Ill-formed questions

Assume that you get a Ph.D student who wants to do medical research. He comes to you and tells you that he wants to find out an answer to the burning question about why people get sick. Would you be able to guide this student in answering his question or give one answer to it? Your answer would be: it depends. You would also further say to him, ‘choose a particular disease, choose a particular domain and choose a particular approach within that domain, if you want to do research’. There is no ‘one answer’ to his question. As a research question, you would say it is ill-formed: you have to specify the disease, and choose whether you want to do, say, genetic research or epidemiological research or cell research or…

Thinking further along the lines of my analogy, suppose now that the student also wants to do further research into the question of how a disease spreads. What would you tell him? Drawing upon the existing knowledge, you would tell him to choose, say, between infectious and non-infectious diseases. While for the first, he could look for the vectors that carry the disease, for the second, if it involves, say metastasis as it is in the case of cancer, he has to choose between different domains and varying approaches.

Should the student be deeply disappointed that his burning questions, namely, why people get sick and how disease spreads are ‘dismissed’ by you as ill-formed questions for research? And that it is a philosophical question that is irrelevant to his quest?

If this is how it is with respect to a domain where we have a great deal of knowledge (and a greater degree of ignorance), how should it be in a domain like culture for which we do not have even a semblance of a scientific theory? That is where we are today and the problems on this forum (and elsewhere) reflect this state of affairs acutely.


Consider questions of the following sort: Why did Christianity find its origin in the Middle-East and not, say, in India? Why did Indians convert to Islam so massively in the 19th Century? Why did Christianity spread so quickly after Constantine? What accounts for the growth of Western Christianity, while its Eastern variant languished? Why is Islam growing the fastest in the world today? Etc. Etc.

Here are a few possible answers out of many: a) the presence of Judaism and its messianic tradition; b) because it was economically or politically convenient for Indians to do so; c) because of the state support of Constantine, the persecution of the pagans and the nature of death cults in the Ancient Roman Empire; d) because Christianity pacified Nature and sacralised the world; e) because of the massive financial and other benefits that conversion into Islam entails, Etc. Etc. Add to these some other answers like a) conversion to Christianity requires that the Holy Spirit is active; b) it is the will of Allah and such like.

Each of these answers, and many more, have been given and continue to be given on the basis of (i) empirical research; (ii) speculations and (iii) theologies.

Which of these answers are true or plausible or probable? What would you choose between a ‘political’ answer, a ‘sociological’ answer, a ‘philosophical answer’, a ‘historical’ answer, a ‘theological answer’…etc? Would you choose one, some, all or none? Why? Where (meaning, in which domain) would you look to answer those questions you raise?

The previous paragraph tells you that the questions raised in the second paragraph are ill-formed: any and every reply are answers to questions; we do not know where to look for answers because the search-space is very, very broad. We know at least this much about good questions: they narrow the search space. The questions above do the opposite: they broaden the search-space. (Why is the following not an answer to all the questions asked: ‘because Freud’s first name is Sigmund’? You cannot dismiss this as an answer without relying on some or another ‘philosophical’ idea about ‘evidence’ and ‘relevance’, using which one can also dismiss every other answer.)

These questions are not scientific: they are commonsense questions that are pseudo-scientific in nature. They appeal only to commonsense because they arise from there.

If reformulated, they do make sense: why did Christianity spread as a religion in Europe and the Middle-East? The only answer to this question is theological in nature. Why did people convert to one religion or another? The answer can be theological or something else depending upon how you qualify ‘conversion’: if it carries a theological meaning, the answer cannot be ‘economic’. If qualified, say, sociologically, (say, as the act of baptism or performing some or another ceremony in the presence of a mullah) then a ‘sociological’ answer will do. And so on.

The research programme tells us these things too: it allows us to assess the nature of our questions and the nature of contemporary ‘scholarship’ (or what parades as ‘religious studies’ today). Not every question, just because it is ‘investigated’, qualifies itself as scientific research. (After all, one ‘investigates’ before creating a telephone directory. But that does not make this investigation scientific, does it?)

The so-called ‘study of religions’ that people carry out today are pseudo-scientific. My research programme, amongst other things, warns you not to fall prey to these pitfalls.