Saturday, January 10, 2009

Just Because It's a Problem, That Don't Mean It Can Be Solved

Sometimes, when you least expect it, and often quite belatedly, I get responses to my blogs that really surprise me. In this instance the comment came from an old friend of mine, from whom I had not heard for quite a while.

What he so casually wrote in his comment revealed just exactly how much we take certain things for granted. Existential things. Stuff about life. Of course, the man's an engineer and so he would be expected to think as he does; but the fact is that it is a part of our Western culture to think as he does.

What I brought up in my blog was what you might call a "social problem": the brains of rich kids are different to the brains of poor kids. Just exactly why, is a question that other people can discuss, but the point I'm trying to make here is that it is a problem; but there was nothing in what I said that suggested how to deal with it.

My friend, quite rightly, asked me what kinds of suggestions I had to address the problem. This very question makes two implicit assumptions:
  1. Delineating or exposing a problem ought to come with suggestions for solutions.
  2. Problems can be solved.
This is very 'Western' attitude, flag-shipped by the religious philosophy that accompanied the development of 'Western' culture. You won't find it so much—if at all—in, say, nations steeped in Islamic traditions.

It's also an attitude that bears the stamp of Western individualism—which goes hand in hand with religion, of course—and it is closely connected to the notion that individuals can solve problems, if only they put their minds and determinations to it.

It's the attitude that has ultimately made 'Western' science and technology supreme, because ultimately, and when all the philosophical bullshit is disposed with, solving problems is what science and technology is all about.

But, just like what one might see as Eastern fatalism ultimately turns out to be a view that does not correspond to reality, the same thing is true of the Western 'problems are made to be solved' approach. That is because they're not. It's a nice thing to imagine that they are, but then again, we can imagine a lot of things that are nice or which seem right. And that certainly includes the notion that problems are there to be solved, because it gives us a notion of, entirely presumed but mainly illusory, power over life and contingency and the randomness of existence.

But the operational term here is 'illusory'. To understand why problems not in any way there to be solved, consider this: What is a problem?

Sounds like a tough proposition for definition, but it really isn't. Going back to the basics of "what is it?", any problem is nothing but an instance of something in somebody's or everybody's life not being as said somebody (or everybody) would like it to be. Things as they are vs. them being as they should be as per our specs. this even applies to something abstract like a 'math problem'.

A 'solution' to such a problem is merely a situation where, on some scale, and within the applicable context—either through accident, design or action—there exists a state where what should be actually is what is, if you will.

Simple, is it not?

Because of what they are, problems never exist outside a human context. Nature per se isn't problematic in any way. It just is. The only ones who have issues with some things being as they are, are us. Hence we are the only ones with 'problems' to solve.

But some things simply will never be as we would like them to—or, as some might have it, "they should be." That's because the universe simply doesn't give a rat's ass about what we think 'should be'. We are the only ones who do. Or maybe you., dear reader, think that God is. But I'd like to remind you of Steve Buscemi's immortal line in The Island: "...you know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God's the guy that ignores you."

So, and here we come back to the beginning, it surely must be limpidly clear by now why the real thing about 'problems' is not about how to solve them, but to figure which ones can be solved—that is, what in this world can be made to be as it should (as per our specs). And then, when we've sorted that one out, we can start tackling the way in which we might go about implementing it.

And so, to my esteemed correspondent, I reply that, no, I don't have a solution to the issue I raised, because I am not convinced that it is a problem that lends itself to solution to begin with.

Now, what's the use of broaching problems that may have no solution? Isn't that unconstructive, or something similarly negative?

Well, I don't think so. For the more we understand the extent to which what we want and what is don't line up, the better are we likely to be able to form appropriate judgments on what to do.

And that was that.

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