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

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