Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Dao and Wicked Problems

My wife and I have been having discussions lately around a set of different questions that all have one thing in common, they are what I believe are known as "wicked problems".   I'm no expert on these things, but the more I think about them, the more I think that Daoism and Daoists may have a special insight into these problems and have something like a way of coping with them that other folks might find useful.  Consider what follows to me more wild speculation than a fact-based discussion.

People have thought about these sorts of things since the 1970s and have come up with a list of things that describe a "wicked problem".

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

These points are somewhat spare, so let me illustrate them (at least insofar as I understand them) with examples.

The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

This is to say that wicked problems do not allow us the luxury of waiting until we understand everything before we have to take action.   This may be because of simple practical considerations, such as being locked in the room with a ticking time bomb---we have to defuse it before it goes off, whether we know enough to confidently know which wire to cut or not.   Or it might be that we simply cannot know the answer until we attempt a solution---we won't know whether or not we can safely remove the bomb's outer casing until we do so and see if it is attached to a tumbler switch.

Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

A "stopping rule" is some limit that controls how far a problem can go.  If a person with a gambling problem goes to Las Vegas and is only allowed to wager the money in his pocket, the "stopping rule" is that once he has lost that money, he cannot lose any more.  But if he can use a credit card, or borrow against his house, or, even worse, go to a loan shark for money, the lack of a "stopping rule" means that he can end destroying his life and bankrupting his family.

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

It isn't immediately obvious that a solution is "right" or "wrong" for a wicked problem.  Indeed, some solutions might be quite acceptable for some people, but not for others.  Over-population could be solved by government-enforced family planning (e.g. as in China), or, enhancing the role of women in all world societies.  Each of these might theoretically work, but every one would have very sizable opposition from elements of society.  If you are part of that opposition, the problem seems "wrong".  If the opposition is strong enough, then the solution isn't really a solution after all, because it will prove unfeasible in actual practice.

Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'

Wicked problems are the ones that are so big that they tend to be pretty much unique.  Think about things like the environmental crisis, political reform, etc.  Because each of these problems comes with its own set of complex issues, there is no set of problems that can be solved with a generic solution.  This means that each of them has to be solved on its own terms.  So unlike demolition experts who once they've defused one bomb can be sure that the same technique will work with all future examples of the same model, a wicked problem bomb will always be totally unique every time they face it.  Moreover, there is not even any reason to suppose that the same sappers would be involved in defusing the next bomb anyway.  This means that wicked problems never allow people to gain any experience, self-confidence or authority with which to deal with them.

Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Many simple problems come with a limited set of alternatives.  In the classic short-story, you only choose from two doors----each of which has behind it either a lady or a tiger.   But in a wicked problem you usually have a very large---if not infinite---number of solutions, or, ultimately none proposed at all.  (This latter case leaves you to your own devices, which, in a way, is also an implied large number, as you  have to investigate and try to find on your own.  The number being limited by your own knowledge and imagination.)   It isn't a question of cutting the red wire or the blue, but rather of seeing a tangled mass of wires on the bomb and not having a clue of which does what.

As I see it, a great many wicked problems confront us both as members of the human race and as individuals.

The environmental crisis, for example, is a wicked problem because it easily fills all the criteria listed above.  Moreover, it not only presents a wicked problem for the human race as-a-whole, it also presents a wicked problem for any individual who is concerned and wants to "do their bit" to try and become an agent for solving the problem.

Consider, for example, the point of where someone should draw the line on being an exemplar of sustainability.  We can try to have as small a footprint as possible on the earth.  But the act of doing so will inevitably result in diminishing our ability to have any influence on the rest of the human race.  If you try too hard, you run the very real risk of being seen as a "nutcase" by the other people you meet.  And this not only will result in their ignoring whatever it is you have to say to them, it could also "damage the brand" to the point where they dismiss all environmental concerns as being "kooky".  Even if you avoid this problem and become an exemplar of environmental issues, you run into the fact that all the avenues that a person has in our society to have some sort of influence on society-as-a-whole come at some sort of ecological price.  (For example, the server farms that support the internet use a great deal of electricity, and, my laptop uses rare-earth metals that are mined under horrible conditions.  So even this blog post comes at the expense of Mother nature.)  

Even more mundane problems have wicked tendencies.

For example, consider the issue of trying to eat a healthy, balanced diet in harmony with nature while trying to keep within a tight budget and please family members who may not have similar dietary concerns.  Or, think about how one develops an exercise regime that deals with health concerns that come from a person's individual history.  In both cases we don't know enough to even begin to have some sort of simple and easy solution to the complexity.

All sorts of people will offer simple solutions to wicked problems, but IMHO these are pretty much useless.   With regard to the environment, people will suggest that you support a specific political party, purchase some sort of enviro-product, etc.  On the individual level, there are fads such as drinking wheat-grass juice or doing "hot" yoga.

These sorts of things miss the point that wicked problems are invariably the result of systemic crises and cannot be solved by any single remedy.   Indeed, because the crisis is systemic, any given remedy that is offered may actually make things worse rather than better.  Wheat-grass might give you the runs and ruin your food budget.  Hot yoga might make your bad back worse.  Manufacturing the battery on your electric car may poison the water table.     And voting for the Green Party might split the vote and result in the Conservatives getting elected.

The grim fact is that you simply do not know what the results of your actions will be, yet by the mere fact of being alive, you have to act.  That is the essence of a wicked problem.

Traditionally people didn't find themselves confronted by so many problems because they simply didn't have all that much choice in the first place.  Government was controlled by "higher ups", so none of the fretting we do about politics existed.  Food was just what our people always ate and we cooked the way our parents, grandparents, etc, always cooked it.  Again, exercise usually consisted of work.  If it didn't, it usually involved some sort of ritual game or martial exercise that again had been handed down from eons past.

The modern age is very good at sticking people with uninformed choices.  We can choose between different political parties in democratic elections, but things are so darn complicated that only fools think that they understand what's going on.  The same thing with food, exercise, etc.  The free market gives us a myriad of options, but this leaves us wandering in a sea of ignorance that our grandparents would not have even known existed.

When I first started thinking about all of this stuff, it occurred to me that the reason why I have been so attracted to Chinese culture---and Daoism in particular---is because it offers the promise of a complete system that integrates an understanding of how society works, physical exercise, food, and aesthetics all bound together.  This means that once I decided that I was a "Daoist", I had the beginnings of an integrated vision of how to spend my life.  This was very relaxing after spending a life feeling like I'd cast adrift on the cultural vortex that capitalism made of Western civilization.

More to the point, I think that Daoism actually offers a way of looking at and dealing with wicked problems.  Mind you, I don't think it offers anything like a solution.  Instead, it suggests that we look at the world around us as a complex whole, or "Dao" instead of trying to break it up into individual bits.  And it doesn't give us anything like an algorithm for solving problems.  Instead, it suggests that a lot of problems simply need to dealt with through our gut instinct.   And in the process of making those instinctive decisions, we need to "let go" of any hope of understanding or solving the problems that confront us.  Instead, we need to accept that we are simply leaves flowing down the river of life.    


HK Stewart said...

What an interesting and insightful post. Thanks.

Andrius said...


I can understand your desire to find an integrated worldview – I am also searching for one. Daoism at times do look promising, for the reasons you mentioned – it seems to integrate well the personal micro level with the bigger picture. Yet I have a few doubts about this.

First of all, sometimes I doubt if we can ever really understand daoist (or for that matter any far eastern) thought. The languages are very difficult to learn, and even after doing that we encounter a culture that is very different from ours, and thus very hard to understand. And that is a very good environment to flourish for all kinds of misunderstandings and even outright lies.

Of course, with many years of studies and after devoting lot's of energy one probably can overcome these difficulties, but that brings me to my second point – it might simply be not worth it in the end, because similar things can be achieved „closer to home“. Looking at the history of philosophy or religion in the West, I think we can find an expression of almost any conceivable position. From what I hear, there are tens of thousands of different protestant denominations. Also, the catholic church is not as monolithic as it may seem. And even if we had to go to ancient Greece for some school of philosophy, that would still be a shorter trip language and culture–wise than going to ancient China.

And that brings me to my third doubt: possibility of having a community. Even if one decides, that something extremely valuable can be found by journey to the East, due to the difficulties of the journey it will most likely be a solitary one. I live in a predominantly catholic country, but even here it would be easier for me to form a group of some uncommon protestant denomination, or a local Stoic community, than it would to form a group to study daoist or hindu philosophy or religion. Sure, there are a lot of quack yoga groups already, I am talking about serious study here. Now, one could be a hermit, like you, but I would very much prefer having a community of like minded people.

What do you think about all this? Is it really that difficult? Are there essential (I'm not talking about minor differences) things in Daoism that there are not in the West? Does community matter much?


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well, I suppose I have had a bit of a "leg up" in that I was initiated into Daoism pretty much through no effort on my part at all. I joined a martial arts club and one thing led to another and I was in a Daoist temple being initiated. That is an extremely rare thing to have happened. But it is my particular path.

There is a saying by a Japanese Karate master to the effect that "the man makes the art, the art doesn't make the man". What I take this to mean is that a specific school of thought only exists as the people who follow it manifest it.

People either don't understand this, or refuse to admit it, but every part of a tradition---be it Daoism or Roman Catholicism---started out as an innovation created by one specific person who thought it would be a good idea. The reason why people don't want to say this out loud is because they all want to tag on the coat tails of the tradition.

The Pope will never admit, for example, that until the late 19th century there was no doctrine of "Papal Infallibility", or that priestly celibacy was a creation of the Middle Ages and didn't exist in the early church, or, that Bishops and Priests were originally elected by their congregations instead of being appointed from higher up the food chain. (St. Augustine was elected priest and Bishop against his will----.)

As a modern educated man I understand this fact and it guides my experience of life. By happenstance, I ended up finding myself an initiated Daoist. I find a great deal of value in some of the concepts associated with that tradition, so I work with it like a sort of "game" or "puzzle". But ultimately, I'm a "cafeteria Daoist". I pick and choose what works for me.

Words can be descriptive or prescriptive. Don't try to make religion or philosophy something that you have to twist your life into following. Instead, find your own path and look to see if there are others who have had similar insights to yours. Use these experiences as guides, but understand that life is always an adventure and ultimately we have to head out into unexplored territory and do the best we can.