Question: Request for information.
It is an
interesting fact that natural languages
distinguish between statements and
questions. The main distinction is along the line that a statement is
used to give information and a
question is used to ask for information. The distinction is easy enough
to understand, but even so it is interesting that all natural languages
(to my knowledge) have both statements and questions in grammatically
The simplest explanation seems to be that questions as a grammatical
kind arise from attempts to simplify statements that request
information: The statement "I would like to know whether it rains is
true" is much more complicated than "Does it rain?"
There are a number of logical problems involved with questions, of
which I mention two kinds.
1. Logic of questions: It is not at all clear or self-evident
that there is a logic of questions as there
is a logic of statements. There have been some attempts to set up logics
of questions that are analogous to
but they only arise in the 20th Century after logic was formalized.
The main reason that a logic of questions was not thought of by
Aristotle or the Stoics, who had quite subtle and sensible ideas about
the logic of statements, seems to be that questions are not used in
chains of inferences. And this is so
because inferences proceed in terms of premisses that are supposed to be
true, which is a characteristic questions do not have, and statements
Even so, supposing there is no real logic of questions in the sense
that there is a logic of statements, there are interesting logical
problems connected with questions.
One is that questions often involve
assumptions, as in "Did you stop beating your wife?". This example
shows that not all questions can be fairly answered with "yes" or "no",
since either answer involves the admission that at one time you did beat
your wife, and you may never have done so.
A somewhat interesting example for philosophers is the sort of
question Charles II - a smart man, educated by Hobbes - liked to ask
would-be savants "Why are fishes lighter in water?". Those who started
given an explanation were dismissed as stupid or as frauds, since they
accepted a tacit assumption. (Moral: First check whether purported
facts are facts before you start explaining
Another is the relation between questions and
heuristics: What can one say about
what sort of questions are helpful in certain kinds of problems to help
one solve these problems? (See the mathematician Polya's excellent "How
to solve it" and "Plausible Reasoning".)
A third, that also relates to heuristics, is that there are good and bad
questions, profitable and unprofitable questions, and questions that can
and cannot be answered, either for logical reasons, or because of the
information one has or situation one is in.
2. Ultimate questions: Many questions - of the "Why?" kind -
ask for explanations or reasons, and
grammatically speaking one may immediately ask "Why?" about the answers
that are given. Here immediately arise two points.
First, if a question is a request for
information, a request to explain one's explanation or to give
reasons for one's reasons may be quite justified, especially if
the explanations or reasons were not clear or are doubtful, but usually
changes the subject, often also in a radical way.
Second, there are questions which are ultimate in the sense
that to question the answers to these asks for information that cannot
be given. Examples are: "Why does the universe exist?" and "Why is there
anything at all?" and "What is the cause of the first cause?"
The first two questions seem variations on one theme, and seem to
request that one can step outside or beyond everything there is, as if
there is room to do so - which there isn't. The third contradicts one or
the other of common implicit assumptions about causes made in the question, namely that there is a first cause
or that nothing is its own cause. (These assumptions may well be false - see God
- but the question seems to involve the assumptions.)
In any case, two important insights about why-questions are that (1)
one can only answer questions in terms of
assumptions and (2) one can test assumptions by their logical
consequences, but often not profitably by asking why: The reason for an
assumption - that answers the "Why?" about it - is that the assumption
helps to explain something one wants to explain. That is why one made
it, and not to explain a further question about the assumption.
Hence the right answer to many questions for explanations is not a
further explanation of one's given explanation, but a statement why one
believes that the given explanation does what it is supposed to do (because
it entails what one wants to explain) and why one believes it is
credible (because it is not known to be false and can be supported with