What Is It Like to Be a Question?

“In your house, I long to be
Room by room, patiently
I’ll wait for you there like a stone

Nick Treanor in his review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s Reflections on Human Inquiry says that “there is less clarity and sophistication than ideal” in the book but acknowledges that “[p]erhaps this is explained by the intention to speak to a broad audience. And some unclarity is also inevitable in a work like this, given its ambitions, and that can indeed be a virtue rather than a defect.” To illustrate his point he uses this passage from the essay “Human Reality”:

what do we mean when we say that nonhuman organisms conceive of other kinds of world? If we cannot ourselves conceive of any other kind of world except what we are allowed by our design, how can we make a comment on what different-designed animals conceive of? As Chomsky suggests, Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, does not seem to have an answer; hence, the question could be meaningless. (pg. 17)

Let’s call Nagel’s question Q-N. Treanor finds “this passage puzzling, and puzzling because it was just unclear to me what was being said”.

What does Mukherji (or Chomsky, for that matter) mean in saying that Nagel’s question doesn’t seem to have an answer? Is it that the question seems to have no answer at all? Or no answer that humans can understand?

  1. Is the idea Mukherji is driving at that the question doesn’t have an answer, understood as a kind of semantic item akin to a sentence or proposition?
  2. Or is it rather that there is nothing it is like to be a bat, propositional or otherwise?

Although (2) is an interesting suggestion (as might have been the case if Q-N was a meaningful question – but, say a case of category error of associating “like to be” with “a bat”) I think, Mukherji subscribes to (1). Chomsky writes that

Many questions that puzzle people have an interrogative form, but it’s not clear what the question is. Take “What is it like to be a bat?” – Nagel’s (1974) question. It has an interrogative form but is it a question? If it’s a question, there have to be some possible answers to it. In fact, in formal semantics, it’s common to propose that the meaning of a question is the set of propositions that are possible answers to it. Maybe that’s too strong, but at least it’s some kind of condition of the meaning. Suppose there are no possible answers – is it a question? What’s a possible answer to “What’s it like to be me?” I can’t think of a possible answer; so is it a question? Or maybe the question is something like, “How do things work?” which has an interrogative form but is not really a question.

McGilvray: It’s precisely that kind of question – if you can call it a question – that exercises philosophers.

Chomsky: It does, but the first thing they’ve got to do is turn them into meaningful questions. (Chomsky and McGilvray, Science of Language. pg 98)

For Chomsky (also Mukherji and many others) an interrogative sentence doesn’t necessarily form a meaningful question – just as a sentence like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” doesn’t form a meaningful sentence. The formal semantics approach to the meaning of a question might be too strong but even in a weaker form, any possibility of finding an answer is a necessary condition for the interrogative to be a meaningful question. And what makes Q-N meaningless is the vagueness of the interrogative, which to me is almost of the quality as “How do things work?” And it is in this context of a discussion of vagueness the first quote from Mukherji appears in the essay.

For Chomsky, such meaningless interrogatives can (at least sometimes) be turned into meaningful questions. For example, if we ask another question,

Q-S: Is there a systemic difference between the visual perception realized by the same stimuli in two different species?

This, I believe, Chomsky would find a meaningful question and will even answer the question in affirmative. As in case of conceptual differences between humans and rats – the latter with their lack of cognitive bases for the concept of prime numbers cannot solve the maze with prime numbers.

But even the amalgam of all sensory perceptions (and emotions) doesn’t capture what is in natural language is meant by the phrase “like to be”. Cases of being “like” an inanimate object further complicates the issue. As long as there is no clear definition of this phrase and what is it like to be me or Chomsky or Nagel there is no hope to even guess what is it like to be a bat – because we do not know what to guess in the first place.

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