Unask the question

// 2.33 min read

Did you ever come across a multiple-choice question on an test where there was clearly something wrong with the fundamental premise of a question, such that the available choices didn’t provide you any way to articulate an answer that was “correct”. You’re sitting there, under exam conditions, with an hour left, and suddenly you can’t move forward because the person who wrote the test was thoughtless about a question. I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced this on a few occasions.

Conditioned dualism

Unfortunately, situations like this are common, and they only teach us one thing. They teach us that we have no choice but to conform to a dualistic reality in order to move forward, even if we know we’re doing so against our better judgement. We learn to think in binary terms. Yes or no. Positive or negative. True or false. Forward or back. On or off. One or zero.

Seeing reality in dualistic terms like this is often convenient for professional survival, especially when you’re trying to program a computer or draw up a budget or solve a discrete math equation or write an exam. Our goals are to get past mere survival though—we want to flourish and innovate and inspire. For these pursuits, thinking along binary dimensions often only stands to limit us.

A third answer

We need a third answer. We need an answer that lets us respond to a binary question by pointing out the implied dualism as false. We need to be able to say that the usual “yes” and “no” answers are neither correct or incorrect answers. We need a way to show that the question is loaded. We need a way to scribble “none of the above” or “N/A” in there underneath the usual answers ourselves, and then proclaim that as our choice.

It turns out this is a really foreign concept to traditional Western thought, and it follows that there is no term in the English language for this answer—”N/A” and “none of the above” are about as close as we get. It’s simply not in our metaphorical vocabulary.

Unasking the question

Eastern philosophy knows what’s up. In Japanese (and some other asian cultures), there is a word for precisely this idea: . Mu.

When literally translated, it’s a way to answer the question in the negative. A more nuanced interpretation of this word though, as it’s used in Buddhist contexts at least, is that the question itself must be “unasked”. By responding with “mu”, you’re saying that no answer can exist in the terms provided. You’re saying that a deeper insight is needed than the context from which the question comes.

Next time you’re in a tricky spot, try making “none of the above” your answer. Mu. Unask the question and see what happens.

Coby Chapple (@cobyism)

@cobyism—a.k.a. Coby Chapple is an autodidact, systems thinker, product architect, pixel technician, full-stack algorithmagician, multi-media maker, cryptography geek, aspiring linguist, and generalist Designerd™ extraordinaire. Read more »