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Ideas / WhatIsTheAnswer

first thoughts on 'what is the answer?'

a response on this thread:

  1. 'is' implies existence of the answer.
  2. 'the' implies that there is only one, or that the multiplicity of answers can be meaningfully viewed as a whole.

It seems that this might not be that fundamental a question after all, it has a lot of assumptions built into it! At least the two that I've found so far.

Perhaps the fundamental question might simply be denoted by '?', indicating the requirement of an answer, but giving no further information. (the requirement of an answer being the essence of questions)

And given that the essence of answers is that they are responses to questions, then the quality of an answer can, at root, only be gauged against the corresponding question (which shows that questions are big things! (*)). And if the question has no detail, other than that an answer is required, then any answer will do :)

But perhaps a fitting answer could be denoted by '.', ie, a bare response, with no further detail.

Perhaps another fundamental question might be '!?', denoting the maximally nonspecific question, deserving of the maximally nonspecific answer, ie, the whole of potentiality as an answer.

So we've seen the biggest and the smallest questions, and neither of them are that interesting except in a logical sort of way. But interestingly, this means that ALL other questions fit between these two...

But to return to the original question, 'what is the answer?': that would imply that there is a The Answer, rather like the way there is a The Empire State Building. And given how many answers there are out there, I'm not sure what criteria we're supposed to use to single one out... Presumably The Answer is the response to The Question, but that's presumably an equivalently undefined thing as well :)

I think the rather boring answer is that 'what is the answer?' is just too nonspecific. And given that we've already seen the biggest and the smallest questions, and they didn't tell us much, it seems like the essence of questions and answers is pretty useless: they have to be about something... like a telephone call with no conversation, the potential is there, but no transaction occurred: questions and answers are merely a format, a protocol.

And given that protocols are used to transmit/facilitate information, and that the information isn't necessarily anything to do with the protocol, then an answer doesn't necessarily have to look like an answer. 'apple', might be an answer, it might be a question, or it might just be a statement, information. So, given that question/answer gives us information only about format, but not content, then 'what is the answer?' is equivalent to asking 'what is the statement?' or 'what is the information?', which is beginning to look a little bit vacuous... :)

Have I missed the point?

(*) Questions as gauges for answers: When I ask the question 'what is the answer?' I am also setting myself up as the arbiter for any incoming answers, ie, I get to choose the gauge against which answers are measured, but I have chosen not to communicate the specifications for that gauge in the question. 'What is the answer?' is equivalent to saying 'guess what I'm thinking', or 'use this other evidence I'm giving you to get an answer'.

When the question is abstract, ie uttered by nobody and nothing, then there is no arbiter and anything goes, but when the question is uttered concretely, ie there is a non-trivial arbiter, then we get a more meaningful question.

However, if I say 'what is the answer?' and it is clear from my demeanour that I haven't chosen a gauge against which to measure the answer, then it seems that I have become the question, I myself am the gauge, and the question sounds an awful lot like 'find the answer to which I am the question', or more traditionally, 'who am I?' or 'what is my destiny?'.

This seems like a compelling analysis to me, and it shows that 'what is the answer?' seems a lot like a religious question... :)

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Page last modified on July 03, 2007, at 08:04 PM