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April 4, 2012

Twice in a very short time now, I have encountered the personality test question “You believe that every problem has a solution (Yes/No)”. Idiotic question, impossible to answer.

First of all, define “problem”. A classic geometry problem is how to square a circle, using only a compass and straightedge*, and only a finite number of steps. This problem has been proven to not have any solutions within the given parameters. Pure math, has nothing to do with anybody’s personality.

But maybe we are defining “problem” too narrowly. Maybe we were supposed to think creatively and not feel bound by the restrictions in equipment. Squaring a circle is, after all, possible, as long as we can use a tape measure or proper ruler or somesuch. Ok, how about the problem of achieving faster-than-light transportation of matter? As far as we know, this is insoluble no matter what equipment you use.**

Maybe I should stop derailing the personality tests by insisting on bringing in math and science. Though by using a word like “problem”, they are totally asking for it, IMHO. I’ll be a good girl and play along. I’ll assume that “problem” is to be understood as pertaining to humans. If somebody wants or needs something but can’t easily get it, that’s a problem. If two or more people are in conflict, that’s a problem. Do I believe that such problems always have a solution?

Define “solution”. Else you’ll end up like the priest who tried to talk about ethics with the church youth group I used to belong to, back when I was thirteen. Poor guy had prepared a handful of dilemmas for us to discuss. The only one I can still remember was a story about a woman whose husband had an accident and became severely handicapped, which was quite a burden on her, would it be ok to divorce in that situation or should she stay married to him? There were maybe five more stories in that style. And then there was Alex. No matter what ethical dilemma the priest tried to pose, Alex had a simple and drastical solution: kill them. Kill all the people involved, and the problem disappears.

Another, not quite so illegal, pseudo-solution to any problem would be “learn to live with the current situation”. I think that invoking this solution constitutes cheating at the original question. You haven’t obtained what you wanted, you haven’t solved the interpersonal conflict, you have just redefined the situation from “problem” to “not a problem”. Sure, it (theoretically) works, but it’s just so trivial. Besides, in many situations this is clearly immoral. Do you want to be the one to tell the black slaves in pre-Civil War USA to be happy with their lot? Thought not.

Since I refuse to define “grin and bear it” as a solution, I would classify being in love with somebody who doesn’t love you back as a problem without a solution.

Or take the hypothetical situation that three people are vying for a promotion. All are excellent employees, all are equally well qualified for the higher position, all of them want it, but only one can get it. How do you solve that in a way that doesn’t generate resentment? Also, heaven help you if one is a woman, one is latino and one is openly homosexual…

No, I don’t think that every problem has a good solution that will satisfy everyone involved. I think that makes me a realist. The personality tests think that makes me uncreative and a bad problem solver.

Well, ### personality tests.

* A ruler without any scale marked on it.

** Those Italian neutrinos turned out to be a measurement error.

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