Is there such a thing as a neutral question?

In asking the above question, one is instantly drawn into thinking whether the answer is ‘yes’, ‘no’ or something else. In using the term ‘neutral’ rather than ‘leading’ (as I had in the first draft) the intention is not to look at questions whereby the answer is implied in the question, but rather where questions lead to thinking in certain ways, with a limit as to the range of possibilities (where a leading question is a sub-class of non-neutral question which has only one possible answer). Even my very asking of the question in the title is rather self-referential, for to ask it I will (hopefully) have made you think about the question. To some, it might be something new to consider, to others it may bring to the foreground ideas which have been at the back of your mind before, but which hardly kept you awake last night in worry.

The questions that we ask are a betrayal of what we are thinking about, as well as an admission of ignorance about things that we think we ought not to be ignorant about.

Another aspect of this is also the way questions are phrased often betray the assumptions that lie behind them. If one thinks carefully about any question that might be asked, one should be able to infer from it part of the intent behind the question as well as the background against which the question is set. In other words, queries don’t exist in a vacuum.

This was partly inspired by a book I recently finished, the review of which I intend to publish later this week. I just wanted to clear a little space so that that review may be better understood. Another source of my thinking has been my on/off series entitled ‘A Personal Catechism’. I admit that I am finding harder going than I thought to begin with, which is why my plan to do one a week has been pushed back to barely one a month. I am wondering if it might be better to write 10 out at once before publishing one. But the nature of the catechism questions push one into certain valleys of thought, when I might rather climb the valley walls and view the whole scene at once before choosing my own paths.

This isn’t unique to me. As I am nearly finished with Paul and the Faithfulness of God (I hope to publish the review next week) one of the consistent themes is that the questions often asked of Paul are anachronistic, reflecting the concerns of the last 500 years rather than those in the mind of the apostle in the 1st century.

In the occasional conversation with those who are more hostile to a christian worldview, I find many questions are phrased in triangular ways when the matter at hand is more pentagonal, so one may struggle to find an answer that suits the question or else one is accused of changing the terms. The irony is that some (not most, I hasten to add) have called me arrogant for trying to answer things in my own way, when they will not admit to any other way of looking at things apart from in the worldview which has shaped their questions.

I must admit that I am at a loss as to how to progress in such discussions which is why it is seems most prudent to duck out of any such conversations. That is not a concession of the points in hand, but a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict.

While non-neutral questions are easy to spot in others, particularly those worded in ways which have an inherent prejudice against one’s worldview, it is naturally harder to spot such questions being asked from our own lips. It is my view that the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘very rarely’. I’m sure it is easier for you to poke at me and note where non-neutral questions have been posed on this blog over the last few years. While one may try to guard against leading questions, non-neutrality seems to be a near inevitable consequence of asking any question.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours?*

*Or is that a non-neutral question?**

**What about that one?+

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One response to “Is there such a thing as a neutral question?

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten by Julian Baggini | The Alethiophile