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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Puzzles and Problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between puzzles and problems and I need your help to figure it out.

Say you’re solving a jigsaw, and you’re most of the way done. You have the edges complete, and most of the middle barn or whatever is finished. You’re just struggling with the sky because those pieces all look pretty blue.

That’s a puzzle.

Now I put a gun to your head and give you one hour to finish.

I just gave you a problem.

What's the difference?


Proposal 1: Maybe the solution to a problem is more urgent than the solution to a puzzle?

I don’t think that's quite right. Even though the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship is set up as a huge race between competitors and there's a thousand euros on the line, the jigsaw in front of you is no less of a puzzle. (It's not the World Jigsaw Problem Championship...)

Proposal 2: Maybe the value of a problem is in the solution, while the value of a puzzle is in the process of getting there?

This is more promising, because if you find the solution to a puzzle too easily, it probably wasn't very satisfying.

But this all seems a bit too clean.

Puzzles can have valuable solutions, too:

Can't the solution of a chess puzzle be strikingly original or clever?

Can't a completed jigsaw puzzle be beautiful? (Some folks frame them.)

And the process of solving a problem can be valuable, too. I definitely get something out of having to figure out a new blog post every week.

Nice try, no dice.

Proposal 3: Maybe the value of a problem is in the real world, while the value of a puzzle is in the puzzle world?

This still isn't perfect, but I do like that this proposal treats puzzles like games. And since we’re on games, here’s C. Thi Nguyen again, who I find myself quoting all the time:

In ordinary life, we have to desperately fit ourselves to the practical demands of the world. In games, we can engineer the world of the game, and the agency we will occupy, to fit us and our desires.

Puzzle makers get to engineer puzzles the way they like, and guide which sorts of values and skills their designs can realize in the puzzle world. (For example, jigsaws are better at showcasing pattern matching than creativity.) And this separates puzzles from the kinds of problems we face in the rest of our lives like feeding ourselves, getting the kids to sleep, etc.

Here’s why I care:

I think academia encourages philosophers to get so wrapped up in puzzles they lose contact with real problems.

And that’s a real problem!

Puzzles are great—chess puzzles, sudokus, quirky word games, plotting speedruns, Gettier cases...

I love puzzles, and philosophy should traffic in them. They’re not just useful for building know-how. When designed well, they're also intrinsically rewarding.

But if you’ve looked around, we’re facing a whole lotta problems in the real world. Where to start? Extreme deprivation, inequality, prejudice, exploitation, a crumbling education system, and I gotta write a post on the prospects of human extinction soon.

And even though we have more philosophers than ever, they’re nowhere to be found in our public discourse. There’s not even a Bill Nye of philosophy!

Nobody knows what we’re up to, at least in part, because we’re too obssessed with solving puzzles instead of problems.

Here's an example:

In the recent literature on how to make the world a better place, Amia Srinivasan noted how difficult it is to assess the odds that my individual contribution will help pull off deep, systematic change in the world.

And a fight broke out in the comments, as it were. (Actually, in a string of published articles.)

Take any deeply transformational project, like overhauling our educational system or economy or political culture.

How should I try to calculate the (tiny) impact of my contribution on the odds of ultimate success? Does the best form of analysis start from the individual and work out, or with the group and work in?

Suddenly, a discussion on how to make the world a better place turned into a discourse on methodology without any clear real world stakes. Here's how I summarize this literature in a paper I'm working on:

Whether we prefer an individual analysis that considers whether others will cooperate with me, or a collective analysis that asks how we should cooperate, there’s not a tremendous amount of functional difference between these competing views.

This is a great example of how philosophers can end up reducing real problems to artificial puzzles, and then fixating on trying to solve every puzzle before we can start addressing any problems.

(Can we even meaningfully begin calculating these odds anyhow?)

But that’s what happens when you subdivide a real-world problem into a thousand hyperspecialized journal articles. Each neatly plugs a hole within the existing technical literature, forming a perfect jigsaw. But why we are writing to each other behind paywalls instead of acting in the real world?

Puzzles are great and I love them. But they’re an escape from reality. Here’s Nguyen again:

We do not fit this world comfortably. The obstacles in our path are often intractable, exhausting, or miserable. Games can be an existential balm for our practical unease with the world. In games, the problems can be right-sized for our capacities; our in-game selves can be right-sized for the problems

I could go for some existential balm as much as the next guy.

But why are we expending so much energy on esoteric puzzles when we’re faced with such urgent problems?

I find that more than just puzzling.

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