Problem Solving

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

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

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

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