Subsidiary Questions. Part 1. Students in Detention

Consider a set of questions that might be deemed unanswerable, such as

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose that we agree not to give these questions soft answers – merely that it feels good to believe that love is the greatest thing, or that it is too painful to think that life is worthless. We want real evidence. As the evidence is gathered, however, contradictions come up, and by the usual way of thinking, we face a choice of 2 alternatives: The questions can be dismissed for lack of evidence, or the answers can be proposed and accepted on faith despite the lack of evidence. In this blog I want to present a third choice. It will be a middle way, involving a certain kind of evidence related to these questions.

As an example, consider with me the single question, “Is love the greatest thing?” Upon asking it, immediately I find that the answer is uncertain, and I return to the affairs of daily life. Then after a while something happens, perhaps an extraordinary kindness, which raises the question again, “Is love the greatest thing?” Once more the answer eludes me, and the question fades. Nevertheless, as time passes, the happier events of life bring me to pose the question of love’s supremacy over and over again.

This experience leads to a new, subsidiary question, as follows:

                            E. DO I KEEP ON ASKING, IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”?

The subsidiary question (E.) intrigues me. I think it might have an answer, even if the primary question (A.) is unanswerable. The subsidiary question keeps re-appearing; I cannot get it out of my mind. Like a student in detention at the blackboard, I frame this question 100 times in a day, and even more the next day. It fades, but recurs with full force a week or so later. The subsidiary question becomes familiar. And although I am slow to catch on, eventually I become convinced that

                            F. I DO KEEP ON ASKING, “IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”

Do you see? A question of the form, “Do I keep on asking…?” answers itself, as long as you expend the effort of asking it. Therefore, the original, primary question that seemed unanswerable – “Is love the greatest thing?” – may find just a pinch of truth. It is not the answer that is true, but the question. I do keep on asking it.

This process can be applied not only to (A.), but also to (B.), (C.), (D.), and similar primary questions. The subsidiary question in each case looks like this:

                            G. DO I KEEP ON ASKING _____________ ?

and it has an answer in this form:

                            H. I DO KEEP ON ASKING _____________.

An obvious warning: Not every instance of (G.) will result in (H.). Here is a primary question that won’t work:


This question has an answer: No. It proposes a biological impossibility.1 Therefore, every primary question that we put into the formula must be checked to be sure that it has a possibly true answer.

Okay so far? But we must now deal with 2 pressing concerns: Is this only trivial word-play, a game for Friday nights in front of the computer? Or is it solipsism – mere internal theatre?

Perhaps you will agree with me that the questions (A.-D.) are important, not trivial. I’ll grant that it is a matter of personal choice. You may assert, along with a number of brilliant thinkers, that any question deemed unanswerable – for example, by a lack of falsifiability – is thereby rendered meaningless. My rebuttal is that the issue of exactly how we determine what is meaningful or meaningless is itself a question very similar to the questions (A.-D.) .

But, someone interjects, to pile questions upon questions is just an academic exercise. People will not be satisfied with questions; they want bold assertions and exciting proclamations. I tend to disagree, because I think that questions can provide meaning profoundly, but I am sympathetic. Consider then that each of the questions (A.-D.) can be rewritten as an intuition, an intimation, or a proposition followed by a pang of doubt. For example, the first question (A.) may be more completely understood when it is written as

                            J. LOVE IS THE GREATEST THING! IS IT TRUE?

and likewise each of the primary questions can be rewritten similarly. The intuitions and the pursuant doubts express feeling, motivation, joy, and despair; they are not just dry academic aims. Therefore, I invite you to agree with me that these questions are important ones for our lives, neither trivial nor academic.

The danger of solipsism seems more substantial. The subsidiary questions thus far have been expressed in the first person singular voice. But we are social creatures. Our culture requires communication among individuals.

The escape from solipsism is already in progress. You are reading the paragraph that I have written. You can redeem me from solipsism, if together we move from the singular –

                            G. DO I KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

to the plural –

                            K. DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

again, if you join me, then we two students in detention can answer –

                            L. WE DO KEEP ON ASKING ___________.

and the danger of solipsism is avoided.

To summarize, we have considered a set of nontrivial questions related to values and motivations. While those primary questions may not have clear answers, a corresponding set of subsidiary questions of the form, “Do we keep on asking __________?” appear to be answerable. The answers take the form, “We do keep on asking _________.”

In the next post, we will take a close look at the properties of the subsidiary questions.


1 No, as long as we discount imagination, dreams, and hang gliders. I read somewhere that approximately half of people surveyed in the U.S. have experienced bodily flight in their dreams.

Subsidiary Questions. Part 2.


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