May 18, 2012

Avoiding Meta Mistakes

Near the end of his long life, Karl Popper delivered a speech where he offered that, “All life is problem solving”[1]. He had in mind the continuous experimentation of life, from single-cell organisms to large mammals through mutation constrained by natural selection. Life as continuous problem solving.
Everyday life is also about problems.We face problems individually like physical health, finances, living conditions, quality of relationships, transportation, etc. 

We also face problems together like funding health care, regulating the economy, preserving a healthy environment, crime, traffic jams, etc.A philosopher might be interested in the problem of how to best approach problems. This question presents serious difficulties for us. As science writer David DiSalvo puts it: 

We want answers. We want to listen to people who claim to have answers. We want problems solved and settled so that we can feel good about the resolution[2].

All this makes us vulnerable to demagogues, peddlers and false prophets, who can together bring about a predatory state, where we accumulate useless wares, and have our attentions diverted from what matters most.

So when considering how to approach problems, the stakes are high and it takes effort and genius to break free of the usual traps.

One basic trap, one that can put the whole enterprise in jeopardy, is to fail to track a genuine problem in the first place.

Gilbert Ryle developed the notion of the Category Mistake to warn us of such gaffes. Imagine someone being offered a tour of a university. He is shown the various buildings and facilities on all its campuses. Exhausted from the fun he then turns to his guide and says, ‘All well and good but when will we see the university?!’.

Ryle held that many of our most intractable problems (his example was the Cartesian mind-body problem) are really just cases of this kind of embarrassing mix up.

Technology writer Scott Berkun relates a relevant experience:

The tour offered fun facts about life at Google, like the free organic lunches in the cafeteria and power outlets for laptops in curious places (stairwells, for example), expenses taken to ensure Googlers are free, at all times, to find their best ideas. While I wondered whether Beethoven or Hemingway, great minds noted for thriving on conflict, could survive such a nurturing environment without going postal, my attention was drawn to questions from tourists. A young professional woman, barely containing her embarrassment, asked, “Where is the search engine? Are we going to see it?” to which only half the group laughed[3].

This is clearly an issue of basic literacy. Being clear about the level of analysis appropriate to a conversation is just good sense and will avoid meta level mistakes like the ones above. 

Of course, no one minimally competent in a language makes mistakes like that. The real question is whether this metaphor has any import on more weighty matters like how to live a life worth living. 

[1] Karl Popper, “All Life is Problem Solving”, 100.
[2] David DiSalvo, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, 22.
[3] Scott Berkun, The Myth of Innovation, 3.