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Most philosophy begins with a question. I'm wondering why certain questions provoke more profound thoughts than others. What characteristics do good questions share with each other? How can we go about finding worthy problems to seek solving?

For example, questions of ontology have led to much stimulating thought: What exists? How did it come to be? What does it mean to be?

Questions about the nature of the universe have led to great advances in scientific thought: Does this phenomena happen every time? Under what conditions would this hold? Is this possible?

Socratic questioning has brought us to the depths of the human soul, enabling us to examine the complex nature of the human mind and glean otherwise elusive truths: What makes you say that? Could you explain further? But what about...?

In the perennial book How to Solve It, mathematician George Pólya, lays out a framework for solving problems by a series of progressively penetrating questions:

  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?
  • Can you think of a picture or a diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?
  • Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
  • Do you need to ask a question to get the answer?

This has helped me solve many a perplexing problem in the past.

There is Stackexchange itself, which is a cornucopia of useful thought provoking information all driven around the asking of questions.

And lastly, there is the all time favorite of children everywhere: Why?

  • This is definitely interesting but very broad -- is there any way you could unpack/develop this a bit more? (Any chance you could specify 'question' -- I would presume you mean a philosophical or critical question?) Perhaps you could also spell out why you have tagged this with "Socrates" and "scientific method"? – Joseph Weissman Nov 2 '11 at 15:22
  • "Good" implies that the question is somehow valuable. Considering this is Philosophy.SE, is it safe to assume that you're asking about questions of philosophic value? If so, there aren't very many questions on most other stack exchange sites that are of much philosophic value. On a separate note, Polya's heuristics are, I think, generally intended to be useful for practical questions, but it's definitely interesting to apply them to deeper questions, I hand't thought of that before. – naught101 May 12 '14 at 2:05
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What is a good question? First, let's concede that great questions are precisely new, unforeseen, unpredictable -- blind spots, or 'grey' areas of irreflexivity, from the perspective of the dominant episteme.

So in this sense a great question 'expresses' the gaps in our existing explanations of the world, occupying 'plot holes' in our stories and theories.

Deleuze suggests that a great thinker effectively lives their whole life within the boundaries of a single, great Question -- not that they exemplify solutions, but that their very thinking and existence are in some sense dramatizations or 'actualizations' of the Question itself.

One way to understand this is to recognize that a great question is critical -- deflating some lofty idea of its hot air, 'cutting' to the core of a theoretical problem. To put it plainly, a philosophy that annoys or saddens no one isn't really one at all.

A great question, then, intoxicates us with alternative 'landscapes' or arrangements, and it also sobers us in preparation for the experimental creation of new concepts.

It bears repeating that question or problem understood in this way is like a new concept -- unforeseeable in its precise contours, 'unarticulable' from the perspective of the majoritarian discourse. Nevertheless we can say that a good question impels us to both imagine another way of seeing the world, as well as to the active creation of new concepts. Another feature may perhaps be identified in the uncanniness of really 'good' questions: that they formulate in a concise way certain irreconciliable inconsistencies, and demand critical (even perhaps radical) transformations.

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First let see, what can be the goals of a question.

  1. To learn something that you do not know
  2. To teach some one else by making think about something

So for the case (1) is better to realize that you do not know and seek for a teacher that is willing to teach you what you look for. Now the main issue here : how to ask for something that you do not know the existing of it.

For the case (2) to make a good question you need to know the answer, and fully understand what you talk about.

So to direct answer your question, a good question is the one that make you learn something by making you think and remember. Maybe one question is good for you, and not so good for some other. The good questions are made by "the teachers" and the people that really know something. The questions that made by the one that do not know the answer is not good by default. The best question is the one that hits you so hard that you direct understand the point of it.

  • I'm not sure I agree with "The good questions are made by "the teachers" and the people that really know something.". Why does the asker have to know the answer? It might just be the case that the asker is provoking a though in the recipient that will lead to new ideas that greatly advance our understanding. In this case, neither the asker nor the recipient know the answer at the time the question is asked. I would not argue that this disqualifies the question. I think both parties can learn and teach at the same time. – F Lekschas Jul 24 at 23:46
  • @FLekschas If the asker did not know the answer, then he cannot make the question… or have hear about somewhere and try to add others to find an answer. No one have a way to add the knowledge inside your head – so you need to find the answers by himself, to learn them. Δάσκαλος – in Greek (teacher) is the one that gives exercises only (δίδω+ασκήσεις -> διδάσκαλος -> δάσκαλος) Give exercises to students to seek for answers and solutions. – Aristos Jul 26 at 5:50
  • @FLekschas It’s not so easy subject. Plato have write a book about it with Socrates. In Pythagoas School they not allow to speak in class for five years (only to hear), they also not allow to make questions to others, only to their self’s. Socrates only make questions in the dialogs and make the other to “think” and decide if what they support stands. – Aristos Jul 26 at 5:55
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To ask whether a question is good implies that questions can be bad (or, at the least, neutral), in order to provide a scale on which to measure the level of goodness, or identify that a particular question is somehow more good than another. The meanings of "good" and "bad" in themselves are perhaps something for another debate, but suffice to say that they are both entirely subject to relativity. In plain terms, the meaning of "good" (and its various antonyms) varies depending on its application and to whom it is interesting.

For example, a man (let's call him John) who wishes to buy a second-hand car from a dealer (let's call him Gary) might think that a good question is: "May I see a record of this car's service history?"

Gary, on the other hand, might think this question is bad, because he doesn't have a record of the car's service history (and was hoping John wouldn't ask).

In a sense, to answer your question "What makes a good question?", you first need to answer the question "What makes a question good?".

You seem to be qualifying your meaning of "good" to be: Useful (specifically to people). Many of your examples stem from questions that have, in some way, advanced human progression (either scientifically or metaphysically). Assuming that this measure is used to qualify the goodness of a question, I would suggest that a good question is one that people are interested in answering. The more interesting a question, the more likely you are to find a useful answer, not least because more people will attempt to answer it.

In that sense, perhaps it doesn't even matter how a good question is asked... Although attractive presentation will likely help; as you and George Pólya rightly suggest, people will ask it in their own way (if it's interesting enough).

Good question, by the way ;-)

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This question is definitely a thought provoking question, and thus can be considered a good question if we assume that all questions that provoke thoughts are good questions. But is that all that makes a good question good?

This can be subdivided into two further questions:

  1. What makes a question worth asking?
  2. What makes a question worth answering?

I would claim that a good question doesn't necessarily have to be both of these. Satisfying one or the other is good enough to make the question a good question.

On top of this though, the asker/answerer should have genuine curiosity and/or should genuinely be interested. If this is lacking, then even the best question will not have the intended effect. Imagine asking a Philosopher about the philosophy touted in the Matrix movies, which can get into a deep discussion of Eastern ideas. Now imagine asking a Joe-Shmoe movie goer, who is only interested in the special effects, the same question. You'd probably get an, "Umm, okay?" and be ignored.

This ties in nicely with the idea of the Upanishads in Hinduism. They are said to be written down conversations between a teacher and his students. Sometimes questions are posed to the teacher who then answers, or sometimes questions are posed to the students who then ponder and then respond.

In the Kath Upanishad, the personification of Death, Yama, teaches Nachiketa, a young child about life and what happens after life. In the Second main chapter, section 7 the following is discussed:

VII He about whom many are not even able to hear, whom many cannot comprehend even after hearing: wonderful is the teacher, wonderful is he who can receive when taught by an able teacher.

Throughout the Vedic Scriptures it is declared that no one can impart spiritual knowledge unless he has realization. What is meant by realization? It means knowledge based on direct perception. In India often the best teachers have no learning, but their character is so shining that every one learns merely by coming in contact with them. In one of the Scriptures we read: Under a banyan tree sat a youthful teacher and beside him an aged disciple. The mind of the disciple was full of doubts and questions, but although the teacher continued silent, gradually every doubt vanished from the disciple’s mind. This signifies that the conveying of spiritual teaching does not depend upon words only. It is the life, the illumination, which counts. Such God–enlightened men, however, cannot easily be found; but even with such a teacher, the knowledge of the Self cannot be gained unless the heart of the disciple is open and ready for the Truth. Hence Yama says both teacher and taught must be wonderful.

So in order for a good question to actually be considered a good question, it must be in the company of good people (askers and answerers). Otherwise, it will be overlooked by one party or another, or both, and fall to the wayside.

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