Why does solving problems matter?

The entirety of our life experience involves solving problems. Sometimes we fall into believing that all problems are bad, but this is not the case. Some problems are bad, like terrible suffering, illness, disease and starvation, and we should do everything in our power to avoid them. Yet, this seeking to avoid, is itself a problem, a good problem, a problem we should pursue with vigour.

Through solving problems we create knowledge, and with new knowledge we make progress. Moreover, the quest to solve a problem is an important source of meaning in our life. How we choose to relate to, and respond to our problems, determines how positively we see our life, and with how much purpose we live it.

What is progress and why is it a good thing?

The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.

— Karl Popper

Are future possibilities infinite as Popper affirms? Yes, they are. But the matter of which of these possibilities will be realised, and whether we will continue to progress and flourish is by no means guaranteed. For most of the three hundred thousand years of human existence, we did not make much in the way of progress. Our tools, our constructed environment, our problems all stayed, more or less the same. From time to time we happened upon something new. A new tool or a new understanding about something. But these discoveries happened so infrequently, that within a single life time, progress was unnoticeable.

That story changed five hundred years ago with the beginning of the Age of Reason and the scientific revolution. Less than a fifth of a percent of the time humans have spent on this planet. Since that time, we have made rapid and sustained progress across all aspects of our lives. From what we understand (knowledge), to the tools we use (technology), to the way we coordinate (culture, economics and politics), to the way we judge right from wrong, better from worse (morality), to the art we create, and every other facet of human welfare. We have been improving.

A key theme of the scientific revolution was an attitude of optimism. The belief that progress is possible. Prior to this time it was generally believed that everything important that was knowable had already been discovered and was contained in ancient writings and traditions. It was believed improvement was not possible.

Progress is real. Progress is possible. And progress is desirable. There are objective differences between better and worse, between truth and untruth, between well-being and suffering, and between progress and stagnation. These assertions are not myth or some kind of religious or fictitious ideology. They are true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. They require only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than ignorance and superstition.1


What are problems?

The majority of our problems are mundane — personal and familial, such as putting a meal on the table, planning a vacation or helping a loved one recover from illness. Throughout our endeavours we face challenges, deal with threats and pursue opportunities. When we fall short we feel disappointed, we know we can do better. We want to be better. On the other hand, when we prevail over challenges, surmount threats, and seize opportunities, it arouses a sense of elation. Tackling problems can be a potent source of meaning  and purpose.

Why? What? How? Any parent will attest that these questions, or beginnings to questions, are a sign of a curious mind. They are also a template we use to represent our problems. Why did that thing happen? What do we need to do? How shall we go about it? Why are people living in poverty? What is the best way to educate our children? How can I be healthier? And an infinite number of others.

Our problems are revealed when we experience a conflict or gap between our ideas and reality. Looking back, we were expecting A but saw B. Looking forward, we are here and want to be there, or we want to do or get something. In other words, it is a problem when the way things are, is not the way they should be — at least, according to our current criteria. Even when we are merely curious about something, it means our existing ideas do not satisfactorily explain it.

Taking a broad perspective, solving problems is the core mission of humans. Whether a problem is small and local or vast and global, all human activity can be viewed through this lens. As a student trying to comprehend subject material and deciding what career path to follow. As a professional vying to understand and satisfy customer needs. As a parent hoping the best for your children, wanting to help them succeed and be happy. As a citizen and community member facing challenges on a societal scale, trying to make sense of it, and doing what you can to make a difference. The central question of this blog and for Doqxa is: How might we better confront these challenges and increase our chance of succeeding?



  1. The end line of Steven Pinker’s TED talk about his book Enlightenment Now.