Problems, No Problems, Desires

Post from June 1, 2016 (↻ June 6, 2021), filed under (feed).

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:

  1. 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.

  2. The problem of P versus NP consists only in the fact that we desire a solution that we don’t know how to reach.

  3. 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.

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.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on I share some of my views and experiences.

If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!