Better problem solving: unask the question

May 13, 2014 · 4 min read

When faced with a challenging problem, it’s important to have a reliable and re-usable plan of attack. As I put a great amount of faith in hard science, my go-to problem-solving method is typically what’s called “hypothesis testing” — that is, the typical “scientific method” we all learn in grade school.

It goes like this:

  1. With a particular question in mind, make an hypothesis based on observation.
  2. Design a test, and predict the outcome based on your hypothesis.
  3. Perform the test, and based on the outcome, evaluate whether the hypothesis was correct or not.

Practically, this comes down to taking a guess at the solution, then devising and conducting a test which will prove your guess right or wrong. Here’s an example:

  1. You’re wondering why your fish is looking a little green-in-the-gills lately (the question), and you think it’s because the food you’re feeding her is not satisfying her nutritional needs (the hypothesis).
  2. So, you buy different kinds of fish food. You try feeding your fish different foods on different days of the week (the test). You go through great lengths to isolate the conditions: feeding time is at 8am every day, you serve the food in identical quantities, from an unmarked container.
  3. The new foods don’t seem to make any difference — your fish is still sick (the outcome). So, you conclude that your hypothesis is not true (the conclusion).

You’ve done some science! Your rigorous methods have gotten you a little closer to a healthier fish. And in a logically sound way, to boot!

Not so fast.

True, False, etc.

We westerners, raised on a hardy diet of European thinking, tend to think of a yes or no question like “Is my fish food making my fish sick?” as having two possible states: True, and False. This is called binary logic: everything is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘true’ or ‘false,’ ‘0’ or ‘1’. Very intuitive.

However, there are systems in which a yes or no question has more than two possible answers. One of these systems is Buddhism, and one of the other possible answers is “無” (anglicized as wú). 無 means, in many cases, “neither true nor false.” This Zen kōan is what you might call its ‘debut’:

A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen, a Chinese Zen master (known as Jōshū in Japanese), “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Zhaozhou answered, “Wú”.

In this case, “wú” is often interpreted to mean “you’ve asked an unanswerable question.” Douglas Hofstadter, in one of my favorite books, Gödel, Escher, Bach, calls this “unasking the question.” The Zen master is trying to tell the monk that Buddha nature doesn’t apply to dogs. Some writers take Jōshū’s answer to mean that there is no such thing as Buddha-nature! Either way, this is an answer that is neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no.’

The answer is there is no answer

In our scientific method example, this is relevant because it means we have to accept the possibility of a new outcome: Our hypothesis may be true, it may be false, or it may be 無. The answer could be that there is in fact no way to answer the question — our fish isn’t really sick, and our whole quest to revive her is errant.

This many-valued logic is important in my daily life, as the following example might show:

A client asks me, “Do I need to re-design my logo?” A “yes” would come with a lot of “buts”, and so might not really be a “yes.” A “no” implies that their current logo is fine — most of the time, if this question comes up, the current logo is NOT fine.

So what is the answer? A big fat 無.

There are lots of things a company can do to strengthen or change their identity, from copy changes in their email newsletter to new products and services, all of which doesn’t require an ounce of effort when it comes to logos.

The least satisfying solution

Nobody wants to hear they’ve asked the wrong question. It might be hard to communicate this idea to people who are used to simple, binary logic. But in questioning the premise of any problem, you open up a path to a solution that might not have existed before.

無 is a powerful tool in solving complex problems. It requires a bit of mental exercise, but can make your approach to tricky situations more like that of a Zen master.