Problems, No Problems, Desires
Post from June 1, 2016 (↻ June 6, 2021), filed under Philosophy.
In my own non-academic studies I’ve found common definitions of “problem,” like Google’s “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome” or “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law,” unsatisfying. So I’ve tried to redefine “problem” for something more flexible, and I believe there’s a redefinition that holds for common scenarios.
From my view a problem can be defined as lack of a known path between a status quo and a status optabilis (the desired state, which I’ll also refer to as “status O”). When we’re happy with the status quo, there’s no problem; neither when we know how to get to the status optabilis. Only in the face of ignorance of how we get to something we want can there be a problem.
Although, as so often, abstract and with that low on examples, let me briefly show how this concept translates into what we normally understand to be problems:
The problem of making every website compliant with web standards (the developer speaking) exists only for those of us who desire so and, first and foremost, when we don’t know how to get there.
The problem of P versus NP consists only in the fact that we desire a solution that we don’t know how to reach.
The problems of HIV, cancer, disease in general consist of the fact that we desire health and don’t know how to get to it.
(Now you know why I prefer abstraction.)
More interesting, perhaps, are implications and consecutive questions.
Can we actually always know how to get to something? Quite probably not, and therefore we might always perceive problems.
Do problems only exist in time, or: are problems ever permanent? If not, time might per definitionem “solve” all problems.
Are there subjective problems, and what do they mean? Maybe status Os and the paths to them may be different for everyone.
Problem-solving equals path-finding: knowing how to get to status O.
We once more encounter tension: Imagining and aspiring to new things (new status Os) for which we know no reliable path seems to be something we do all the time. We seem to be in the business of producing problems.
That tension raises questions, too: Can we, again, know each path? Do we? How can we, what other ways are there to find paths? Is there a shortcut? What if we had no desired states (that’s what the “acceptance” self-help approach plays with, essentially)?
Is imagination (Seth) a shortcut? Are there particular mental skills to be developed?
In my work I hit on something peculiar: The definition blurs, if not removes, the difference between problems and—desires. A desire can also be defined as consisting only of a difference between status quo and a status optabilis. Desires seem to become relevant, also, when we don’t know how to fulfill them.
Originally I had planned to assert that we’re as smart as before, if not less so (a common problem of philosophy?). However, in the days after drafting this I learned to go beyond simply filing the redefinition and the likening of problems and desires under “language game” (Wittgenstein). I’ll share some ideas about how to now work with this as soon as I could conclude more research and probe the model that I have in mind.
I assume someone has already attempted to redefine problems in a similar way. If you know who, where, please let me know. Other than that, comments are as always appreciated.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.
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Perhaps my most interesting book: 100 Things I Learned as an Everyday Adventurer (2013). During my time in the States I started trying everything. Everything. Then I noticed that wasn’t only fun, it was also useful. Available at Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.