Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Solution

I'm beginning to gather some resources for an inquiry into the tragic outlook.

Take the question as I posed it in a recent post:
How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?
One part of the tragic outlook is taking seriously the possibility that the answer to this question is: We don't.

I currently have three sources in mind to inform this aspect of the tragic outlook.

First, Garrett Hardin's classic treatment of the logic of tragedy is tied directly to the intractability of certain important problems. Hardin opens his 1968 paper, "The Tragedy of the Commons", by stipulating a class of "no technical solutions problems."
 A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality (Hardin 1968, p. 1243).
He goes on to say that the class of "no technical solution problems"
is not a null class. Recall the game of tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, "How can I win the game of tick-tack-toe?" It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put another way, there is no "technical solution" to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word "win." I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify the records. Every way in which I "win" involves, in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course, openly abandon the game - refuse to play it. This is what most adults do.) (Ibid.)
Hardin follows this with an assertion that the "population problem" is a member of the class that has no technical solution. He does end up suggesting, however, that it may be amenable to a policy solution, "social arrangements" that are, by nature, coercive though there may be mutual (democratic?) agreement on the forms of coercion to be enacted (Ibid., p. 1247).

I would point out, however, that the pet example of a "no technical solution problem", tick-tack-toe, is also a member of a distinct and troubling sub-set of that class. It is not just that there is no technical solution to the problem of winning at tick-tack-toe, there does not seem to be any cultural or economic solution, either, aside from a mutual agreement not to play - which is a way of sidestepping the problem rather than solving it. So, the problem of winning tick-tack-toe would seem to be a member of the unfortunate class of problems that have no direct solution at all or, simply "no solution problems."

While I'm considering Hardin, I should pause to consider his characterization of tragedy, which he quotes directly from Whitehead:
We may well call it "the tragedy of the commons," using the word "tragedy" as the philosopher Whitehead used it: "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." He then goes on to say, "This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in drama." (Ibid, p.1244)
A second, one that pulls in a slightly different direction, is Rittel and Webber's treatment of the notion of a wicked problem. They sum it up (in "cartoon" form, as they put it) as follows:
The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly "tame" or "benign" ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved
Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues - whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime (Rittel and Webber 1973, p.160).
This account parallels Hardin's up to a point: wicked problems do not admit of technological solutions. However, the notion of a wicked problem seems to cut deeper: while Hardin writes as though the class of "no technical solution problems" is populated by well-defined problems with, in the case of tragedies of the commons, an essential logic, Rittel and Webber suggest that one of the main reasons some problems have no technical solution is that there may not be widespread agreement on what the problem is.

The difficulty of problem definition is, in part, a function of the growing heterogeneity of society: one person's solution is another's problem, because the persons involved are pursuing different aims. The difficulty is also, in part, a function of the complexity of the social and technological context.
We have been learning to see social processes as the links tying open systems into large and interconnected networks of systems, such that outputs from one become inputs to others. In that structural framework it has become less apparent where problem centers lie, and less apparent where and how we should intervene even if we do happen to know what aims we seek (Ibid., p.159)
As a consequence
we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be (Ibid.)
. . . even assuming everyone agrees on what ought to be.

Of the ten distinguishing features of wicked problems, here is the one that stands out, for me, at the moment: "wicked problems have no stopping rule." Ritttel and Webber explain:
The planner terminates work on a wicked problem, not for reasons inherent in the "logic" of the problem. He stops for considerations that are external to the problem: he runs out of time, or money, or patience. He finally says, "That's good enough," or "This is the best I can do within the limitations of the project," or "I like this solution," etc.
As Bryan Norton puts it - I still have to track down a print reference to this, though I've heard him say it often enough: We do not solve wicked problems, we only cope with them.

Norton's gloss on wicked problems raises the question, at which I've hinted elsewhere, of whether there might be problems with which we may not even be able to cope. I believe someone has introduced the notion of "super-wicked" problems into the literature, in reference to climate change. I'll have to track that down.

A third source draws me back to some of my earlier work in environmental philosophy. In their book on the central role of metaphor in shaping human cognition, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell of an Iranian student one of them encountered at Berkeley.
Among the wondrous things that he found at Berkeley was an expression that he heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was "the solution of my problems" - which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that the residents of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful  (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, pp.143).
They go on to suggest that the chemical metaphor for "the solution of my problems" fits well with certain aspects of human experience, as when a problem that was supposed to have been "solved" comes up again.
To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurrence rather than a failure on your part to find "the right way to solve it" (Ibid., p.144).
Referring to Lakoff and Johnson brings me back to earlier phases of my own research. I cited the chemical metaphor in the last chapter of my first book to inform my response to what I now call the cultural fix fixation of environmental philosophers:
the environmental crisis is not a single monolithic puzzle awaiting a solution. Indeed, contrary to the radical tendency of environmental  thought, the crisis is not rooted in a particular form of society or in a particular way of thinking. Instead, the crisis is an ever-present (if sometimes latent) potential within the human condition; it is an unavoidable and perhaps indispensable part of human life on Earth. Environmental problems are, in a word, endemic (Kirkman 2002, p.153).
These, then, are some of the threads I'll need to draw together in analyzing and assessing a tragic outlook. This may take some doing, to the extent the threads may be tugging in different directions.

Consider the question: Does having a tragic outlook presuppose one knows that there is a problem and knows, more or less precisely, the essential nature of the problem and the logic that drives it? Hardin's argument seems to depend on just such a presupposition, to the point that he recommends a change in social arrangements as the solution to the population problem. If, as Rittel and Webber insist, that we may not even come to agreement on the existence and nature of the most salient societal problems, then either the heterogeneity of normative frameworks and the resulting difficulty of defining and locating problems will itself be part of the logic of tragedy, or a tragic outlook will be entirely relative to a particular normative framework - one person's tragedy is another's farce.

Let me try to explain this in terms of tragic drama.

Does the bitter irony of Romeo and Juliet hinge on a clear understanding of what the the solution would be, if only the characters in the play could see it? Do we know, in other words, just what Romeo should have done to secure his future with Juliet, in spite of the situation in which they found themselves? It's clear enough, anyway, that the technical solution on offer - faking his own death - fell short of expectations!

Or does the remorseless logic of the play rest in part on the normative ambiguity of the situation, the clash of different normative frameworks, the claim of right against right, the messy wickedness of the problem situation? In the case of Antigone, at least, it is precisely the divergent normative frameworks of Creon and Antigone that bind them to their unhappy fate.

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162.3859 (1968): 1243-1248.

Kirkman, Robert. Skeptical Environmentalism: The Limits of Philosophy and Science. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980.

Norton, Bryan G. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Rittel, Horst W.J., and Melvin M. Webber. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy Sciences 4 (1973).

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