Problem Solving

Convergent          -              Divergent
Simple                 -              Complex
Certain               -               Uncertain
Dead                   -               Living

To cultivate nature is to tell lies about it. Our inventions are a form of ‘marvelous chicanery.’

The methodology of problem-solving, as can easily be observed, is what we might call ‘the laboratory approach'. It consists of eliminating all factors that cannot be strictly controlled or, at least, accurately measured and 'allowed for'.

What remains is no longer a part of real life with all its unpredictabilities, but an isolated system posing convergent, and therefore in principle soluble, problems. The solution of a convergent problem, at the same time, proves something about the isolated system, but nothing at all about matters outside and beyond it.

I have said that to solve a problem is to kill it.

There is nothing wrong with 'killing’ a convergent problem, for it relates to what remains after life, consciousness and self-awareness have already been eliminated. But can - or should - divergent problems be killed? (The words "final solution' still have a terrible ring in the ears of my generation.)

Divergent problems cannot be killed; they cannot be solved in the sense of establishing the 'correct formula'. They can however be transcended.

A pair of opposites - like freedom and order - are opposites at the level of ordinary life, but they cease to be opposites at the higher level, the really human level, where self-awareness plays its proper role. It is then that such higher forces as love and compassion, understanding and empathy, become available, not simply as occasional impulses (which they are at the lower level) but as a regular and reliable resource.

Opposites cease to be opposites; they lie down together peacefully like the lion and the lamb in the study of Saint Hieronymus (who on Dürer's famous picture represents ‘the higher level').

How can opposites cease to be opposites when a "higher force' is present? How is it that liberty and equality cease to be mutually antagonistic and become reconciled' when brotherliness is present? These are not logical but existential questions.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.145-6

The 'inner world' […] is the world of freedom; the outer world […] the world of necessity. All our serious problems of living are suspended, as it were, between these two poles of freedom and necessity. They are divergent problems, not for solving.

Our anxiety to solve problems stems from our total lack of self-knowledge, which has created the kind of existential anguish of which Kierkegaard is one of the early and most impressive exponents. The anxiety to solve problems has led to a virtually total concentration of intellectual effort on the study of convergent problems. Great pride is being taken in this voluntary limitation of the limitless Intellect and its confinement to ‘the art of the soluble'.

'Good scientists,' says Peter B. Medawar, 'study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them’. This is fair enough; it clearly demonstrates, at the same time, that ‘good scientists’ in this sense can deal only with the dead aspect of the Universe.

The real problems of life have to be grappled with. To repeat a quotation from Thomas Aquinas, ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things'; and ‘grappling’ with the help of slender knowledge is the real stuff of life, whereas solving problems - which, to be soluble, must be convergent - with the help of ‘the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things' is merely one of many useful and perfectly honourable human activities designed to save labour.

While the logical mind abhors divergent problems and tries to run away from them, the higher faculties of man accept the challenges of life as they are offered, without complaint, knowing that when things are most contradictory, absurd, difficult and frustrating, then - just then - life really makes sense: as a mechanism provoking and almost forcing us to develop towards higher Levels of Being.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.154-5

Consider the state of medicine today. It's called medical science. What happens is that doctors think it would be nice to get rid of polio, or typhoid, or cancer. So they devote research money and effort to focusing on these "problems," or purposes.

At a certain point Dr. Salk and others "solve" the problem of polio. They discover a solution of bugs which you can give to children so that they don't get polio. This is the solution to the problem of polio. At this point, they stop putting large quantities of effort and money into the problem of polio and go on to the problem of cancer, or whatever it may be.

Medicine ends up, therefore, as a total science, whose structure is essentially that of a bag of tricks. Within this science there is extraordinarily little knowledge of the sort of things I'm talking about; that is, of the body as a systemically cybernetically organized self-corrective system. Its internal interdependencies are minimally understood.

What has happened is that purpose has determined what will come under the inspection or consciousness of medical science.

If you allow purpose to organize that which comes under your conscious inspection, what you will get is a bag of tricks - some of them very valuable tricks. It is an extraordinary achievement that these tricks have been discovered; all that I don't argue. But still we do not know two-penn'orth, really, about the total network system.

Cannon wrote a book on The Wisdom of the Body, but nobody has written a book on the wisdom of medical science, because wisdom is precisely the thing which it lacks. Wisdom I take to be the knowledge of the larger interactive system - that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Conscious Purpose versus Nature'), p.439

There was once a garden […] In that garden, there were two anthropoids who were more intelligent than the other animals.

On one of the trees there was a fruit, very high up, which the two apes were unable to reach. So they began to think. That was the mistake. They began to think purposively.

By and by, the he ape, whose name was Adam, went and got an empty box and put it under the tree and stepped on it, but he found he still couldn't reach the fruit. So he got another box and put it on top of the first. Then he climbed up on the two boxes and finally he got that apple. Adam and Eve then became almost drunk with excitement. This was the way to do things. Make a plan, ABC and you get D.

They then began to specialize in doing things the planned way. In effect, they cast out from the Garden the concept of their own total systemic nature and of its total systemic nature.

After they had cast God out of the Garden, they really went to work on this purposive business, and pretty soon the topsoil disappeared. After that, several species of plants became "weeds" and some of the animals became "pests"; and Adam found that gardening was much harder work. He had to get his bread by the sweat of his brow and he said, “It's a vengeful God. I should never have eaten that apple."

Moreover, there occurred a qualitative change in the relationship between Adam and Eve, after they had discarded God from the Garden. Eve began to resent the business of sex and reproduction. Whenever these rather basic phenomena intruded upon her now purposive way of living, she was reminded of the larger life which had been kicked out of the Garden.

So Eve began to resent sex and reproduction, and when it came to parturition she found this process very painful. She said this, too, was due to the vengeful nature of God. She even heard a Voice say "In pain shalt thou bring forth" and "Thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

The biblical version of this story, from which I have borrowed extensively, does not explain the extraordinary perversion of values, whereby the woman's capacity for love comes to seem a curse inflicted by the deity.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Conscious Purpose versus Nature'), p.441

One of the underlying generators is because we define the problems in too narrow a way. When we define a problem in a narrow way then we can create a solution to that narrow problem that does benefit that thing, but that interacts with a lot of other things and ends up causing externalities, or harm, in those other areas.

When we define problems in a narrow way in a world that is actually interconnected, we’re separating out from that interconnectedness a particular part that we care about or want to advance - and this is what is unique to humans, our capacity to understand particular parts with abstraction in a way that allows us to build tools - and we can advance parts irrespective of, and in ways that are harmful to, wholes, and that end up creating other issues.

Our way of thinking about problems is one of the problems.

We need to have a much more holistic way of thinking about what is worth advancing - what are all of the things that are driving a particular problem, what are the possible things that will come out of a particular solution that might create the other problems, and how to factor all that in to work out what solutions are worth advancing.

[Daniel Schmachtenberger]
'In Search of the Third Attractor, Daniel Schmachtenberger (part 1)', YouTube

[…] complex systems tend to have higher metabolic costs, higher energy costs. If you compare the opposite extreme, what did it cost to maintain a hundred gatherer society 300,000 years ago? If you measure that in terms of calories, it's not very many. It's basically just the human metabolism of a handful, or maybe even a couple of dozen people. Compare that to the thousands of kilo calories that every individual in our society uses today to maintain complexity.

Complexity always has a cost and ultimately the cost is energy. We're largely not aware of that today, because to us complexity seems to be free - we pay for it through fossil fuels. But in the past, increase in the complexity of a society meant that people had to work harder. There were always constraints against growth in complexity, because people realized that growing a more complex society would be costly.

Well, in terms of the long-term evolution of human societies, this brings up a fundamental question: why do human societies ever grow more complex? If growing more complex costs more, why didn’t we just stay as simple hunter-gatherer bands?

The answer I’ve proposed is that most of the time complexity increases to solve problems. In other words, we might develop new technologies to solve a problem, we might develop new kinds of social structures to solve a problem, we might increase the size of bureaucracy to solve a problem, we might initiate new kinds of programmes to solve a problem - all of these things are increases in complexity that are undertaken to solve problems.

In the past 90% of human populations were involved in producing energy, primarily though agriculture, which means that there is only 10% of the economy in the society left for education, training, specialisation, learning, developing new technologies, innovation; that all had to come from something like 10% of the population and also 10% of our energy budgets.

There are occasions in human history when access to energy gain has allowed human societies to grow complex, and we think this is normal because we’re in a period like that now with our reliance on fossil fuels. Because of that we think that this has been the normal course of human evolution, but in fact it’s highly abnormal and has occurred in human history only a few times, and it’s never lasted very long.

[Joseph Tainter]
'Joe Tainter: “Surplus, Complexity, and Simplification” | The Great Simplification #27’, YouTube

[…] one of the important things I've realized is that growing in complexity to solve problems is what I call a seductive process.

It's seductive in the sense that it is natural for us to want to solve problems. Each increment in complexity seems small and affordable at the time because we don't look at the long term cumulative costs. Ultimately, it's the cumulative costs that seem to do the damage, that make a society susceptible to collapse. 

By a 'cumulative cost', I mean the cost of solving the last problem before, and the last problem before that, and the last problem before that; all of which may have required increases in complexity and increases in the society's energy budget.

Again, I want to emphasize that people today are largely unaware of this because complexity to us appears to be free. We pay for it through fossil fuels.

[Joseph Tainter]
'Joe Tainter: “Surplus, Complexity, and Simplification” | The Great Simplification #27’, YouTube

Athena is techne (“art, skill”) rather than nous (“mind”). Thus her patronage of the crafts.

Homeric mind is ingenuity, practical intelligence. There is no Rodinlike deep thinking, no mathematical or philosophical speculation. That comes much later in history. Odysseus thinks with his hands. He is athlete, gambler, engineer. Athena rules technological man, the Greek heir to Egyptian constructionism.

Here, I propose, is the answer to Athena’s androgyny. She appears in more disguises and crosses sexual borderlines more often than any other Greek god because she symbolizes the resourceful, adaptive mind, the ability to invent, plan, conspire, cope, and survive.

The mind as techne, pragmatic design, was hermaphroditic for the ancients [...] Athena as the transsexual contriving mind exploits situation and opportunity, subduing circumstance to will and desire.

“[...] we are both adepts in chicane. For in the world of men you have no rival as a statesman and orator, while I am preeminent among the gods for invention and resource.”

Smiling with pleasure, Athena says in effect, “What a marvelous liar you are!” Lies are legal Bronze Age piracy [...] The link between Athena’s technical skills and Odysseus’ lies is perfectly conveyed in our word “fabrication.” Sexually mobile Athena literally is the shifting, shifty powers of human intelligence.

To Harrison’s complaint, then, that Athena has forgotten “the earth from which she sprang,” I reply that Athena is divorced from earth because she represents the man-made. As patron of the crafts and cultivated olive, she gives man control over capricious nature.

For Harrison, Athena’s virginity is sterile because unfertile in the chthonian sense. But virginity is perfect autonomy. Jackson Knight says, “The maidenhood of city goddesses seems to have been in some magical sympathy with the unbroken defence of a city.” Athena as patron of Athens is the wall that shuts the enemy out, the enemy nature as well as the enemy man. Her virginity is her stable Apollonian self, the intractable will behind her hermaphrodite changes. She is fortitude and pressing forward, a job to do. She is the fanatical purposiveness of the west, limited but all-achieving.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.85

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