This is a concept which I’m currently struggling to come up with a better name for but it’s about responses to an argument. A crucial part of argumentation is actually understanding the claims and assertions that the other person is making. In order to do this, one can either solve the easy problem or the hard problem.

The difference between the easy problem and the hard problem is one of recognition vs recall. When confronted by an argument, the easy problem is to scan through your list of pre-canned responses to arguments. It’s a matching between arguments and replies. Is reply 1 close enough to fit? No. Is reply 2 close enough to fit? Yes. Stop, you’re done, spit out response 2.

The easy problem is seductive because it’s well, easy. But it’s more than that as well, it’s gratifying to the ego. You come up with a substantive response and it’s clever so you feel like you’re doing real work. Moreover, you spend your time compiling a larger database of pre-compiled responses and the larger your database is, the closer and more encompassing your matches become so you feel like you’re making progress. But when you solve the easy problem, you stop at the FIRST match which is sufficiently close. If the difference between the actual question and what you perceive the question is suffciently close, then you completely ignore the difference.

Solving the hard problem is taking the opposite approach. Instead of figuring out what response matches the question, you instead look at the structure of the question and reason out a response free from any pre-concieved biases. You conciously don’t try and recognize the question and place it into a particular category. Solving the hard problem can be valuable because it occasionally leads to genuine surprise. Solving the easy problem will never tell you something you could not be convinced of but solving the hard problem occasionally leads you down a difficult path.

The hard problem is more intellectually pure, with less chances of making a mistake. But it’s well, hard, and quite often doesn’t seem neccesary. So many of the questions we are asked every day seem like the sort that can be answered with a pre-cached answer and so we feel comfortable solving them with the easy problem. The problem is, it’s impossible to tell whether a problem is indeed something solvable or not with the easy problem because once you’ve determined that, you’ve already solved the hard problem.

This is especially true of internet comments and conversations. Once you mention certain key words in a posting, people will come in and post based on what happened to match that filter. This makes it very hard to present an argument which is very similar to a common argument because most people will match for the common argument.

So how do you get around this? I think the only way is to gain the respect of a core group of readers and have them get to the point where they assume that you’re not stupid and that it’s worth trying to solve the hard problem when you present them with an idea.