What is a question? – American scientist


Readers eager to enlighten me often send me books and essays written by them or, less often, by others. Every once in a while one of these offers catches my eye before I hit “delete”. A recent example: Robert L. Fry, a physical engineer at Johns Hopkins, recently emailed me a 92-year-old article that he thought, given how I tout the idea of ​​doubt. , I might appreciate. He was right.

Felix S. Cohen, a lawyer specializing in Native American rights, wrote “What is a question? “in 1929 for the Monist, a venerable review of philosophy. the GödelThe title alone made my brain cells explode, as did Cohen’s main point, expressed in quirky prose. Philosophers, he asserts, are obsessed with “the nature of propositions, assertions or judgments” but have questions “almost completely ignored”.

Questions, Cohen argues, are not simply “psychological provocation, like pin pricks and miracles, to affirmation-forming.” That is, questions are not just a means of getting answers. The questions are valuable in themselves; in philosophy, questions are probably more important than answers.

As Cohen puts it, “Those who formulated the world’s problems have more often earned the name of ‘philosopher’ than those who solved them. »Yes, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Feyerabend, which call into question the viability of “truth,” come to mind. Below are some other thoughts sparked by Cohen’s essay.


Cohen suggests that the questions are often implicit in the propositions. For example, x = 3 + 5 is equivalent to asking, what is the sum of three and five? I would go further and say that questions underlie all human discourse. Like many and possibly all organisms, we humans are curious creatures, and language is our primary means of exchanging information, which could be defined as answers to explicit or implicit questions. This is true for all forms of communication, from small chats about sports, weather and groovy news. Netflix shows high philosophy, science and mathematics.

I struggled to learn the math behind 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 tilting forward towards a possible answer. Since I rarely understand differential equations, the symbols are right there on the page, inert. I have no idea what questions drive the equations, let alone the answers they point to.


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

The body-mind problem is another example of an indeterminate question. In a narrow technical sense, the body-mind problem asks how matter makes a mind, but it also asks, more broadly, what are we really? Most body-mind theorists seek a single, final, and universal answer to this question, written in the language of neuroscience, physics, computer science, analytical philosophy, or all or none of the above. There can be no single, definitive answer, because science and culture are inventing new answers, and because each of us must define who we are in our own way. In fact, each of us can “solve” the body-mind problem. in different ways during his / her life.


My students use the expression “asking the question” as a synonym for “raising the question”. Begging the question actually means asking or answering a question in a circular or tautological manner; your conclusion is lost in advance. An example is integrated information theory, which tries to explain consciousness with a concept, an information, which presupposes consciousness. This begs the question. Cheating.

Although he does not use the phrase “begging the question”, Cohen alludes to it when cautioning against asking questions “in which assumptions are already implied.” Philosophers make this mistake when they assume that indeterminate questions are determined, Cohen says. Once again, I would go further. I to define philosophy as a survey of unanswered questions. So philosophy as a whole, to the extent that it assumes that its questions have answers, is a great exercise in questioning.

Cohen seems to make a similar point in this winding passage: “Certainly we will never fill the chasms of a human soul with our primitive marks and noises, but if there is to be a rational relationship between man and the man, we have to somehow approach the ideal of speech without ambiguity. And to do this, we must remember that the ideal is beyond the language that pursues it. Cohen’s remark reminds me Thomas kuhn It is difficult to say precisely what he means when he speaks of the impossibility of precise communication.


Unlike philosophy, science asks questions that can be answered, through observations, experiments and reasoning, including mathematical reasoning. Science has already provided many 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 lead to a description of nature so complete, so satisfying, that it will answer all of our questions.

Other scientists resist the idea of ​​a definitive description of reality, claiming that the 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 the universe. These arguments for the infinity of science once seemed naïve and sentimental to me, but they have become more appealing.

Quantum mechanics also subverts dreams of final and objective knowledge, as 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 normal version of the game, a group of people choose 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 he have legs? Is it famous? Is it feminine?

In the surprise version of the game, the group does not agree on any answer in advance. Each person chooses one person / one place / one animal / one thing only after I am asking my question with a yes or no. As I ask questions, each person privately thinks about something and responds to me accordingly, with the constraint that each response must be consistent with previous responses. Both in this game and in quantum mechanics, reality does not exist until we poll him with specific questions.


In The varieties of religious experience, William James quotes the philosopher Xenos Clark describing an aether-induced revelation. The experiment convinced Clark that philosophy is “like a dog chasing its own tail” and that “the real end of philosophy is accomplished … when we cease our intellectual questioning”.

Buddha and other sages, likewise, suggest that supreme spiritual wisdom, or clarification, consists of a total and unconditional acceptance of every moment of existence. Once you reach this state, you stop asking questions, not because you know the answers, but because the questions and answers cease to be important. You are just relaxing. Supposedly.

If that’s enlightenment, I don’t want to be awake. I prefer the point of view of Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor, who experienced enlightenment not as a serene acceptance, but as an exhilarating and terrible awe before the “pure mystery of everything”. Rather than providing answers, according to Bachelor, enlightenment reveals “the immensity of the question.”

Most of us, not being enlightened, torment ourselves with questions about what will or should happen next. We are worried about the future, for our personal fate as well as that of our country and the world. East climate change will reduce the value of my bungalow by the sea? If my girlfriend does not get the vaccine, should I break up with her? If Joe Biden is re-elected, how will that affect my stock portfolio?

But few of us see what Batchelor calls “the sheer mystery of everything”, which I call “strangeness. “We can be so satisfied with the answers given by science or religion that the world no longer seems strange. Or, more likely, we are so wrapped up in our personal problems, and so used to the world, that we no longer see how strange it is. .

But unless something terrible happens to humanity, there will always be at least a few misfits – artists, scientists, philosophers, mystics – who see the strangeness, the unanswered question at the heart of things, and try to show the rest of us that too. This question does not take any particular form. It could be expressed as a growl of amazement, like “Hunh? ” or what… ? ” Or simply “?”


When I described “What is a question? To my girlfriend, ‘Emily’, she replied that young women are often made fun of for expressing themselves in ‘positive conversation’, that is, to bend their speech so that statements ring. like questions. Given the tentative nature of all acquaintance, Emily suggests, positive conversation is a more appropriate form of speech than confident, forceful statements. Yes, maybe philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, when pontificating, should speak up? And maybe also science writers?

After having read and reread “What is a question?” and I’m struggling to write this column, my thoughts are all starting to take the form of a positive conversation? Needing a break, I step out of my apartment building into a park along the Hudson River, and gaze at the water, sky, clouds and trees, the ferry terminal and the Tower of the clock, sailboats and barges, geese, seagulls and dogs, fishermen, joggers and cyclists, and for a moment I see questions, just questions, everywhere.

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

Further reading:

I ask a lot of questions in my last two books: Pay attention: sex, death and science and Body-mind issues: science, subjectivity, and who we really are.

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