Responses versus Answers

To a question, there are two types of responses: An answer and a response. An answer is the correct answer to the question. A response is not the correct answer, but a response or reaction to the question.

While perhaps relevant to the question and offering useful information, a response does not answer the question. It could be said that to a question there is either an answer or anything else (a response).

Question: “What does 1 + 1 equal?”

Answer : “2”

Response : “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I was never good at math. Give me a geography question.”

The “2” is the answer. It gives the correct answer to the question. The “I’m sorry, I don’t know ….” is a response. It does not give the correct answer or attempt to give the correct answer. It’s not so much that the response is wrong, but that it gives an answer to a different, unasked question.

Saying “Are you trying to insult my intelligence?” is a response to the question, rather than an answer. Saying “I don’t have to answer your stupid questions” is a response rather than an answer.

Question: “Johnny, did you take a cookie from the cookie jar?” (Johnny took a cookie from the cookie jar.)

Answer: “Yes, I did.”

Response: “I don’t know. I did a lot of things today. I don’t recall taking a cookie, but it’s possible I might have taken it and forgotten about it. What kind was it?”

Response: “What if I did?”

As shown above, while a response doesn’t give an answer, it can offer information and even unintended insight into the psychology of the responder. The response “What if I did?” neither answers nor attempts to answer the question, but reveals defiance in the responder.

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Many questions cannot be answered by humans. They usually are unanswerable because the answer is beyond human knowledge and sometimes comprehension.

The following are unanswerable questions.

“Exactly what number of grains of sand make up the Sahara Desert at this moment?”

“In square miles, what is the exact volume of the universe?”

Unanswerable questions can only receive responses. Even if you correctly guess the exact number of square miles in the universe, neither you nor anyone else will know that your guess is correct, and likely neither you nor anyone else will assume the guess incorrect. An unknowably correct guess is classified as a response. Obviously it can’t be identified as an answer, as the answer is unknown.

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Many questions are unanswerable because the questions are skewed, sometimes misworded.

Question: “What is the best color?”

Response: “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite.”

Response: “I don’t know, but blue is probably the most popular.”

Response: “Red.”

There is no absolute, objective answer to the question. Any answer to the question is a response. Any pick of color a subjective response. The first two responses offer perhaps useful information, but don’t attempt to answer the question. The response “Red” is also a response cloaked as an answer.

As with earlier unanswerable questions, the responses can give related information and reflect upon the responded. The first two offers information about the popularity of colors. The ‘matter of fact’ answer of “Red” reflects on the personality of the responder.

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The following are common unanswerable human questions:

“What is the meaning of the universe?”

“Why am I here?”

“What is my purpose on this earth?”

There can only be responses to these questions. Religions and many political and social systems are responses to these and other unanswerable questions. They may present their responses as answers, but they are responses. Calling a response an answer is part of the response.

Much of science is a response to unanswerable questions, often the same questions that religion, philosophy and art respond to. Categorizing living things is a response.

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Responses to unanswerable questions shouldn’t be judged as answers, but as responses. Considering it is impossible to know the answer, is this response to the question legitimate and reasonable? Is this response a fair way to respond to the unanswerable?

I would classify the earlier response “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite” as fair. It is not an answer, but a fair enough response to an unanswerable question. As suggested before, I don’t think much of the “Red” as it’s posing as the answer when there is none. The green guy is happy to give you his opinion, but readily acknowledges he doesn’t have the answer. That seems to be a fair response.

I’m an art historian, and in art and collectible authentication, perhaps the number one rule is the expert should never make up an answer when he doesn’t have one. He shouldn’t say he’s 100% sure, when he’s only 75% sure. If you don’t know, you don’t know and, considering no one knows everything, there’s nothing deficient about an expert saying he doesn’t know. Find a self-proclaimed expert who has all the answers and you’ve found someone whose opinion you should be wary of. This should help explain why I didn’t much of the “The best color is Red” answer. If she said “I have no clue” she would have gotten high marks. If she said “I don’t answer dumb questions,” she might have gotten even higher.