A Very Short Essay on Problems — Part 1

A Tentative Taxonomy of Problems

Compared to all other life forms in the known universe, our species can be characterized as the one that consciously solves problems. There appears to be – at least in some specimens of our kind – an inherent drive to not only solve problems but in fact to seek out new problems to be solved. Of course, some would argue that many of our attempts to solve problems in turn create new problems. That in itself is probably not such a bad thing because otherwise we would have little to occupy ourselves with. Confronting challenges – natural as well as artificially created – exercises our faculties and makes us feel alive and lends purpose and meaning to our existence.

I think that a simple taxonomy of problems would be useful. Type I class of problems are the ones that we are confronted with naturally and which we need to solve as a matter of practical importance. Examples of this class would be: how do we build a more efficient light source, how can we avoid global warming, how do we discover a vaccine, etc. In contrast to that, Type II problems are of no immediate practical importance and we ‘invent’ these problems for various reasons, primarily curiosity and the drive to comprehend the universe around us. To be sure, down the line, the results of Type II problems could have practical implications; but to begin with they are not motivated by a desire to change the world. Examples of this variety: is there is a largest prime number, why is the sky dark at night (Obler’s paradox), do neutrinos have a zero rest mass, etc.

Type I problems (building a better light source) arise from the way the universe is (it is dark at night), while comprehending why the universe is the way it is leads to Type II problems. Therefore, Type II problems are more ‘fundamental’ in that they exist irrespective of whether we exist or not. Type I problems are meaningful only in the context of our existence.

Then there is the Type III set of problems, a set which I call “meta-problems.” Examples of this type: why is there something rather than nothing, does the universe come into existence only if there are sentient beings capable of perceiving its existence, etc. This type belongs roughly to philosophy. Type II lies in the domain of physics, and Type I to engineering. Therefore, Type I problems are related to technology, Type II to science, and Type III to metaphysics.

Here is how I try to understand the types in the context of a single life-time: as a child, one solves Type I engineering problems (how do I reach the cookie jar and open it without being detected); as a young adult, one solves Type II science problems (what makes an apple fall); as an older adult, one solves Type III metaphysical problems (what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.)

Civilizations can be categorized with respect to the type of problems they solve. A stone-age civilization, for instance, is only concerned with Type I engineering problems (how to develop the technology to make a sharper flint edge). It is not sufficiently sophisticated to comprehend, leave alone confront, Type II science problems. Our current global civilization is one which is capable of tackling Type II science problems, and naturally is fairly good at the Type I engineering problems which are comparatively simpler. I think that till about 1600 C.E., the global civilization was Type I. Since then, we have graduated to a Type II civilization and I feel that this stage will last till 2600 C.E. After that, if the species has not committed suicide through its own technological excesses, we may move on to become a Type III civilization.

I write “globally” above to imply that on average we are one type or one of the others. But at a finer level of detail, different nations on the globe are at different levels. Some nations are stuck at the Type I problems (how to feed its population, how to supply electric power to its cities, how to avoid being run over by barbarians); some others have moved on to Type II problems (how to build detectors for gravitational waves).

Currently no nation is involved with Type III problems. That does not imply that no individual or a small group in the world has grappled with (or is grappling with) Type III problems. In every age and every nation (broadly speaking), there have been people of all types. Not everyone in a Type II nation is capable of comprehending Type II problems. So also, there are people in Type I nations who have successfully addressed Type III problems. Or, even when globally we were a Type I civilization, there were have been people who posed and solved Type III problems.

Although in general there is a monotonic progression of types, in specific instances, some people can go directly to solving Type III problems even though the civilization is stuck in a primitive Type I stage. How do they do that, one may wonder. I conjecture that there are people with advanced intelligences who have an intuitive grasp of the nature of the universe. What justification do I have for this? Because I recognize that different minds have qualitatively different abilities. The mind of an Einstein, for example, is fundamentally different from that of a mentally retarded person. Or the mind of a parrot is qualitatively different from that of a human being. What is available to the average human’s mind is inconceivable to the mind of a parrot. So also, I believe that there are human minds which are as far removed from the mind of average humans as human minds are removed from that of parrots.

All minds are not created equal, just as all bodies are not. A bug’s body is puny compared to that of a whale. There is no democracy in the natural world. If bodies (and consequently brains) can occupy such a range of diversity, surely there is no fundamental reason why minds cannot span an equally wide, if not an immensely greater, range.

It is important for me to name those who have minds that transcend the average human mind, minds which can by-pass the ordinary natural progression of stages and go directly to a more acute comprehension of the universe. To that end, I would like to borrow a word from the Buddhist tradition. The word is “Bodhisattva”. I am merely borrowing the word and not its various meanings in the Buddhist traditions. I would like to use that word because I believe the Buddhist bodhisattvas share some essential characteristics with what I am attempting to define.

I am conjecturing the existence of bodhisattvas. Can a mind which is not a bodhisattva conceive of a bodhisattva? I suppose it can by a process of induction. Most certainly one cannot fully comprehend the mind of a bodhisattva if one is not a bodhisattva. But perhaps one can get a partial understanding of some vague outline of what a bodhisattva is by a process of negation.

Let me try an analogy here. We do have a somewhat good understanding of what finite numbers are. While we do not fully understand what infinity is, we can negatively define infinity to be that which is *not* finite. In a sense, the definition of infinity accessible to a finite mind is that infinity is something that which cannot be defined by the finite mind. In Taoism, the Eternal Tao is defined as “The Tao which can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” The ‘neti, neti’ (meaning “not that, not that”) with which the bodhisattvas of ancient India responded to the question of the nature of the ultimate principle (“God”) is another way of defining the ineffable.

I think I should pause briefly here to explain where I am going with this and what this has to do with economic development. Economic development is a problem that occupies us. We need to fully understand the nature of the problem to be able to solve it. The need to understand the problem arises because the solution to the problem is sensitive to the nature of the problem. That is, for the solution to be effective, it has to match the nature of the problem. An engineering problem does not admit a philosophical solution. Besides the issue of effectiveness, there is the matter of efficiency: if we know the nature of the problem, we can more efficiently solve it if we already have known solutions that apply to that particular class of problems.

[This is a work in progress. No doubt any feedback will contribute to the progress.]

Author: Atanu Dey


11 thoughts on “A Very Short Essay on Problems — Part 1”

  1. Superb!- this taxonomy of problems you have got up; although I am not sure if your prediction of a collective progression of mankind from Type I through to Type III is what would best describe/ forecast our endeavours on earth. At any stage of mankind, it is possible that we will always have certain groups occupied with different sets of problems- precisely because not all minds are equal. To an extent I would agree, in that resolving basic Type I issues is probably essential to progressing further. To explain further-

    In my understanding, preoccupation with the resolution of Engg. problems (Type I) that are connected to issues of survival and propogation of our species can inhibit thinking about Type II or III issues. I can understand and accept that.

    Thereafter, it gets a bit blurred. The boundary between Type II and III problems is grey. At some stage contemplation of the laws of the Universe, its start (and/ or end) get one close to pondering about metaphysical issues. As Stephen Hawking remarked something to this effect in one of his books when he said that even if one got through the puzzle of Creation and explained the laws that would govern all phenomena, we still are left with the question- why does it all bother to exist? Your poser- does the Universe exist only because there are sentinet beings in existence is close to the Vedantic belief that the name and form we give to all matter and energy in the Universe is an out put/ invention of our minds. I am putting it badly, but I suppose you get the drift.

    Economic development seems to me like it is an engg. issue (of policy design, structure of social/ monetary incentives, etc.) Are there fundamental laws governing human behaviour that could explain social phenomena/ choices we make, etc., as propounded by determinism? – wish I had a definite answer.

    I wish I had something more to add. Maybe we’ll get somewhere if we keep thinking about this enough.


  2. Atanu,

    My (uninformed)view,

    The composition of problems tackled by an civilization (in addition to limitation imposed by the present technology) is dependend upon two broad factors.

    1. Economic Factor – In this I count amount of surplus product available.
    This in turn is dependant on the productivity and the distribution of product along different classes.

    For example I think that height greek and roman civilization attained was possible because of employment of slaves.

    This changed after industrial revolution.

    2. Cultural Factor – How much emphasis is placed upon abstract as opposed to material , alternatively one can frame this as egalatarian (vox populi vox dei) vs elitist society.



  3. Nice taxonomy, Atanu. I think that Type III problems subsume the other two types, so the relationship is not so much monotonic as topological, if you will. Type III problems fully “contain” the other two types. Also, I would conjecture that a proper taxonomy of Problem Types must also include a consideration of their solution space. For instance, I would argue that the solution space for the first two Types is “out there” while that for the last Type is “in here”. This may sound paradoxical – if after all, the relationship between the Types is topological, then shouldnt “out there” be inclusive of “in here” rather than the other way around – but there is no paradox, once you admit that any definite truth must pass the test of self-reference, so that “in here” must necessarily subsume “out there”.

    Now, tell me if I made any sense at all. 🙂


  4. A very Pirsig like post. It suspect it would be enjoyable to read your thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

    – Lurker


  5. As a way of introduction, you could probably start with why we solve problems (unrelated to survival) in the first place. As Asimov says in his excellent introduction to the book ‘New guide of science’ – ‘Almost at the beginning was curiosity…’ and writes about our natural desire to investigate. He also goes on to equate Eve’s apple with curiosity.

    Neti-neti, this is a basic tenet of Advaita and as Nisargadatta maharaj says, the nature of being can only be explained by saying what it is not. The moment you describe it as something, it ceases to be true.

    Solving a problem once we know its nature – a loaded statement actually. How and when do we know that we have entirely comprehended the problem? It is always in hindsight that we realize that there is more to it than we thought especially is ‘time’ is a variable and this has huge practical implications. One example is what they call ‘NPK mentality’ in agriculture. It thought that Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium combo is enough to grow plants and damn everything else. This has given rise to myriad problems associated with commercialized agriculture that we currently face.


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  7. I think all (or at least most) human civilizations have wrestled with all three types of problems. Ancient civilizations were concerned with abstract problems (Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Euclid would be some examples) and the meaning of life. What we know from cave paintings, burial sites, and hapless travellers frozen in glaciers is that man had art and was as concerned with form and meaning as function millennia ago.


  8. Type -1 problems?

    Though certainly useful and methodic, I don’t think the taxonomy is complete yet.

    eg. How do you catagorize the following problems?
    – A (section of) society getting peeved by

    1. some foreigner kissing someone on the stage

    2. A half-wit commentrator wearing a tricolor on a saree

    3. A half-decent almost used up cricketer cutting a cake having tri-color

    but the same (section of) society is largely ignorant to –

    1. A miserable state of roads on which _they_ drive everyday?

    2. A few farmers committing suicide just a few 100 miles away from the “shining India”

    (This is just a small list indicative of what matters and what doesn’t)
    Why these problems need to be catagorized? Because most of the sixth of the humanity suffers from them.

    So are these “Type -1” problems? (And I think in your argument of gradual progression, -1 fits well. May be


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