The world problem-solver: Not a home, not free enough

The chief reason that one may spend one’s life trying to solve the world’s problems is that one believes that doing so is identical with the good life. To lead a good life is to solve the world’s problems. But this thesis cannot hold up under scrutiny.

The world problem-solver, having taken the world not to be a home at the outset, believes that it only can become a home once the major problems have been solved. But even if one were to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of food, one would still be spending one’s life trying to do away with what is bad. Imagine spending a life seeking to do away with what is bad–how can that be good? It does not follow that doing away with what is bad can ever get one to the shores of the good: the removal of the bad does not imply the arrival of the good. And if there is the arrival of some local good, it is still not an affirmation of the overall goodness of the world. So, even problem-solving success implies overall failure. Thus, the problem-solver who tries to make the world into a home cannot do so because it is impossible. As a result, he will always be exiled from home–from start to finish.

Alternatively, he may argue that once the major problems are removed, then everyone will be free. Yet being able to do what one wants to do is not sufficient for leading a good life. Freedom grasped as the ability to do what one wants to do is a rather juvenile concern, after all. If no one would wish to be coerced, it does not follow that a reasonable person would identify this conception of freedom with human flourishing. Just as the world’s being free a particular problem does not get us to the good, so being free of coercion gives us no guidelines concerning how best to conduct ourselves.

Consequently, the world problem-solver who assumes that the world is not as it ought to be concludes with the world’s remaining unhomely as well as with a sense of his never being entirely free–never quite free enough–either. Quite clearly, alienation begets further alienation.

Recognizing these things, one would have to exit ‘the way of problematizing’ and return to first questions: ‘How could I come to perceive the world qua world as being good? And how would I have to be in order to be prepared to receive the world as good?’

A-problematizing the world

I have been investigating what I have called ‘the problematization of the world,’ which is one key fixture of our modern metaphysic. To ‘problematize the world,’ I have claimed, is to transform any concrete something or other into a problem demanding to be solved. It is commonly said that ‘crime is a problem’ or that ‘diabetes is a problem,’ and I have tried, first of all, to understand what such statements mean.

Since then, I have begun to examine what supreme value certain people attribute to the view that the ‘world, being full of problems, demands creative solutions,’ and I have argued that this ‘style’ of problem-solving is identified with a conception of the good life. Spending one’s life solving problems is a good, if not indeed the best, way to live. I think this is untrue, though I do not make this case today.

Now I begin the process of showing what is deficient about problem-solving as a social or collective endeavor. This is a subtle operation, in a manner of speaking, since I don’t want to say that ‘the problem with problem-solving is that…’ Saying that is to fail to exit the concept of the problem; it is to undertake something foolish. What I want to do instead is to ‘a-problematize the world’: that is, to withdraw from the very terms of problematizing. Yet to do that, I must introduce a clearer, more accurate vocabulary, the sort of words that do justice to a certain kind of social phenomenon. The boon of such an operation is this: when one withdraws from ‘problematizing,’ then what may be disclosed in time is much more interesting world.

Continue reading “A-problematizing the world”

The problematization of the world

I also write about the problematization of the world in a recent Quartz piece.

*

You might have thought that food is an activity of cultivating and partaking and communing with others and that death is an event that calls upon us to make sense of our earthly lives, but it turns out that, like most things in modernity, food and death can be ‘problematized.’ Food and death can, in other words, be turned into and conceptualized as problems. But this is only the true provided that one already affirm the metaphysical belief that the world consists of problems in need of human solutions.

Most do.

Imagine the world as being the kind of place–not here and there but everywhere and in all quadrants–which is filled with problems; then human conduct can become the search for and the application of solutions. Based on this metaphysical view, it can be held that sleep is a problem, stress is a problem, sex is a problem, hyperactivity is a problem, staying awake is a problem, eating is a problem, excreting is a problem, drinking is a problem, domestic abuse is a problem, construction is a problem, crime is a problem, water shortage is a problem, maintaining an erection is a problem, trust is a problem, childhood development is a problem, economic growth is a problem, obesity is a problem, overpopulation is a problem, public safety is a problem, shelter is a problem, climate change is a problem, and death is a problem. In short, anything having to do with the world has become problematizable.

Consider, again, food and death: food is a problem to be solved, and death is a problem to be solved. They can be considered as separate problems, as is the case with those who believe that technology can help human beings live forever. Or the two theses can be combined: food is a problem to be solved because death (from starvation) is a problem to be solved or else because time (i.e., clock time) is a problem to be solved (efficiency gains).

In ‘So You Want to Live Forever,’ an article that appeared recently in The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen discusses the Live Forever Movement whose thesis is, as she puts it, that ‘death is a problem to be solved, not a fate to be endured.’ The scientist Aubrey de Grey claims, ‘The problem right now is that people think of aging as a universal phenomenon, but diseases such as heart disease are thought of as separate phenomena. But they’re universal!’ Like disease, aging can be conceptualized as a problem begging for a creative scientific solution.

In a recent New Yorker essay titled ‘The End of Food,’ a couple of startup guys are developing a food-like stuff called Soylent that would fulfill the utility-function of food. They take food to be an ‘engineering problem’ that could, if solved, end ‘mankind’s oldest problem.’ By some, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘Soylent has been heralded by the press as ‘the end of food.” Widdicome continues,

To help a village full of malnourished people, “you could [Rhinehart, one of the founders of Soylent, states] just drop in a shipping container” full of Soylent-producing algae. “It would take in the sun’s energy and water and air, and produce food.” Mankind’s oldest problem would be solved. Then, he added, all we’d have to do is fix the world’s housing problem, “and people could be free.”

With these examples, food and death, we have come to the ultimate and radical transformation of needs–of the basic constituents of the perdurance of a human life in particular or human life in general–into problems. In terms of our thinking, there are no further thresholds to cross with regard to the ‘problematization of the world.’

*

I want to ask not yet, ‘How did the world become problematized?’ but for now, ‘What is a problem taken in social life?’ This problem in social life is distinct from other concepts of problems: a problem set in mathematics, a boulder problem in climbing, etc. I want also to distinguish between such statements as ‘The problem with Joshua Tree is that it lacks a food coop’ and those like ‘The problem of childhood obesity is pandemic.’ The first simply means that there is something deficient about the place (with the assumption that one can live just fine with this deficiency) whereas the second points us to the way in which the world has become problematized. The latter sort of case is what I have in mind in my conceptual analysis below.

In the everyday world, problems of the kind I seek to understand exhibit the following characteristics:

1.) Some agent (person, organization, institution, etc.) does not have what is good at the same time that it has what is bad.

2.) The domain of the problem is specified or local in the sense of being circumscribed or isolated from the whole (i.e., it is ripped free of the whole).

3.) It is postulated that there is an efficient cause that led to its existence. (E.g., overeating is the cause of obesity.)

4.) It is urgent.

5.) To act (solve it) is to get rid of what is bad or undesirable, thereby clearing the way for what is good or desirable.

6.) The solution is presumed to be final and definitive. (E.g., solving the problem of climate change puts an end to the problem. One could not both solve it and have more work to do.)

An example: drinking too much often enough is said to be a problem. Let us say that it is not an illness in this case, only a bad habit. The agent does not have what he wants (e.g., a comfortable family life, a stable work life, a sense of control over his appetites, etc.) at the same time that he has what he does not want (e.g., cravings, poor health, sundry vices, etc.). The problem of drinking is specified so as to exclude (e.g.) questions of the divine, communion with nature, the possibility of anomie, the sociological analysis of drinking rituals, etc. An efficient cause is sought: his lingering rage, let’s say, with his domineering yet now deceased father. It is urgent: unless it is solved, the good things in life will go away while the bad things will dwell with him. The proposed solution–coming to terms with his late father, say, combined with an intensive will training program–would allow him to ‘solve’ his drinking problem.

It strikes me as highly doubtful that this is a good way of understanding why this person cannot make sense of his life. And I am equally skeptical that it is a good way of understanding human life. I would want to say something similar about all the so-called problems above. Yet another way of knowing the world cannot be disclosed until a path is cleared that lies well beyond the ‘problematization of the world.’

‘Full of problems, the world requires solutions’

My thesis is that there is a reigning conception of the world that is held, consciously or not, by ecologists, political activists, designers, entrepreneurs, academics, NGO workers, as well as by those in the caring professions. And it is made explicit in the following set of assumptions, conceptions, and conclusions:

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

My interest lies in investigating all of these in turn, following them to their conclusions as a propaedeutic–that is, a preliminary exercise–to coming to radiance. For all of these assumptions foreclose the possibility that the world qua world is good, affirmable, beautiful. The sense of wonder experienced in the presence of the affirmed world, in the emphatic sense that ‘life is good,’ is utterly foreclosed. Wonderment, fascination, awe, appreciation, gratitude, praise: these experiences will be at most fleeting instants scarcely noticeable by modern human beings who hold fast to the deep-seeded assumption that the world is bad.

*

I have already begun tracing out a line of thought leading from number 4 to the conclusions that there are victims, there are witnesses to the pain experienced by these victims, and there is, in the final analysis, a sense of utter agentlessness and utter helplessness. Hence, the phenomenon experienced as ‘a welling up of feeling bad for the being who is trapped beyond help, rescue, or relief.’ That phenomenon is sometimes called ’empathy,’ but it could just as well go by other names. My concern is with this common phenomenon, not sensu stricto with what it is called.

I gather that it is not surprising, then, that I should select number 3 as the next subject of investigation. For the world being a ‘problem to solve’ seems to be the contrary of the world’s consisting of victims and witnesses. From one vantage point, we make the error of ‘actively listening’: sharing, listening, consoling, feeling bad or feeling sorry for. From the other vantage point, we make the error of believing that we can do away with something on behalf of another for good (e.g., a problem with his boss at work).

In the case of problem solving, something can be done; in the case of being empathetic, nothing can be done. Yet in both, something is demanded to be done. I wonder: what is going on?

*

To get started on this inquiry into the world as a problem to be solved, it is enough to pose the question: ‘What assumptions underlie the claims that the world consists of problems and demands or requires solutions?’ In asking this question, I have yet to inquire into the meaning of the claims above; that question shall be answered in the following post. The assumptions first:

1.) The world as it is experienced or as such is bad. (In the sense that it cannot be affirmed in experience or as it is.)

2.) The world is not as it ought to be. (Cf. Kant on is/ought)

3.) Something has to be (needs to be, must be, ought to be, demands to be, etc.) done about the world’s being bad.

4.) But then the world as it is experienced primordially consists of actions (human, institutional, etc.) and inactions.

5.) Good actions solve problems; bad actions or no actions leave them unsolved.

Primordially, therefore, we stand in the world as beings who negate it. In light of this, we are tasked with the onus of doing something about this. We first negate it, then ‘remake’ it. Soon enough, we shall find that ‘solving the world’s problems’ implies a particular kind of negating–that is, doing away with–what is bad and this doing away is a doing away with for all time. All that is an odd thing to say and believe. Odder still to live this way.