A fascinating question posed by German philosopher Karl Popper in All Life is Problem Solving (Routledge Classic), a collection of essays by him, in the opening essay by the same name, should provide new insights into many of the problems faced in the Northeast. It would be a lesson worthwhile reflecting by those of us in Manipur in the thick of the anarchic crisis we are faced with currently. The essay is an attempt to size up an idea that most of us take so much for granted, therefore seldom bother to give a closer scrutiny. The conclusion that Popper, a physicist turned philosopher comes to is fascinating for its simplicity, but opens up larger questions about existence and survival. In its essence, what he says is that all life is about problem solving, and the drive behind this, in the ultimate analysis, is survival. He thus goes somewhat further than Darwin for whom the survival instinct is encoded in our genes and this manifest in the urge in all species to unendingly procreate and multiply. This departure is important, for while instinct to procreate is vital, this instinct is not able to foresee non biological external problem that life is so full of and therefore threatened by – climate change, deadly epidemics, water crisis, food crisis, deadly conflicts etc., to name just a few.
Popper does not go into all these details in this book. He only provides the fundamental principles behind different kinds of problem solving and how higher life forms do this much better. In a rhetorical way, he poses the question what is it that distinguishes the problem solving strategies of a rudimentary life form such as the single cell amoeba and that of a Albert Einstein? At its very basic, problem solving as Popper explains, involves first the identification of the problem, then the attempts to solve it and finally arriving at the right answer through a series of elimination of failed or false solutions. Popper presumes, as any scientist would, that no problem or its solution is final, and that a new solution or theory will always pose new problems, and in this way the cycle of problem solving will continue endlessly. So the original question: How does the amoeba differ from Einstein in solving problems? The basic difference, according to Popper is, while the amoeba is unable to distance itself from its problem solving strategy, higher life forms, to which category Einstein belongs, can and most often do. The result is, the amoeba is part and parcel of its own problem solving strategy, so that if the strategy fails, it perishes with it. For instance, if a trap comes up suddenly before a colony of amoeba in traversing a distance, amoeba after amoeba will run into the trap and die, until one amoeba happens to find an alternative route, which all other amoebas will follow, until another life threatening situations comes up before the community. Humans, (that is humans with brains larger than an amoeba), are capable of externalising their problem solving theories, so that even if his theories perish, he does not perish with them. In fact, Popper’s definition of progress and scientific enquiry is a constant attempt to falsify existing theories, even if they are ones own. A good scientist will therefore be trying to find faults with his own theories the minute he has proven it, and thereby continually improve it, and in the worst case scenario where the theory is incapable of solving a problem, discard it altogether. Indeed, the belief in the infallibility of theories, always results in dogmatism.
The proposition is interesting because we identify this strain of rigid dogmatism in the way many of us approach our problems. Viewed against Popper’s definition of problem solving, these exhibit a syndrome similar that of the amoeba. Often, so many of the firebrand champions of indigenous causes for instance argue (undoubtedly powerfully, though often sentimentally too) that the identity of the indigenous man is non-objectifiable, as it is deeply rooted in his subjective realm of his culture, land, mythology, history etc. They also discard the causal and scientific explanation of life’s problems as non-applicable to their situations, claiming theirs is an alternate universe, and their problems can only be solved within their universe by the intuitive wisdom of that universe alone. While not trying to oversimplify the problem of identity, the stubborn refusal to accept scientific enquiry can only amounts to shying away from hard reality in the belief this is a solution. This can be dangerous, as the line that divides the subject and the object can become confused. The end result can very well be, like the amoeba, those who are incapable of distinguishing themselves from the problems before them, may end up becoming part of the unfolding experiments, so that in the event of their theories failing, they may perish with them. History is so full of tragedies befalling those who fail to see the fallibility of ideas and beliefs, even the most dearly held ones. History is also replete with success stories of others who were resilient and ever ready to change with the winds of changing times.