Seely on Science: ‘Enduring questions’ tease our moral bounds

Knowledge, including scientific understanding, comes not just from answering questions but from asking the right questions to begin with.

As a journalist, I have grown over the years to not only appreciate the importance and power of hard, pointed questions but also to recognize the courage it sometimes takes to ask them.

For centuries, scientists have put not just their reputations on the line by asking tough questions. They’ve risked their lives.

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for espousing the Copernican model that placed the sun rather than the Earth at the center of the solar system. Asking such questions about our place in the universe opened up areas of thought that powerful forces would rather have seen left in shadow.

These musings about questions were prompted by an email sent recently by Mara McDonald, the very capable assistant administrator with the UW-Madison Department of Genetics, who keeps track of everything from grants to graduate students.

McDonald’s email notified staffers of a grant opportunity from the National Endowment for the Humanities that offered money for starting courses aimed at answering “enduring questions.”

McDonald offered her own list of questions. Some interesting examples:

What is consciousness? Can humans ever understand their origins and purpose?

Is science sacred?

How will our perceptions of life on this planet impact our understanding/compassion for extraterrestrial life?

But my favorite question suggested by McDonald was this:

Parrots have given names in the wild. Orcas can do sonar scans on unborn whales to determine their health. Octopi can and do perceive more than we give them credit for. Ants have been farming for millions of years, not a paltry 10,000. Humans often view our species as the epitome of intellect, consciousness, development. But does human ignorance and arrogance make us blind to the richness of all species? Is it important to see beyond ourselves?

I like this question because its answer has the potential to do what the answers to all good questions should do — make us uncomfortable.

If we find that we have indeed failed to elevate other species to their rightful places, then we would have to ask some other very tough questions.

Those questions could open up some very uncomfortable areas of discourse, on everything from animal research to hunting, from our treatment of animals we depend upon for food to our sometimes nonchalant attitude toward the loss of other species.

The reward of asking and answering such a question, however, has the potential — as does all scholarly inquiry — to open our eyes to a new and even more interesting world.

Such is the power of a question.

Now if I can just figure out why I have no matching socks in my sock drawer.

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Seely on Science: 'Enduring questions' tease our moral bounds.