Science

What Is a Question?

Readers intent on enlightening me often send me books and essays written by them or, less often, others. Now and then one of these offerings grabs my attention before I hit “delete.” A recent example: Robert L. Fry, a physicist-engineer at Johns Hopkins, recently e-mailed me a 92-year-old paper that he thought, given how I tout the idea of doubt, I might enjoy. He was right.

Felix S. Cohen, a legal scholar specializing in Native American rights, wrote “What Is a Question?” in 1929 for the Monist, a venerable philosophy journal. The Gödelian title alone got my brain cells firing, as did Cohen’s main point, expressed in quirky prose. Philosophers, he asserts, obsess over “the nature of propositions, assertions or judgments” but have “almost totally ignored” questions.

Questions, Cohen argues, are not simply a “psychological provocation, on a par with pinpricks and miracles, to the formation of assertions.” That is, questions are not merely a means to the end of answers. Questions are valuable in their own right; in philosophy, questions are probably more important than answers.

As Cohen puts it, “Those who have formulated the world’s problems have more often deserved the name ‘philosopher’ than those who have settled them.” Yes, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Feyerabend, who question the viability of “truth,” come to mind. Below are more thoughts provoked by Cohen’s essay.

QUESTIONS, SENTENCES AND EQUATIONS

Cohen proposes that questions are often implicit in propositions. For example, x = 3 + 5 is equivalent to asking, What is the sum of three and five? I’d go further and say that questions underpin all human discourse. Like many and perhaps all organisms, we humans are inquisitive creatures, and language is our main means of swapping information, which could be defined as answers to explicit or implicit questions. This is true of all forms of communication, from small talk about sports, weather and groovy new Netflix shows to highfalutin philosophy, science and mathematics.

I have been struggling to learn the math underlying quantum mechanics. If I understand a differential equation, that means I understand the question it implicitly addresses. The equation has a propulsive quality, as if the numbers and notations are leaning forward toward a possible answer. Since I rarely understand differential equations, the symbols just sit there on the page, inert. I have no idea what questions animate the equations, let alone the answers toward which they are pointing.

MULTIPLE-CHOICE QUESTIONS

Cohen calls questions that yield a single answer “determinate” and those with many possible answers “indeterminate.” An example of a determinate question would be 1 + 1 = x. Philosophers often assume that their questions are determinate when in fact they are indeterminate, Cohen says, citing the ancient philosophical conundrum “What is the good?” as an example.

The mind-body problem is another example of an indeterminate question. In a narrow, technical sense, the mind-body problem asks how matter makes a mind, but it also asks, more broadly, What are we, really? Most mind-body theorists seek a single, final, universal answer to this question, written in the language of neuroscience, physics, computer science, analytic philosophy or all or none of the above. There can’t be a single, final answer, because science and culture keep inventing new answers, and because each of us must define who she/he/they is in her/his/their own way. In fact, each of us may “solve” the mind-body problem in many different ways over the course of her/his/their life.

PHILOSOPHY AS QUESTION-BEGGING

My students use the phrase “begging the question” as a synonym for “raising the question.” Begging the question actually means posing or answering a question in a circular or tautological manner; your conclusion is foregone. An example is integrated information theory, which attempts to explain consciousness with a concept, information, that presupposes consciousness. That’s begging the question. Cheating.

Although he doesn’t use the phrase “begging the question,” Cohen alludes to it when he warns against posing questions “in which assumptions are already implicit.” Philosophers make this mistake when they assume that indeterminate questions are determinate, Cohen says. Again, I’d go further. I define philosophy as inquiry into questions that have no answers. So, philosophy as a whole, to the extent that it assumes its questions have answers, is one big exercise in question-begging.

Cohen seems to be making a similar point in this twisty passage: “Certainly we shall never bridge the chasms about a human soul with our primitive marks and noises, but if there is to be any rational intercourse between man and man, we must somehow approach the ideal of unambiguous speech. And to do this we must remember that the ideal is beyond the language that pursues it.” Cohen’s remark reminds me of Thomas Kuhn struggling to say precisely what he means when he talks about the impossibility of precise communication.

QUANTUM MECHANICS AND TWENTY QUESTIONS

Unlike philosophy, science asks questions that can be answered, by means of observations, experiments and reasoning, including mathematical reasoning. Science has already yielded lots of answers, including the theory of evolution, the genetic code, quantum mechanics, general relativity and the big bang theory. As I note in a recent column, some scientists believe that science’s answers will eventually add up to a description of nature so complete, so satisfying, that it answers all our questions.

Other scientists resist the idea of a final description of reality, saying that answers always raise new questions. A popular metaphor holds that as the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of ignorance. Indeed, some scientists have argued that science can last forever, even surviving the death of the solar system and universe. These arguments for science’s endlessness once seemed naive and sentimental to me, but they’ve become more appealing.

Quantum mechanics also subverts dreams of final, objective knowledge, because it suggests that the answers we get depend on the questions we ask. Physicist John Wheeler compared science to the surprise version of Twenty Questions. In the game’s normal version, a group of people chooses a person, animal, place or thing. I try to guess it by asking each member of the group a question with a yes or no answer. Does it have legs? Is it famous? Is it female?

In the surprise version of the game, the group doesn’t agree on any answer in advance. Each person chooses a person/place/animal/thing only after I ask my yes-or-no question. As I keep asking questions, each person privately thinks of something and answers me accordingly, with the constraint that each answer must be consistent with previous answers. Both in this game and in quantum mechanics, the reality does not exist until we probe it with specific questions.

ENLIGHTENMENT AS ACCEPTANCE OF THE MYSTERY

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes philosopher Xenos Clark describing an epiphany induced by ether. The experience convinced Clark that philosophy is “like a hound hunting his own tail,” and that “the real end of philosophy is accomplished …  when we cease our intellectual questioning.”

Buddha and other sages, similarly, suggest that supreme spiritual wisdom, or enlightenment, consists in utter, unquestioning acceptance of every moment of existence. Once you reach this state, you stop asking questions, not because you know the answers but because questions and answers cease to be important. You’re just chillin’. Supposedly.

If that’s what enlightenment is, I don’t want to be enlightened. I prefer the perspective of Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor, who experienced enlightenment not as serene acceptance but as exhilarating, dreadful awe before the “sheer mystery of everything.” Rather than providing answers, Bachelor says, enlightenment reveals “the massiveness of the question.”

Most of us, being unenlightened, torment ourselves with questions about what will or should happen next. We are anxious about the future, about our personal fate as well as that of our country and the world. Is climate change going to reduce the value of my beachside bungalow? If my girlfriend doesn’t get vaccinated, should I break up with her? If Joe Biden wins reelection, how will that affect my stock portfolio?

But few of us see what Batchelor calls “the sheer mystery of everything,” which I call “the weirdness.” We may be so satisfied with the answers supplied by science or religion that the world no longer seems weird. Or, more plausibly, we are so absorbed by our personal problems, and so habituated to the world, that we no longer see its weirdness.

But unless something terrible happens to humanity, there will always be at least a few misfits—artists, scientists, philosophers, mystics—who see the weirdness, the unanswerable question at the heart of things, and try to get the rest of us to see it too. This question does not take any specific form. It could be expressed as a grunt of astonishment, such as “Hunh?” or “Wha…?” Or simply “?”

THE APPROPRIATENESS OF UPTALK

When I described “What Is a Question?” to my girlfriend, “Emily,” she responded that young women are often mocked for speaking in “uptalk”—that is, for inflecting their speech so that statements sound like questions. Given the provisional nature of all knowledge, Emily suggests, uptalk is a more appropriate form of discourse than confident, forceful declarations. Yes, perhaps philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, when they pontificate, should speak in uptalk? And maybe science writers, too?

After reading and rereading “What Is a Question?” and struggling to write this column, my thoughts all begin taking the form of uptalk? Needing a break, I walk out of my apartment building into a park along the Hudson River, and I look at the water, sky, clouds and trees, the ferry terminal and clock tower, the sailboats and barges, the geese, seagulls and dogs, the fishermen, joggers and cyclists, and for a moment I see questions, nothing but questions, everywhere.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Further Reading:

I ask lots of questions in my two most recent books: Pay Attention: Sex, Death, and Science and Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity and Who We Really Are.

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