The Four Types of Problems

There are four types of problem. Problems of:

  1. Science/tech: knowing what the answer is (how does Global Warming happen, how do we prevent it?)
  2. Preference (or self-knowledge): knowing what we really want – do I want to watch this boxset or do my meditation? do I really want to eat this donut or do I really want this salad? do I want to make sacrifices now on climate change so my daughter faces less risks in thirty years?
  3. Will (or self-control): we know what we want, but we struggle to act on it (I want to go on a diet but I don’t, I want to avoid long-distance flights to save C02 but I really want to go on that holiday in the caribbean)
  4. Collective (collective action): we need to act together to get it (I want to stop global warming by reducing carbon emissions but on my own I will have no impact – I need millions of others to act with me …)

Associatedly we also have four types of solutions associated to each problem type – sciento-technic solutions, those targetting self-knowledge or will and finally those addressing collective action (“politico-economic”).

Note: a given “problem” may have aspects in one or more of these four categories.


All our techno-scientific advances in recent centuries have only helped with the first type of problem. We are also currently suffering from a fetish of “techno-solutionism” where we mistakenly assume that all problems are of type one (or can be solved by type one solutions).

This is because type one problems are relatively easy: we can do science, build apps, etc. Solutions to the last 3 all involve deep questions of the human spirit and social organization. “Innovation” in these areas is very slow – for example, democracy (a solution on the 4th item) is basically unchanged since Ancient Athens.

I would argue that progress on the last 3 really comes from the “transformation of being” and that we do have answers here, they just aren’t easy to follow. They are based on the ontology and practices found in traditions like Buddhism (which are rapidly spreading atm in the form of mindfulness). And they require will and are not simply replicable (just because I get enlightened does not mean you do, but if I invent a better way to grow corn you can copy it easily). Unfortunately for us, science / tech solutions seem to help little with the other 3 items and as we get richer the value of science / tech solutions are less and less important …

A version of this typology first appeared in our post back in April on the “Logic of Our Purpose and the Reason for our Existence” and was earlier posted on