The ends of understanding and the nature of humanity

I’ve started keeping a bank of questions to use during periods of reflection. Some are tailored to specific situations. Some are more meta, designed to help me see the bigger picture, the entire chessboard, and plot moves. And others, my favourite kind, are not supposed to be answered. They function like zen koans, whose purpose is to play with and shatter the rigid structures we erect in our minds.

One of my favourite questions recently has been this: “What is the point of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom?”

There are a lot of potential answers to this question. It could be a sense of duty. That we feel bound to try and fly as high as possible, to be the best we can be. It could be that there is no point, that we seek these things because the process of searching is fun and exciting and rewarding in and of itself. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom could be motivated by a societal or generational awareness. That for the entirety of humanity to continue to survive and thrive, we as individuals must learn from our mistakes and pass the lessons on. Or it may be a hierarchical motivation: we want to climb higher in the social structures that we judge each other according to, and knowledge and wisdom is a quality that allows us to do that.

Whatever answer you are drawn towards, take it and ask, “Why?”, until you can go no further. For example:

“What is the point of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom?”

“It’s our responsibility to learn as much as we can and make the world a better place.”


“The people that came before gave us the gift of their learning. We should do the same for future generations.”


“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we don’t know what else to do.”


“Human beings can both create and destroy, give and take. But on balance, our nature prefers to be generous and work for the benefit of something bigger than itself.”


“Because we’re social animals. We exist, in part, for ourselves. But mostly, we want to belong to something, and a being that belongs puts the prosperity of what it belongs to above itself.”

I think what you’d find, if you take any question and prod your answer with “Why?” multiple times, is that the question is never about what we think it’s about. Look at the above. I asked, “What is the point of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom?” The answer I came upon, after a few “Why?”s, was that human beings are social animals and want to belong and contribute to something bigger than themselves. 

A question which is, on the surface, about the ends of understanding, is in fact a question about the nature of humanity.

This gives me another question to add to my growing database: “When we ask a question, what are we really asking about?”