8th April 2006 | Draft
Am I Question or Answer?
Problem or (re)solution?
- / -
This is a reflection on the possibility that we may have been enculturated to associate our identities with an "answer" to a "question" such as "who am I". Identity may however be more fruitfully associated with the process of asking the question itself rather than with any answer to it.
Questions are readily defined as problematic, only to be relieved by satisfactory answers. This encourages avoidance of questions and fixation on answers -- possibly prematurely (cf Question Avoidance, Evasion, Aversion and Phobia: why we are unable to escape from traps, 2006 ). This pattern may also be significant in relation to a number of other terms essential to understandings of who we are -- and of who we can be.
Philosophy has emphasized "Cogito Ergo Sum" -- "I think therefore I am". Here there is an implicit (and possibly unseemly) haste to answer the question "Who am I" in relation to a thinking process. The challenge dates back to Pythagoras at least [more]. This may or may not involve any questioning dynamic, indicative of self-reflexiveness, or of the potential processes of self-reframing to enable new understanding. This dimension is for example a characteristic of the practice of gnana yoga (cf Ramana Maharshi,. Who Am I?) [more]
More generally, in practice, there is urgent need, in many circumstances, to supply answers to those asking "who am I". Examples of those seeking clear and immediate answers include:
It is appropriate to ask whether those for whom a well-defined identity is sought need themselves to be rigorously defined to the degree implied by the needs of the questioner. How closed does such a definition need to be -- whether for the definer or for the defined? Is there, for example, a case for something that might be akin to an "open source identity"? May there be other ways of understanding "identity"?
One approach is to shift the emphasis from the static specificity of an answer to the dynamic process of asking a question such as "who am I". This approach is of course primarily open to the questioner. But it may indeed be open to others asking the question of another -- and not requiring premature closure on an answer. One can indeed relate to another person -- over an extended period of time -- through the question as to who they may indeed be. This may well be the basis for fruitful relationships -- otherwise undermined by simplistic answers to the question, namely premature closure. Succinctly stated, questions presuppose process, whereas answers are indicative of named objects or categories.
Am I question -- or answer?
As answer "I" buy into various frameworks within which an answer is meaningful and satisfying to others -- and possibly to "myself". This may include a name on a citizenship register or in a telephone directory. It may be an occupational descriptor such as plumber, farmer, physicist, or actor. In some circles this may require a qualifier to avoid being identified as a "nobody" -- perhaps an award winner, or the subject of some public relations campaign, or "married to" one such -- exemplified by the attribution of titles (cf Varieties of Honour and Dishonour: distinguishing intrinsic honour from honourable externalities, 2005) . It may be some other relationship. This is the conventional approach to identity which is also at the origin of much trauma for those who feel impelled to struggle to be "somebody" and claim a sense of inner emptiness where others have a fullness in sensing who they are.
But, if "I" am an answer, who asked the question?
As question, however, the challenge of "my" identity is framed in a completely different way. It is no longer an issue of labels and certificates -- or of being defined by nouns in a particular language which others speak or comprehend. "I" am free to consider the possibility that answering the question may not be possible in a language which others -- or I myself -- as yet understand.
The emphasis shifts from production of something understood to be an "answer" to the process of asking the question -- whatever form that takes. On the basis of the standard interrogatives, possible forms, whether asked by myself or others, include the WH-questions:
The point is variously made that science focuses its attention on only some of these questions, despite the eternal challenge of the others. For example, John Herlihy (The Modern World: a traditional inquiry into the nature of scientific knowledge The Qur'anic Horizons, October-December, 1998) makes the point:
More fundamental however, is the existential posture from which any of these questions might be asked and the configuration impelling such questions -- the doubting energy that engenders them. This doubting energy engenders the proto-question which presumably takes the initial "yes/no" form of "Am I" or "Am I not" -- "Do I exist" or "Do I not". Some frameworks (permitting a quadrilemma) may then admit of two related additional forms (cf Kinhide Mushakoji. Global Issues and Interparadigmatic Dialogue; essays on multipolar politics, 1988):
Thereafter one or more of the seven WH-questions above become the focus.
More intriguing however is the possibility of identifying with the questioning process than with any of these questions and the forms of the answers to which they may give rise. Any fundamental sense of identity may then be centered more in the dynamic of the questioning process -- or "being the question" in some way, as with "bearing witness". It may be a case of :
Answers to any question of identity provide a sense of certainty. One is then defined by that certainty. Any process that undermines that uncertainty is therefore threatening to identity. It would naturally be resisted. It could be argued that a high degree of certainty has been defined into planetary society through naming. In this sense naming constitutes a fundamental reduction of freedom. The contrast is perhaps captured by the title of a conference series Be the Change -- although whether this implicitly suggests identification with a particular shared definition of change is another matter.
Living in uncertainty calls for a sense of identity that responds to the moment (cf Eve Grubin, In Praise of Uncertainty, 2006, citing Shakespeare). It is a condition forced upon many, notably refugees -- but without any understanding of how to respond to that reality in anticipation of recovery of certainty. It corresponds to the sense of contingency -- notably articulated by Buddhism's reflection on Anatta. Identity may indeed then be momentarily determined. But there is no permanent identification with what is momentarily identified in this way. Fundamentally one may indeed be unidentified or only identified with processes of reflection about any sense of identity.
The Buddhist term Anātman (Sanskrit) or Anatta (Pali) specifies the absence of a supposedly permanent and unchanging self or soul. All that is experienced in life is considered impermanent and in a constant state of flux. Consequently any entity that appears to exist does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non-eternal -- so-called "dependent co-arising" . Therefore, any sense one might have of an abiding self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension. Since one's "self" is only a contingency that depends on "not-self" for its moment-to-moment existence, that illusory "self" is dependent on nominally distinct sources of authority to form its beliefs and organize its knowledge of the world [more].
Identity within such understanding is inherently dynamic and emergent in response to circumstances. Ironically, given that individuals seldom define themselves by their social security number or by any of the many username-passwords they require, their willingness and capacity to do so suggests an effective adoption of the Buddhist understanding of contingent identity.
If any attempt at an answer to "who am I" is an exemplification of the "not-self", there is a case for exploring the impulse to acquire, possess or "grasp" such a transitory construct of lower-dimensionality. There is even a sense in which this may be understood as a form of "harassment" of reality (cf Beyond Harassment of Reality and Grasping Future Possibilities: learnings from sexual harassment as a metaphor, 1996)
There is also a case for exploring the quality of answers -- possibly as conditioned by the form of the WH-question: "who am I", "why am I", "what am I", etc as suggested by erotetic logic. Are answers then to be understood as having forms susceptible to a taxonomical analysis?
Also of interest are the properties of the "matter" by which answers may be distinguished. Contrasting qualitative properties, already used in descriptive metaphors, might include: slippery, evanescent, sticky, solid, unstable, murky, opaque, cold, etc.
Elsewhere the possibility of relating the WH-questions to elementary catastrophes has been explored (Cognitive Feel for Cognitive Catastrophes: Question Conformality, 2006), notably:
As discussed there, a fruitful possibility is that of sustaining uncertainty -- a challenge of preventing the quenching of the probability waveform consistent with a probabilistic view of truth (cf Vasily Nalimov, Realms of the Unconscious: the enchanted frontier, 1982). This challenge may be compared to that of sustaining plasma in a nuclear fusion reactor. The various questions, including "who am I", are then particular modes of collapsing that waveform -- configuring semantic wormholes into the frameworks (or universes) of possible answers. The questions structure spacetime so that answers -- like universes -- can emerge.
Naming through answers effectively closes down possibility space, obscuring the original question to the point that it may never be posed again despite changing circumstances..As noted by Chris Lucas (personal communication):
The dynamic between question and answer is perhaps usefully to be understood in terms of a study by Orrin Klapp (Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society, 1978).
The archetypal WH-questions might also be understood as engendering a form of "cognitive soundscape" -- giving a distinctive feel to the questions "who am I", "how am I", etc (see metaphor of "trumpeting angels" below). This metaphor can be extended by relating such distinct sounds to notes associated with the chakras -- and the possibility of these question-notes being played as on a wind instrument. Identity is then associated with the resulting melodies rather than with answers which the individual notes may evoke.
Conventional responses to "who am I" typically emphasize individualism -- even in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These contrast with framings that might emphasize modes including identification with:
Other modes of identification also preclude simplistic conventional answers to "who am I" or "what am I". These include identification with:
Psychoactive drugs have offered many experiences of alternative framings of identity.
Search engines offering access to the World Wide Web, empower millions to ask questions that they had not been effectively empowered to ask prior to the 1990s. Many websites enable people to find answers to questions. As noted in the business press in 2005, search engines and portals are on the cutting edge of a new economy, leveraging cost-effective high performance computing networks to quickly provide Internet users with answers.
The information explosion, and the associated information overload, may be framed as an explosion of answers in a situation in which the questions worth asking are not even the subject of significant classification and categorization. In fact questions may be understood as that which is implied by such answers. And yet this explosion of answers -- in the answer economy -- significantly fails to meet a need.
As noted elsewhere:
The degree of relationship or tension between questions and answers is a continuing theme of debate, notably in both philosophy and information science. In his conclusion to a discussion of the epistemological foundations of information science, Rafael Capurro (Epistemology and Information Science, 1985) notes:
Recently a number of interesting initiatives have emphasized the significance of questions rather than the responses to them. These include::
Such projects point to the need to respond to the query usefully formulated by James Jaeger (The Questions of Existence):
As a response, Søren Bo Henriksen (The Rejection of the Critical Mind, Spirituality in East and West, 1996, 9) emphasizes a particularly characteristic human quality:
The merit of focusing on questions is that it shifts the centre of gravity to a more fundamental, existential level -- a ground of higher dimensionality from which answers may be sought. In this sense questions are of higher dimensionality than answers -- especially when new answers may be given to the same question in the future. In this sense there is merit in exploring questions as strange attractors (cf Human Values as Strange Attractors: Coevolution of classes of governance principles, 1993).
Theology has been valued for the kinds of questions it raises -- especially about that which is held to be beyond human comprehension.
It could be argued that religion seeks to eliminate existential questions by providing absolute answers -- God as the answer -- as a final solution to humanity's condition. An implication is that such answers should be accepted unquestioningly -- or risk branding as an unbeliever. The question to which this condition gives rise concerns the adequacy of understanding of the extant answers offered by religion -- in the light of the 40 religiously inspired conflicts around the world at this time.
Religions and their interpreters may of course differ on this.
Judaism: In this case, as exemplified by Mordechai Gafni (On the Commandment to Question, Azure: Deprtment of Jewish Zionist Education, Summer 5756 / 1996):
This understanding of Judaism is echoed by several authors:
The fundamental role of interrogatives to Judaism is the theme of a study by Kenneth M. Craig, Jr. (Asking for Rhetoric: the Hebrew Bible's protean interrogative, 2005) who asks: "What is a question?" He describes a question as 'a special literary phenomenon. A question is an opening that seeks to be closed, and its rhetorical play derives from how it disposes its energies: how it invites opening, how it imposes closure'. He demonstrates the nuanced and multifaceted ways in which the Hebrew Bible's interrogatives function to advance the Bible's literary and ideological goals.
Judaism is notable in that in its annual family celebration of the Passover Seder, dating back over 3,400 years, four questions (Mah Nishtanah) are asked of the family by the youngest child who is able to do so. The answers are however known to others, but the basis of whatever wisdom there is in the meaning-purpose-significance etc of what Judaism is considered to be is acquired through the gate of questions. Each of the 4 questions raises a different issue of the what and why of redemption and salvation.
Christianity: From a Christian perspective, Hulbert L. Simpson (The Quenching Question, 1925) comments:
Unitarian Christians also stress the role of questions. While they accept many of the traditional church teachings, they believe that no doctrine is too sacred to be questioned. Their faith is 'a religion of questions and not answers'. [more]
Questions have a central role to play in parables, as noted by Peter Rhea Jones (Parables, Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991):
The provisional nature of "answers" to theological questiuons has been stressed by Nawab Sir Amin Jung Bahadur (Notes on Islam, 1922):
Buddhism: One commentator on Buddhism argues:
In the form of Zen, Buddhism clearly accords a special place to questions through the use of koans to challenge and reframe existing restrictive patterns of thinking. The classical Zen sequence of ox-herding images exemplifies the stages of spiritual exploration [more | more | more]. Such journeys might be understood as 9 ways of answering the question "who am I". All of them are partial and problematic. Each offers something to cling to -- a clinging which can inhibit further insight. All of the journeys are cyclic -- returning to the point of origin so classically indicated by the poet T S Eliot:
Interfaith dialogue -- through question or answer: For the different religions, and especially for their practiioners, much depends on the certainty with which they relate to any answer. To what extent is the answer to existential religious questions "known" -- especially in ways that definitively exclude other, or subsequent, forms of knowing? To what extent is the challenge one of life-long learning without any emphasis on definitive closure that may later be discovered to have been premature? (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors, 2000; Musings on Information of Higher Quality, 1996). To what extent is "unknowing" tolerable -- or to be tolerated in others?
Given the claimed central role of questions by many religions, is religious conflict to be understood as conflict between questions or between answers? What, for example, is the status of each in the Middle East conflict sustained by interpretations of Judaism and Islam -- and Christianity? Do the parties meet in a cycle of violence with regard to their respective answers, their respective questions, or is the cycle of violence to be understood as a pattern of question and answer in which both are complicit? Is the new wall constructed by Israel an "answer" to the "question" posed by Palestinian suicide bombers? Is the challenge for religions that the questions with which they identify are to be understood as nested within answers that go unquestioned? Or is it the answers that are nested within questions that are readily forgotten? Consequentely, is the much debated "clash of civilizations" to be understood as a "clash of questions" or a "clash of answers"?
The nature of such "nesting" is clarified in a comment from a holistic mathematics perspective by Peter Collins (private communication):
God as a question?: Perhaps the more fundamental theological question could be framed as: Is God a question or an answer -- both or neither? In settings providing for oracular communication with divinity, why is it that the communication may take the form of a puzzling pattern of allusions, even a riddle? Is the cognitive challenge to be understood in terms of the existential quality of questions?
If indeed "man" was made in the image of God, should "he" then be understood as a question? Is it indeed a question that "man" most fundamentally shares with God? Did God put "man" on Earth to explore certainty, rather than uncertainty? Is the dynamic between Adam and Eve to be understood in terms of that between question and answer -- with Satan exemplifying doubt and uncertainty? Is the struggle between questions and answers to be compared with the archetypal struggle between good and evil?
With respect to "God as question":
Earlier, Karl Rahner (Grace in Freedom, 1969) responded to the case of "the so-called believer who regards God as a question which he has long settled to his own satisfaction":
As noted by Joas Adiprsetya (Karl Rahner, 2005):
It is an interesting challenge to identify a structure that could fruitfully hold and interrelate the seven WH-questions in a manner that allowed for its reconfiguration under different circumstances. One such candidate is the cuboctahedron fundamental to the explorations of R Buckminster Fuller (Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, 1975) as the vector equilibrium. This structure is especially significant because of its unusual flexibility and the variety of transformations it allows (cf Vector Equilibrium and its Transformation Pathways, 1980).
The structure has:
Together these seven axes offer a symbolic integration of Revelation's "trumpeting angels" (see below).
"Question", ironically, can be understood as "quest-I-on" as an indication of a learning journey in which one is engaged -- a quest. A "vision quest" can be understood as the quest for an answer in the form of a vision. As such it is a journey to a form of closure -- although typically the process of journeying may be recognized as a process of advance-and-retreat between origin and destination. And, to a far lesser degree, the process of questioning also.
The classical tale of questing is in the symbolism surrounding the Questing Beast -- vainly pursued in legendary Arthurian tales by King Pelinore. In the version of T H White (Once and Future King, 1958) the only trace of its passage are its excreted " fewmets" found occasionally by the half-crazed knight. The Questing Beast has however been considered to be a misunderstood creature of more profound significance.
The "heavenly destination", as the ultimate goal of every quest, may then be understood as the place of fundamental questioning -- and as such consistent with what is framed as divine judgement associated with such proximity. As suggested above, such a place may be encountered through seven lesser or secondary questions -- the seven WH-questions -- effectively guardians of the ultimate question. To the extent that these questions are indeed formulated as distinct sounds (or waveforms), creating a soundscape, it is tempting to associate them with the role of the seven trumpeting angels (Revelation, 8) [more]
Such a guarded place of ultimate questioning or uncertainty could be said to be entered by a "gateless passage" or "gateless barrier" as presented in a set of classic Zen koans more commonly translated as the Gateless Gate (cf Comments on the Mumonkoan, 1246). The contemplative view from such a perspective is indicated by the isolated and prominently placed symbolic monumental arches characteristic of ancient China that are neither entry nor exit -- through which the wind blows, nowhere and everywhere. The form is structurally echoed in the I Ching (hexagram #20) -- with the image: "The wind blows over the earth; the image of contemplation" [more].
The form is also echoed in the two pillars of Boaz and Jachin favoured in the symbolism of freemasonry dating from those of Egyptian temples [more]. Curiously it is echoed in its form in the mathematical symbol pi (Π), most closely associated with the circle -- itself the classic symbol of Sunyata (cf Dean Brown and Wenden Wiegand, Law of Nothingness, 2003: "The beginning of everything and the end of everything is the void"). Sunyata has long been represented in China by a flat jade disc with a circular hole in the centre (bi) -- symbolic of heaven. Such "gateless gates" have now acquired widespread imaginative currency as "stargates" through spacetime wormholes.
The cognitive challenge is the nature of the void through which the "cognitive wind" so freely blows. A classic description by Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching) is as follows
A modern structural representation of the "spokes" of the "wheel" in a three-dimensional variant, with the "spokes" as "polarities", is as follows:
Such a structure might also be understood as a form of wind harp. It is characterized by dynamic stability, constantly seeking equilibrium in response to destabilization. It is useful as an ordering of a set of strategic dilemmas -- and the associated interplay between questions and answers. Whether questions are associated with strings and answers with the rigid elements, or the reverse, may also be a useful question (cf Configuring Globally and Contending Locally: shaping the global network of local bargains, 1992; Configuring Conceptual Polarities in Questing: metaphoric pointers to self-reflexive coherence, 2004).
As noted by Chris Lucas (personal communication):
There is a widespread process whereby "questions" are reframed as "problems" -- to which "solutions" provide the "answer". Within this framing "problems" are entirely unwelcome and need to be overcome or circumvented. They are framed as "negative" -- whereas solutions are "positive" (cf Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge -- positive vs negative, 2005). The underlying questions are to be avoided (cf Question Avoidance, Evasion, Aversion and Phobia: why we are unable to escape from traps, 2006). This attitude may be extended to the major policy questions underlying the thousands of "world problems" perceived by some (cf Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential). It is only in disciplines such as mathematics and engineering that "problems" are normally framed as a welcome challenge to creativity and ingenuity -- pragmatically accepting that any "solutions" may be provisional and inadequate. Some of their most creative practitioners may voluntarily identify themselves with a "problem" -- as their life's works.
Curiously, particular people are readily framed as being a "problem", especially because of their disruptive behaviour. Those who signal the existence of "problems" may also be labelled as "problems" -- notably in the extreme case of whistleblowers. There is little effort to explore the challenging question that such people constitute for their environment. That question is a "problem" for which a "solution" is necessary as soon as possible -- even one involving "extreme prejudice".
The creative arts, through which "stories" are told, focus on the transformation of "problem" to "resolution". Many folk tales are based on this. A tension or discontinuity is first acknowledged which the tale then proceeds to resolve. In contrast to the world of policy, it is the process of transformation that is of interest rather than the outcome. But, again, the original question impels attention towards the solution -- avoiding the question itself and the challenge of how to live in the question (cf Thinking in Terror: Refocusing the interreligious challenge from "Thinking after Terror", 2005).
In endeavouring to focus on "solutions" to "problems", the policy world is confronted by its problematic, if not questionable, ability to reconfigure its solution capacity -- as expressed formally in "resolutions". This suggests that governance finds itself continually faced with the inadequacy of its past "solutions" and the need to "resolve" them -- by calling on new levels of "resolve". Here lies the challenge of the so-called political will to change. For the individual, any "resolution" then becomes a matter of the controversial questions relating to the will-to-act and to intentionality, intrinisc or otherwise (cf Pär Sundström, Consciousness and Intentionality of Action , 1998) [more].
There is a further irony to the manner in which "questions" may be reframed as "issues" in any policy debate -- given that "issue" has the significance of "way out". Frequently the effort is made -- as with "problems" -- to eliminate the "issue", thus effectively eliminating consideration of what may be a "way out".
For an individual, perversely defined as a "problem", or possibly as an "issue", the challenge is how to live the "question" implied by the discontinuity with an environment that prefers seamless "solutions" and "answers" and the avoidance or elimination of "issues" .
Is the focus on "answer", rather than on "question", indicative of a pattern of similar misunderstanding that is locking humanity into constrained responses to its challenges?
Consider some other potential candidates exemplifying this pattern:
In some of these cases, it may be objected that, as homonyms, words (or their roots) may legitimately have different significance, whether being pronounced (homophones) and/or spelt (homographs) the same. The challenge is that this readily reinforces a pattern of misunderstanding which is effectively institutionalized -- especially when the difference is so contrasting as to promote a degree of cognitive dissonance (cf Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, 2003). With respect to "questions", agencies of governance, notably those of the United Nations, are indeed funded to provide answers rather than to identify strategically relevant new questions. Their constitutions emphasize answers, not questions, in defining their activities. As a consequence, do they themselves then become questionable -- as international question marks?
A similar phenomenon is to be found in the academic arena, as noted by Sally Humphreys (Questions and Answers: Knowledge Production and the Functions of a University, 2003):
Emphasizing questions rather than answers opens the possibility of new frontiers for the human spirit. Together with the above examples, does this suggest that somehow planetary society has got locked into a dysfunctional mindset? Has humanity been going "the wrong way": de-fining, de-veloping, mean-ing, under-standing, pro-fessing, busi-ness and pro-jects? Will the future (or extra-terrestrials) come to judge the past on the quality of the questions asked -- or the quality of the answers?
Am I indeed question or answer? Or neither? Or both? Problem or (re)solution?
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