The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.

ANAIS NIN (1903-77)

Hypothetical Puzzles

The Chicken and the Egg

There is a definitive answer to the paradox ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’
The answer is the egg because we know that birds evolved from earlier egg-laying reptiles and so the earliest proto birds emerged from reptilian eggs.
As geneticist J. B. S. Haldane put it ‘The most frequently asked question is: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The fact that it is still asked proves either that many people have never been taught the theory of evolution or that they don't believe it.’

Trees Falling in Forests

‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’

The question, or one like it, was first posed by Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1783). The answer depends on who you address the question to:
• To a neurologist: No. ‘Sound’ is the action of vibrations on an eardrum. No ears, no sound.
• To a physicist: Yes. The sound waves propagate whether they’re perceived or not.
• To a semanticist: It depends what you mean by ‘sound’.
• To a philosopher: Yes or No (ain’t that always the way?). Can that which is unperceived be said to ‘exist’?
• To a theist: Yes. God perceives the sound.
• To John Locke: Not really. ‘Sound’ is a secondary quality, as is colour; they are both qualities we ascribe to something because of the way we perceive them (whereas shape is an example of a primary quality; ‘roundness’ is a characteristic which exists independently of our perception). The quality of sound is a function of our perception of it. 

Quickfire Hypotheticals

How could you explain ‘left’ and ‘right’ to an alien?
It’s semantically impossible to explain to somebody with whom you share no visual frame of reference at all which is left and which is right. The hypothetical question is normally framed in terms of explaining the distinction to an alien in a remote galaxy over the radio, and it’s very difficult to persuade people not to resort to suggesting some kind of visual reference (such-and-such a galaxy spirals to the right, etc). The point is that language can’t explain the difference on its own, not whether it would be possible to get your meaning across by some cunning subterfuge.
Molyneux’ Question, sent to John Locke by William Molyneux in 1688, is this:
Take somebody who has been blind from birth and let him handle a sphere and a cube of similar size. Then put them on the other side of the room and somehow give the man sight. Will he be able to tell which shape is which without handling them? The question prompted lively debate at the time, but again we now have an answer of sorts: when cataract operations became possible it turned out that, indeed, previously blind people had to touch the shapes in order to distinguish them.
Lorryload of birds
There’s an answer to the first half of this: if you have a lorryload of birds on a weighbridge, and they all fly from their perches and hover in mid-air, will the weight on the weighbridge fall? The answer for a sealed lorry is ‘no’ – they’re still part of the lorry/bird system and the weight remains the same. But here’s where we’re stumped: hypothetically, if you have a roofless lorry, is the answer different? Clearly, if they actually fly out and head for home, the lorry will weigh less. But what if they all stay inside the roofless lorry, hovering near where the roof would be? Or just above that level? How is that different from the version with the sealed lorry?
Throwing an anchor overboard
A fisherman is rowing a boat on a very small lake. He throws an anchor into the water. What happens to the water level of the lake? Does it rise, fall, or stay the same?  We do have a clear answer to this one:  if the anchor chain is long enough to rest the anchor on the bottom, the water level actually drops. The weight of the anchor while on the boat displaces a volume of water which has the same mass as the anchor. Water is less dense than the anchor, so when in the boat the anchor displaces more water than it does when it’s on the bottom (when it displaces only its own volume). If the anchor chain is too short to reach the bottom, the anchor remains part of the boat/anchor system so the water level stays the same.


As we acquire knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Buddhist Koans

Koans are Zen Buddhist statements or anecdotes which are cryptic in that their meaning cannot be accessed by rational thinking, only by intuition. This is not to say that they aren't analysed extensively, but ‘interpreting’ the koan is not the same as ‘realizing’ it: ‘Do not confuse the pointing finger with the Moon’.
The one about one hand clapping (‘Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?’) is by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), a Japanese monk. Other koans include:
• A student asked Master Yun-Men (949 ad) ‘Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?’ Master replied, ‘Mount Sumeru!’
• A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, ‘What is Buddha?’ Dongshan said, ‘Three pounds of flax.’
• A monk asked Zhaozhou, ‘What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher's coming from the west?’ Zhaozhou said, ‘The cypress tree in front of the hall.’
The form is widely parodied, of course:
• A novice was trying to fix a broken computer by turning the power off and on. The master, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: ‘You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.’ The master turned the machine off and on. The machine worked.

'Arcanum' is word meaning a hidden thing; a mystery, a great secret.

In medieval France 'the question' was a euphemism for torture.

The word zetetic means asking, questioning, investigating or proceeding by inquiry.

There is no accepted answer to the question: How many lakes are there in Canada?

People suffering from extreme hyperthermia often take off all or some of their clothes. This is known as paradoxical undressing.