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May 10th, 2019

A surprisingly difficult question to answer is: what is a question?



We encounter them everyday, we form and use them everyday, but when asked to define ‘question’, most people are apt to pause.  For those who do not have a ready definition, the mind seems to break due to a kind of infinite loop.  What is a question? is… itself a question… which is a question about a question which ultimately references all questions, and hence the recursiveness that ensues which can turn this ponderance into a bit of a Zen Koan.



Other questions are fairly easy in comparison.  For example: what is a cat?  Anyone can answer this in countless and easily recognizable ways.  So here we have an initial way of differentiating at least two types of questions:  those to which the answer is readily available, and those questions that make us feel stumped. 


The first point to make is that questions to which we have ready answers are no longer really questions for us.  A child might ask: what is a particle accelerator? and for the child this is a genuine question.  But for anyone who knows what a particle accelerator is, this is merely a request to copy and paste some information.


Note for a quick moment the wording:  A child’s question to which we have the answer is to the person with the answer: a request.


The main root of both of these words is the key to answering that pesky query: what is a question?  The answer lies in lopping off the last three letters of the word question, in order to get the word quest.


Quest, is quaintly defined as a long or arduous search for something. 



Pause for a moment to think about whether this really applies to the child asking about the particle accelerator.  Pause further to reflect on whether or not this definition accurately describes most of the questions we use during the day:


did you take out the trash? 


what time is the meeting?


who is going to be at the party tonight?


These are more requests for information than they are long and arduous searches for something.  Naturally such a reliance on the root quest somewhat betrays the modern definition of the word question.  It is a tenet of this framework, however, that the current modern definitions of words are experiments in variation, like someone trying a new profession to see how they like it.  Words are constantly shifting, morphing and touching new semantic territory, but the history of a word often points to the reason for it’s existence, and this teleological core often casts the modern definition in a fuller context.  The difference is like that of a general who can see the whole battlefield as opposed to the sniper who is so concentrated, she fails to notice the enemy sneaking up from behind.  Narrow definitions that fail to pay tribute to the context created by that word’s history can fail us in the way the sniper is defeated.


To elucidate this point further, we can simply ask a question:


Which kind of question is generally more valuable?


The question to which someone else has a definitive and verifiable answer?




The question which no one knows the answer to, but which can be definitively figured out?



A couple real-world examples help clarify this juxtaposition:  Compare these two questions:


Did you take out the trash?




Will this business idea make money?




These comparisons seek merely to underscore the difference between a valuable question and a question which is merely a request for information.  While much of the modern world could benefit from increasing the efficiency of such request-questions (an effort to which Google has spearheaded with unparalleled success) it’s the answerable questions that we haven’t figured out that are of greatest potential value.


At this point, we arrive at a working definition of the word ‘question’ and an answer to the pesky query.



 A question can be defined as:


An open-ended concept that creates momentum.




This fits both the unanswered question which requires some sort of long or arduous quest to figure out and the request-question, to which we have the momentum to go find someone with the answer.


Making that definition deeply intuitive can solve motivation problems, free up stagnate progress on a project, and even build bridges between enemies – if only we extrapolate wisely on the open-ended concepts we create and the direction of momentum which they generate.  The next question of greatest utility that can propel us in a useful direction is simply:


Are you asking yourself the right questions?

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Podcast Ep. 390: Question about the Question

Tinkered Thinking

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