If we are fallible and not omniscient, surely it is exaggerating to say it is always possible to solve problems without coercion?

“If we are fallible and not omniscient, surely it is exaggerating to say it is always possible to solve problems without coercion?”

“You used to say that it is possible to raise children entirely without coercion. Have you changed your mind on that?”

It is true that in the past, I used to say that it is possible to raise children entirely without coercion. That caused no end of misunderstandings. What I meant by that was that there is nothing in the laws of nature that prevents problems being solved without coercion. In terms of the laws of physics, problems are soluble. That does not mean, however, that there is any guarantee that in any particular case we will find a solution. Creating a solution takes creativity and knowledge, and sometimes (just like in our lives more generally) we do not manage to create the necessary knowledge in the time we have in the moment it is needed. Sometimes we do not even notice the problem in the first place: even merely identifying a problem involves creating knowledge, and there are no guarantees in any of this. We are fallible human beings who lack knowledge.

“If ‘there is no guarantee’ a problem will be solved, and sometimes we fail to solve a problem, surely it would be more accurate to say that only some problems are soluble?”

No, it is not that only some problems are soluble. It is a property of the universe that problems are soluble. We do not necessarily manage to solve a given problem in the moment, but not because the problem was inherently insoluble. There is always a solution possible, even if we do not manage to find it in real time in the moment. For a deeper understanding of this idea, read David Deutsch’s life-altering books, The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity.

Knowing that problems really are soluble even if we have not managed to solve this one yet seems at least sometimes to result in our mind quietly working on the problem in the back of our mind, such that a brilliant solution suddenly pops into our conscious mind.

“This is disturbing. If problems are soluble, and it is always possible to interact non-coercively, but in my experience it is often impossible, does that mean you think I am evil?”

Not at all! To the extent that anything I write makes it sound as if I think that, I have written terribly badly. ‘Problems are soluble’ does not mean that knowledge can be created by fiat, or that anyone who fails to interact entirely non-coercively is evil. That is horribly far from how I see it. Solutions are sometimes hard to come by. It is often not obvious how to solve a problem. Truth is not manifest. As Karl Popper wrote:

“The theory that truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it—this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; for only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.”

– Karl Popper, 1962, Conjectures and Refutations, Introduction, p. 8

Truth is not manifest, and failing to solve a given problem or even to notice that there is a problem in the first place – does not make you evil, it makes you human. We are all fallible human beings who make mistakes, and we all lack knowledge. We have creative fallible human minds, not omniscient infallible god minds.

Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in a dire situation in which we or our young child or other loved one or ourselves or everyone is already in a terrible state of mind and no matter how much we would love it to be otherwise, all the available options we and anyone else involved can currently see are bad, and we are choosing the lesser of the evils we can see. Sometimes we have no idea what is causing our young child’s upset in the moment it is happening, and they are too upset to tell us, and do not have the words anyway.

When a person is in such a state of mind, there is a conflict happening in their mind that is stuck, intractable, not being resolved like would normally be happening.

In these kinds of situations something has gone wrong somewhere, causing the stuckness, but it is not that someone (we, the evil parents? that impossible child?) is bad and wrong and to blame. There is a certain amount of luck or lack thereof involved, as you can tell just by looking at your own mind in isolation: people sometimes get stuck and cannot identify why that happened – sometimes it is not at all obvious.

So sometimes with our beloved children or with others or just in our own mind, there is one or more intractable (or currently stuck) conflict, and we have not managed to create the knowledge to unstick it in the moment, and now we are possibly choosing between two evils, or opting for a non-ideal-seeming outcome because we have not come up with a better one. In such situations, what we do not want to do is stay exactly where we are, in the distressing staticity. Even if we can’t think of a brilliant solution, maybe we can come up with a slight improvement: improving a bad situation a bit is better than not improving it at all.

Here in my article, The rationalist mistake, and in this podcast, I talked about a long-running broken relationship with someone in my extended family, and how, because I could not come up with a non-coercive solution, I made the mistake of in effect doing nothing to repair the relationship (in effect giving up instead of making any change that would create any shift towards improvement), and how some super helpful criticism set me straight and inspired me to sort out the horrible stuckness.

Note that what I did to get us out of the stuckness involved me arriving uninvited at my relative’s home, and worse, not leaving when they immediately furiously commanded me to leave. (And for me, as someone for whom consent is a deep part of my soul, such violations of consent on my part feel like torture to me (let alone the person whose consent I am violating!).)

It is not that there was no way to solve the problem without that coercion on my part – I just could not think of a way, and seven years of my having in effect done nothing (because consent matters, I was thinking) to resolve the broken relationship and sort out the suffering was seven years too many. So I finally stopped choosing the worst of the evils and chose the uncomfortable lesser of the two evils and actually, after my relative’s initial shock and horror that I was there, we rapidly resolved everything such that within minutes we were having the best conversation we had ever had together, and smiling and agreeing to get together again soon.

But as I said, it is important not to conclude that that there was no way possible in principle to repair that relationship without the coercion I engaged in (not leaving when commanded to leave). Problems are soluble. But sometimes in life there is no non-coercive option that we ourselves can see, no matter how hard we try. My relative was suffering for seven years until I chose to take the action that resolved the problem. If I could not come up with a totally non-coercive way of reaching my relative, I wish I had chosen to solve it the way I did seven years earlier than I did, even though I wish I could have found a way that did not involve directly violating my relative’s consent.

I mention this as an example of how (at least at this point in human history, or in my own life anyway – maybe someone reading this has better ideas than I) sometimes our creativity fails us, and how doing something to make a positive change might be more likely to help than staying right where we are in the mire of intractable conflict and distress, even if none of the options we can see seem non-coercive or otherwise unproblematic.

When we have made what seems like a slight improvement (but not a great one), we are then in a slightly different problem situation (slightly better, we hope), and looking at things from a new perspective, getting some new knowledge which might help us create a solution that really does seem better, or that might help us see the wider context in which the untoward incident happened, enabling us to solve the underlying problem so that the same upsets do not keep happening.

So why am I stressing that even if we are unable to come up with a solution that does not mean that no solution is possible? Because when people think that there is something inherent in the problem preventing it being solved without coercion, they naturally are not devoting their amazing human creativity to coming up with a solution, so obviously it is unlikely that they will manage to solve the problem, and then when that happens, it feels as if that corroborates our dark theory that this particular problem was inherently not soluble. Once people have in their minds the glorious, inspiring, optimistic theory that problems are actually soluble even if we have not managed to solve a given problem, that starts informing how they think about everything, which tends to result in a lot less pessimistic giving up and not even trying, which results in more problems being solved than otherwise would be. And the more we solve, the more we are able to solve. And the more interpersonal problems we solve jointly, the more knowledge-creating we are together.

Back to the problem with my having said “it is possible to raise children entirely without coercion”: the other problem with it is that it may give the impression that there are some of us, such as I, perhaps, who have arrived at the lofty heights of the Correct Way, perfect 100% non-coercion, whereas everyone else is a bit evil and needs to pull their socks up and get to where I am. Not only does this create a horrendous us-and-them feel, and make people feel miserably bad and wrong and guilt-ridden, it is also utter rubbish. The more time goes on, the more coerciveness I see in myself. As Karl Popper said, we are all alike in our boundless ignorance.

So why do I still say “problems are soluble”? Because they are, and because I find it incredibly helpful, myself, to keep in mind that problems are soluble, and that I myself can solve them. Keeping that in mind informs and positively affects one’s problem-solving efforts. It makes a massive difference if you actually think problems are soluble even if at this moment, you cannot quite see how this given problem is soluble.

If I were to add to that the idea that any failure to do so is evil, that would imply that I mistakenly think that truth is manifest (that it is there for all to see, if only they want to see it), which as Popper said is “the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; for only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.”

Adding “and you are wicked if you fail” would be enough to make me give up. It is just too painful a thought. And it is not true! We are not wicked! We are fallible human beings. And the wonderful thing about human beings is that we often find a way, even when it’s hard, and even if we don’t find a way this time, we do learn from our errors, such that maybe next time we will find a way. Human beings make progress. Human beings are amazing!

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘If we are fallible and not omniscient, surely it is exaggerating to say it is always possible to solve problems without coercion?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/if-we-are-fallible-and-not-omniscient-surely-it-is-exaggerating-to-say-it-is-always-possible-to-solve-problems-without-coercion/

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