255 – Problem solving or rules?

Posted on September 23, 2013 by

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In her delightful non-fiction book: Touching a Nerve, the neuro-philosopher Patricia CHURCHLAND points out that “problem solving” is peculiar to higher forms of life. She underscores the point with reference to a video clip like this one.

Mother bear takes her two cubs hunting for caribou. Her attack yields food, but also a lesson on how to hunt. She allows the cubs near but not into the brawl. Once the bear engages in the fight, she finely balances aggression with self-protection. The caribou’s horns are fearsome, and the bear is risking its life. Bringing down the quarry implies waiting for just the right moment when to penetrate the caribou’s defenses. Killing is not by maiming. The bear pushes the caribou into the nearby river, and then, poising itself between the caribou horns, it forces the animal’s head under water. Death comes from drowning, not from attack.

This is an example of problem solving at its best and exemplifies adaptive thinking. Mother bear blends experience, aggressiveness, caution, multi-tasking with cubs, and an indirect approach to achieving the goal of a meal. In so doing she seizes available degrees of freedom, and uses them to advantage. She has never hunted exactly like this before, and will never do so again. She has been sublimely creative in a given context. Whoever argued (was it Descartes?) that animals are blindly instinctual, has never seen animals in the wild.

Stones don’t solve problems: stones follow physical laws, like the second law of thermodynamics. Life solves problems – for the last 4 billion years it has found ways of getting around the same law and reproduce itself. Precondition for problem solving is a disposition, which I shall call “discernment.”

Discernment is a broad-spectrum enabler. Discernment emerges from awareness of “self” as opposed to the “other” – the environment or the context. The “self” interacts with the “other.” A subtle manipulation ensues and a goal (e.g. survival or reproduction) is achieved. Often the result is remembered and becomes an input for following interaction. “Higher” animals are not the only ones using discernment to solve problems. In some form or the other, awareness of self, as separate from the environment, is over 500 million years old.[1] “Proprioceptors” – sensors that tell the individual about its condition – probably emerged with life itself. These sensors tell the individual to look for food, shelter, to avoid danger; they also allow for resolution of conflicts multiple goals.

Humans are the ultimate problem solvers. Within about 250’000 years, mankind has solved its way to the moon and back (including dealing at a distance with unexpected damage to the transport module). Language and writing have hurried mankind along the way. In particular, humans have assembled an infinite multi-dimensional library of “lessons learned” (and they have forgotten one of at least equal size).

“Lessons learned” are remembered. They are starting positions when going about the next round of problem solving. In the case of mother bear, one can see her calling upon all the “lessons learned”, applying them with discernment, and transmitting them to the cubs. “Lessons learned” are preferences, which are applied context as appropriate. If the fit is poor, we adapt the lesson learned. A new “lesson learned” ensues. This is how the brain works – Prof. CHURCHLAND points out. “When you learn a skill, such as how to ride a bicycle, subcortical structures get copies of your current goal along with copies of the current motor commands from the cortex. When you get a movement right, given your goal, neurons in the basal ganglia in effect say “nailed it!” by releasing the neurochemical dopamine. The result of the precisely timed dopamine release is that connectivity changes are made in parts of the brain to stabilize the circuitry supporting the set of movements that were right. The next time you try to ride, those movements – the right movements – will more likely be generated by your motor cortex.” (Pg. 41) How extraordinary! The brain matches the behavior against expectation and rewards the close fit. As we imagine the outcome, the reward system follows suit. No wonder complex brains learn, are curious, and innovate. Nothing new or peculiar to humans, however: niche construction is a well-known phenomenon of life.[2] Humans are just better at discerning than other animals. Or are we?

Like many other “higher” animals, humans are social. They act as a group, and gain large benefits from cooperative behavior. Reciprocal previsibility of behavior underpins a social system: social rules emerge. Individual problem solving is restrained in order to accommodate social stability. Such social risk-aversion favors exact rules and “best practice.” One solution – allegedly the best – fits all contexts. The aim is to exclude (social) and issue-specific failure. If the goal is social stability, rules tend to be inflexible – like physical laws. Tradition and transcendence are invoked to put rules beyond deliberation.

There are of course advantages to rules. The social reality is frightfully complex. Once assimilated, rules can be left to the unconscious mind. We can navigate social reality unthinkingly. Rules rule the humdrum of daily life. Rules look innocuous, and mostly they are. Nudging can make it easy[3] to follow the rules and get on with other things. Compliance with the rules yields the reward of “being one with the group.” Totalitarian systems have exploited the exhilaration of conformism.

Stability through rules comes with a hidden price: the withering of discernment. Collaterally, rules destroy individual capacity to adapt and learn from mistakes. When one has never learned to read a map because a GPS is at hand, navigating by skillful seat of the pants – discernment – is no longer an option.[4] Discernment requires reflection. It is intensive in brain resources. Discernment is tiresome. Discernment cannot be improvised: it requires amassing and digesting heaps of information. Discernment is bounded by the individual’s mental skills. The outcome is uncertain. There is a “virtuous circle” in discernment: the more discernment is practiced, the better it becomes. There is also lots of dopamine in using discernment – think of it!

Discernment requires a mental map, in order to grasp all aspects of an issue. We are losing our ability to construct mental maps of an issue. Increasingly non-fiction books eschew presenting the empowering structure of the subject for a leisurely canter through the subject – tourism instead of teaching. In this, novels and non-fiction converge, as structure yields to the author’s subjectivity.

The tide of rules has been on the rise for some time. I dread drowning in rules. They are tiresome, for they are so often inappropriate to the situation. Worse, I dread the loss of discernment. People master the daily context, but seem helpless when confronted with the unexpected. Professional elites are monopolizing the rights to set rules. Deliberation over rules no longer eventuates, for the information gap between the “haves” and “haves not” is too wide to bridge. Should we despair?

Or has the high-water mark been reached? In his first and long interview, Pope Francis I puts discernment at the center of his teaching.[5] Coincidentally, a medical article heralds the end of “one disorder, one drug” dogma.[6] In business, the ”command and control” paradigm is losing ground, as flat and cooperative structures prove better at dealing with the unexpected. Red-lining – the setting of rule in international relations irrespective of context – has just met its doom in Syria. Is context and discernment about to attract more attention than compliance with the rule and consistency?

There is nothing new in this question. Confucius believed in discernment, and taught his students to seek it. China’s first emperor Qin favored legalism – the rule of rules, blindly applied. The pendulum has swung back and forth ever since that time. Where are we headed? I am cautiously optimistic. The way back from rules to discernment, however, is going to be a long one.


[1]           Lynn MARGULIS et als. (2011): Chimeras and consciousness. Evolution of the sensory self. MIT Press, New Haven. In fact, the ability is probably older, but evidence is scant.

[2]           F. John ODLING-SMEE et als. (2003): Niche construction. The neglected process in evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[3]           Cass R. SUNSTEIN (2013): Simpler. The future of government. Simon & Schuster, New York.

[4]           http://bit.ly/1gRkf8w

[5]           http://bit.ly/1aY1Bv8

[6]           http://bit.ly/18Qxv8I

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