Who is asking the question?

5 min read

We have long proposed questions of identity, free will and the like. Such questions often spring up at the moment when we begin to doubt our constitution as we know ourselves, as human beings, and desire a deeper plunder into the “whats” and “wheres” about our nature. Something about questions of self inquiry beget answers from outside of our bodies. Am I just my body, or is there “something else” elusive that I can’t quite catch hold of? Do we have souls, or are we just... human flesh and bone? What do I really mean when I say “I”; who is asking the question?

Such an inquiry, once posed, is likely to haunt anyone who dares take it seriously, or better yet, sincerely. As a baby we didn’t have this wonderment about what we are, but we had wonderment about… everything else. What were we, and what are we now, we might ask? How have we changed, as our wonderment has evolved?

It might also be wise to ask if these are real questions. Should we pose these questions, or do they have an illusory quality? Certainly they’re real, we protest! Or else, we would not be wondering anyway, we rationalize. But, the validity of these questions is something to not brush aside so quickly. In the words of 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.5) “When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.” This is the kind of statement that is perfectly obvious, but highly evasive just when it may be useful. Like now.

Is this curiousity simply a “ghost,” with no real meaning behind it? I am not speaking on the direct application intended by Wittgenstein, if there is any, but I am speaking generally, questioning the questioner… asking the question. Does he exist?

When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it. –Wittgenstein

I believe this riddle can be answered more simply than most, using a series of simple thought experiments, and a few cultural considerations. Some of these echo the sentiments of Zen masters from China and Japan, past and present, while others are more general.

Think of a number, instantly. How did you pick that number? It may seem to have reasons, but can you “decide before you decide” upon that choice of a number? In other words, the decision simply presented itself, and nothing was there to make the decision, aside from the event of the decision. There was “no one” in addition to that decision… to enact the decision. This is to say that there was no process besides the mental selection of selecting the number. To say “you did it,” in a way, suggests that there is something or someone else in addition to the selection. This may seem like an affront to your common sense, or simply downright confusing! However, consider the fact that there was simply a decision which was made—a kind of popping into consciousness of that particular number, when asked “Think of a number, instantly.” That’s all that happened.

Who is wondering if there is someone there making the decision? This question isn’t meant to be taken exactly how we normally use the word “who” in this context. It is asking if one’s conscious sense of self is responsible for one’s actions (strictly speaking), or if a sense of self is simply a thought, a thought that simply muddies the waters of clear thinking! The one who is asking the question, is the same as the one who is being questioned. There are not two things here: a thinker and a thought. They are simply two thoughts which arose in consciousness. Nothing else. If this were realized, there would be no question of a questioner, and a questioned. An object and a subject. A thinker… among thoughts. Is there a thinker, I think not! There is simply a stream of thoughts.

Who is asking the question? The one who is asking the question, is the same as the one who is being questioned.

Such metacognition (in this case, thinking about thinking) is what gives us the illusion that there is a thinker standing aside from the thoughts, orchestrating the thinking, and watching the performance.

Being raised in a world in which language dictates what we believe so strongly, we are consequently bewitched by it—we’re taken in and molded to the resultant style of thought—because thinking through language governs the world as it is experienced. For example, language dictates things as simple as the imaginary borders demarcating countries, it also determines more personal things, such as our views of morality, which are often highly cultural i.e. “I own X and it’s wrong for it to be taken” and “the freedom of the press is a good right,” and so on. Each one of these delineations of “things” is created by language. Or something so obvious that we don’t realize it: the idea that certain things are separate. For example, we consider a door not part of a wall, so it is a different thing, but that’s simply an idea! “May I open up the wall to let you in?” indeed sounds wrong, and it is, but only because we haven’t adopted that manner of speaking.

Sigmund Freud discussed the “Oceanic feeling” babies have before they are able to see the world as most adults, seeing it as an undifferentiated mass of experience (in his 1929 book Civilization and Its Discontents). Alan Watts then expanded upon this idea, in some of his talks, suggesting that this “Oceanic feeling” can become present once again in adulthood in a more mature form, akin to the “acorn and the oak” analogy he also employs more generally. I would suggest that this can only happen once one has unlearned or rather integrated what one has learned about the world in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the real world, the world as rawly experienced by sensory perception. Or in other words: the world as it is and not as it is described. Words are in a sense “signposts,” pointing to something other than what they are. Thus, they are meaningless in themselves (they are just sounds).

These two ideas help to unravel the sense that we have as “riding around in our heads,” deciding things upon the basis of complete freedom, and identifying oneself with that freedom. This is the same as there being no thinker in addition to the thoughts. I submit that these and other similar ideas are cultural illusions, passed down from generation to generation, propagated via our epigenetics, and quite possibly our collective unconscious.

It is only through understanding how much our concepts about the world, distort the world, that we can regain the true nature of human nature once again, and see the world with the awe-filled, “oceanic wisdom” of children. They, in some ways, understand more than us, but only because they know less.


Note: This article was revised for clarity after its initial publication.