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Let's say someone has asked a question: "How can one do X?"

But it turns out in fact that one cannot actually do X. So someone posts a response saying that X is impossible to do.

Can this response be considered an answer to the original question or be considered to be answering the original question?

For example, would it be correct for the person who posted the question to say: "Thank you, my question has been answered"?

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    Yes, there is even special terminology used in philosophy for it. When a question/problem is straightforwardly answered/solved that is called its solution, and when it is shown to rely on a false presupposition that is called its dissolution. Whether the asker will accept either a solution or a dissolution, let alone thank for it, is another matter.
    – Conifold
    Aug 16, 2021 at 9:35
  • @Conifold so if the question has been dissolved (not sure if I'm using it correctly) it has been therefore answered? Even though it hasn't been answered straightforwardly, but still has been answered nonetheless (using "to answer" in the sense "to solve or dissolve a problem" [couldn't find an alternative way to define it] and not just "to reply, respond to")? Aug 18, 2021 at 7:24
  • Yes, a better term is "resolved" rather than "answered", it can be applied also to problems, paradoxes, etc. Whether solved or dissolved, the question is taken off the agenda, settled. Under the natural proviso that the premises of the dissolution are accepted. Like any argument, any solution or dissolution relies on some assumptions, and those, of course, can in turn be challenged or rejected.
    – Conifold
    Aug 18, 2021 at 7:34

3 Answers 3

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It depends upon your definition of 'answer'.

According to Oxford Languages, 'answer' can mean:

A: "A thing that is said, written, or done as a reaction to a question, statement, or situation".

or

B: "A solution to a problem or dilemma".

Definition A describes a response, whereas Definition B describes a response containing a solution.

If someone was to ask the question, "How can drive a car if I am dead?", and another person responded by saying, "Driving a car when you're dead is impossible", they have satisfied definition A, but not definition B.

If someone was to respond by saying, "Driving a car when you're dead is impossible, but you could do it if you could do the impossible, by turning yourself into a zombie", they have provided a hypothetical solution, thereby possibly satisfying definitions A and B.

Note however that there is an important discrepancy between the phrasing of your title question and the material beneath, for to state that the 'question is unanswerable' is different to stating that a thing is 'impossible to do'.

A question that is literally unanswerable simply cannot be answered, regardless of the form the answer entails.

However, we know that (barring some kind of incapacity), a person can always react in some way to a question, so the statement that a question is unanswerable seems only to apply to situations in which no-one was present to react, or in situations where no-one was capable of reacting. But of course, this would mean that whoever poses such a question must somehow be rendered incapacitated or non-existent after uttering it, for they would otherwise be capable of providing an answer.

The reply, "This question is unanswerable" cannot exist in response to a truly unanswerable question, for such a reply requires an answerable question in order to made.

"This question is unanswerable", can be made in response to any question other an unanswerable question. It will however be an inaccurate response, for it will have fulfilled at least one definition - definition A - of the word 'answer'.

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  • Can the definition B be satisfied if the person who asked the question is satisfied with the knowledge that it's impossible and no longer considers the original problem (for which they wanted a solution before and asked the question) to be a problem? (Talking about a situation where there has been no hypothetical answer given and only said that it's impossible to do.) Aug 16, 2021 at 11:32
  • If you mean the question is merely about whether a task is impossible (and not about an unanswerable question); if the asker is satisfied with a response such as, "The task is impossible", definition A is satisfied. However, the question, "Is this task impossible?", does not invite a solution, but merely a statement of possibility (Yes/No/Maybe). "How can I do this task?", invites a solution, but the response, "The task is impossible", does not provide a solution, so definition B is not satisfied. Aug 16, 2021 at 12:09
  • What about the next case. A person asks: "How can I do X?" But it turns out that their actual problem is Y, which they hope to solve by doing X. Someone responds with "It's impossible to do X, but if your actual problem is Y, you can do Z, which can solve Y." Would either of these statements be correct then, and, if so, which: "My question has been answered", "My problem has been solved"? Aug 16, 2021 at 14:28
  • If the problem is actually Y, and if Z is correct, and if the person is capable of Z, then 'You can do Z' is correct. "How can I do X" has been answered (definition A), and the overall problem (Y) may have been solved, but the initial question, 'How can I do x?', has not be solved. Aug 16, 2021 at 23:37
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The question, "How can one do X?", can be asked in two contexts.

1. Knowing that it is unanswerable

2. Without knowing whether it is unanswerable or not

In the first case your response is sensible.

But in the second case your response is not sensible because it is not the answer to the original question. Even when the answer was given with proof, even that answer doesn't answer the original question.

When roughly speaking, the second case is of course a response to a question. But when strictly speaking...,since the OP was looking for a specific way, he didn't get the specific way he was looking for. So we can say that he got an answer to the question, but didn't get an answer to the original question. Similarly we can say that he didn't get a solution to his original problem. But don't forget that in the first case this is the answer.

Even though wrong answer as well as right answer are answers, we often do not give compliment for the wrong answer. Instead, we might thank for the response; not for the answer. Similarly, for an unanswerable question, we might thank for the response or effort; not for the answer. I mean, in these cases, the thanks we give is actually not for the answer; but only for the time spent for us or for the effort. But if we got the answer to the original question, a smidgen would be for the answer.

If you are willing to think about the second context, you will get two cases.

2.1 The questioner doesn't know whether it is unanswerable, but will be satisfied with any final answer.

2.2 The questioner doesn't know whether it is unanswerable, but will not be satisfied with all final answers. What he needs is a solution to his particular problem.

(Though I don't like) You may treat 2.1 as you treated context 1 (That is, as 'sensible')

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  • I'm confused about including 2.1 in context 1. For simplicity, let's say, the questioner doesn't know whether it's unanswerable, and will be satisfied with the following outcomes (perhaps there could be more): learns a way to do X; learns that it's impossible; learns that doing X is not actually important for them; learns a simpler alternative (or a mix of these). So doing X specifically is not a requirement, even though they might not know it or haven't stated it. Aug 18, 2021 at 7:08
  • Sorry, but I still don't understand. If the context 1 means "Knowing that it is unanswerable", and 2.1 means "The questioner doesn't know whether it is unanswerable, but will be satisfied with any final answer", how can 2.1 be included in the context 1? Because one is "Knowing that it is unanswerable" and the other -- "doesn't know whether it is unanswerable". Or do I understand it wrongly? Aug 18, 2021 at 9:35
  • First I treated whether the response is OK or not. In context 1 I treated that it is OK. Discard other things. I mean, 2.1 can be treated OK. I have edited it again to avoid confusion. Aug 18, 2021 at 15:24
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In a logical sense the question would not be answered, instead you made an observation about the question itself. An observation is not an answer.

In fact the observation is the answer to a question that was not asked: "does //the question in reference// have an answer?"

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