Alastair Majury on the Insoluble Question

Alastair Majury on the Insoluble Question

Are there insoluble questions?

If a question can be put into words, then it can also be answered in words. The riddledoes not exist. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.5)

We never conceive a question without an idea that invites an answer … no matter if the idea be not very clear or well defined. (Claude Bernard)

Some people think not.

However Robert Wesley Angelo has some interesting observations on his page here with an extract of some below…

Enigmas and Logical Paradoxes

Questions without answers are often called ‘enigmas’ or ‘mysteries’, ‘riddles’ or ‘puzzles without solutions’, ‘imponderables’, or ‘conundrums’. The description ‘essentially problematical questions’ could also be used to classify them. So that the topic of this page could be called The riddle of existence, or The philosophical enigmas of our life.

It is also possible to regard these questions as rhetorical: they really don’t request an answer, but only an awareness of themselves. “Look!”, they say, expecting agreement to the rightness of asking them. However, even enigmas or rhetorical questions must not be nonsense (i.e. undefined combinations of words).

‘Am I awake or am I dreaming?’

This is the sort of question-without-an-answer or pseudo-question that the Verification Principle was supposed to do away with. And yet the “question” remains. It expresses — or seems to express — an insight into the fundamental situation of human knowing (knowledge). Add to this that without memory there is no time — and that memory is often of things for which there is no evidence beyond memory — and everything I believe begins to appear uncertain.

“If you say ‘I doubt’ in such cases, you do not play the language-game or you play it wrong.” You introduce — or try to introduce — a doubt where there is no (defined) place for one. In the normal game, you don’t know, and you don’t not know either. ‘Am I awake or only dreaming?’ — The only reply is: by what method of verification? But can we then go on to say that the method of verification is the meaning of that combination of words (and that if there is no method, then that combination of words is nonsense)? I don’t think so … but perhaps we can say that without such a method, we have nothing more than “incomparable pictures” (i.e. pictures to which there is nothing to compare), what we call the “idle pictures” of metaphysics, certainly not truth and knowledge. So, then, why do we want to call — indeed, why do we insist that — such expressions of doubt (or pseudo-expressions of doubt) express fundamental insights into the human condition? (Which are questions without answers — insights or delusions?)

“Our sanity is at the mercy of a molecule” (Drury, DW p. 134). But just as it is nonsense to say ‘I am dreaming’ (if by that we mean: ‘I am asleep’), it is also nonsense to say ‘I am insane’. It is only when we regard ourselves as individuals, divorced from the community in which our language has its “life” (its uses as various tools), when language thus “goes on holiday” (PI § 38), that these first-person doubts can arise (or appear to arise); Descartes’ method was holiday-making. Are they then not real doubts (“real doubts”)? Wittgenstein: Language is the tool of a community. Is that statement a “theory of meaning” or a (selected) definition of ‘meaning’? (According to me in these pages, the latter.)

“Can I doubt that I am doubting?” Augustine asked rhetorically. I can in the sense that I may be uncertain about — i.e. I may doubt — whether I am using the word ‘doubt’ correctly. But then can I also doubt that I am thinking? The word ‘thinking’ is used so broadly that it is difficult to see where I might find grounds for doubt.

Doubts can go down to the very foundations, but below the foundations they cannot go (because there is no such place). According to Wittgenstein: “The kind of certainty is the kind of language-game” (ibid. ii, xi, p. 224e).

Because if I am dreaming, then I am surrounded by unreality, so that even if I say to myself that I am dreaming, the words ‘I am dreaming’ are part of the dream and do not have the consequence that I wake up or stop dreaming. (Cf. If I say ‘I am deceiving myself’ or ‘I am going in the wrong direction’ what is the consequence of that?) Asking whether or not I am dreaming undermines the foundations of all my thinking, for if I am dreaming then our “language-games” with words such as ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘knowledge’ cannot be played.

Is the combination of words ‘I am dreaming’, like ‘I am sleeping’, “meaningless”. In Wittgenstein’s narrow sense of ‘meaningless’ it is (because it is not a move in a language-game). But in the present context, it does point out to us the ultimate foundationlessness of believing: bedrock does not itself have bedrock. If I really were unable to decide whether I were awake or were dreaming, that would be madness, which is to say, loss of reason (and a madman does not know that he is mad: ‘I am mad’ is nonsense). If I can no longer count on objects retaining their weight, there is no point in weighing them (cf. PI § 142; measurement is a “language-game”). ‘Am I dreaming?’ is a question without an answer.

It is not a move in the language-game of question-and-answer, which is the case with all such “questions”. But may it not be that there is another meaning of ‘meaning’ — an alternative to the one Wittgenstein chose, but nonetheless objective — which can be employed to give this form of expression (“questions with no answer”) meaning?

Moving away from Robert’s observations then I believe the ultimate insoluble question for man or machine was captured in “The Prisoner” episode “The General” originally shown in 1967. The central themes of this episode were rote learning and indoctrination.

And the ultimate insoluble question for man or machine is? Well let’s watch:

What Alastair Majury and The Prisoner believes to the ultimate Insoluble Question

Do you agree that simply “Why?” is the ultimate insoluble question for man or machine is?

Alastair Majury resides locally in the historic Scottish city of Dunblane, and is a Senior Regulatory Business Analyst working across the country. Alastair Majury is also a volunteer officer at the local Boys’ Brigade company, a charity which focuses on enriching the lives of children and young people, and building a stronger community. Alastair Majury also serves on the local council (Stirling Council) as Councillor Alastair Majury where he represents the ward of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, topping the poll.




I am a Chartered Member of CISI, which is the UK’s leading securities and investment professional body. Alastair Majury resides locally in Dunblane.

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Alastair Majury

Alastair Majury

I am a Chartered Member of CISI, which is the UK’s leading securities and investment professional body. Alastair Majury resides locally in Dunblane.

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