I was pointed to Luciano Floridi's 2013 paper "What is a Philosophical Question" which I just read with great interest. He proposes
a definition of philosophical questions as questions whose answers are
in principle open to informed, rational, and honest disagreement,
ultimate but not absolute, closed under further questioning, possibly
constrained by empirical and logico‐mathematical resources, but
requiring noetic resources to be answered.
He starts by looking at questions in general, pointing out en passant, that
there is a significant difference between heuristics, understood as the method of problem solving (Pearl 1984), and erotetics, that is, the logic of questions and answers (Belnap and Steel 1976).
This is already an invaluable pointer, as I did not know of the field of erotetics, and will look there to see if it provides insights into writing a thesis. A very good recent overview of the field is (Wisniewski 2015).
Some interesting highlights:
- Floridi distinguishes open and closed questions. Closed questions are those where it does not make sense to repeat the question when answered, because you have all the information you needed to answer the question. "To use Wittgenstein’s analogy, she would be buying another issue of the same newspaper to double-check the news." Open Questions are those where it makes sense to have divergent answers, and can be mundane such as "Where should we go on Holidays?" I think one could add engineering questions to those: such as how would you build a bridge from England to Ireland? There are many ways one could do it, and each would have advantages and disadvantages. Mathematical proofs once shown have the status of being closed, though at the best mathematics is also conceptual innovation, and mathematicians have to choose between different possible definitions that can help unify different spaces. Stack Exchange it seems is prone to preferring closed questions (perhaps not this Philosophy community? According to Floridi, you would need to be biased towards open questions to be philosophical!)
- Inspired by Turing's analysis of the resources it would take to solve a problem - it's complexity - Floridi argues that Philosophical problems require noetic resources to be answered. "Critics fail to grasp that philosophy is not in the business of discovering solutions but in that of designing them."
- Not all open questions are good questions. Open Questions can be posed at the wrong level of absraction, but for example being too general, and thus lead to pseudo philosophical puzzles. This is similar to a badly designed protocol that would fail to give the unit in which an answer was couched, eg sending out the time at which a blog post was written but failing to give the time zone, as was done by the Metaweblog API. He points to Kant's antinomies of pure reason as one example and to Turing's redefinition of the question of what it is for a machine to think in terms of the imitation game, as an example of how one can improve a question:
[Turing] made clear, for the first time, how philosophical questions
could be answered only by fixing the Level of Abstraction at which it
would then make sense to receive an answer. This is one of the
greatest and lasting contributions of his famous test (Turing 1950),
far more important than the incorrect predictions about when machines
would pass it, or what consequences one should draw if they did pass
it (Floridi, Taddeo, and Turilli 2009). It is sometimes forgotten that
Turing refused even to try to provide an answer to the question “Can a
machine think?” because he considered it a problem “too meaningless to
- Questions appear in webs of questions (to put it in Quinean terms). One question leads to the next. But not all open questions are philosophical. The open philosophical questions are the ultimate ones:
ultimate questions are those questions whose answers are most
influential in terms of a cascade of further questions and answers to
other related questions within that network.
Furthermore philosophical questions even though open are closed under further questioning: ie. further questioning keep leading to further philosophical questions. But they are not located in a void, they are connected to the web of questions, including mundane ones, which constrains the possible answers to philosophical questions, meaning that philosophy is not atemporal but instead embedded in the culture in which they are asked.
That last point does explain how there can be an order of questions from mundane to ultimate ones. One can remark that one does not start from the ultimate ones, but progresses there. In Descartes' meditation he inititally asks only mundane questions, such as how does he know the way things are since the wax can transform from solid to soft. He only slowly progresses to the ultimate question of knowledge "Is there anything that one can be certain of at all?".
- Pearl, J. 1984. Heuristics: Intelligent Search Strategies for Computer Problem Solving. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
- Belnap, N. D., and T. B. Steel. 1976. The Logic of Questions and Answers. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Floridi, L. 2011. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Turing, A. M. 1950. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59,
no. 236: 433–60.
- Floridi, L., M. Taddeo, and M. Turilli. 2009. “Turing’s Imitation Game: Still a Challenge for Any Machine and Some Judges.” Minds and Machines 19, no. 1: 145–50.
- Wisniewski, Andrzej. "Semantics of questions." The handbook of contemporary semantic theory 3 (2015): 273. (pdf)