Ask Naive Questions to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
The worth thing to ever happen to us, says Jonathon Keats, was when we stopped being children. Fortunately, he explains (by way of honeybees) that it's possible to re-enter that space of precociousness and wonder.
Jonathon Keats is a San Francisco-based experimental philosopher who has, over the years, sold real estate in the extra dimensions of space-time proposed by string theory (he sold a hundred and seventy-two extra-dimensional lots in the Bay Area in a single day); made an attempt to genetically engineer God (God turns out to be related to the cyanobacterium); and copyrighted his own mind (in order to get a seventy-year post-life extension.
Keats's bold experiments raise serious questions and put into practice his conviction that the world needs more "curious amateurs," willing to explore publicly whatever intrigues them, in defiance of a culture that increasingly forecloses on wonder and siloes knowledge into narrowly defined areas of expertise.
Jonathon Keats: Happily we all have at least one thing in common. We were all once children. We grew out of it probably the worst thing that ever happened to us, certainly the most traumatic. But I think that we can all find our way back into that space. In fact I think that we all every now and then have that guilty pleasure of thinking like a child, which we do our best not to mention in public, not to get too much credence to. But I think that we can give credence to that even if we don't want to admit it necessarily to our superiors or some of our friends probably would think twice about associating with us if they knew that we were as naïve as we really are. But we can still, for own sake, the back of our mind ask those sorts of questions and let them play out. We can fully develop them. And even if it's only in our own minds that we are fully developing them that process can take us to something that is more concrete, something that is more actionable in an adult responsible world that we don't really need to say we came to it through that naïve question. We only have to then take up where it got us and make use of that in terms of solving the problems within our lives. Whether they be personal or whether they be at the level of making the most of the world in which we work.
Several years ago I got to be very interested in honeybees and the extraordinary talent that they have for dancing. They're better dancers than us, they've been doing it a lot longer and they certainly seem to have dance as their culture to a greater extent than probably any other species. So I got to thinking about whether there was a way to work with honeybees collaboratively, making use of their dance in a way that would choreograph it is we do amongst ourselves for human audiences. The way in which they dance is determined by where flowers are to be found. And that information can be used as a way of marking a dance that they might be able to perform. So what I did was I studied extensively the language of bees, the language by which they indicate to others where flowers are to be found so that others can then go and find those flowers and, in the process of pollinating them, bring back more nectar or more pollen for the hive. And having decided on some basic geometric arrangements for my dance that I was going to provide for the bees, I worked out where hives were in the city of San Francisco relative to places that I might plant flowers. And then mapped out specifically where the flowers should be planted as a way of choreographing, of marking in their own language according to their own way of moving what sorts of moves might follow others in a way that aesthetically speaking to me at least seemed like it might appeal to them. All of this was done with total freedom as far as the bees were concerned to follow my suggestions or not and also without any sort of obligation to perform for us. That is to say that I mapped it out and then working with some collaborators went and planted flowers and I made a map, which was available for human audiences if they were interested in seeing what the bees were up to. But there were no cameras in the hives; there was no way in which we would be able to watch what they were doing. It wasn't some sort of minstrel show; it wasn't some sort of a performance for us. It was a performance that was offered to the bees for their own amusement, for their own interest, their own edification such that then they might find the aesthetic in their dance and move beyond simply using dance in a utilitarian way for finding where flowers were to making that an interval part of their culture at the level in our culture.
I often start any project by asking a naïve question. So naïve that most likely you ask these sorts of questions when you were a child but at a certain age you learned that these were not appropriate. Or even if you ask them to yourself you never really followed through to try to see what would happen if you were to do something that was kind of patently absurd. In the case of the Honeybee Ballet I had the question of whether I could choreograph a ballet for another species. Communicating across species in a way that might facilitate a greater deeper relationship between us. Especially at a time where colonated collapse disorder was, effectively through our use of pesticides, destroying their habitat. Was there a way in which we can find some sort of a common ground? And dance is such an essential part of what we do as humans that I thought that perhaps I could offer that to the bees as something that they could participate in as well. So asking that question, could I choreograph a delay for another species for honeybees? I don't know any of them. I've never talked to them. I know only about them as much as I've ever read. But realizing that their language is incredibly sophisticated, arguably as sophisticated as ours according to their culture, according to their needs, that I could find that common ground. And once I had figured out the basic way in which to try to communicate with them using their own language, using flowers, I realized that there was a way in which I could pursue this rather naïve question. Not for the sake of reaching an answer, a solution that would resolve this in some definitive way but rather as a way of continuing my exploration, bringing others into it as well that we could continue to think about what sort of relationship we have with other species. How our cultural and there's have commonalities because we all come from the same place and we all need to get to the same place. So how do we do that? The bigger question of how we live within a world that is as complex as ours in harmony with other species is one that gets addressed through this much smaller more naïve question of asking what would it mean, what would it take to choreograph a ballet for honeybees.
Jonathon Keats says growing out of childhood was "probably the worst thing that ever happened to us, certainly the most traumatic." Even we re-enter states of naivete and wonder, our impulse as adults is to hide that precociousness from the outside work lest our peers interpreted it as immaturity or denseness. In this video, Keats explains why asking questions from this perspective helps us gain a new approach in solving the problems in our lives.
For example, Keats walks us through one of his most famous experiments, the Honeybee Ballet, which began as a simple naive question: "Could I choreograph a ballet for another species?" Keats then built from his absurd starting point, eventually exploring the not-so-absurd topic of "how we live within a world that is as complex as ours in harmony with other species."