Most problems are easy to solve. The solution leaps into your head the instant you understand the nature of the problem. In the course of our day we might solve a dozen, or even a hundred smallish problems (unclogging, plugging in, restarting, mediating, debugging, delegating, etc.). It’s one thing our giant brains evolved to excel at.
But every once in awhile we run into a real doozy — a problem so difficult or intractable that it truly stumps us. Maybe we’re half a million in debt, with no income to speak of. Maybe we have a chronic illness that has proven resistant to medicine and lifestyle changes. Maybe the behavior of a client, significant other, or family member has escalated to red alarm level — they’re destroying us or themselves and they’re out of control. Maybe we’ve invaded a country on false pretenses and now we’re stuck there and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars. No easy solution springs to mind. What’s the best approach?
The Empirical Approach
Empiricism is the idea that we gain knowledge from evidence (evidence gathered via our physical senses). If we conduct experiments and carefully observe the results of those experiments, and base our course of action on the knowledge that we gain from our direct experiences, then we’re taking an empirical approach to problem solving.
More practically, we can look at the published experiments and experiences of others in order to see what approaches worked to solve problems similar to our own. We can examine the historical/collective evidence.
One strength of the empirical approach is that we can discover and utilize solutions that we may not fully understand. For example, I don’t fully understand why Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect, but reading about clinical trials where fish oil supplements helped reduce asthma symptoms encouraged me to try taking them. I observed that moderately large doses of fish oil helped my breathing, and improved my mood as well. I don’t need to fully understand the mechanism to experience the benefits.
Via the empirical exploration of reality, we can discover counter-intuitive, unexpected solutions to problems. When we publish or share our results, the benefits of the empirical approach multiply. Educators often use this approach to solve difficult teaching problems, running experiments in their own classrooms and sharing the results with their colleagues. What’s the best way to effectively convey knowledge and life skills to a large classroom of kids who may be distracted, tired, malnourished, dealing with problems at home, and academically behind in every category? It’s a difficult problem! Is applying strict discipline and high levels of personal accountability the answer? What about getting rid of all refined foods in the school lunch program, and banishing soda and candy vending machines? Or maybe engaging in massive quantities of reading and writing in the lower grades? It turns out all three approaches have been successful at various schools. The teachers and administrators tried different things, observed the results, and shared the evidence.
Blogger/master-marketer Tim Ferriss is adept at using the empirical approach to answer questions about efficacy. Ferriss runs internet ads to test the click-through percentage of various blog or book titles. This approach (along with lots of hard work) has earned him loads of traffic on his site, a #1 NYT best-selling book, and legions of devoted fans.
The empirical approach to problem solving also has a few weaknesses. When we observe the evidence, our senses may deceive us. If we’re using evidence published by others, it’s possible that the experiments may have been poorly run, or the results sloppily collected (or even purposefully fudged or outright falsified).
Another major weakness is the possibility of confusing correlation with causation. Just because a result closely follows an action doesn’t mean the result is caused by the action. If you say something to your aunt and she suddenly starts crying, it doesn’t necessarily mean you hurt her feelings. She might have something in her eye. Or she might have not have even been listening to you; instead she was thinking about that sad scene in Lord of the Rings when Boromir is killed by the Uruk-hai. The same kind of misunderstanding can happen in the course of the scientific pursuit of knowledge — the observed results may or may not be due to the factor that was being tested.
Another weakness of empirical approach to problem solving is that all observations must necessarily be of the past, of things that have already happened. If a situation is changing rapidly, careful observations of past events may not give us reliable or useful information about the future (aka “driving forward while looking out the rear window”). This is a problem all parents have — as soon as they have “figured out” their child’s behavior (via observation and experimentation), the child changes. A three-year-old is a radically different creature from a two-year-old. Luckily, other parents have been through it already, and are willing to share their own observations and experiences about particular developmental stages. The same conundrum applies, to even more of an extent, to the entire field of economics. Economies are always in a state of massive flux (with the possible exception of Switzerland). No matter how carefully we gather and analyze data about the past, the future may surprise us.
If we ask “What has worked in the past, for other people and groups?” — is that an empirical approach? Or is that instead looking at tradition, which is often contrasted with empiricism? Tradition doesn’t consider evidence — tradition only considers what is traditional. Still — some traditions may have originally formed due to the empirical explorations of our ancestors. What worked? What didn’t work? The traditional approach to a problem isn’t necessarily a bad place to start, as long as we are willing to observe the results of our actions and modify our course accordingly. Administering vaccines to children to prevent common diseases is an example of a recent tradition that has an empirical precedent — there is a great deal of evidence to support that some vaccines prevent specific diseases. These days the risks of vaccines (small chance of allergic reaction, mercury in older vaccine formulations) outweigh the disease-prevention benefits in the minds of many parents, but this is in fact a testament to the enormous success of vaccination programs. If these same parents witnessed the needless death or serious illness of a child or a friend’s child from polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, or another disease that is largely preventable from vaccination, they might jump on the vaccine bandwagon. Look up the symptoms of some of these diseases — they’re horrific. But we don’t see these diseases very often, because vaccines work. There is an historical precedent for vaccination. It’s a tradition backed by evidence.
In the medical field, the knife cuts both ways. Many medical doctors follow medical tradition (or conventional wisdom) instead of staying up to date with the most recent empirical evidence. That’s why many doctors still over-prescribe antibiotics, don’t recommend vitamin D tests, think eating meat causes heart disease, etc. What you need, sir, is a good leeching!
The composer and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) is an interesting figure in the history of empiricism. He questioned the traditional understanding of musical consonance and dissonance (based, at the time, on “Pythagorean Hammers“) and refined the understanding of physical vs. musical ratios via careful experimentation and observation. His approach no doubt influenced his son, who became one of the greatest empiricists (and scientists) the world has ever known.
The empirical approach to problem-solving works best when:
- The situation is observable.
- Conditions allow us to conduct an experiment or multiple experiments.
- There is an empirically derived precedent (we can draw on the published experiences of other experimenters).
- The situation is not in a state of massive flux.
- Discovering a local truth (something that is true under specific conditions, within a certain time period, for a certain group of people, etc.) will help us solve our problem.
The Rational Approach
When we “act rationally,” then reason guides our actions. We might be using inductive reasoning, inferring general principles from specific observations (aka “making an educated guess”). Or we might be using deductive reasoning, starting with initial premises and arriving at a conclusion via the use of logic. Reason is often contrasted with empiricism — sometimes the history of philosophy is viewed as a sort of reason vs. empiricism cage battle (Socrates vs. Aristotle, the “Continental rationalists” [Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz] vs. the “British empiricists” [Locke, Berkeley, Hume]). The truth is more nuanced — Aristotle, for example, contributed to both empiricism and logic.
The main weakness of deductive logic is acknowledged within the rules of logic itself. If a premise is false, the conclusion will be false (or unsound). This is true even if the argument is valid. For example:
- All horses are brown.
- Cadillac Jack is a horse.
- Cadillac Jack is brown.
The logic is valid but the conclusion is unsound (because the premise is unsound).
Reason is a powerful tool for problem solving if the space is difficult to observe. The entire field of string theory is based on mathematical reasoning — the objects involved are too small to look at. This is the main criticism of string theory — it’s based on pure reasoning and can’t be confirmed via observation. Still, it’s better than not exploring the space at all. Early philosophers deduced all kinds of things about astronomy before they had access to a telescope. Most of them were wrong, but some of them were right. Aristarchus of Samos deduced (or induced) that the sun was the center of the solar system 1800 years before Galileo confirmed the idea via the empirical approach (meticulously observing and recording planetary orbits through his telescope).
Heavy-handed use of the rational approach to problem solving has had disastrous political and economic consequences throughout history. “That should work,” say those in charge, and then commit to a course of action without small-scale testing and observation. One or more of the premises turn out to be false, and millions die or become impoverished. Mao Zedong’s Great Sparrow campaign is one example. Sparrows eat grain, so killing and harassing sparrows should increase crop yields, right? It made sense, and it worked, until it didn’t. Sparrows turned out to eat more insects than grain, and the locusts hordes that followed the sparrow cull led to 30 million people dying of starvation. This isn’t ancient history either — it all happened in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Another example is Alan Greenspan’s belief in the logic of laissez-faire capitalism (inspired by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, which relies heavily on deductive reasoning). Despite dozens of historical examples of unregulated capitalism leading to economic bubbles and subsequent devastating crashes, Greenspan clung to his Objectivist reasoning (markets should be as “free” as possible to help the economy thrive), thwarted regulation at every turn, and helped crash the global economy. When the house of cards came tumbling down, he admitted his ideology was wrong. Oops.
The rational approach to problem solving works best when:
- It’s difficult or impossible to make observations or conduct experiments (scale is very large or very small, resources are limited).
- Time is limited and a course of action must be chosen quickly (the empirical approach is generally slower).
- The situation is truly novel, or in a state of massive flux (no empirically derived precedents to draw upon, no guarantee that past observations and patterns will correspond to future observations and patterns).
- We are confident that our premises (starting assumptions about the situation) are sound.
- Discovering a universal (or at least more general) truth or principle will help us solve our problem.
The Subjectivist/Attentional Approach
There are various schools of Subjectivism, but they all consider the subjective experience of reality to be primary. Reality is a construct; there are no “things” until our sense organs and brains organize the raw data they receive from the world into understandable objects. The things we think about, what we pay attention to, the way we are wired — all these things influence how we, as individuals, perceive reality.
Extreme Subjectivists, like people who believe in The Secret, go even further. They believe that we personally create every aspect of our lives, with our attention and imagination, “attracting” the things that we think about and pay attention to. These people are crazy. In their view, people “attract” every aspect of their reality, including natural disasters. This might be true for tornado chasers, but usually this kind of attitude is just blaming the victim. It’s not just irrational, it’s cruel and irresponsible. The residents of Pompeii did not “attract” the eruption of Vesuvius and their subsequent incineration.
Unfortunately, these extremists detract from aspects of Subjectivism that are extremely powerful and useful. What we think about, what we pay attention to, and what we imagine for ourselves do profoundly effect our experience of life, and the kinds of people and experiences we bring into our lives.
The blogger and spiritual explorer Steve Pavlina has recounted how he turned his life around financially by controlling his attention. Steve was deeply in debt — approximately $150K — and it was all he could think about. The debt took over his mind. His epiphany was that focusing on his debt wasn’t making it go away. He decided to focus on other things — aspects of his life that he enjoyed. By controlling his attention, he regained his “creative spark,” which eventually led him back to financial prosperity.
Does this mean that if we ignore our problems, they’ll just go away? That doesn’t make any sense. But we need to be vigilant against letting our problems define us. Our problems can creep into our identity, and that’s problematic. If we let a disease, or a death, or a disaster define us, then we become lost and helpless. We also have less of a chance of losing the unwanted hanger-on. If your back hurts, don’t give power and form to the pain by constantly thinking about “my back pain.”
I used John Sarno’s attentional technique to dissipate persistent low back pain. Sarno’s hypothesis is that repressed emotions lead to chronic muscular tension in certain areas of the body, thus reducing blood flow to the area and causing chronic discomfort and tissue atrophy. Sarno’s technique is simple. He suggests you redirect your attention away from the concept of your “injury” and instead focus on fully experiencing and expressing your emotions.
I tried this method. Every night before going to sleep I repeated various phrases to myself, hundreds of times. I gave myself permission to experience my own emotions. Even though I wasn’t focusing on my back, I could feel the warmth flow to my lower back, and to other parts of of my body that were holding tension. Sometimes I would feel “energy” collect near my heart or throat (plexuses of nerves and blood vessels).
The results of this experiment were twofold. Firstly, I was kind of an asshole for awhile, short-tempered and brash, as I learned how to handle my “surfaced” anger, ambition, and desires. It took awhile to learn the balance of appropriate expression without repression. Secondly, my lower back area felt loose, open, and pain-free.
Is this “mind-over-body” approach the only way to cure back pain? Of course not. Calcium + magnesium + vitamin D supplements might work for some. Going barefoot more often might work for others. Cranial-sacral therapy and chiropractors can be helpful. Sometimes the solution is avoiding certain exercises, like running on pavement, doing leg presses on a weight machine, or even some Yoga poses (“The Plow” and “Full Cobra” are both incredibly hard on the lower back). And the ultimate cause of low back pain, which almost everybody experiences at one time or another, is our evolutionary history. But the Subjectivist/attentional approach shouldn’t be discounted. Our thoughts effect our bodies (and lives) in powerful ways.
Sometimes giving attention to a problem magnifies it. Demanding, unreasonable clients won’t become any less demanding or unreasonable if you give them all your time and attention, and the work you could be doing for your better clients will suffer. High-maintenance friends whose lives are filled with drama will also try to monopolize your attention — if you succumb to their demands then your more rewarding friendships will suffer. If you have a disease, then thinking about it 24/7 won’t cure you. There are only a few tangible things we can do about any given problem in a day. Do those things, and then engage yourself in other thoughts and activities that are more rewarding. Attention is a limited resource, so we should minimize the attention we give to our problems. Action is more effective than worry.
The Subjectivist/attentional approach to problem solving is most effective when:
- We feel demoralized, and we need to rally our energy and regain focus.
- Our personal attitude has a great bearing on the situation.
- Our ability to control or influence external forces related to the problem is highly limited.
- The crux of the problem is emotional.
The Multi-Modal Toolkit
Relying too much on one problem solving mode (or type of thinking) is dogmatic and counterproductive. At the extremes we find caricatures. There is Mr. Spock of Star Trek, who tries to solve every problem with logic. There are hucksters selling “tried and tested” algorithms to beat the stock market (an empirical/testing approach will never allow us to reliably predict the behavior of a system that is in constant massive flux). And then there are the (invariably broke) losers who tape stickers to their mirror that say “Money is constantly flowing into my life” (extreme subjectivist approach). Life is complicated and difficult — we need to use every tool in our mental toolboxes to deal with the challenges that come our way (both individually and collectively).
In Part II of this post I’ll write about a few other approaches to problem solving, including the Intuitive/Super-Cognitive approach, the Holistic / Network-Analysis approach, and the Evolutionary/Massively-Iterative approach.