[ Question ]

What are questions?

byDonyChristie4mo9th Jan 201917 comments

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BONUS CONTENT

(Meta: I have been paralyzed with indecisive perfectionism on this question for way too long the past day. This dynamic is no small part of why I have never posted an article or barely any comments on this site in eight years of reading it and being part of its culture. Every additional word I added to this post increased the surface area of potential errors, a trap where the more I corrected the more I saw a need for correction, the more I ran the farther the finish line seemed. It's weird since I noticed I could have just posted the question by itself and left it at that satisfactorily. I realized that I could get that easygoing feeling back and just route around this maladaptive mental pattern by labeling the post as "bonus content" to the question! This relaxes the demanding constraint of feeling like each additional word I write has to impress you. That means you read this at your own risk, sucka! No promises of formality and articulacy! I am free and can feel satisfied, yippee!) ☺️

Our quest consists of the simplest operations, each one worthy of examination. We cannot build towers of thought without a solid foundation. We cannot build better tools if we don't know how our current tools operate, and it's often good to bootstrap by using our tools on themselves.

It seems silly to ask. But I have a heuristic that that which is laughed at should be taken seriously. It is an action at the core of our epistemology. I wrote down at least a hundred questions I could ask here, and this struck me as the logical first step, the node before all others. What is the nature of the enterprise, before we chart a course to any particular destination?

So I ask: What the fuck are these question things anyway?

There's something about a conscious recognizing of what is unknown - the act of questioning being the movement from Unknown Unknown to Known Unknown (aka unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence). What is the process of noticing ignorance?

But I want to leave this open-ended. More information on what correlates with questioning seems valuable, whatever it is. I don't know what I don't know about how I come to know what I know.

Here are generative subquestions to consider (some of them are their own can of gummy worms best left for a deeper answer another day)!

Can you Taboo "question"? What is happening in the brain when a human questions? How has its meaning and etymology morphed over time? How do other languages conceptualize the act of questioning? What metaphors are useful to understanding what questioning is? What are unusual framings of the concept of questions? What are the different kinds of question? When is a question not a question? Do animals ever 'ask questions'? Can questions be nonverbal? What does it feel like to have a question and to have that question resolved? What is the research on questions? What are their significance to human history? Do they actually exist?

Can you Taboo "answers"? How does one know when one has an answer? What is information? What is knowledge? Are answers always tentative? Can one predict when one will receive an answer? How do people go about seeking answers to their questions?

Can you compose a satisfying, useful, compact, and true model of what questions are?

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7 Answers

Questions in humans often involve some kind of status interaction. A question is not only (or even always) a request for information but often also represents an offer to trade status for information.

(I realise that this is focusing on a very narrow sub-field of the question asked but you did ask for unusual framings!)

In a canonical case of requesting unknown information, the asker is lowering his status relative to the askee in trade for the information. The act of asking implies that, at least in this area, the askee has superior knowledge to the asker, thus increasing the askee’s prestige. In doing so it provides a trade to the askee for an answer.

This status transfer is often the reason that questions go unasked. The common refrain “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is there to try to overcome this reluctance to ask by lowering the status tax on question asking. I often tell new starts at my work to ask as many questions as possible in the first 6 months because you’ll feel less silly during this period (i.e. the status tax is lower as expectations of your knowledge are lower). Asking questions after that will be necessary but it will be emotionally more costly as time goes on. One weighs up (not necessarily consciously) whether the information required justifies the expenditure of status.

One obvious result is a preference to ask questions in a smaller group so that the asker’s status is lowered in fewer people’s opinions. Of course this is reversed if the question is really an excuse to show off one's own intelligence!

Similarly, one is tempted to search for information without making it obvious that you are asking a question thereby maintaining plausible deniability.

Questions generally being low status can be used to your advantage. In general you won’t tell your boss if he’s wrong but you might ask a question obliquely which might make him consider for himself that he might be wrong. If this works then you can correct his mistake without threatening his status (Caution: use with care!).

A manager might also use questions to correct an employee in order to be less status threatening to the employee.

I feel like questions in humans can’t be fully understood without some form of status interaction.

Meta Note

Having the question feature on LessWrong is interesting as it emphasizes that question asking is not a low status activity on the site. The potential issue is that askees might not feel like spending the time to answer a question provides sufficient reward. If this is overcome then I think the Q&A feature would count as a positive sum status interaction (at least on a status adaptation level).

I think responders need to be careful to avoid putting the status tax back on asking questions (e.g. by implying the question is stupid or the answer is obvious). I realise the need to distinguish good and bad questions (for clarity, I would include this question in the former) but I would prefer this to be done via moderation policy.

The issue with the status tax is that it optimises for whether an individual needs the information rather than whether it is a generally good question. For example, if a question is something that alot of people are interested in but no individual really desperately needs to know then the status tax makes it less likely to be asked. A good moderation policy should be able to encourage such questions.

(I've often had the experience that when someone finally overcomes their reluctance to pay the status tax and asks a question suddenly everyone says that they were wanting to ask that too - I wonder how often such questions just don't get asked).

I found an old comment by Morendil that provides a useful (but possibly non-exhaustive) taxonomy of questions:

  • “challenge” questions like “how confident are you about this”—they are really intended to prompt the askee to ask the question of themselves
  • “clarification” questions—like “what did you mean by X”
  • “genuinely curious” questions—the first to seem so was “How does any particular agent go about convincing me that it’s Omega?”
  • “mocking rhetorical” questions—like “Don’t they know (...) this thing called ‘social networking’? ”
  • “hypothetical” questions—like “what would I think of an amateur who argues with me in the area of my competence?”
  • “question and answer” pairs—like “does that mean they are wasting their time there? Of course not...”—obviously rhetorical
  • “what if” questions—like “And what if you wanted to grow?”
  • “agreement seeking” questions—like “Agreed?”
  • “information-providing” questions—like “Anyone heard of Marblar?” (with a link, so we know the asker has heard of it)

This makes me think that none of the current answers have provided a full explanation of what questions are yet.

Some of these answers are tragically simplistic. They're also kind of meta (or perhaps one of the opposites of meta), because if a question really is merely an information retrieval device then the answer to "What is a question?" is of course going to be nothing more than a straightforward regurgitation of information. Our imaginations can be useful, however.

Let's take the polythetic entitation approach. The canonical case of a question is a person is using the [grammatical] interrogative mood to get information from another person. However, questions are an actual population of happenings in spacetime, and one by one we can relax or change the parameters of the canonical case to see how the question-population's body is actually shaped.

1. A one-person question. Someone can ask a question not to another person, but to oneself. This can lead to introspection and a reorganization or reanalysis of already-stored sensory information (underscoring the difference between "information" and "knowledge"), or to a search for new sensory information.

2. A search for information without the interrogative mood. Someone can use the indicative mood, for instance, to get information from another person. Instead of "Did you like the outcome of the election in Brazil?" you can have "The election in Brazil was crazy!" This can obfuscate the fact that information is being sought, in order to make the askee not feel like she is being interrogated or being pushed into a debate, perhaps making her feel more free to speak her mind in any response she might produce.

3. The interrogative mood without a search for information. Someone can use the interrogative mood to surface information or a topic in a conversation without revealing that they already know the information. Instead of "I hope your children get well soon, [Person who I just met but have previously heard about and know your kids are sick]" you can have "Do you have any children, [Person who I just met but have previously heard about and know your kids are sick]?" "Yes, [Person who I have just met and literally never knew existed]" "Oh that's nice, how are they doing?" "Oh they've been sick for a few days" "Oh I'm sorry, I hope they get well soon." In this case, questions can be used to cover over the probably awkward fact that someone has heard gossip about somebody else.

4. A search for information without language. Forget grammatical moods, sometime information can be sought from other people without even language. Facial expressions, wandering hands, etc. can be used to show that one wants information and would appreciate signals in return, perhaps a pointing finger or a well-timed moan.

We can take a step back from the polythetic algorithm and meta-gaze upon this post, however. It's ostensibly asking "What are questions?" but it might also be trying to pry open a new angle on the related discourse, or prepare its audience for a subsequent production. There's not really enough information in this post to tell; maybe I should just ask a question.

(this response is going to be odd)

Questions don't need (direct) answers.

There are three parts to a question.

  1. The feeling behind the question.
  2. The feeling in the question.
  3. The feeling that the question provokes.

Take a simple question (in the concrete realm) like, "why are you home so late?"

Without knowing who it comes from or why, we can guess at 1/2/3.

  1. Love/care
  2. Fear/worry
  3. Frustration

From an emotional management perspective, all we need to do is validate the feelings. The best answer might be,

(a) "I can tell that you care about me, it sounds like you are worried about where I was, I can see how it might be frustrating not knowing where I was."

(b) Alternatively, also good response to (1)- "I can tell how much you care about me"

(c) And the less good response to (2), "do you have a problem with that?"

(d) Or response to (3), "why are you always accusing me of things!"


Notice that an answer like, (e) "I was caught in traffic" manages to make the asker do the emotional work of deciding if the question was answered.

The asker could then have to follow up, "that doesn't explain why you were so late?" and the feeling behind/in the question has changed.

A question is an opportunity for connection, emotional connection (John Gottman called it "emotional bids).

Answering the question with (e), closes the question and ends the opportunity for connection. Effectively, one of the worst things that can be done for emotional entities trying to create connections. One of the best things that can be done is (a) and even b, c, d generate emotions that demonstrate investment in the current events. An investment that can be engaged with and interacted with.

The answer (d) goes about putting emotional Labor back on the asker to validate the defensiveness feeling demonstrated in the response. It's not ideal, it's asking/demanding to be heard, but at least it's living in love emotions.

Lastly the case of (f) silence in response. If asked the question above and the response is silence, the asker gets to fill the void with their inherent assumptions. In a good relationship that means the asker can fill the void with their own validation, in a bad relationship, the asker fills the void with their own fear or anger emotion. The longer that the void is, the more chance that the uncomfortable emotions resolve themselves (oh! I'm only frustrated because xyz, I feel better now even though I didn't get an answer). Silence is useful, important, and complicated.


When I ask a question from the known to the unknown, I give my brain (consciousness?) a chance to point at the unknown and find itself the answer. I also give my brain the chance to point awareness at 1/2/3 and resolve the issues that exist by those emotions needing to be validated. If I just answer the question, I don't validate 1/2/3, I just close the inquiry.

Often a question needs a bit of silence before being answered (2sec+) because in the silence, people often know the answer they are wanting.

Classic, "flip a coin because while it's flying through the air you find out which side you want it to land on".

From a rationality perspective, we aim to maximise the known, because knowable things are "safe". Unfortunately, knowns are also boring. In post-rationality (or mysticism) we realised the need to traverse both the known and the unknown equally and thus the need for the willingness to be uncomfortable.

We build a house to create known safety from the elements. That's amazing and important. Then we get bored of staying home and we go out to do things that are interesting. Stepping slightly out of safety and into the unknown, because that's where the good things are to be discovered.

Life (creativity, freedom, existence), the good stuff, the exciting, amazing stuff, happens in the unknown. A good measure of known will support the unknown. I create a few hours of free time in my calendar to do some creative work.

Too much of either known or unknown is not going to be the right balance. There is a need for balance between the known and unknown.


(and the weird and mystical answer likely to get me thrown off lesswrong) there's a balance between 1 and 0.


Separate comment: (improv theatre says, don't ask questions, make statements)


Obviously this is a very simple example and I've filled in the blanks massively. It's easy to tear apart this example but that's not the point. This examination works if the 1/2/3 motivations fit the asker.

(apologies for formatting weirdness)

A dictionary will tell you that a question is a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information, and it seems to me that that is exactly how the word is used. There is something that one does not know and wishes to know, and a question, addressed to someone who might know, is one means of satisfying that want.

I don't see what the big deal is.

I will try to focus on the "compose a satisfying, useful, compact, and true model of what questions are" aspect. To reduce the problem to something more manageable, I will regard the thought process while questioning and exclude social and linguistic aspects.

In short:


My model proposal:
- While thinking, we use 'frameworks' (expectations/models/concepts/..)
- When thinking inside of a framework, we are able to notice gaps and inconsistencies, which feels unnerving to confusing
- This causes us to search for a solution (filling the gap, fixing the inconsistency, replacing the framework), which is the act of asking a question

(- The nested, interacting, fuzzy and changing 'frameworks' make everything complicated.)


In long:
Aiyen answered "It's a noticed gap in your knowledge", which I would like to build on:
It seems to me that questions are only possible when there is some expectation/model/concept in my mind to find the gap in.

As no better term comes to my mind I will use *framework* as the term for the expectation/model/concept that the question is stemming from. One can imagine 'framework' to refer to a mental picture of some part of reality.

Now it seems to me that while thinking inside of a framework one can notice gaps or inconsistencies in the framework (this strongly reminds me of 'Noticing Confusion' from the Sequences), which feels unnerving (if clear) or confusing (if vague).
The search for a fix to the gap of the framework would then be what we call asking a question.

When doing this in a social setting, asking a question will tell others that help (in some sense) is being asked for and reveal something about the framework in use (which has many implications for social interaction).

Example

- I think that the term 'stupid question' is usually used when one thinks that the asking person is using an unsuitable framework altogether. It doesn't refer to the question itself but to the fact that 'basic understanding' (the 'proper framework') seems to be missing and thus answering the question would be pointless.

Usefulness and Summary

Although this model of Questions seems quite compact and true to me, at this point it doesn't help with moving from the "Unknown Unknown to Known Unknwon".
Pointing out that confusion plays a big role is already part of the Sequences.
Apart from hiding everything complicated behind the term 'framework', the main aspect of my model is the claim that questions always, per definition, have their origin from 'inside their box' and are a quest for looking outside of it.


Our quest consists of the simplest operations, each one worthy of examination. We cannot build towers of thought without a solid foundation. We cannot build better tools if we don't know how our current tools operate, and it's often good to bootstrap by using our tools on themselves.


To improve our tools of thinking, a better understanding of questions and their behaviour surely is useful.
In my usual way of thinking, the frameworks I am using in my mind are fuzzy and ever changing, which makes it hard to pin down and realize confusion.
This problem can be approached by thoroughly and consciously choosing one's framework of interest. One would expect this to take a lot of mental work/time, but in exchange be a more robust way to improve frameworks
(This does sound a lot like the "System 2" way of thinking from Kahnemann's "Thinking, Fast and Slow").

If it is true that finding gaps in a defined box (framework) is a natural ability of our mind (and the existence of a box a condition for this ability), this could open an approach for improving our tools.

___
Final note: Until now I only read about rationality and certainly do not feel confident in my ability to contribute without erring often. Please point out mistakes that I make or basic ideas that I am unaware of.

It's a noticed gap in your knowledge.