What is a Problem?

What is a Problem?
Generally speaking, it’s a state of affairs that cause difficulty or other unhappiness, and needs resolution. It’s what happens when the routine stops, and needs to get restarted. It’s when habit fails and we seek to restore our habits. It’s when an issue needs to be considered, but custom fails to to address the issue. It’s when we’ve gotten stuck before reaching our goals. It’s the time when we need to use our faculties of rational or critical thinking.

Recognizing Problems
For many problems, we anticipate them, it’s a gut level feeling that things are not about to proceed according to what we have planned, and so we stop, and reconsider how we are approaching a goal. For other problems, we learn that our habits did not result in the anticipated conclusion, and so a problem stares us in the face, waiting for correction. Still other problems are only recognized when we proceed about our daily life, and find out to our surprise, that others around us do not agree with our beliefs or behaviors, and that we are causing social grief to others that has begun to cause us our own grief in return. Some problems only come into when we are asked a question we don’t know how to answer. But generally, all can be recognized by the “Wait a second!” pausing, thoughtful reaction we have, whether it’s in response to a behavior that didn’t work, or a question we can’t answer, or a contemplation of an event we don’t think is going to accomplish what we want.

There are some methods of addressing problems that are commonly used. One might be called escapism, where you alter your thinking to avoid addressing the problem, and proceed with your life as if the problem doesn’t really exist. I don’t recommend that course, simply because there will come a time when you can’t get away from problems with this method. Another way of problem solving would be to think and see if anyone else has solved the problem, and follow their lead, and do what they did. This is not necessarily a bad tactic, though for some problems, there are no appropriate “leaders” to follow, and the tactic fails. Or you may misapply a such a problem-solving method because the situation you are emulating isn’t quite like the situation you are trying to solve. There is another method, and that is to creatively think of alternative behaviors, or ways of organizing your thinking about a situation, and then weigh theses alternatives against each other, to see which one would be superior–which would most likely solve your problem. And this method is the critical thinking approach to problem solving.

But before we can address just how critical thinking can solve problems, we have to make sure we are addressing the correct problem. If we don’t have a firm grasp on what the problem is, we really haven’t a basis on which to ground our predictions on various possible alternative solutions, and we will not be able to arrive at a superior solution.

So, the first step in problem solving is understanding the problem, and the second step is finding possible ways of solving the problem, and the third step is applying your solution to the problem, which should solve it.

In order to solve a problem, you have to understand it, and you have to be able to state it clearly to yourself. A method of beginning that I find helpful is to think about how I might classify the problem, for example, is it a problem of means or a problem of ends, or is it a problem of a social nature? Is it a problem dealing with limited time, or is it a problem of identification?

Classifying Problems
Problems of identification are those where you already have an object or concept in mind, but you think you need more information about it than you already possess. You have a problem of identification when you think that knowing more about something will be of benefit to you, either in proceeding to classify something, to argue for something about the object which is not evident to your senses, and so on. The Concept Card Game is an example of the problem of identification. In order to answer the question/problem “Why are these things alike?” you have to be able to identify the object and its attributes.
A source of confusion for identifying problems of identity is that there are so many ways to identify someone. For example, I’m a woman, a daughter, an American, a fish enthusiast, an independent voter, a mammal, an occasional electrical conduit, and so on. Depending on what you need the identification for, I can easily be misclassified.

Another way of trying to understand a problem is to see if it deals with the issue of time. Is the problem one where the solution must be arrived at within a constrained period of time? (Is your unwritten term paper due tomorrow?) If the problem is one where a constraint is a known amount of time, this should be taken into consideration when assessing the options you’ve garnered through critical thinking.

Another way to classify a problem is to see if the main issue is one where the problem affect not only you, but others around you–that is, is it a problem of a social nature? Understanding a problem that deals with you and your interaction with others, or more simply, groups of people, will mean that your possible solutions will be constrained by your consideration for what the effect of your solution will have on others. You will most likely wish to evaluate the possible solutions on a scale that takes into consideration how others will benefit or be harmed.

Causation is also a way of classifying problems, often useful if you have a series of problems, and think you perceive a pattern about them. Being able to identify the agent that might be causing the pattern can be part of the solution to a whole series of similar problems. If you think you need to answer the following three questions regarding a problem, you are possibly dealing with a problem of causation.
1. Is A (the cause) always followed by B (the effect)? If yes, it could still be a type of coincidence, because it’s a safe bet you haven’t been able to measure all occurrences of A and B. If your samples do show the two of them together, however, and you have a large number of them, think of it as a smoking gun, and think about using this sort of classification to understand your problem.
2. Is B always preceded by A? You need this answered positively in order to rule in that you are dealing with a cause issue, even though it still might turn out to be coincidence.
3. Is there always something else that appears when A appears? If this is positive, then you have to be aware of the possibility that you may have misidentified the cause of B, and it may be that “something else” that is the cause of B.

If you have a problem where you ask yourself, “How can I do this?”, then your problem is one of means. You are seeking a solution whose goal you already know and anticipate, but the actions to achieve that goal are as yet a cloudy mystery. Here is where you focus on finding methods or materials or creating a step-by-step procedure to bring about something you desire.

If your problem is that somehow, you have realized that you have lost your way, that you no longer, or never did, understand the goals or the behaviors you were doing; if your habits eventually come to irritate you instead of calming you, or you can’t figure out what your aim is anymore, then you have a problem of ends. It is indicative of the problem of ends when you find yourself asking, “What do I want?” or “Is this worthwhile?” If this occurs, your critical thinking skills should devote attention to reevaluating the quality of your experiences, and begin looking at possible new behaviors that would bring you more value, more satisfaction, a bit more happiness. You wind up with problems of ends when goals shift, or when goals are accomplished and new goals are needed (for example, having stopped habitually biting my nails, I should concentrate on other some other goal of improving myself).

Classifying can help us flesh out our understanding of a problem we face, and can guide our critical thinking skills in the right direction. But watch out for wishful thinking when trying to identify and understand problems. I think we have a tendency towards hopefulness or anticipation of success, and that may lead us to a hasty conclusion that we have understood the problem.

Thanks to Troy Wilson Organ and The Art of Critical Thinking copyright 1965 for the idea of problem classification in this essay.