Wrong Questions

Where the mind cuts against re­al­ity’s grain, it gen­er­ates wrong ques­tions—ques­tions that can­not pos­si­bly be an­swered on their own terms, but only dis­solved by un­der­stand­ing the cog­ni­tive al­gorithm that gen­er­ates the per­cep­tion of a ques­tion.

One good cue that you’re deal­ing with a “wrong ques­tion” is when you can­not even imag­ine any con­crete, spe­cific state of how-the-world-is that would an­swer the ques­tion. When it doesn’t even seem pos­si­ble to an­swer the ques­tion.

Take the Stan­dard Defi­ni­tional Dis­pute, for ex­am­ple, about the tree fal­ling in a de­serted for­est. Is there any way-the-world-could-be—any state of af­fairs—that cor­re­sponds to the word “sound” re­ally mean­ing only acous­tic vibra­tions, or re­ally mean­ing only au­di­tory ex­pe­riences?

(“Why, yes,” says the one, “it is the state of af­fairs where ‘sound’ means acous­tic vibra­tions.” So Ta­boo the word ‘means’, and ‘rep­re­sents’, and all similar syn­onyms, and de­scribe again: How can the world be, what state of af­fairs, would make one side right, and the other side wrong?)

Or if that seems too easy, take free will: What con­crete state of af­fairs, whether in de­ter­minis­tic physics, or in physics with a dice-rol­ling ran­dom com­po­nent, could ever cor­re­spond to hav­ing free will?

And if that seems too easy, then ask “Why does any­thing ex­ist at all?”, and then tell me what a satis­fac­tory an­swer to that ques­tion would even look like.

And no, I don’t know the an­swer to that last one. But I can guess one thing, based on my pre­vi­ous ex­pe­rience with unan­swer­able ques­tions. The an­swer will not con­sist of some grand triumphant First Cause. The ques­tion will go away as a re­sult of some in­sight into how my men­tal al­gorithms run skew to re­al­ity, af­ter which I will un­der­stand how the ques­tion it­self was wrong from the be­gin­ning—how the ques­tion it­self as­sumed the fal­lacy, con­tained the skew.

Mys­tery ex­ists in the mind, not in re­al­ity. If I am ig­no­rant about a phe­nomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phe­nomenon it­self. All the more so, if it seems like no pos­si­ble an­swer can ex­ist: Con­fu­sion ex­ists in the map, not in the ter­ri­tory. Unan­swer­able ques­tions do not mark places where magic en­ters the uni­verse. They mark places where your mind runs skew to re­al­ity.

Such ques­tions must be dis­solved. Bad things hap­pen when you try to an­swer them. It in­evitably gen­er­ates the worst sort of Mys­te­ri­ous An­swer to a Mys­te­ri­ous Ques­tion: The one where you come up with seem­ingly strong ar­gu­ments for your Mys­te­ri­ous An­swer, but the “an­swer” doesn’t let you make any new pre­dic­tions even in ret­ro­spect, and the phe­nomenon still pos­sesses the same sa­cred in­ex­pli­ca­bil­ity that it had at the start.

I could guess, for ex­am­ple, that the an­swer to the puz­zle of the First Cause is that noth­ing does ex­ist—that the whole con­cept of “ex­is­tence” is bo­gus. But if you sincerely be­lieved that, would you be any less con­fused? Me nei­ther.

But the won­der­ful thing about unan­swer­able ques­tions is that they are always solv­able, at least in my ex­pe­rience. What went through Queen Eliz­a­beth I’s mind, first thing in the morn­ing, as she woke up on her for­tieth birth­day? As I can eas­ily imag­ine an­swers to this ques­tion, I can read­ily see that I may never be able to ac­tu­ally an­swer it, the true in­for­ma­tion hav­ing been lost in time.

On the other hand, “Why does any­thing ex­ist at all?” seems so ab­solutely im­pos­si­ble that I can in­fer that I am just con­fused, one way or an­other, and the truth prob­a­bly isn’t all that com­pli­cated in an ab­solute sense, and once the con­fu­sion goes away I’ll be able to see it.

This may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive if you’ve never solved an unan­swer­able ques­tion, but I as­sure you that it is how these things work.

Com­ing to­mor­row: A sim­ple trick for han­dling “wrong ques­tions”.