Heuristics

Thinking heuristically speeds up the process of finding a satisfactory solution when an optimal solution is impossible or impractical

To state the obvious, pragmatism is about the search for truth, but with the expressed or implied assumption that absolutes and certainty are not guaranteed or even likely. For the laws of physics, yes, but for solving problems, maybe…or not even that. I’ve noted before that problem solving is an act of acquiring information, dealing with what we then know and making choices. But these are generalizations, and the numbers of variables and their hierarchies of importance require other tools., including some basic “rules” within which we conduct this process.

There’s a concept known as bounded rationality that basically states people seek solutions or accept choices or judgments that are “good enough” for their purposes, but could be optimized as one determines what works and what doesn’t. This concept is one of several that are part of what is known as heuristics. A heuristic is any approach to problem solving (as well as learning and discovery) utilizing a practical method that, while not guaranteed to be optimal, is sufficient for “solving” the problem. The accepted reality here is that trade-offs are likely or inevitable.

I’ve occasionally noted in previous posts that I have a reputation for problem solving. But, really, it’s only that I — by nature — am willing to parse all the information I have into compartments and use that matrix to devise “solutions.” This works because I always assume everything is relative, not absolute, and thus can be included or not on the basis of the preferred outcome(s). This sometimes means working backward — in other words, I assume that I have the solution and then derive what that requires from the matrix of compartments. An alternative is to solve a more general version of the problem and then test variations of more complex versions using more compartments.

Thinking heuristically speeds up the process of finding a satisfactory solution when an optimal solution is impossible or impractical. These include what are mental shortcuts, more commonly referred to as rules of thumb, educated guesses, intuitive judgments, common sense…among others. They represent both experience and assessments of probability — inherently directly linked with the ability to estimate the degree of certainty that the chosen or desired solution will work or at least be satisfactory.

Despite all of this, we see how often issues remain unresolved or are “solved” by solutions that create other issues. While most obvious in the political realm, not solving problems realistically and effectively is hardly uncommon…for numerous reasons. The dynamic combination of intelligence and emotion creates varying problematic conflicts for those who don’t have a natural affinity for moral relativism. Principles, values, beliefs can either guide or imperil problem solving, whereas the ability to compartmentalize is directly linked to pragmatism and moral relativism. A few words about moral relativism are in order.

Those with strong, inflexible values have disdain for the openness and malleability of moral relativism. The problem for those trying to heuristically solve problems is they become enmeshed in so many restrictions that resolving issues becomes functionally impossible. Caught between the two endpoints, and unable to discard what are invariably arbitrary values — when viewed pragmatically, problem solving as a process stops. Too many rules is antithetical to thinking outside the proverbial box. Compartmentalization is antithetical to being in the box. Possibilities increase/decrease exponentially in relation to relativism.

Which brings us to heuristical devices. A simple definition is that a heuristic device shows how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another, if one applies varying degrees of relativism. In addition, such an exercises reveals the potentially problematic results of each permutation of relativism. Which is to say, one has to determine how likely a problem can be solved given the presence or absence of restrictions imposed for reasons not necessarily or even probably related to solving the issue purely on merits of the solution. I am skeptical of the motivations of those who find ways to not solve issues because of arbitrary reasons — arbitrary when evaluated without bias.

Life abounds with problems, be they trivial or substantial. I view resolution of these firmly linked to how much motivation there is. While solutions are often imperfect, they are likely better than ignoring resolvable issues. One could rightly question which values are more important…doing nothing because of dubious obstacles or doing something because it’s the right thing. Ultimately, problems are like time, part of the passage of life. How we choose to negotiate that passage is both about values and heuristics.