Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Easy and Hard Questions

 

There are easy questions and there are hard questions, and it isn’t always obvious which are which. Quite the contrary: we routinely confuse the one for the other, and that confusion is the source of all kinds of error and misery.

The questions we have to ask and answer when building super-computers and the internet and rockets to the moon, those are the easy questions. They’re easy because they deal with relatively simple systems. However complex these marvels of engineering seem, they are the product of simple rules — often a great many simple rules — rigorously applied in well-controlled settings. They may seem hard because most of us don’t understand them, because they require for their implementation specialized learning and sophisticated mathematical skills. But the answers to these questions are calculable and verifiable: the scientists and mathematicians and engineers who derive and apply those answers can be confident that their numbers are correct and that their rockets (computers, robots, bridges, etc.) will work as expected.

On the other hand, the truly hard questions offer no such systematic and precise solutions. That’s because they involve factors that are hard to measure, effects that are difficult to predict, and complex feed-back systems that sometimes produce large changes in results in response to small changes in variables. Reliably predicting the weather for more than a few days at a time requires solving hard problems, which is why we’re not very good at it. Most problems that involve the actions of groups of people are similarly hard to solve in any rigorous sense: however much we may understand human nature in the aggregate, individual humans will respond unpredictably. The tragic historical record of central planning is a testimony to the chaos of human choice and action, and of our inability to predict it.

Now here’s an ironic thing.

The easy questions have tended to come along late in our evolution, not least because we’ve made them up ourselves: nature never compelled us, after all, to invent the iPhone or send Voyager II to Neptune. We did those things because we wanted to, not because we had to.

In contrast, we started bumping up against the hard questions long before we invented rockets or algebra or the number zero — or even, most likely, before we tamed fire and made it our servant. Before all that technological progress could be made, we had to solve, however imperfectly, problems of social interaction, of exchanges of services, of political organization, of family and community. And so, through a process — through many processes — of trial and error, of false starts and failures and occasional successes, our ancestors came up with workable answers to many of the hard questions. Not perfect answers — these aren’t the kinds of problems that lend themselves to perfect answers, not for our ancestors nor for us — but adequate answers: answers they could live with until better answers could be found.

The rather unintuitive point of all this is that the hard questions are the least amenable to purely rational solutions and that’s good, because the tools of rationality, all the logic and philosophy and formalism we’ve brought to such a high level, weren’t available to us when we were forced as a species to address these hard questions. We (imperfectly) answered those questions and (imperfectly) solved those problems through a different process, one that relied on intuition and ritual and tradition and evolving human nature.

Unfortunately, our recent (that is, over the past few centuries) and spellbinding successes with easy questions tempt us to believe that we can improve upon, with the same confidence we bring to space travel and consumer electronics, the painstakingly evolved answers to the ancient, hard questions faced by the human animal. Worse, they tempt us to dismiss too readily those early discoveries in favor of shiny new theories that have yet to pass the only test the answers to most truly hard questions can face: the test of time.

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  1. Stina Member

    Henry Racette: And so, through a process — through many processes — of trial and error, of false starts and failures and occasional successes, our ancestors came up with workable answers to many of the hard questions. Not perfect answers — these aren’t the kinds of problems that lend themselves to perfect answers, not for our ancestors nor for us — but adequate answers: answers they could live with until better answers could be found.

    This is so spot on. I had been toying with a thought along this line considering ancient wisdom vs the experience-driven knowledge of the enlightenment.

    There are some things where the complex system can handle a small amount of deviation from the norm… but when it is – through encouragement and acceptance – more widespread, it stresses the system.

    • #1
    • January 1, 2019, at 4:58 PM PST
    • 1 like
  2. Stina Member

    Some of the “thoughts”:

    Empirical knowledge is knowledge based on what we observe through our senses or tools that extend our senses. Empirical knowledge, in its purity, is only knowledge which we have ourselves observed. Reason is the ability to change our thinking when provided new information by use of logic.

    Both of these are hailed as the hallmark of the Enlightenment and are used to discredit Tradition and Faith.

    They limit truth to only what is newly or recently observed via new technologies.

     

    • #2
    • January 1, 2019, at 5:05 PM PST
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  3. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Racette: Unfortunately, our recent (that is, over the past few centuries) and spellbinding successes with easy questions tempt us to believe that we can improve upon, with the same confidence we bring to space travel and consumer electronics, the painstakingly evolved answers to the ancient, hard questions faced by the human animal. Worse, they tempt us to dismiss too readily those early discoveries in favor of shiny new theories that have yet to pass the only test the answers to most truly hard questions can face: the test of time.

    Henry,

    You’ve hit upon our real modern problem. There are answers to the “hard questions” but they involve theology or at minimum a belief in the a priori. We want science, science, and more science. We want quick and sure scientific answers so we don’t need any of that other stuff. What if we’re wrong? No, no, we couldn’t be wrong. Science soon will have all of the answers. Just one more grant, just one more genius and then you’ll see. What do you mean belief? What do you mean faith? That’s just superstition. We should get rid of all those science deniers. That will speed up the solution to all our problems. Vote for Ms. Nimrod only she can really build that Tower all the way to Gd and show Gd who’s boss.

    Mashuganah!

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #3
    • January 1, 2019, at 6:58 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. Jules PA Member

    Henry Racette: however much we may understand human nature in the aggregate, individual humans will respond unpredictably. The tragic historical record of central planning is a testimony to the chaos of human choice and action, and of our inability to predict it.

    This is my favorite part of this post. Plus this:

    Henry Racette: they involve factors that are hard to measure, effects that are difficult to predict, and complex feed-back systems that sometimes produce large changes in results in response to small changes in variables.

    • #4
    • January 1, 2019, at 10:05 PM PST
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