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Human Problems and Abstract Problems

This is an email I wrote in July 2013. I'm replying to David Deutsch (Feb 2001) who is in regular yellow quotes and was addressing the topic, Are common preferences always possible?. Two quote levels is Demosthenes (Feb 2001).

Susan Ramirez asked (Feb, 1997):

Why do you believe that it is always possible to create a common preference?

Sarah Lawrence replied (Jan, 2001)

This question is important because it is the same as - Are there some problems which in principle cannot be solved? Or, when applied to human affairs: - Is coercion (or even force, or the threat of force) an objectively inevitable feature of certain situations, or is it always the result of a failure to find the solution which, in principle, exists?

David Deutsch begins his reply:

I think that both Sarah and Demosthenes (below) somewhat oversimplify when they identify 'avoiding coercion' with 'problem-solving'. For instance, Sarah says "This question ... Is the same as[:] Are there some problems

Let's watch out for different uses of the word "problem". [This unquoted material is Elliot writing.]

which in principle cannot be solved?" Well, in a sense it is the same issue. But due to the imprecision of everyday language, this also gives the impression that avoiding coercion depends on everyone adopting the same theory (the solution, the common preference) about whatever was at issue. In fact, that is seldom literally the case, because the parties' conceptions of what is 'at issue' typically change quite radically during common-preference finding. All that is necessary is that the participants change to states of mind which (1) they prefer to their previous states, and (2) no longer cause them to hurt each other.

In other words, common preferences can often be much narrower than it may first appear. You needn't agree about everything, or even everything relevant, but only enough to proceed without hurting (TCS-coercing) each other (or oneself in the case of self-conflicts).

[This next section has two levels of quoting and is Demosthenes. The black bar indicates an additional level of quoting. Two levels means that I'm quoting David Deutsch quoting it.]

I agree that this question is important, though I would offer instead the following two elucidating questions:

In the sphere of human affairs:

  1. Are there any problems that would remain unavoidably insoluble even if they could be worked on without any time and resource limits?

  2. Are there any problems that are unavoidably insoluble within the time and resource limits of the real life situations in which they arise?

The word "problem" in both of these is ambiguous.

Problem-1: (we might call it "human problem"): "a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome"

Problem-2: (we might call it an "abstract problem"): "a thing that is difficult to achieve or accomplish"

There are problems, notionally, like going to the moon. But no one gets hurt unless a person has the problem of going to the moon. Problem-1 involves preferences, and the possibility of harm and TCS-coercion. And it is the type of problem which is solved by common preferences.

Problem-2, inherently, does not have time or resource limits, because the universe is not in a hurry, only people are.

So, are there any problems which are insoluble with the time and resource limits of real life situations? Not problem-2 type, because those do not arise in people's life situations, and they do not have time or resource limits.

And as for problem-1 type problems, those are always soluble (within time/resource constraints), possibly involving changing preferences. (BTW, as a general rule of thumb, in non-trivial common preference finding, all parties always change their initial preferences.)

An example:

problem-2: adding 2+2 (there is no time limit, no resource limit -- btw time is a type of resource)

problem-1: adding 2+2 within the next hour for this math test (now there are resource issues, preferences are involved)

Another way to make the distinction is:

problem-1: any problem which could TCS-coerce (hurt) someone

problen-2: any problem which could not possibly ever TCS-coerce (hurt) anyone

problem-2s are not bad. Not even potentially. Problem-1s are bad if and only if they TCS-coerce anyone. A problem like 2+2=? cannot TCS-coerce anyone, ever. There's just no way. It takes a different problem like, "A person asked me what 2+2 is, and I wanted to answer" to have the potential for TCS-coercion.

Notice solving this different problem does not necessarily require figuring out what 2+2 is. Solving problem-1s never requires solving any associated problem-2s, though that is often a good approach. But it's not necessary. So the fact that various problem-2s won't be solved this year need not hurt anyone or cause any problem-1s -- with their time limits and potential for harm -- to go unsolved.

I believe that the answer to question (1) is, no -- there are no human problems that are intrinsically insoluble, given unbounded resources.

This repeated proviso "given unbounded resources" indicates a misconception, I think. The answer to (2) is, uncontroversially, yes. Of course there exist disagreements -- both between people and within a person -- that take time to resolve, and many will not be resolved in any of our lifetimes.

I think this unclear about the two types problems. While it agrees with me in substance, it defers to ambiguous terminology that basically uses unsolved problem-2s to say there are insoluble problems and try to imply it's now talking about problem-1s.

There is a mix up regarding failure to solve an abstract problem like figuring out the right theory of physics (which two friends might disagree about) with failure to solve human problems, like the type that make those friends hurt each other.

It's harmless to have some disagreements that you "agree to disagree" about, for example. But if you can't agree to disagree, then the problem is more dangerous and urgent.

It's uncontroversial that people have unsolved abstract problems for long periods of time, e.g. they might be working on a hard math problem and not find the answer for a decade. And their friend might disagree with them about the best area to look for a solution.

But so what?

Human problems are things like, "I want to solve the problem this week" (maybe you should change your preference?) or "I want to work on the math problem and find good states of mind in regard to it, and enjoy making progress" (this human problem can easily be solved while not solving the harmless abstract problem).

But that has nothing to do with the question being discussed here.

Right because of the confusion over different meanings of "problem".

The fact that after 25 years of almost daily attention to the conflict between quantum theory and general relativity I have failed to discover a theory that I prefer to both (or indeed to either), does not indicate that I have "failed to find a common preference"

Right. Common preferences do not even apply to problem-2s, only problem-1s.

either within myself, or with other proponents of those theories, in the sense that interested Susan Ramirez. I have not found a preferred theory of physics, but I have found successively better states of mind in regard to that problem, each the result of successive failures to solve it.

However this view is only available to those of us who believe that for all moral problems there exists, in principle, a unique, objectively right solution. If you are any kind of moral relativist, or a moral pluralist (as many people seem to be) then you can have no grounds for arguing that all human disputes are in principle soluble.

It is only in spheres where the objective truth of the matter exists and is in principle discoverable, that the possibility of converging on the truth guarantees that all problems are, in principle, soluble.

I agree that for all moral problems

No clear statement of which meaning of problem this refers to.

there exists an objectively right solution, and that this is why consensual relationships -- and indeed all liberal institutions of human cooperation, including science -- can work. The mistake is to suppose that if one does not believe this, it will cease to be true. For people to be able to reach agreement, it suffices that, for whatever reason, they seek agreement in a way that conforms to the canons of rationality and are, as a matter of fact, converging on a truth. Admittedly it is a great impediment if they think that agreement is not possible, and very helpful if they think that it is, but that is certainly not essential: many a cease-fire has evolved into a peace without a further shot being fired. It is also helpful if they see themselves as cooperating in discovering an objective truth, and not merely an agreement amongst themselves, but that too is far from essential: plenty of moral relativists have done enormous good, and made enormous moral progress -- for instance towards creating institutions and traditions of tolerance -- without ever seeking an objective truth, or realising that they were finding one. In fact many did not realise that they were creating agreement at all, merely a tolerance of disagreement. And incidentally, they were increasing the number of unsolved problems in society by promoting dissent and diversity.

Increasing the number of unsolved problem-2s, but decreasing the number of unsolved problem-1s.

What we need to avoid, both in society and in our own minds, is not unsolved problems,

Ambiguous between problem-1s and problem-2s.

not even insoluble problems,

Ambiguous between problem-1s and problem-2s.

Also doesn't seem to be counting preference changing as a solution, contrary to the standard TCS attitude which regards preference changing as a normal part of common preference finding, and part of problem solving.

but a state in which our problems are not being solved

But this time it means problem-1s.

-- where thinking is occurring but none of our theories are changing.

I believe that the answer to question (2) is yes -- human problems that cannot be solved even in principle, given the prevailing time and resource constraint, are legion. Albeit, nowhere near as legion as non-TCS believers would have it. My main argument in support of this thesis is based on introspection: Let him or her who is without ongoing inner conflict proffer the first refutation.

This is a bit like saying, at the time of the Renaissance, that science is impossible because "let him who is without superstition proffer the first refutation". The whole point about reason is that it does not require everything to be right before it can work. That is just another version of the "who should rule?" error in politics. The important thing is not to start out right, but to try to set things up in such a way that what is wrong can be altered. The object of the exercise is not to create a chimerical (and highly undesirable!) problem-free state,

A problem-2-free state is bad. As in, not having any problems we might like to work on. This is bad because it creates a very hard problem-1: the problem of boredom (having no problem-2s to work on, while wanting some will cause TCS-coercion).

A problem-1-free state is ... well there is another ambiguity. Problem-1s are fine if one is rationally coping with them. It's not bad to have human problems and deal with them. What's bad is failure to cope with them, i.e. TCS-coercion.

How can we tell which/when problem-1s get bad? When they do harm (TCS-coercion).

To put it another way: problem-1s are bad when one acts on an idea while having a criticism of it. But if it's just the potential for such a thing in the future, that's part of normal life and fine.

but simply to embark upon actually solving problems rather than being stuck not solving any (or not solving one's own, anyway). Happiness is solving one's problems, not 'being without problems'.

"one's problems" refers only to problem-1s, but "being without problems" and "actually solving problems" are ambiguous.

In other words, I suggest that there isn't a person alive whose creativity is not diminished in some significant way by the existence of inner conflict. Or rather dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of inner conflicts.

Yes. But having diminished creativity (compared to what is maximally possible, presumably) is and always will be the human condition. Minds are fallible. Fortunately, it is not one's distance from the ideal state that makes one unhappy, but an inability to move towards it.

And if you cannot find a common preference for all the problems that arise within your own mind, it is a logical absurdity to expect to be able always to find a common preference with another, equally conflicted, mind.

Just as well, really. If you found a common preference for all the problems within your own mind, you'd be dead. If you found a common preference for all the problems you have with another person with whom you interact closely, you'd be the same person.

[SNIP]

However, and it is an important however, to approach this goal we must dare to face the inescapable facts that, in practice, it is by no means always possible to find a common preference; that therefore it is not always possible to avoid coercion;

This does not follow, or at least, not in any useful sense. Demosthenes could just as well have make the identical comments about science:

[Demosthenes could have written:]

In the sphere of science:

  1. Are there any problems that would remain unavoidably insoluble even if they could be worked on without any time and resource limits?

  2. Are there any problems that are unavoidably insoluble within the time and resource limits of the real life situations in which they arise?

I believe that the answer to question (1) is, no -- there are no scientific problems that are intrinsically insoluble, given unbounded resources.

Right. And why should it follow from this that a certain minimum of superstition is unavoidable in any scientific enterprise, and that people who try to reject superstition on principle will undergo "intellectual and moral corrosion" if, as is inevitable, they fail to achieve this perfectly -- or even if they fail completely?

As Bronowski stressed and illustrated in so many ways, doing science depends on adopting a certain morality: a desire for truth, a tolerance, an openness to change, an awareness of one's own fallibility and the fallibility of authority, yet also a respect and understanding for tradition ... (It's the same morality as TCS depends on.) And yes, no scientist has ever been entirely free from irrationality, superstition, dogma and all the things that the canons of rationality say are supposed to be absent from a true scientist's mind. Yet none of that provides the slightest argument that a person entering upon a life of science is likely to become unhappy

Tangent: this is a misuse of probability. Whether that happens depends on human choices not chance.

in their work, is likely to find their enterprise ruined either because they encounter a scientific problem that they never solve, or because they fail to rid their own minds of certain superstitions that prevent them from solving anything.

The thing is, all these sweeping statements about insoluble problems

Ambiguous.

and unlimited resources, though true (some of them trivially, some because of fallibilism) are irrelevant to the issue here, of whether a lifestyle that rejects coercion is possible and practical in the here and now. A TCS family can and should reject coercion in exactly the same sense, and by the same means, and for the same reason, as a scientist can and should reject superstition. And to the same extent: utterly. In neither case can the objective ever be achieved perfectly, with finite resources. In neither case can any guarantee be given about what the outcome will be. Will they be happier than if they become astrologers instead? Who knows? And certainly good intentions alone can guarantee nothing. In neither case can the enterprise be without setbacks and failures, perhaps disasters. And in neither case is any of this important, because ... well, whatever goes wrong, however badly, superstition is going to make it worse.

-- David Deutsch

http://www.qubit.org/people/david/David.html

Josh Jordan wrote:

I think it makes sense to proceed according to the best plan you have, even if you know of flaws in it.

What if those flaws are superstition? Or TCS-coercion?

Whatever happens, acting against one's best judgment -- e.g. by disregarding criticisms of flaws one knows -- is only going to make things worse.


Elliot Temple on October 8, 2017

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