Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It is an idiom meaning a dilemma. If you are between a rock and a hard place, you are in a difficult situation where you have to choose between two equally unpleasant courses of action.

Impasse is a situation in which no progress is possible, a deadlock. The definition of an impasse is something from which there is no escape or solution. I have been in this situation many times during my life, most of the time for no reason. I wake up in the morning and find myself in this situation. I feel that the world deliberately imposes such conditions on me some days. I feel I am being tested, some may call it a divine test, but I cannot determine the intent of the experimenter (or god). This is not just for humans but for other animals as well.

Is the world testing us?

Are we being tested in the world by unknown forces?

Why does the flow of life constantly put us in unsolvable situations?

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    Your question seems more appropriate for psychology than philosophy, as it is the same as: "Why do I, Achmed, currently feel like I am being tested constantly?". Such symptoms could be a sign of depression, as an example. You should find somebody to talk about it, but this site may not be the right place.
    – tkruse
    Nov 2, 2020 at 15:07
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    While I agree, your question sounds somewhat personal, a couple of answers come to mind. First, what would it mean to "solve" life's dilemmas? This "solving" is life itself in operation. A Buddhist might answer that "desire is endless" and the only "solution" is to escape the recycled "flow of life." Another description of this perceived impasse is the "fall from grace" or "alienation," which takes Biblical, Hegelian, Marxist, and other forms. Existentialists might say the we are indeed presented with decisions for which there is no obvious "right" answer, so one must simply act. Nov 2, 2020 at 16:27
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    Nobody is testing us and there is no impasse, really. A pair of good thoughts or truths might help perhaps: (i) one's life (at large, as a span or a course) is meanigless; (ii) we don't have to get pleasure or reward. Because we each are living our lives we cannot view it the same way as we can view the life of another person or of a deceased one, that is, someone who's always accomplished.
    – ttnphns
    Nov 3, 2020 at 0:15
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    I think the problem is that we have this societal notion that human beings are responsible for their lot... or at least "ought" to be responsible for their life situation. This attitude isn't just among the religious, it's among atheists too. The fact is that some beings are put in unfixable doomed situations from their birth. My sense is that there is a lot of denial of this reality. Nov 4, 2020 at 17:43
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    @AmeetSharma I couldn't agree more، Some creatures are born just to be hunted by predators.
    – Achmed
    Nov 16, 2020 at 12:22

4 Answers 4


If you can and do choose between two equally unpleasant course of action, then the problem is resolved by your choice and so is not insolvable.

But this does not go to the heart of the issue you raise. Sometimes 'unsolvable' problems arise because of the simple fact of scarce resources, including time. You face equal and incompatible demands on your resources.

A philosophically deeper cause of unsolvable problems arises, I think, through the incommensurability of values. Take two values - freedom and equality. I can be faced with a situation in which I can increase freedom at the cost of equality, or increase equality at the cost of freedom. There is no metric - no agreed metric - by which one can rationally decide which situation is preferable. It isn't the case that freedom is always more important than equality or equality is always more important than freedom. One has to make a situational decision.

But how? I'm not inclined to appeal to ethical intuitionism and suppose that one can 'see' by moral insight which situation to choose. Rather, I think that in this kind of dilemma one defines oneself as a moral agent by the choices one makes. One is not being 'tested by unknown forces' but one is compelled to create oneself as a particular kind of person or moral self by the values one gives preference to in different types of situation.

All this need not be a matter of blind choice. There is room for ethical consistency as one compares one's choice in one situation with the choice one made in a relevantly (though probably not exactly similar) situation. There is also a place for moral imagination as one considers what account one could give of oneself and one's choices if asked to justify them. Do they integrate as the choices of a coherent moral self? If not and one doesn't care, one has not escaped moral self-definition. One has simply defined oneself as someone who doesn't value coherence in one's choices. I wouldn't want to define myself in this way but that is because I have defined myself differently as a moral agent.


This is of special significance to Christianity & Judaism, where duty and faith are constantly put to the test, with Abraham, Noah, and Jonah being core stories of the 1st rank of prominence in these religion's account of themselves. There is a misunderstanding between heaven, which these figures were raised to, and the resurrection, the destiny of the righteous but not exceptional dead. Heaven, like being 'raised' to the name of a constellation, seems to represent becoming an exemplar, so resolving dilemmas or contradictions that they set a new precedent that becomes core to the culture. Judged for our judgements, and adherence to tenets.

It is not a cultural universal though. The Norse tradition judges between worthy and unworthy afterlives, purely on the basis of having died in battle or not (the word hell is Norse). It's interesting to note trial by battle as a judicial practice. The 11th C Norn poem 'Ride of the Valkyries' seems to show the afterlife is to be alive in the stories in mead halls, and the valkyries are drawn close by exceptional deads, representing the audience.

Solomon is an exemplar of wisdom for his judicial judgements reconciling apparently impossible dilemmas. Jesus reconciled an impossible dilemma when he said 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's'.

So I would say there is a lot of cultural variation on what comprises tests, and choice of exemplars in cultural narrative. Dilemmas are a framing device, which bring a narrative to a culminating decision. Creativity that transcends an apparent binary decision has been highly valued. Precedent in interpreting accepted primary law in specific situations, is a formal illustration of how decision making can develop in scope and intelligence, building on a record.

If you frame a primary or the primary quality of people, as the judging of them for their decision making, then of course you will see dilemmas everywhere. But if bravery is prioritised, a person would see tests for that everywhere, and judge others by their record when facing those. But whereas the latter cannot truly progress, an approach valuing dilemmas and preserving the narratives of them, and preserving what is transferable about them, can progress in intelligence, like a judicial system, by develop practices to support good decion making, and to challenge whether and what kind of decion has to be made.

Science, our leading culture of intelligence, does not prioritise dilemmas, but distinguishing between hypothesees. It prioritises having the best model of systems, over decision making. Wisdom is a rarely used term now in philosophy, which I suggest is a result of assuming the best model will lead to the best decision being obvious. John Vervaeke is a philosopher attempting to resurrect philosophy of wisdom, and discusses this. Hypothesis creation is an interesting area, with Popper and others noting it cannot be a purely empirical or even necessarily rational process, because it is creative, and must go beyond current practice. I would suggest this goes beyond a judicial framing of widsom focused on dilemmas and judgement, as far as that went beyond a focus on bravery and being 'favoured by god/s' in trials of ordeal. There are dilemmas in science, between different risks, help vs harm, ethics, which having the best model cannot solve. But I would suggest there are a minimum of dilemmas, once the best possible model has been made.


Without more specific examples it's difficult to address your feelings of being in a deadlock, but dilemmas are just a trivial consequence of economics.

We have seemingly limitless desire, our brain is almost constantly in search of the next resource we can secure to keep ourselves content. Yet, resources are limited and object of competition. The shop has only so many apples to sell, and will sell them to the first to come or the highest bidder. We can't secure at once all the goods we covet, priorities have to be set. There is only 24 hours to each day.

We constantly face such choices, fulfilling one desire means loosing the opportunity to fulfill the others. Sometimes there is no clear best solution, all outcomes seem equally bleak. Particularly if we have unrealistic expectations that we can get all we want, because our imagination does not always fit with reality.

So, probably no metaphysical force is testing you. It's just a fact of nature, that we desire more than we can get. The solution is to gather knowledge, so that your expectations come to match reality. Once you can establish a certain outcome is in fact the best you can hope for, it feels less like an ordeal to go for it.

For the importance of knowledge to have our expectations match reality, instead of trying to make reality match our extravagant imagination and suffering for failing, see Spinoza's Ethics.


Every individual is born with different vasanas and each life is important. So, each life certainly have some goal. 'Every soul' is divine and so at last must 'reach the destination' -- to divinity.

When we look from each individual's point of view, it seems difficult and testing. But if we can view it from outside these creations, it is not so.

When we understand the coordination of all these (See the first para), we will realize the importance of the coordinator also. And eventually realize the truth that it was as in a dream and the problem was not from outside.

Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one or more or all of these-and be free. -- Vivekanada


There is only superimposition in this regard and so no problem in the absolute level. (That is why I used inverted commas in the first para.) This must be the aim of religions (Examine the words in bold letters in the quote.). But since the words and paths seems different we don't try to know about it; but fighting each other. Also, without knowing the real goal most of us give importance to practices only and follow them.

If you are trying to achieve any good aims in life, you can avoid impasse.

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