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Questions Without Answers

It seems to be in the nature of humans to crave a solution for every riddle, and an answer to every question. It is in the nature of wisdom to accept that many things will not be answered in one's lifetime. I was reminded of this when a subscriber sent me the following "riddle," which has been circulating on the internet for years:

I turn polar bears white
and I will make you cry.
I make guys have to pee
and girls comb their hair.
I make celebrities look stupid
and normal people look like celebrities.
I turn pancakes brown
and make your champagne bubble.
If you squeeze me, I'll pop.
If you look at me, you'll pop.
Can you guess the riddle?

To the best of my knowledge, there is no solution other than answering "no" to the last line (as in "No, I can't solve it."). This also reminds me of a joke we used to tell years ago:

Two penguins were sitting in a bathtub. One asked the other to pass the soap, to which the other said, "What I look like, a typewriter!?"

A few friends of mine were with me when I told this to a connoisseur of jokes we worked with. My friends laughed like it was the funniest thing they had heard. An hour later our joke-loving co-worker was seen diagraming the joke on a legal pad, and trying to understand it, which certainly made us laugh. We knew him well enough to know he would feel the need to "get" the joke, but we didn't know how far this desire would take him.

The truth was that there was no sense to the joke. It was invented solely as a cruel game of intimidation. The only joke was on the poor victim, who didn't know we had arranged to laugh at the nonsense like it made sense. To his credit, this victim didn't pretend he got the joke just because others were laughing, but he still felt that he just "had" to understand.

These examples bring me to an important point: there are things that we will never understand. This is not to say that we should not try to understand, just that we may not get there in this lifetime. Apart from the torture of trying to get a joke that actually makes no sense or answer a question for which there is no answer, there are also just things that we won't know about. The question "how does the sun produce light?" has a scientific explanation now, but a thousand years ago any thoughts or any hundred-year study of the subject would have been pure speculation.

Similarly, there is much that we cannot understand in this time. Failure to accept this, and the craving to explain everything right now leads people to invent explanations. This, I think, is much of the reason for belief in alien-caused crop circles, psychic phenomena, and even some of what passes as the "science" of psychology. It seems that it will never be acceptable to say, "We don't understand this, we have no suitable explanation, and we may never have one."

I propose, though, that this clinging to explanations is a great hindrance to brain power. There are questions without answers. They may have answers later or may not, but if we invent an answer, we close our minds and reduce the chances of discovering the truth (if it can be discovered). Wisdom, and the goal of better thinking skills, require that we say "I don't know" once in a while, or at the very least we say, "maybe this is the answer," but I'll keep my mind open to other possibilities."


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