Questions We Can’t Ask

Not so long ago I read a science fiction novel by Robert Charles Wilson, a writer whose work I had, until then, been unaware of. This, despite the fact that Stephen King described him as “probably the finest science-fiction author now writing.” Wilson also won a variety of literary awards including the Philip K. Dick Award for best novel in 1994 for Mysterium. It is that novel of his that I recently read.

Near the beginning of the story, an old physicist has a conversation with his nephew and comments, “Do you ever wonder… about the questions we can’t ask?”

“Can’t answer, you mean?” the boy responds.

The physicist then points to the boy’s dog and explains that the dog is healthy, alert and a good exemplar of his species. He can make sense of a lot of things in his world. But would a dog ever ask questions about the nature of the universe? So the physicist uncle goes on:

“We’re sitting here,” Stern said, “asking spectacular questions, you and I. About the universe and how it began. About everything that exists. And if we can ask a question, probably sooner or later, we can answer it. So we assume there’s no limit to knowledge. But maybe your dog makes the same mistake! He doesn’t know what lies beyond the neighborhood, but if he found himself in a strange place he would approach it with the tools of comprehension available to him, and soon he would understand it–dog-fashion, by sight and smell and so on. There are no limits to his comprehension, Howard, except the limits he does not and cannot ever experience. So how different are we?….We can ask many, many more questions than your dog. And we can answer them. But if there are real limits on our comprehension, they would be as invisible to us as they are to Albert. So: Is there anything in the universe we simply cannot know? Is there a question we can’t ask? And would we ever encounter some hint of it, some intimation of the mystery? Or is it permanently beyond our grasp?”

It is an interesting thought being expressed by the author through the words of the physicist and it is a thought that is important in the overall plot of the novel. It is both a humbling and a mind-boggling sort of question. As I pondered the question as a theologian, I gradually came to the conclusion that my answer to the fictional physicist is “no.” I do not believe that there are any questions we can’t ask.

Certainly, there are questions that we can’t ask just now. But that’s different than thinking that there are permanent blind spots that will remain forever impossible for us to ask. A hundred years ago, no one would ask, “do you suppose I can install the game Angry Birds on my new cellphone?” But today, that’s a not unremarkable query.

There are several things that a hundred years ago simply didn’t exist to allow the formation of such a question. There are also the more theoretical inquiries that we make so easily today, that our ancestors wouldn’t have even thought of. A hundred years ago, no one would have asked “what is the mass of the Higgs Boson?” Or, “can we find a way of unifying quantum and relativistic physics?” Or, “who is the villain going to be in the next Star Trek movie?” Doubtless, there are similar sorts of questions we can’t ask today because they concern things we have yet to conceive. But someday, the questions will come. They are not forever unaskable.

On Saturday night, August 4, 2012 NASA landed the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, on Mars. The one ton rover, the size of a car, will answer many questions that we have about the planet. But, as with all such new instruments, it will raise many new questions: questions that at the moment we don’t know we will need to ask.

But simply because we don’t have the questions yet, doesn’t mean that there are any questions out there that we will never be able to ask. From a theological perspective, this is abundantly clear. In Genesis 11, just before the Tower of Bable incident when God confused the language of the people and scattered them, he commented, “If as one people they have begun to do this, then nothing they imagine to do will be impossible for them.”

Even earlier in Genesis, God announced that humanity had been created in his own image and likeness. That is, God designed humanity to be like him. Later, in the New Testament Paul discusses the “deep things of God” in his first letter to the Corinthian Church; he eventually concludes that Christians “have the mind of Christ”—that is, the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Since Christianity affirms that God knows everything, Christians believe that there are no questions God couldn’t ask. Therefore, if humanity has been created in his image and likeness, then nothing—no questions—are beyond the capabilities of the human race. Those who complain that human beings are daring to play God miss the remarkable reality that “playing God” is precisely what God intended of the human race. He made us to be like him.

It is a scary thing, perhaps, to realize that humanity is unlimited, except by God and our own bad choices. There are no questions we can’t ask.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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