Restless Inquisitive Child

Published 2002-02-25

The setting: a living room, a suburban ranch house, a small town; early summer vacation; a rainy day. The child -- perhaps age 7 or 8 -- is restless and inquisitive. He has been reading science books, which, being well-written fill his head with more questions than answers.

He takes one of these questions to his mother.

I can't recall the question -- something along the lines of Why is the sky blue? -- but I know the child and know that he delights in dreaming up difficult and elusive questions. Questions like, What's behind the sky? How old are atoms? What makes water? Why are hills higher than valleys? Why is English different than Spanish? Why don't plants walk around?

When children ask questions like this, they really make two different kinds of inquisition. First: What's behind the sky, How old are atoms, and so forth? Second: Does every question have an answer?

Adults have an arsenal of stock replies for questions like this. The replies fall into three basic types: 1. "Because God made it that way." 2."I don't know, ask your teacher, shut up and watch TV." 3. "Because of Gravity (or Covalent Bonds, or General Relativity, or Natural Selection, or Chlorophyll)." All of which serve to answer both kinds of covert questions. The child knows, The world is the way it is because of some mysterious process, and Yes, every question has an answer, and someone else knows it. Someone Else is either God, an Expert, or Mom and/or Dad. I don't need to worry about it any more.

But the Restless Inquisitive Child in our scene isn't so lucky. His mother answers with a custom question: "I don't know, let's find out."

A reconnaissance mission into the household encyclopedia -- an educational encyclopedia, intended exactly for this purpose -- proves fruitless. It misses the question, or provides an incomplete answer, or raises yet more questions. This requires a trip to the library, a pile of books, strange questions addressed at the reference librarian. A full afternoon figuring out where water comes from, with tangents into chemistry, the atomic theory, and the inevitable boggling realization that everything is made of atoms, which are made of protons and electrons and neutrons, which are made of something smaller yet...jeez, it never stops. And if everything is made of atoms, well, what's God made of? Is He made of atoms? Am I made of atoms? Why are the atoms that make up me smarter than the atoms that make up a cat? The Inquisitive Child has learned a truly rare lesson: there is no such thing as an easy question. And anyone can find some answers, if he's willing to sacrifice certainty. Which leads to an even more powerful realization. Knowledge is a chimera, lots of people have it, but it doesn't do anything. The real beast is understanding.

Some questions, asked correctly, yield ever more understanding: water is made of molecules, molecules are made of atoms, there are only about 100 kinds of atoms, you can put them together a million billion trillion different ways, to make people, cats, oceans, planets, stars. And the more you learn about atoms, the more there is to learn, but the more the learning pays off.

Conversely, some questions, no matter how you ask them, never seem to generate understanding. You can turn some notions over and over and over, read all the books in the world, spend a lifetime thinking about them, and never understand any more about them than when you started. Maybe you'll come to know something, but what does that mean? Knowledge is reassuring, but understanding is power. The child, after 30 years of asking all kinds of questions, eventually learned that asking the second kind of question is to chase your own tail. Fun enough, but kind of pointless.

I'm pretty sure the mother in our story never meant to impart this difficult lesson, the day she took the Inquisitive Child to the library to discover x. I'd guess she was trying to fill yet another stormy Nebraska day in early June. But by her example -- and with a few decades of reflection -- the child learned this slippery philosophy of inquisition. He learned that no one really has the answers, that he possesses the tools to generate understanding for himself.