V 1 — People talk endlessly about problems, about predicaments not so much. What's the difference?
R 2 — Well, problems may be parts of predicaments that we have cut down to a simple causal problem to solve with a series of if-then propositions that work in a sequence.
V 3 — OK, but what is the predicament?
R 4 — It is hard to think about predicaments causally, for they arise as complicated conditions. A predicament is a condition that persists through the interaction of many situations, via linkages among them, that make the predicament self-sustaining because action on one part complicates the interactions in other parts.
V 5 — Sorry, but that's pretty abstract. Can you give an example?
R 6 — Let's take fire. People have been living with it for many generations, long before history started to be recorded, so many aspects of fire are pretty routine and we deal with them causally—"Here are the steps to build a campfire." But fires in the wild first confronted humans and many other animals with terrible predicaments, and they still do.
V 7 — Yeah, a friend's family lost their house in one of those fires last summer north of LA. Her parents were lucky to be safely evacuated. As you say, with problems we tend to look for causal solutions—problem, program, implementation. Can we do the same with full predicaments?
R 8 — I think that is a mistake, although a lot of that goes on, but it leads to action on symptoms that leave the sustaining interactions in operation. To get at those sustaining interactions, people need to develop a relatively sound theory of what is happening, and then they need a commitment to change patterns of behavior to channel and shape the processes underlying the predicament.
V 9 — Would the predicament of infectious epidemics illustrate what you are saying? Epidemics mystified people in pre-modern times. They would respond in useless ways, often destructive one, scapegoating minorities and the like. In the 19th century, they began to develop germ theory and map contagion. They slowly instituted good water and sanitation systems and changed behaviors against a lot of opposition. More recently people changed behavior with smoking. My grand dad describes how in college, he would smoke a French cigarette, "Galwaz," and everyone would get after him, not because they weren't smoking and he was, but because these cigarettes had an unpleasant, acrid smell!
R 10 — It's Gauloises. You have the point. To affect a predicament, people need a relatively sound understanding of the underlying interactions sustaining it, and then they need to generate a commitment to alter those interactions, which may be deeply ingrained in the fabric of life.
V 11 — With these examples, catastrophic fires and epidemics, natural processes largely sustain the underlying interactions. Is that always the case?
R 12 — Not at all. Humans have a role in those, and other predicaments arise almost completely through the complexities of human interaction. Consider the predicaments arising in civic life from the disruptive effects of social media. Where will those lead? Do we have an adequate understanding of what is taking place to grasp what sustains the disruptions. Those are bad enough, but then we have been making the really unprecedented one—not nature making life difficult for humans, but humans changing the patterns of interaction in the natural world in ways we neither understand nor control.
V 13 — Oy! Almost a predicament of predicaments, multiple predicaments! Each makes it harder to grasp what we have to do to tamp down their sustaining behaviors. You're suggesting that we have to study here how self-development and liberal learning can support theorizing about these predicaments and perhaps disclose ways to stop sustaining them.
R 14 — Not A Place to Study alone, for the big predicaments have many complex sides to them. But a strong sense of self-command and autonomy in action have essential parts in generating the civic will to meet historic predicaments.
V 15 — I suspect you are right about that, but what you mean is not self-evident. Many people will hear it, some happily others, scornfully, as a reason to delay decisive action.
R 16 — Predicaments can induce significant forms of panic—some leap to do something, anything! right now, while others withdraw, preferring to avoid destabilizing the status quo.