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14th Century map of England
"The crisp response seems the enemy of our existence."

Ilya Prigogine whacked part of the scientific world when he declared that answering the question "How long is the British Isle shoreline?" was fundamentally undecidable. People had been dealing in this measurement for centuries before this Twentieth Century mathematician declared the question unanswerable. Prigogine pointed out that measuring the length of the shoreline depended upon answering some unscientific questions like, To what scale?" He showed that the length of the shoreline increased and decreased dramatically, depending upon the chosen granularity of the measure, and essentially melted into the infinite at a small enough scale. The length of the British Isle shoreline, he concluded, was a political question unrelated to science's objective observation. As a purely subjective inquiry, science could only stand mute in response. Certainly, surveyors could employ precision instruments to measure that length, but the measures themselves, utterly dependent upon subjective decisions surveyors made when encountering high and low tides, for instance, and a thousand other little curiosities, could only represent a compromised objectivity, and could therefore never be definitive. The question carried no clear indisputable answer and was therefore null. Encyclopedias still confidently state the length of the British Isle shoreline, without muddying explanation or just saying, "It depends," but it definitely depends.

I catch myself asking BeggingQuestions. Last night, landing in Tucson after a bumpy flight down from Denver, I caught myself asking after Tucson's altitude, though I could see that the city hardly sat upon a flat plain.
Was I asking the altitude of the Tucson city hall, a purely political question, as it represents the compromise chosen to provide a crisp response? The city actually ranges over an array of altitudes, the average of which should materially misrepresent the actual topography as much as any single measure might. Not even the range of altitudes really answers my BeggingQuestion, which presumed the existence of a simple answer to a severely misguided question. I might have more reasonably asked the altitude of the point at which I was then standing, for that question would not need to beg for an answer, and might actually be precisely resolved. The difference between a BeggingQuestion and a reasonable inquiry might always be a simple matter of degree. The broader the question, the less likely any response might reasonably resolve it.

I need to be careful what I ask for, lest I receive an answer. Our language and our culture seems to thrive on BeggingQuestions. We seek definitive answers to the most ambiguous questions, receiving answers more often than we really should. We might think ourselves utterly reasonable when asking which is best?; not
which might be better?, but an amputated short version, like which is best?. That is holds the question hostage, insisting not upon a flowery-seeming philosophical rambling response, but upon a freshly amputated response in return. These sorts of questions usually succeed in receiving precisely what they've begged for, whatever that's worth.

My mother always cautioned me to be careful what I ask for because I might just get it. I can't say how much of my world I begged into existence, how many of my convictions stand upon foundations no more stabile than any measure of the length of the British Isle, but I suspect that much of my world teeters atop such misconceptions. Enlightenment, when and if it comes, tends to shake these prior convictions. A simple change of perspective and universes crumble, presumptions cower, and conclusions collapse. A certain humility might emerge after those falls, a walking more lightly, a definite being more careful what one asks for, for much depends upon the quality of our questions. Nobody can really thwart inherent ambiguity with definitive statements, they can only appear to do so, and therein lies the rub. Responses might more reasonably mirror the underlying ambiguity rather than appear to cleanly resolve it. A certain echo should result, a decidedly fractal call and response which, while obviously similar in pattern at every scale, remains different in kind from every other. A dialogue might result, one which might properly never get to any precise point, but which satisfies the questioner anyway. Some questions are only ever reasonably resolved in this way. The crisp response seems the enemy of our existence.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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