Interrogating the Interrogative
by Ed Simon
From whence did the interrogative arise? In what pool of primordial muck could the first question have been asked?
Certainly, mold asks no questions; lichen presents no queries. At some point in that evolutionary chain, we went from ooze to something that could face the world-which-is-not-us and assault it with inquiry. Gnostic cosmology, in all of its labyrinthine and baroque complexities, posited an originating question at the very beginning, for the Word was apparently a query. Sophia, the bride of Christ, God’s indwelling manifestation of wisdom which was one of the emanations during the creation of reality, is both the producer of and product of questions. With an admirable sense of Hebraic parallelism and the rhetorical power of contradiction, the anonymous Gnostic poet of the exhortatory lyric “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” discovered as part of the papyri cache of the Nag Hamadi library preserved in the sunbaked sands of Egypt from the Second Century, writes of Sophia: “I am the first and the last./I am the honored one and the scorned one.”
If there were no questions, then there is a pacific stasis, for questions imply disquiet, they imply imperfection, they imply a lack which is trying to be rectified. When that part of God known as Sophia asks the first question, it’s as if the collapse of the wave-function, it’s the ruptured equilibrium, the disrupted symmetry. From those cracks could grow the very weeds of creation, but the process of dialectic begins with a question, and continues on until whatever the final answer is.
I imagine that in a universe where no questions had ever been asked that perhaps God first asked Herself “What then is this thing called reality?” That schizoid rupture was the Big Bang that inaugurated everything. This is myth though, it doesn’t answer what the actual first question could have been, for the only implicit question that can ever really be asked when reality is stripped naked and we stare on it in all of its sublime, awful, infinite glory is “What exactly is a question?”
The interrogative is a conscious affliction. There aren’t really any actual questions when it concerns Being; Sophia is forever mute but for in our legends. The world asks of us no questions; the world simply is. If after the heat death of the universe, or the big crunch, when either by fire or ice the world does put itself to sleep, there will be no more questions for there shall be nobody left to ask them. If a question is asked by nobody, does it matter? Such inquiries can only occur when a mind comes up against base matter, when those bits of the later have become sufficiently complex enough so as to wonder about the former. But the universe itself – that soup of quarks and leptons, quasars and black holes – it has no questions to ask about itself, for it is not capable of any such reflection. And it’s all the more divine because of it. That’s why it’s God.
So, if we’re to venture some kind of natural history of questions, we must be aware that they’re the unique property of consciousness. This is not to claim that questions are what separate us from those other creatures in the evolutionary Great Chain of Being. Obvious to me that other animals are able to query their place in reality, that they can pose interrogatives whether in language or not. When I consider my delightful dog, who is both the smartest and cutest canine in the world, I can try and surmise certain things about her experience of the world. To be able to solve that metaphysical conundrum known as the “Problem of Other Minds” is difficult with humans, much less animals; yet it’s my intuition that almost all of our furry beast friends (and feathered, and scaled ones) are actually smarter than we assume.
Questions arise from subjectivity, from the individual experience of consciousness, but what are the nature of those questions? In his 1974 paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel asks whether it’s possible to say with any authority what the subjective experience of our chiropteran friends might be . He argues that “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we an experience or imagine.” That evolutionarily speaking bats are conscious, that they have self-awareness, is observable, it’s unassailable. Nagel contends, however, that while we know bats have some kind of inner life, so different are the material circumstances of their existence that it’s impossible for us to ever fully intuit what that life must be life with any degree of certainty. A world of spindly flapping flight, of hanging upside down in dark and moist caves, of guano and blood, of seeing with sound.
That bats ask questions also seems clear, at least to me. They’re presumably not queries translated into language, they’re not grammatically interrogative. But that bats must pursue knowledge of things unknown to them in the moment which are instrumental to their survival seems to simply be a result of the Darwinian imperative. Nagel’s argument is well taken though; that bats are capable of questions, and what those questions are, remain two very different things. Bulldogs are closer to our experience in all ways than the flapping, scaly flittermice are, so I feel more confident in venturing a guess as to what questions they’re capable of, even if indeterminacy must still define such a task.
That my dog questions is clear to me, but what variety of questions is she capable of? The existence of animal consciousness is so obvious that to argue otherwise is rank denialism. The great French Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne observed in his 1576 An Apology for Raymond Sebond that the watchdogs which “we often see growl in their sleep, and then bark outright and wake up with a start, as if they saw some stranger coming” evidence their own inner lives, of thoughts and dreams. Montaigne conjectures that his sleeping dog sees a spectral rabbit, a “hare without fur or bones,” which is to say that the canine can imagine that which is not there. And as questions are both the ancestors and progeny of imagination, it seems fair to assume that dogs must have their questions as well, but what form they take I do not know. As Sarah Bakewell writes in her How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, for the scholar “it is enough to watch a dog dreaming to see that it must have an inner world just like ours.” His later countryman Rene Descartes may have posited that animals were as little mechanical automatons, but anyone who has ever had a pet, regardless of where they fall on that ladder from guppies to lemurs, knows that they have a rich intersubjectivity. As Montaigne himself wondered, “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”
Without getting into the specific nature of those questions (“Where is my food?”), we can think about the variety of questions which either Montaigne’s cat or my dog might entertain by examining that old journalistic trope of the “Six Ws” – who, what, where, when, (w)how, and why. Each one of these types of questions implies something about how humans are able to interact with reality; they’re born from our senses and their purpose is to orient us in time and space. For our pets, there is a clear utility to those classes of questions which orient them in a space of inanimate object – the what? – as well as those that trade in identity of living being which are separate from them – the who? – and to a lesser degree questions those which deal with time – the when? – and when it comes to the activities of life the questions that illuminate how to actually do stuff – the how? – all are clearly important.
You can hide food from your puppy or play hide-and-seek with a parrot, so that the question of “Where?” is obviously entertained by them. Temporality is a different quality; any pet-owner can’t help but wonder how clear their sense of time is. Yet all things being relative, our dogs are creatures of habit, waking at certain times and napping at others, an estimably conservative species whose safety relies upon routine. Thus “When?” is also within their purview. The analytical acumen of a dog also seems to include the “Who?” and the “What?,” for every time a dog barks at the mailman it’s obvious that they can differentiate between people, that they respond to clothes with the scent of their owner and not some other’s is evidence enough that they can differentiate the subtle shadings of the “Who.” And that the “How?” is available to our furred, feathered, scaled co-animals need not be doubted; when Jane Goodall observed chimps using sticks to pull ants from a log it was the needed scientific confirmation of something that any pet-owner suspects about animal intelligence. When I was growing up, our Jack Russell Terrier used to drop his toy golf-balls in his water bowl when the level was getting low, like one of those unnervingly smart crows from Aesop.
But that last variety of question, the “Why?” – are non-human animals capable of that? Because “Why?” is a very particular, very weird type of question. It doesn’t orient us in space or time, nor does it necessarily identify an object or another person, or prescribe a way of accomplishing some task. Rather “Why?” has the gloss of ethics about it, the stench of metaphysics. “Why?” trades in intentionality, in meaning, and that’s what’s gotten us into all of this trouble. With “Why?” we begin to grapple with fundamentally more abstract things; possibly more illusory ones as well. If one should come across a dead baby rabbit in the tall New England grasses there can be an approach based on the “What?” (a dead baby rabbit), the “Where?” (the tall New England grasses), the “When?” (early in the morning), the “Who?” (perhaps that basset hound who skulks around), and the “How?” (jaws, teeth), but the “Why?” doesn’t quite ultimately fit. No doubt you’ll protest, “The why is the predator instinct of the basset hound,” but I’d suggest that it’s fairer to categorize that as just a more specific subset of the “How?”
As anyone who has ever spent anytime with children knows (and I have not, but I take the following claim on faith) it’s always possible to find a deeper “Why?,” for it is the most recursive of questions. Yes, the basset hound has a predator instinct, but why this rabbit and not another? Why a rabbit and not a squirrel? “Why?” proliferates with beauty, but like Bertrand Russell’s turtle-shell on which the Earth sits, it’s turtles all the way down. Who, what, where, when, and how burn themselves out at a certain point, but “Why?” can always be asked of more and more minute answers, so that the chimera of meaning always flees from that ever-burning fire.
One can gather a suspicion that “Why?” is an exercise, a certain type of baselessness, because of this inability to ever conclude. That “Why?” is an illusion, since the ability to dilute its results ever further indicates neither rigor nor certainty, but a defect in our linguistic apparatus. At a point the other types of questions are exhaustible, but “Why? Is inexhaustible. Closely connected to our ability to craft fiction, because “Why?” grown in the counterfactual’s soil, it is planted in potentiality and watered in wonder (no matter how tepid), but the crop proliferates like a weed. The bounty has been all of human philosophy, literature, culture, and religion. With “Why?” being such a late bloomer, it’s fair to conjecture as to what other categories of questions may evolve in the future, that which we’re not cognitively capable of right now, but that through the gift of interrogative synesthesia we may be able to confuse the what with the how and the when with the where, and perhaps conceive of entirely new types of questions as well.
Maybe some higher-order primates have the capability of “Why?,” Goodall has written it is “possible that the chimpanzees are responding to some feeling like awe,” and maybe that’s evidence of curiosity about ultimate things, about the teleology behind our experiences. There is some point in the evolutionary narrative that meaning becomes a possibility, and the “Why?” becomes the tool to try and access it. And in the realm of conscious intentionality “Why?” certainly has a utility – I wouldn’t mean to suggest otherwise. When discussing motivations and meaning, consequences and causality, “Why?” can have a function. But to look at a quark, at a nucleus, at an amino acid, at a cell, at a dead rabbit, at a field, at a sun set, at a star, at a quasar, at a black hole, at a galaxy, at the universe and to force it towards the procrustean bed of “Why?” is a rank category mistake. What I intuit is that to confront and fully understand that “Why?” is a meaningless question when confronting meaning, for neither word means anything. This is not nihilism but its opposite, an attempt to make the world glow again. A divine subtraction until disenchantment becomes its opposite. Because I’d venture to argue that the purpose of all true belief is the exorcism of “Why.”
Zen kaons aside, I take it as a given that a dog has buddha-nature, for though they are capable of all useful questions, they do not fall into the fallacy of “Why.” For them existence is bare, and it is true enough in its own being. They have, like their fellow creatures, maintained a state which the great faiths think of as enlightenment, the elimination of the unnecessary question, the reduction of the fallacy of intentionality. A creation laid bare that asks no question of “Why?” for it is already its own answer. Existence itself has no questions and poses no answers; such a state is only possible in those bits of matter complicated enough to get into all of that trouble inventing imaginary worlds. A felix culpa, that ability to question. To build a ladder of words, its planks questions and answers, so as to transcend to that realm where the interrogative shall no longer hold dominion, and then with a pause to kick that ladder over.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.