We ask them because it’s fun. Learning things is a fun experience. It’s what Feynman called a kick in the discovery. We also ask questions because learning things allows us to explore what we like and to show off what we know about it, to show who we are.

But we also ask questions because we can, because perhaps uniquely here on earth we know that other people can help. And that’s a great reason to ask more and more questions, to celebrate more and more whys. We all want to be kicked in the discovery. It feels great but we don’t all have a discovery in the same place. Taking the time to find where someone’s discovery is so you can give them a kick there isn’t just about whys, it’s also a very wise thing to do. And as always, thanks for watching.

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