Questions, Unanswerable and Otherwise

The woods of Capon Springs, West Virginia were bright and green with new growth one June day in 1982 when I took my niece, Lucy, for a hike. Lucy was not yet three and kept up a stream of chatter as we walked. She was most taken with the large tree trunks strewn at haphazard intervals along our path. “Why that tree fall down, Aunt Jane?” she asked about each one that we clambered over. At first I took a guess – it may have been hit by lightening, I suggested. Or perhaps the wind yanked it up by its roots. But soon enough I was forced to admit I didn’t know why.

Lucy seized quickly on this mystery. “Why that tree fall down?” she continued to ask, but each time added, “I just don’t know why.” It was a long walk for a little girl – over a mile – but she kept up her pace and her fascination, undeterred by her awareness that there would be no answer, at least no definitive one, to her repeated query.

In fact, her question was probably not answerless. A forester or arborist could have looked at the supine tree trunks and surmised what happened in each case. There were probably clues to read if one knew the language. But in that moment, with only me present, her question was, for all practical purposes, unanswerable.

Like Lucy, I am from time to time engrossed in pondering unanswerable questions, seeking explanations for the unknown or unknowable. How would my mother’s life have changed if she’d started college at 18 instead of 73? This is a form of benign speculation that invites the fabrication of alternative scenarios, most of which eliminate my existence. They are, nevertheless, entertaining fictions. I have contrived some marvelous careers in medicine for my mother, who in her real life was, among other things, a hospital volunteer. Thus questions like this that seek alternatives to actual events are not, strictly speaking, unanswerable. They simply have no answers that are verifiable.

There are, however, other questions that are haunting and more genuinely unanswerable. Ten Unanswerable Questions Some of them have dogged me since I was a small child: what was there before there was something? What will there be after there is nothing? Others are deeply personal: why did my husband drown while we were snorkeling? Sometimes this question arises in a different iteration: would he have died had we gone to a museum instead of the beach? But there is no do-over allowed to get at the truth, and probabilities are not satisfying answers, if they are answers at all.

Fortunately, inventors and explorers are tantalized by seemingly unanswerable questions. We know about bacteria, black holes, flight and seasons because they refused to accept the notion that their questions were unanswerable.  But there is a difference in the nature of questions. Phenomena that recur – birds in flight – or that have left clues – downed trees – require inquiry, information and expertise to understand, but they are ultimately decipherable. And perhaps it is because we have become accustomed to solving mysteries of the physical world, or because Google has trained us to believe that there is an answer to everything, we refuse to give up on any questions. Yet, if only to avoid wasting time and thought, it seems important to distinguish between a question waiting to be answered and one that is inherently unanswerable. If the question seeks an answer that depends on permanently irretrievable evidence, such as a cremated body, or if it solicits hypothetical alternatives to actual past events, the question is unanswerable with anything other than speculation. Does that mean it’s unanswerable, or just not susceptible to a definitive answer? Is a wrong answer an answer nonetheless?

What is the hypnotic power of the unanswerable question? Why do we – do I – allow it to intrude repeatedly upon our consciousness? Why don’t we dismiss such a question as pointless or fatuous, instead of allowing it to suck us in? Perhaps it is because there lurks the suspicion that there may be an answer after all, like the unsolved crime that we know has a solution though it has eluded the law. If we think hard enough, study the available information, root out new clues, then surely we will come to the solution. But is it supreme hubris to believe that there are ultimately no unanswerable questions? And does this belief invite contentment or malaise?

     Why do we dwell on the inexplicable? Like Lucy, I just don’t know why. But surely there is greater peace of mind in the soul of Victor Hugo’s Monseigneur Bienvenue “who was simply a man who accepted mysterious questions without scrutinizing, disturbing them, or troubling his own mind . . . . leaving on one side those prodigious questions which attract and terrify, the unfathomable perspectives of the abstract, the precipices of metaphysics . . . .”

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