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How to Have Original Thoughts: The Importance of Tradition and Asking Bad Questions

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Mar 12, 20217 min read

Some time ago, a friend of mine was discussing a medical ethics problem with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend explained what expert opinions were on the topic, analyzing their arguments and reviewing relevant evidence. My friend responded: “It’s great that you know what all these experts say, but what do you think?”

At this point, her boyfriend paused to think for a bit. What followed was an answer, just as thorough and well-informed, but with a completely different stance than the expert opinions he had brought up before.

This was a highly thought-provoking experience: a huge amount of our opinions are inherited rather than rooted in original thought, and we don't even think about it. This is often more true the better-read or -versed on a topic someone is. How do we make ourselves aware of our inherited thoughts, then, and build original thoughts off of them?

The importance of tradition

First, what are the merits of inherited thought in the first place? Why do we lean on inherited thought so much?

Inherited thought is important because inheritance implies parent nodes to which others can also connect, providing common ground for collective discussion and knowledge work. Nathan Baschez puts this well in his essay Why Content is King:

When we watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a podcast, we never do so in isolation. We’re equipping ourselves to understand the people around us. Shared experiences are the basis of mutual understanding. Even if we’ve never talked before, I can learn something important about you when we talk about our complex feelings towards Harry and Ginny’s relationship. You can send me a reaction gif with McGonagall giving “the look” and I will know exactly what you mean.

...Having a shared set of narratives, concepts, and symbols is the basis, ultimately, for all culture — religious, national, ethnic, commercial, scientific, etc. How can you operate in biology if you’re not familiar with Darwin? How can you operate in tech if you’re not fluent in Aggregation Theory? You can’t. Even if you think the ideas are wrong, it’s important to understand them so you can understand the things the people around you are saying and doing.

Baschez calls this the "network effect [of narratives]". Note that there is no claim here that inherited thoughts are more correct or sound than new ones. The value of inherited knowledge is not in its inherent reliability, but in its function as a communication and collaboration tool.

Opposite to the story of over-reliance on inherited thought at the beginning of this post, in a recent conversation about media and politics, a friend of mine several times qualified his claims with "I'm just pulling stuff out of my ass." Having worked in advocacy and the creator space, he easily had more experience to draw his ideas from than me and most others in the room, but without a concrete tradition to point to, he faced an additional barrier to maintaining his position in conversation.

On the flip side, when talking about philosophy, I frequently reference Kierkegaard's levels of despair to illustrate Existentialist ideas. I could probably come up with a much more efficient explanation if I turned these ideas into my own summary framework, but so much value comes from referencing a larger history or tradition of thought rather than the ideas in isolation.

When I wrote about Hume and Descartes for TKS, my posts were a lot more interesting than my classmates' not because I was engaging more deeply or with more complex ideas, but because, by tying in discussions about Existentialism or phenomenology, I was able to bring in so many more ideas that others could also latch on to and think about.

Without inherited traditions of thought, discussion about a certain idea or event is limited to the information contained in that event, and participants' knowledge that can be directly connected to. When a shared tradition of thought is brought into the mix (i.e. Existentialism => shared value in academic philosophy), an entirely new set of nodes are brought into the knowledge graph whose connections can be explored, and to which new connections can be made.

Ask bad questions

Traditions are important, but clearly it's not enough to simply go about taking up whatever thoughts we come across as our own. We must select for the thoughts we take on, and work to construct new thoughts on top of them. How do we go about doing this?

The method that I subscribe to, I call: ask bad questions.

Bad questions are questions that aren't well-informed, scoped, or contextualized. For example: "What is the meaning of life?" or "Why do things stick together?" They sound like they are being asked by a six-year-old. You would be laughed off for bringing such a question up in a classroom.

The point of asking such questions is precisely that they're not beholden to external standards of what makes questions good. Rather, these questions stem from innate curiosity, the force in our monkey brains that compel us to continuously seek out new information and patterns. Innate curiosity is the part of your thinking that is truly yours; it can be guided or stifled by external influence, but never replaced. Innate curiosity is what allows you to pick out what information in the world you care about and believe in, and add new ideas onto inherited traditions.

"What is the meaning of life?" is the question that Existentialist philosophers sought to understand the answer to. "Why do things stick together?" is one of the questions Isaac Newton wrote in his college notebooks, alongside "what is heat?" and "what is light?"

Personally, I keep a running list of bad questions in a Notion page. The questions I've had in the past include "What does it mean to be Asian American?" "What is creativity?" "How do I find purpose/direction?" "What is capitalism?" and even, very relevantly, "How do we think for ourselves?" When I first ask these questions, I have no idea how I'll answer them. Many questions are borderline non-sensical or meaninglessly vague, but they're what come to mind and stay there, regardless of whether I think they're actually good questions.

Over time, it's surprising how many of these questions I'm able to answer. My weirdly-phrased question about Asian American identity led to the discovery of Critical Race Theory and a variety of other critical social frameworks. My vague questions about creativity and finding purpose led to the development of concrete working frameworks around these ideas (creativity, purpose). My questioning capitalism led to me starting a reading club to read Lenin and Marxist theory. And the vaguely broad question "How do we think for ourselves?" resulted in the thoughts contained in this blog post, and a variety of others.

Bad questions are usually answered through taking up new inherited thoughts, because that's the very nature of thought and creativity: it happens in the connections between ideas, not the direct creation of ideas itself. We're forming these connections all the time, but they're often weak and we're not aware of them. By asking questions and letting our curiosity drive our knowledge uptake and connection-building, we're able to form much stronger and more useful connections.

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On Thought And Knowledge

Notes on knowledge management, creativity, writing, etc.