Sunday, January 07, 2007

On Questions, or Losing Your Past

To Raphael

Raphael is terrified at the prospect of losing his past. Specifically, he is afraid of forgetting. This mortal fear has given him an interesting hobby - not really a hobby, it's a way of life for him. He asks questions. He asks questions precisely because he is terrified at the prospect of losing his past. It is not a pose. And hence, the title.

Forgetting, as he puts it, is an action. Forgetting, much like an action, has all the attributes of an action: it has consequences, and it has its rewards and penalties. It is a presence, and it is alive: it is alive in that it terrifies him. The presence of forgetting - the h(a)unting of lost memories - stays alive with him and terrifies him. It has acquired the aspect of a terrifying, 'unnamed feeling'. Forgetting, as M. Sartre would have iked to say, has become a thing in itself, a thing unto itself. both of these are quite less than a 'thing', we knowm but more importantly, all this discussion of forgetting as a thing elevates it to the status of a thing. It's a great promotion: in avoidingthe trap, the man becomes the trap himself: his mind springs the trap for him.

The entire discussion that follows assumes tacitly that what I imply about Raphael's ideas about forgetting are necessarily true. I am able to take this liberty because, when he starts to describe what he really thinks, he is betrayed by an almost insane insistence to be faithful to the quarks of his recollection - an impossible task the reader would agree - and he immediately gives up the ghost, and his description breaks down into shivering suds of dissappointment. Since I have experienced this maddening desire to be "100 percent faithful to the moment" quite a long way back, I assume that I know what he's suffering. Okay, now we shall describe.

Forgetting (for him) is like a grey zone: but he qualifies forgetting as something thicker than mist, something less obvious than a memory. Or is it? Forgetting, as he describes it, is not very different from remembering. Remembering, except perhaps the recollection of your last meal, is never completely clear or accurate, it never retains the strong aroma and associations as when you experienced the thing (and when the question of remembering the thing did not exist). Once you can think about the freshness of a thing, it is lost. That is, your very act of thinking about some attribute essentially poisons the attribute. Your act of describing will kill it. This is the philosophical equivalent of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: you cannot at the same time know a thing, and estimate its value if the thing was not known. Or, in other words, the state of the knower and the known cannot be ascertained at the same instant. You can know either the state of the knower or the state of the known. (Oriental and occidental philosophies have each formulated this perennial philosophical question in their separate ways. But this is the fundamental question. It deals with - no surprises here - the act of knowing itself.)

The alternative is not to know, or, more realistically, not to notice. The alternative, so to say, is to act, to live.

What is a Question? -Or, What Really Qualifies As a Legitimate Question?
  • Does asking questions clarify the matter? What is clarification?
  • If a doubt exists, it's in the mind (speaking of personal, philosophical questions. not the interview-type or corporate/boardroom type).
  • If clarity exists about something, it's in the mind.
  • If a concept exists, it's in the mind.
  • (If something exists, it's always in the mind. Outside of the mind it is not existence, it is being.)
  • In the world, only things exist, and living things react to things around them as and when they are aware of situations. Living things (and men) react to things because they naturally expend energy and need to replenish - thus, their only conceivable modality of existence is to act, and thus cause changes to things.
  • So it is clear that questions exist only in the mind.
  • Probably questions exist only in the minds of human beings.
  • All other animals are blessed with certitude: they can detect situations and act on it, and probably don't have much occasion to choose between alternatives. Even when alternatives are present (consider the case of a cat lingering dubiously on the scent of two types of food), they are easily resolved according the the relative strength of the stimuli, and the urgency of the driving need.

We shall now concern ourselves with the so-called philosophical (or personal) questions. Naturally a difference exists between my terminology - as how I see questions - and how a lot many others use the term.
  • Questions are a way - and not the only way - of reconciling you and the other. A question connects one thing to its opposite.
  • Unless there is a possibility of opposites to exist and be connected, a question would not exist; a question not conforming to this condition may not be legitimate. It might not make sense.
  • Questions are effective only when they are spectacular.
  • Questions that have spectacular answers quite often are not questions, but cleverly disguised props. Such questions are often posed by students who want to curry some favour with the lecturer. (This is almost always counterproductive).
  • Questions are directed from you to the world (the other) or vice versa.
  • Questions necessarily are directed questions - most of the time they are vectors but they can also be open-ended (directed both ways).
  • Questions, essentially, have a sense of direction.
  • Questions ostensibly clear up the muddle. Or, they are supposed to represent a condition where there is no meeting of interests. A question serves to quantify lack of clarity, or, more seriously, the presence of a contradiction.
  • If it is merely the lack of clarity, then the question becomes one of academic interest: a rephrasing of the situation or idea in clear language will resolve the question. (This was exactly the point made by the analytic philosophers).
  • In this regard it is clear that the problem did not exist. The question was posed as a short-cut for expressing a lack of understanding of the facts, or a lack of the concepts.
  • In the second case, the problem exists - there is something fundamentally wrong in the concepts. The question is probably trying to connect unnatural bed-fellows. Most likely, it is trying to grapple with a contradiction. At this point, the Questioner has the choice of logic, faith, or other means to further investigate the problem. The problem will not be solved by the mere rephrasing of the situation.
  • In other words, there are questions that exist outside of knowledge.
  • Knowledge is not all-encompassing. Knowledge has its limits.
  • The limits on knowledge are set by the tools used by the collection and dissemination of knowledge. As in everything else, you are only as knowledgeable as the tools you use would permit you.
  • Questions cannot always be answered by knowledge.
  • That is, knowledge is not the only requisite for answering a question.
Personal questions are distinguished by the fact that their answers need not always be the technically correct one - knowledge is after all a moving target (but real questions are not).

Types of Questions
  • What - this is the classical description of the problem. It is the starting point of a discussion
  • How - this sort of question, historically, has proved the most beneficial in a materialistic society. It can be answered in a satisfactory way by rephrasing the situation by an expert on the subject
  • Why - the classical interpretive question; the answer is nearly always speculation; it is this sort of question that we seek to investigate here. This type of question causes the most headache and discontent, but is universally acknowledged to be the most enjoyable. The answer is nonsense almost all the time and irrelevant in one way or the other. This sort of question produces "freestyle" responses that are hard to moderate.
  • When - denoting the temporal uncertainty. It is often very satisfactorily answered if it does not involve the historical element

Benefits and the Raison d'etre of Questions

Still, it would be hard to ignore the fact that some questions will always live with us for all our life, such as
  • How long shall I live
  • What shall I become in life (or, What shall I leave behind)
  • Is this the right thing to do
  • How do I do that
  • Why did I/he do that
When we are children, we are stuffed with the "What" and "How" and "When" questions - things that are satisfactorily answered by books and teachers and lab practise. These questions are answerable precisely because - you may have noticed already - these questions have already been formed. Such questions (possibly all such questions) have been formed, expressed, or at least anticipated. That is precisely why these questions are answerable in the first place. These are, what I would call, well-formed questions. These questions have a definite answer.

What we're not encouraged to do - and specifically discouraged at that point of our lives - is the "Why" questions. These questions, more often than not, need a framing context to be intelligible. These questions are not specifically referring to temporal, spacial, or factual aspects of a premise. These are what one would call open-ended questions where one can make a lot of sense or no sense at all. These questions are also the most difficult to pose sensibly.

We should not miss the main point, however. The "Why...?" question is the point where the child begins to understand that the world is not a textbook, but a place where he comes to terms with the things imperfectly described in the textbook, and where he can actually do some damage. (It is not a coincidence that the materially successful people are those that continue to regard the world as a laboratory or as a textbook.)

Questions and clarification: do questions clarify situations?

It depends a lot on what sort of question is being asked. As we know, some questions are asked not for an answer but just as a sounding board - just to air our uncertainty. Some questions are assertive, in that it is just a common way of phrasing things, and do not require an answer. Philosophical questions, on the other hand, if

[to be continued...]

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