Solving the Unsolvable

Sometimes solving the toughest problems requires solving a meta-problem first.

You may have heard the old joke about the fellow who prays every day that he’ll win the lottery, until one day he hears the voice of God, saying: “Help me out! Buy a lottery ticket!” This is a humorous example of a very important idea: Some problems can’t be solved unless another problem is solved first. The one that’s preventing the other problems from being solved is referred to as a “meta-problem.”

For example, suppose you’re trying to reach a goal at your job, but a coworker keeps undermining your efforts. You may not be able to reach your goal until you find a way to get your co-worker to stop whatever he or she is doing. In other words, you have a meta-problem that you have to solve before you’ll be able to reach your goal.

What makes meta-problems so tricky is that they’re often invisible. (You might not realize, for example, that a coworker has been undermining your efforts.) All we see is that we’re failing to solve a problem, when in fact there’s a meta-problem that’s in the way.

It’s no secret that humanity has failed miserably when it comes to solving many of its biggest problems—war, poverty, racism and gender discrimination, for example—not to mention new problems like the climate crisis. It’s easy to believe that these problems aren’t being solved because human beings are fundamentally flawed. I’d like to propose an alternate explanation: These problems just appear to be insoluble because there’s a meta-problem that’s preventing the other problems from being solved.

The meta-problem in this case is something we humans are very fond of: Certainty. (Hear me out!) When we become totally convinced that we’ve found the truth about something—when we see our belief as an inarguable fact—it makes our life easier. We can stop trying to “figure that one out.” In fact, the only time most people ever question certainty is when someone else’s certainty is causing them trouble.

What most people don’t realize is that certainty-based thinking can trigger a long list of problems, at both the individual and societal level. For example, when people indulge in certainty:
— they dismiss any evidence that contradicts their certainty;
— they only see what they are certain is true, not what’s actually happening;
— they justify destructive actions while ignoring the consequences;
— they feel justified in lying (the end justifies the means); and
they become easy to fool and manipulate.That’s true because when we have certainty about something our perceptions and thinking are distorted.

The last point may be the most consequential negative effect of certainty today, because it motivates other people (such as politicians) to encourage certainty. The more certainty their followers have, the more easily they’re manipulated.

In fact, most of the criticisms people level at the human race—for example, that people only see what they want to see, or that people are willing to justify terrible things in the name of their ideals—are actually only true of people who are operating on the basis of certainty! Those criticisms rarely apply to people who have an open mind about the world around them.

But what if your certainty is justified? What if your ideas are right? Amazingly, it doesn’t matter whether your belief is right or not! CERTAINTY is what causes these problems—even if the certainty is about something that’s actually true. Certainty limits our perceptions and alters our choice of actions, in potentially disastrous ways.

All of the side effects of certainty listed above (along with many more) have caused certainty to become a meta-problem. It’s preventing us from solving dozens of other problems—problems that threaten our very survival. And, as long as certainty is seen as harmless and justifiable, it will continue to prevent us from being able to tackle these problems.

Why haven’t we solved this meta-problem already? Because certainty hasn’t been seen as a problem. It’s been hiding in plain sight.

We can change that.

Once people begin to realize how much of the suffering in their lives has been a result of certainty—and how much damage it’s doing to the world around us—then operating on the basis of certainty will stop being acceptable. Once that happens, all those other problems will finally start to be solved.

This is the subject of my forthcoming book: The Tyranny of Certainty. Check back periodically for progress reports! And in the meantime, check out my song Riding the Certainty Train in the WILD EYES song collection for another perspective!