I'm not going to make this a rant or a blog post, but just think about the natural consequences of "Real Questions Have Answers".

That suggests that the person asking the questions knows that the questions is answerable (i.e. halts).

Which, to the analytical mind, requires a the asker to at least have the conception of a proof of the Turing completeness of their question before asking it.

Which, given the rational yet disorganized mind of the human, is completely unlikely to ever happen.

Therefore, I suggest a reverse captcha process and only allow robots to ask questions.

Then, if Watson cannot answer in an acceptable number of nanoseconds then allow human interlopers to answer.

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    Turing completeness doesn't apply to questions, it applies to computing systems. Therefore, this is noise. QED. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 16:56
  • @Bill, I'm not saying Turing completeness should apply to questions, I'm saying that the new rules imply that it should and I agree with those who say that it shouldn't. Care to comment? Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:08
  • Just to be clear, the last two sentences are proposed in jest - this is not actually a feature request, but more of an if this goes on... sort of discussion starter. Like a modest proposal without infanticide. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:11
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    @Peter: The new rules do not imply anything of the sort. I think you're confusing the works of Turing and Gödel. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:22
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    @Bill although I'm not a whiz in Comp Sci, I'm not quite as confused as you think I am. The real question is, how does a person know for sure that they're asking a real question? That's something Gödel would be apt to tackle. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:31
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    @Peter: Then why do you reference Turing completeness and the halting problem in your question? Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:36
  • @Bill Because you'd have to know your question is answerable by a Turing machine to ask it. You could ask less powerful questions if you wanted, but you can't plumb the depths of the soul. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 17:44
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    I'm not going to make this a rant or a blog post - How about making it a question or request - perhaps something ending with a question mark?
    – Pollyanna
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 18:53
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    @pollyanna The request was at the bottom, to only let robots participate on StackExchange sites. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 18:55
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    @Peter - Inasmuch as one believes that humans are simply biological robots, then your request is already granted. Perhaps a little more perspective is required to properly address your problem.
    – Pollyanna
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 19:02
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    @Peter I see where you are going and I am going with you. The really real questions of life sometimes have no answer, but you still gotta try and find some answers. If SO has no place for such questions, I guess SO is missing out on some really good questions. Personally, I think that such good questions will get asked and no one will close them. The problem is with having such a "rule". If only the "rule" was stated with a bit less absoluteness for eg.change it to Most Real Questions have answers
    – abel
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 19:11
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    @Peter: Sorry I can't upvote (my reputation is too low). A little pseudo-philosophical insight never hurts, at least IMHO. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 19:19
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    @abel, I'll summarize what I said to Peter: A real question still has an answer, it's just that sometimes nobody knows the answer. There's a difference. If nobody has an authoritative answer, it just means that our collective knowledge is incomplete. But if everybody has an answer, and everybody's answer is different, then it's not really a question at all. At least, not one worth asking.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:37
  • @aarobot We'd have a lot of trouble with area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/11655/christianity/… if it ever gets up and running. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:52
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    But if everybody has an answer, and everybody's answer is different, then it's not really a question at all. At least, not one worth asking - I don't quite agree with this.
    – JP19
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 6:15

2 Answers 2


I'm going to assume that this is a serious request (excepting the last few lines) and not just a bit of leg-pulling (it's not Friday).

Seems that one of the consequences of coming up with a famous quotation is that everybody either misquotes you or takes it out of context.

This is what was actually said:

[...] real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions.

Although this is compressing a twelve-hundred-and-some-odd-word long post into a single sentence, I think the message is rather clear: The difference between a question and a discussion or poll is that a real question is seeking to discover some particular truth. The other type of "question" is merely seeking to learn what other people think.

Oh, the truth is nuanced, no doubt about it. But programming or cooking or gaming or science-fiction truths are no different from any other truth; if there are legitimate competing positions then they'll usually have some sort of evidence backing them up. Questions which don't make this readily apparent are not what I consider "real" questions.

There's no halting problem here. We're not expecting question authors to know up front whether their problem can be solved, and a perfectly reasonable answer to certain questions might very well be, "Actually, what you're trying to do is impossible." But people do know when they're about to ask for people's opinions. It's very clear in their language. There is always some phrase like:

  • Can anyone recommend...
  • What do you...
  • What's your favourite...
  • What's the best...

...and so on. You don't need to know anything about the subject matter to know that this is not a real question. It's not a real question because you didn't word it like one. Instead of doing your homework, and maybe using Google to find out what the popular X's are and instead asking about the practical differences between those X's and why you might choose one over the other... you just fired a shot in the dark and asked people for their opinions. You've asked people to provide a poor approximation of a search engine.

"Real questions" don't necessarily have practical answers, but they do have authoritative ones.

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    Thanks for the authoritative answer. A function can return a list, a database query can return a blob, but a question can only return a particular truth. The only problem is, I do think that questions will be closed where the only possible answer is "It's a mystery" the problem might seem small to a materialist, but really deadens the site in my opinion. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 19:19
  • @Peter: I honestly don't see that happening. The more likely occurrence when something is a mystery is that the question simply goes unanswered, occasionally attracting a trickle of upvotes if it is interesting and well-written. Can you point to an instance of somebody closing a question because the answer is impractical/impossible?
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:33
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    Or to put it another way, @Peter, every time somebody says "It's a mystery" or "It's impossible", it comes with an implicit "...at the present time". Just because nobody knows the answer today, doesn't mean that nobody ever will.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:34
  • @aarobot, I think you'd agree with me then, the only questions that you should ask are questions that can be answered by robots. The problem is, the rule denies spiritual realities and I'd be the last one to just let anyone get away with that without at least pointing it out in the most caustic way possible. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:51
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    I'm afraid I don't agree with you, @Peter, nor do I entirely follow your logic in this last comment. You seem to have left out step 2 between "steal underpants" and "profit!".
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 20:59
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    OK, so I'll come out, I'm a member of a very small subset of the world known as Catholic Delphi programmers. We cling to our old religion even though it has not given us the clairvoyance to conjure up any Ace of Base tapes and don't accept a lot of the tenants mainstream programmers accept. "Real questions have real answers" as a principle smells of materialist dogma to me. That a question like "What is truth?" is deemed as unacceptable as a rule, to me is unacceptable. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 21:06
  • @Peter: But what is unacceptable, in truth?
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 21:07
  • Nothing at all. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 21:19
  • Well @Peter, if unacceptable is nothing, and rules are definitely something, then rules cannot be unacceptable. There's definitely a logical paradox here and I think you've just created your own halting problem.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 21:47
  • No, "in (the context of) truth, nothing is unacceptable." is what I mean. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 22:07
  • Sure, @Peter, but in the context of rules, some things clearly are unacceptable, so unless you consider rules to be equivalent to truth, your definition of unacceptability of rules really has no bearing on what is unacceptable within those rules.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 22:12
  • @aarobot, that's a very positivist argument. I don't argue from the standpoint of the rules because I didn't make them, nor did my wit help craft them, I argue from the standpoint of a person who has a lot of questions closed and the truth I speak of is the honesty and integrity in which the question was asked. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 22:29
  • @Peter: I never made any claims about honesty or integrity. Only the specific goals (or lack thereof) associated with asking a particular type of question.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:31
  • regarding opinions not backed up by references or experience, like "you should always reticulate splines", it is probably worth noting these turn out useless for a reader who may stumble upon an inverse claim, like "you should never reticulate splines". Purely opinionated answer won't help reader make up their mind between opposite statements
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 22:52
  • Real question is seeking to discover some particular truth What if the answer to real question is a list with x known elements, and new items can be discovered later? Imho big lists should be allowed, polls shouldn't.
    – Calmarius
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 at 16:28

As far as programming is concerned, if the OP does not know whether what she wants can be done, she can always ask - "Can this be done?" and come up with a "real" question (even if she does not have any idea about the solvability of the problem)

I am not sure, but I think it can be applied to other domains also.

  • Yeah, it doesn't apply to the other domains (especially programmers.SE), if you apply the modifications you're saying to a question it'll get closed and if you ask for the reason they'll tell you it's because the only possible answers are yes and no. StackOverflow and Serverfault are the only sites where I know how to ask decent questions. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 18:58
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    @Peter A question whose answer is "Yes" or "No" is a valid question on nearly every site, by virtue that they are indeed answers. It'd be other qualities like being too vague that would lead to its closure, not the fact it's a Yes or No question. "Is it possible to do X" is a common question.
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 19:00

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