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I was watching a video of Richard Feynman, the physicist, and an interviewer asked him to explain magnetic repulsion. (The video can be seen here.) In the video, Feynman explains that he cannot actually answer the question because it keeps unraveling into further deeper questions.

Essentially, that in order to answer the question, there is a point where we must assume an axiomatic acceptance of the world around us, or we'll just keep becoming mired in further and further questions that underlie the original question.

As a parent, scientist, and general know-it-all, I frequently get asked questions like this. They seem simple on their face, but cannot be adequately explained without a great amount of background.

Is there a word for this type of question?

I'd like to be able to warn people:

I'm sorry, but your question is [word for not as simple to answer due to the above problem] ... Are you sure you want to know my answer?

  • As an aside, when someone does the opposite in a pedantic manner, the kid who asks why to everything, my family has coined the term ardvarking. It's a malapropism of an old Sesame Street video where someone was doing that to Big Bird. – David M Sep 23 at 17:24
  • I’m sorry but to explain X, i’ll need explain Y first (and that may involve an explantion of Z). Are you sure you want hear the answer? Or just say, “How much time have you got? The answer is much longer than the question.” – Jim Sep 23 at 23:41
  • How about 'complex'? – Mitch Sep 24 at 1:11
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It's a rabbit hole:

[Merriam-Webster]
: a complexly bizarre or difficult state or situation conceived of as a hole into which one falls or descends … 

especially : one in which the pursuit of something (such as an answer or solution) leads to other questions, problems, or pursuits

The two definitions above have the first of the following example sentences interspersed, but I wanted to quote the second part directly after the first, because it's particularly relevant to the question.

// I wanted to show this woman descending into the rabbit hole: this loss of self, becoming a servant to her job and to the work.
— Jessica Chastain

// While trying to find the picture again on Google, I fell down the Cosmo rabbit hole, scrolling through a gallery of swimwear, then through "How to Be Sexier-Instantly" and then through all 23 slides of "Sexy Ideas for Long Hair."
— Edith Zimmerman

// Because it is so early on in this work it is easy to say that we are either at the edge of a remarkable new and useful science or that we are careering down an environmental rabbit hole.
— Jack Hitt

// In the season-two premiere of HBO's Westworld, viewers were again tossed down a rabbit hole filled with theories, where one open door leads to many more closed ones.
— Josh Wigler and Zoe Haylock


I personally use this expression a lot. I'll say a question is a rabbit hole, a problem is a rabbit hole, or I've fallen into a rabbit hole.

It can be thought of in the same generic sense as a can of worms or wild-goose chase, except that a rabbit hole implies nothing negative or fruitless, but just something that leads you further and further away from the original problem, task, or question as you keep being distracted by other things, or having to address side issues.

  • Accepted. This is the best I think I'm going to get. And, I like that it's easy for the lay person to understand my point. – David M Sep 24 at 1:50
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Those are sometimes called hairy questions.

hairy adjective difficult to deal with or comprehend ‘a hairy math problem’ - MW

Here’s an example along the lines you describe:

  • By this I mean that, as physicists, we have established so many features that the remainder of the problem can be “shipped over” to mathematical physics, where in due time (hopefully < ∞) all hairy technicalities will be nailed down. - Summary talk at Chiral 99, quoted by finedictionary.com
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As in:

I'm sorry, but your question is problematic ... Are you sure you want to know my answer?

problematic adj

  • Posing a problem; difficult to solve
  • Open to doubt; debatable
  • Not settled; unresolved or dubious

Problematic poses a problem or causes difficulties. In this case one is forewarning that the answer is not going to be simple, or straightforward.

  • 1
    Not quite what I was going for. Problematic implies that their question is flawed. Not just so complicated that it cannot be answered straight off. – David M Sep 23 at 21:48
  • my sense is that the question begs a problematic answer. – lbf Sep 23 at 22:16
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How about elusive, elusory, evasive, intangible, (?) nebulous, (?) shifty?

I'm sorry, but your question is too elusive... Are you sure you want to know my answer?

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