Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Are there easy philosophical questions?
A quick web search for ‘easy philosophical questions’ simply ignores the adjective ‘easy’ showing 'deep', 'good, or 'great' philosophical questions, but is able to produce long lists of easy mathematical questions.
On the 18th of November to celebrate World Philosophy Day, together with the members of our Philosopher’s Hat Club, we set ourselves on a journey to explore if we could catch a few easy philosophical questions, for the first time ever!
Pieter Mostert, Dutch veteran philosophy facilitator (read our previous conversation here), who initated the topic originally, started with the question of whether there are easy mathematical questions. Google produces lists of an impressive length, maybe not very interesting questions, but nobody out there will deny that they exist. It is what Socrates demonstrates in the “Meno”: given a square, how to draw a square with an area twice as large? The participants also produced examples like How much is 2 plus 2? Or In base 10, what is the integer that follows 1?
Then we’ve moved on to whether there are easy questions in other areas of life etc. (Pieter’s wife is an anaesthetist, and she has confirmed: there are easy anaesthetic questions, quite a few even, she said).
Then it was time to turn to philosophy and ask whether there are easy philosophical questions. Google apparently was not a great help this time. When you search “easy philosophical questions”, you are directed to 225 thought-provoking questions, 8 great philosophical questions, 29 mind-blowing philosophical questions and 125 deep philosophical questions etc. but zilch when it comes to easy philosophical questions.
Yes, there is a lot of factual knowledge in philosophy, like “Who lived first, Kant or Hegel?”, or “Who coined the term ‘Will Power’? (a) Heraclitus, (b) Marx, (c) Nietzsche, (d) Sartre?”. But generally, these are not considered to be philosophical questions. But why? Because they are not about the ‘content’ of a philosophical question? One could also refer to well-known examples of syllogistic reasoning and argue like this: Assessing the validity of a conclusion is a philosophical activity. Therefore, any question of the type “from the truth of (A) and (B), does it follow that (C) is true?” is a philosophical question. And yes, there are easy examples of this type of question, like the well-known example: “Socrates is human. All humans are mortal. Socrates is mortal”. But are these examples of easy philosophical questions?
Well, the first thing we’ve done, we asked (as philosophers would do) what we mean by ‘easy’ and then ‘philosophical’. One of the responses was that questions might be easy, but the answers can be difficult. It wasn’t straightforwad to agree on what ‘easy’ really meant. Has it to do with an easy answer or with the simplicity of the question? We’ve also wondered whether an expert philosopher would find the questions easy, the same as let’s say a child would. Are the questions that come easy, naturally, to us humans, questions that even children formulate, easy? (Dad, does counting ever stop? Asked my 6 years old son recently)
It was a bit easier with the ‘philosophical’ bit of the task question. Philosophical questions seem to compel us to wonder, dwell on, dive and dig deeper. The problem with that is that maybe because of that reason they are rather not ‘easy’.
I suggested that way Peter Worley distinguishes questions in his very well-received paper Open thinking, closed questioning: Two kinds of open and closed question might be helpful in looking at our problem from a different angle. The questions that serve philosophy well are questions that are closed grammatically and yet conceptually open. Should we always say the truth? Is the brain the same as the mind? Is the unexamined life worth living? These types of questions are easy in the sense that they require rather simple, atomical almost, answers like yes, no, maybe but at the same time they open a philosophical dimension that asks for exploration.
Another philosopher Philip Cam in his 20 Thinking Tools offers us a Question Quadrant (read the conversation with Phil on our blog) that helps us understand what philosophical questions or inquiry questions might look like. Unfortunately he doesn’t inform us on what an easy philosophical question would look like.
We were also wondering whether questions that could eventually be answered factually or questions that science finds answers too, do they become easy philosophical questions? Or once they become scientific questions they are not philosophical anymore? Another person proposed that there are easy questions that you can answer philosophically, and there are hard questions that you can answer easily but not philosophically.
The question itself proved to be a rather challenging philosophical question. The tension between ‘easy’ and ‘philosophical’ kept us going for a good while until we tried to name a few for Google to spit out next time someone searches for easy philosophical questions.
Pieter Mostert summarised our conversation later in an email exchange and said:
An easy question is a question which is easy to answer. That is also true for philosophical questions. A person can say “The question whether free will exists is an easy one for me. Here is my answer”. It may even be that there are answers which are shared by many philosophers, for example that the meaning of a word is shown in how we use it. But philosophers do not stop there; they say: “Hey, that’s an interesting answer; let’s have a closer look at it”, and then new questions arise. That process, however, is not unique for philosophy. In mathematics and physics, there are also easy questions, i.e. questions which can be easily answered, but at a closer look, experts will discover all kinds of interesting questions which this ‘easy’ answer generates. So yes, there are easy philosophical questions, and their ‘easy’ answers are the source of philosophical reflection, questioning and wonder.
Here are a few attempts at creating exapmles of easy philosophical questions by the members of our club:
Is ‘not harm’ a good rule to live by?
How do we know what we know?
Are humans different from other animals in degree or in kind?
What will happen when philosophy becomes "easy"?
When we can reason out the big stuff will we lose our reason for being?
Is there anybody out there?
Can you be happy?
If God made the world and the rest of the universe, where did she get all the stuff from?
Does philosophy deal with questions that have not (yet) been solved by other disciplines?
What is the most important question of all?
Why are we here?
Why are we?
What is the answer?
What are my responsibilities?
Tough cookie, eh?
What do you think? Are these easy philosophical questions? Can you come up with one?
Let us know if you come up with one and we'll add it to this blog!
If you'd like to take part in philosophical enquiry with others on interesting topics please visit https://www.creativetogether.ie/join-philosophers-hat-club and avail of a free month trial membership.
PS: We hope that repeating these three words ‘easy philosophical questions’ so many times in this blog piece, will eventually make Google search engines finally catch up with the phrase and offer some insights.