A discussion about whether problems are solvable

“Those who believe the conflict-of-interest theory alleging that problems are not soluble will always be puzzled when they find a situation that looks like an inherent conflict of interest but turns out not to be, as commonly happens when people start taking their children seriously.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original discussion was on 13th Feb., 1997

“Why do you believe that it is always possible to create a real solution?”

This question is important because it is the same as:

  • Are there some problems which in principle cannot be solved?

Or, when applied to human affairs:

  • Is coercion (or even force, or the threat of force) an objectively inevitable feature of certain situations, or is it always the result of a failure to find the solution which, in principle, exists?

One could view the whole of critical rationalism as a general methodology for what one should do in the face of conflicting theories. But, as David Deutsch argues1, one could also regard critical rationalism as a substantive theory of the physical world—the theory that the world is such that certain types of processes solve, while others don’t.

Just to set the scene, bear in mind that a huge amount of problem-solving has already happened in the world, and often, when a problem has been solved, it has been solved in the face of doubt that a real solution was possible. As Janet wrote:

“I have found that the more we try to find [real solutions], the better able we are to find them, and therefore find them in situations we would have not thought possible before (and certainly in situations that most parents would never even think to try to find them.).”

People who try making their interactions non-coercive often report that they have been surprised when a solution has been found—that they had thought it wouldn’t be possible for such-and-such a problem, but that when they tried, it was easy. Of course it doesn’t always work that way, but the fact that it often works that way shows that the mere conviction that finding a solution will not be possible is no guide to whether it actually is possible.

The idea that solutions are always possible is part of the explanation of the fact that solutions have been as possible as we have already observed them to be.

(This is not to say that the vast number of existing confirmations of the idea that problems are soluble inductively justifies the idea that they always will be. It doesn’t. The point is that we want to explain what kind of a universe we are in, that has that property.)

If the universe were such that only 53% of problems can be solved, that would leave unexplained why it is 53% and not some other proportion. In other words, there would then be much more to explain. Why is it possible to solve the problems that can be solved?, and Why are there no possible solutions for the rest?

If this explanatory theory (that real solutions are always possible) were false, that would mean that although people can solve some problems, in other cases a problem will arise where one person wants one thing and the other person wants something else and there just isn’t anything that they would both prefer to their initial wishes. In such situations, there would be an inherent conflict of interest.

That conflict-of-interest theory is itself a commonly-held explanation of some observed facts, namely that people often fail to solve problems together. I explain this differently: in many cases, one or more parties are trying to impose their will rather than solve the problem, because they do not know that problems are soluble, so they think the best they can do is to win at the others’ expense. But even in Taking Children Seriously homes, in which the parties know that problems are soluble, solving problems takes knowledge, and sometimes, in the moment, we do not manage to create it. It does not follow from the fact that we sometimes fail to solve a problem, that no solution was possible (and it does not follow from that, that failures are the result of wickedness!) But according to the conflict-of-interest theory, the reason people fail to solve a problem is usually that there is no possible solution for that particular problem.

Those who believe that conflict-of-interest theory will always be puzzled when they find a situation that looks like an inherent conflict of interest but turns out not to be, as commonly happens when people start taking their children seriously.

As Janet suggested, it is very easy to look at a situation, and analyse it, and determine that a solution isn’t possible when in fact it is. And in fact, not only is it possible, but once one makes a relatively simple change of attitude, one finds that solutions are often quite easy to find.

Such experiences raise a severe problem for people who believe that in some situations there are inherent conflicts of interest:

  • How can we tell which situations those are?


  • How is it that solutions have in fact been found in cases that looked exactly like conflict-of-interest situations and are commonly explained as such?


  • Given that it is so easy to be misled as to whether solutions are possible in a given situation or not, how should we react to conflicts between theories? When should we resort to coercion or force?

One has to take into account the fact that coercion prevents the solving of problems.

Consider this proposed policy: “when I have devoted a certain amount of time or a certain amount of attention to the problem of finding a solution, but have failed, then I shall use force”. The trouble is that that policy in itself amounts to a threat made at the beginning of the process, and so it prevents finding a solution.

I think that these and other difficulties (with conflict-of-interest theories, and hence with doubting that a solution is always possible) are insuperable. They are also unnecessary, since experience is perfectly consistent with the view that problems are always soluble. You don’t have to tie yourself up in knots postulating all these grim, unexplained features of reality. So I don’t.

When is a theory not an active theory?

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Professor Jan Narveson wrote:

“Sarah’s argument that [problems are soluble] needs, I think, some comment—not that it is wrong, exactly, but it is very misleading.
           Every now and then people have conflicting desires. Jones wants to do x, and if he does it, then Smith, who wants to do y, will be unable to do it.
           What happens next?”

Either they find a solution, or they do not. In the cases where they do not, that raises the question why they do not. The conflict-of-interest theory explains such cases by asserting that there is no solution to find in those cases. In contrast, I would say that they may not have been trying to solve the problem, perhaps because they do not know that problems are soluble, or there could be hang-ups and irrationalities impeding their thinking and cooperation, or they did not manage to create the necessary knowledge in that moment, not because there was no possible solution—that problems are soluble does not imply that solving them is automatic or guaranteed—it takes knowledge. These are two competing explanations. The point of my argument was to show that the conflict-of-interest explanation raises problems, such as, why are some problems solvable but others not?

“One possibility is that one or the other will alter his course of action in light of the fact above. Realizing that if I try to go through the intersection now, I will run into or be run into by Smith, I decide to wait for him to go first. In this way, I don’t get my most preferred outcome—to get across now—but I do get one that will do—getting across a little later, and also avert a considerable cost which I surely want to avoid.”

It is not true to say that driving through the intersection now is your preferred outcome! If it were, you would do so, just as some “maniac drivers” do! In their case, prima facie, that is indeed their preference. In your case, given all the considerations, you prefer to wait for Smith to cross.

This theory you talk of as your preferred theory simply isn’t! It is not an active theory in your mind, but merely a theory of the “I wish I had a million pounds” variety. That is to say, we can all have these little daydreams and thoughts, but they are not active theories. The person who has an active theory that they want to be a millionaire goes out and robs a bank or finds a way to earn a million pounds honestly. Or, if the person has that theory and is honest, and cannot find a way to earn that money, he is distressed, in conflict, having theories actively conflicting in his mind and not being resolved. When one waits for the green light, prima facie, that is not what is happening (unless one is actually in a very bad way psychologically.)

This seems to be a confusion about what I mean by “active theory”. A theory is not “active” merely if it exists in the mind, or is being thought about. To be active, a theory must be, as it were, issuing an instruction now. To use an analogy, if two conflicting theories are active in the mind, it is like two computer programs simultaneously sending conflicting commands to the same output device (or to a third program).

Solving problems

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Dr Jan Narveson wrote:

“In human affairs, we often are in situations in which one or the other of two characterizations hold:
           a) Co-ordination: here what A wants and what B wants are wholly consistent, BUT in order that both get what they want, they must act “together” in the following sense: both doing x is fine, both doing y is fine, but one doing x and the other y is not fine (in all cases, ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’ for both or all parties concerned). In such situations, we need a device for enabling us all to be sure that we do the same thing, whatever it is. Our desires are not at all conflicting, but there is a real possibility of screw-up. Common preferences2 by themselves are not sufficient. Sally likes to go to the beach and to the movies, and in either case wants to do it with George; and vice versa. But an arrangement is needed for them to be sure they both end up at the beach together, or at the movies together.”

Making such an “arrangement”—reaching unanimous agreement about when/what to do together— is a special case of solving a problem. It is a special case because of the assumption that the parties already have identical initial preferences, and their only problem is to identify what those are.

“There isn’t an antecedent [solution] for the communicative device or decision procedure (flipping a coin, say?) that solves the problems, but there is a common basis for arriving at such.”

A real solution of the problem is not a compromise (where neither of the parties really prefers the outcome), not one party imposing their will on the other, not self-sacrifice, but something better: an outcome created by the knowledge-building institution under which the decision-making process operates—an outcome which was not in existence at the start of the interaction, an outcome which each party prefers to their own initial competing theory, an outcome which if someone were to suggest the parties reject it in favour of one of their initial competing theories, the party whose initial theory that was would say “No! I prefer the new theory.”

In this case, the problem to solve is the one Jan describes as requiring an “arrangement” to ensure they both end up at one or other place together.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

At 2:27 pm -0500 on 13th February, 1997, Dr Jan Narveson wrote:

“In human affairs, we often are in situations in which one or the other of two characterizations hold:”

[See above for “a)”]

“b) Prisoner’s Dilemma: Here things are more complex, and there is a partial conflict of interest. Smith beating up Jones and taking his money is best, in Smith’s view, though worst for Jones; Jones would also like to beat up on Smith and take his own money—best for Jones and worst for Smith. But if they both try to do this, they both end up with extensive injuries and pain, and more or less equally poor as when they started out. Both will do better to refrain from such aggressive activity. This is a common preferences2, but not their first preference.”

In the scenario as given, if Smith and Jones are not acting on their first preference, they are each in the psychological state of enacting one theory (the theory which causes each to refrain from the aggressive activity mentioned above) while a rival theory (that it would be preferable to beat the other up and take his money) is still active in their mind.

However, most people do not in fact actively want to beat someone up to take his money. They may occasionally have an idle daydream of doing such a thing, but they would not actually want to do that.

“Now, there is a question: is mutually agreed activity always best for each party? Not obviously.”

If there is no “mutually [agreeable] activity [that is] best for each party” that is the same as saying there is no solution possible.

“The chicken does not agree to have his head cut off and be turned into soup, but I like chicken soup, and there’s nothing the chicken can do about it, things being what they are.”

Um… if this is intended to be a metaphor for how Jan approaches his interactions with other humans, it leaves something to be desired!

“But among rational adults, there generally is something we can do about it, and in the ultimate run of things there’s always something we can do about it.”

Exactly. But why adults? Surely the important thing is the “rational” bit, not the “adult” bit? Otherwise Jan is classifying children with chickens in one category, and adult humans in the other.

“Now, Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD, for short) shows the need for a more complex understanding of real solutions. In PD, it is rational (I think—but there is disagreement about this) to take the cooperative option, and act such that both of us can get our second-best outcomes,”

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as in all conflict-of-interest scenarios, all the stated options are irrational. Not in the game theory sense, but we are not playing games here. The only rational thing to do when one seems to be in this dilemma is to find new, better preferences and probably new, better options as well.

“rather than try to “do down” the other person and attain our most preferred outcome, thus inviting a response that make us about come out third-best.”

There are many reasons doing down the other person should not be (and usually isn’t) one’s preferred option. The fact that they may retaliate is hardly relevant. In close interpersonal relationships it should never enter one’s calculations at all.

“(There is an enormous philosophical and game-theoretic literature about this.)”

And it is all irrelevant to issues of interpersonal relationships. To describe and analyse real interpersonal interactions as ‘Prisoner’s Dilemmas’ is to define away at least two vital factors in solving interpersonal problems: the fact that people can alter their preferences, and the fact that people can create new options.

Some clarifications about Taking Children Seriously

“The theoretical assumption is that a child is rational and creative unless coerced, whereby then the child may find it difficult to be their self.”

I think it would be a mistake to assume that anyone, child or adult, is perfectly rational. What parents taking their children seriously assume is that their children have rationality. That is to say, the children are capable of learning and do learn. The same is true of adults, but it seems a reasonable assumption to make that adults, having been raised coercively, are likely to have more areas of irrationality than children taken seriously, because irrationality is something that is usually caused by failures to solve problems, which then become hangups, and this is usually caused by coercion. Even children taken seriously are likely to have some irrationality, some areas in which they are unable to think, unable to change their ideas in the light of criticism, but in the event that there is a disagreement between a child taken seriously and a parent that appears to be unresolvable even after everyone’s best efforts, it seems reasonable to guess that it is probably the adult who is the cause of the impasse rather than the child, and to let that assumption inform our actions.

Another poster replied:

“In many regards, I can see that the above assumption can be held to be true but I am still unhappy in that I feel that the words ‘rational’ and ‘creative’ contain the seeds of idealism or perhaps a misplaced optimism.”

See above. There is a difference between the Taking Children Seriously idea that children have creativity and rationality, and this idea Jan mistakenly thinks I hold, that children are perfectly rational and creative. To suggest that would be to suggest that children would have no trouble solving any problem whatsoever. That is not what I am saying, and indeed, if it were true, there would be no need to take children seriously in the first place! It is precisely because children are not perfectly able to remain rational and creative in the face of parental coercion that taking children seriously is so important!

“The theory is idealistic, but I fail to see how that makes it an invalid theory.”

It is not an idealistic theory. Taking Children Seriously is, I conjecture, a true explanation of the reality that no other educational theory has ever explained. It is the solution of the problem no other educational theory has solved, namely, the problem that people get hurt. And it is the only educational philosophy that has ever been consistent with other prevailing ideas, such as human rights, the logic of how knowledge grows and how people learn, and so on.

“In the absence of optimism, I think I need a model which explains why a child will set out to [find a solution]”

The answer is that other things being equal, people want to solve problems, and problems are solved by creativity, and they are solved better when everyone’s creativity is applied to solving them and not to fighting battles. That is why, other things being equal, people want agreement rather than conflict, they don’t want to use force, they prefer peace to war. Of course other things are not always equal, especially in the case of coercively-raised adults…

“In the absence of optimism, I think I need a model which explains why a child will set out to [find a solution], if, as is the case with Taking Children Seriously, the child can meet his preferences without reaching a solution with his parents/guardians.”

No, that is not Taking Children Seriously. That is almost as far from Taking Children Seriously as the more common situation, in which conventional parents impose their initial preferences on their children because they have the power to do so. In both of those cases, there is no knowledge being created, there is zero creativity. By contrast, Taking Children Seriously decision-making institutions facilitate the creation of new knowledge by virtue of their rationality and creativity. Decision-making institutions that are not rational and creative impede or prevent problems being solved.

So why would children taken seriously choose to solve a problem instead of doing what most parents do and simply impose their initial theory on the parent? Well, because (1) it is the right thing to do; (2) it is in the children’s self-interest to do so (the same is true for the parents of course!) because the outcome of a rational, creative decision-making process is, to each and every party involved, better, preferable, to their antecedent theory of what the outcome should be; (3) not having been thwarted and coerced the way most children are, children taken seriously are more likely to want to find solutions that don’t leave their parents crying into their tea! They are likely to want everyone to be happy, because it feels good! People who have never heard of Taking Children Seriously also want everyone to be happy and to solve problems and so on, but they are more likely to be inconsistent in this and not knowing that problems are soluble they may often feel compelled to hurt their loved ones instead of finding a real solution.


1. Problems are soluble

For a deeper understanding of this argument that problems are soluble, read The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch.

2. The phrase “common preference”

We tend not to use the phrase “common preference” any more, because it seems to have created some significant misunderstandings. For more about that, see: Why no ‘common preferences’?

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘A discussion about whether problems are solvable’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/a-discussion-about-whether-problems-are-solvable/

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