Yesterday while talking with my wife as we drove to spend some time with extended family, I caught myself: tempted to describe a given response to a particular cultural ill as a solution. This is a turn of thinking that’s especially tempting for engineers—and perhaps the more so engineers with a physics background (like me!). In two of the fields to which I have applied myself (physics and software), knowledge often genuinely appears in the form of solutions to problems. But the extent to which science (and scientism) on the one hand and engineering disciplines (especially software) on the other have come to the fore in our culture—the degree to which they have achieved nearly unassailable authority for us—means that we now too often take solutions as coextant with knowledge more generally.
This is solutionism, and it is bad. I noted above that two of the fields to which I have applied myself share this feature of having solutions to problems as their predominant form of knowledge. But this is not so in two of the other fields I have studied in some depth: for neither theology nor music is a solution very often in demand. Very different modes of thought and of reasoning are in play in each of those, and appropriately so.
So it was with some particular appreciation that I read this piece by L. M. Sacasas, reflecting on the recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg. Sacasas rightly highlights how mistaken this solutionist frame of knowledge is. From his conclusion (emphasis mine):
Reducing knowledge to know-how and doing away with thought leaves us trapped by an impulse to see the world merely as a field of problems to be solved by the application of the proper tool or technique, and this impulse is also compulsive because it cannot abide inaction. We can call this an ideology or we can simply call it a frame of mind, but either way it seems that this is closer to the truth about the mindset of Silicon Valley.
It is not a matter of stupidity or education, formally understood, or any kind of personal turpitude. Indeed, by most accounts, Zuckerberg is both earnest and, in his own way, thoughtful. Rather it is the case that one’s intelligence and one’s education, even if it were deeply humanistic, and one’s moral outlook, otherwise exemplary and decent, are framed by something more fundamental: a distinctive way of perceiving the world. This way of seeing the world, including the human being, as a field of problems to be solved by the application of tools and techniques, bends all of our faculties to its own ends. The solution is the truth, the solution is the good, the solution the beautiful. Nothing that is given is valued.
The trouble with this way of seeing the world is that it cannot quite imagine the possibility that some problems are not susceptible to merely technical solutions or, much less, that some problems are best abided. It is also plagued by hubris—often of the worst sort, the hubris of the powerful and well-intentioned—and, consequently, it is incapable of perceiving its own limits. As in the Greek tragedies, hubris generates blindness, a blindness born precisely out of one’s distinctive way of seeing. And that’s not the worst of it. That worst of it is that we are all, to some degree, now tempted and prone to see the world in just this way too.