Trial and error, or trial by error, is a general method of problem solving for obtaining knowledge, both propositional knowledge and know-how. In the field of computer science, the method is called generate and test. In elementary algebra, when solving equations, it is "guess and check".
Bricolage -In trial and error, one selects a possible answer, applies it to the problem and, if it is not successful, selects (or generates) another possibility that is subsequently tried. The process ends when a possibility yields a solution.
In some versions of trial and error, the option that is a priori viewed as the most likely one should be tried first, followed by the next most likely, and so on until a solution is found, or all the options are exhausted. In other versions, options are simply tried at random.
This approach is more successful with simple problems and in games, and is often resorted to when no apparent rule applies. This does not mean that the approach need be careless, for an individual can be methodical in manipulating the variables in an attempt to sort through possibilities that may result in success. Nevertheless, this method is often used by people who have little knowledge in the problem area.
Trial and error has a number of features:
It is possible to use trial and error to find all solutions or the best solution, when a testably finite number of possible solutions exist. To find all solutions, one simply makes a note and continues, rather than ending the process, when a solution is found, until all solutions have been tried. To find the best solution, one finds all solutions by the method just described and then comparatively evaluates them based upon some predefined set of criteria, the existence of which is a condition for the possibility of finding a best solution. (Also, when only one solution can exist, as in assembling a jigsaw puzzle, then any solution found is the only solution and so is necessarily the best.)
Trial and error has traditionally been the main method of finding new drugs, such as antibiotics. Chemists simply try chemicals at random until they find one with the desired effect. In a more sophisticated version, chemists select a narrow range of chemicals it is thought may have some effect. (The latter case can be alternatively considered as a changing of the problem rather than of the solution strategy: instead of "What chemical will work well as an antibiotic?" the problem in the sophisticated approach is "Which, if any, of the chemicals in this narrow range will work well as an antibiotic?") The method is used widely in many disciplines, such as polymer technology to find new polymer types or families.
The scientific method can be regarded as containing an element of trial and error in its formulation and testing of hypotheses. Also compare genetic algorithms, simulated annealing and reinforcement learning - all varieties for search which apply the basic idea of trial and error.
Biological evolution is also a form of trial and error. Random mutations and sexual genetic variations can be viewed as trials and poor reproductive fitness, or lack of improved fitness, as the error. Thus after a long time 'knowledge' of well-adapted genomes accumulates simply by virtue of them being able to reproduce.
Bogosort, a conceptual sorting algorithm (that is extremely inefficient and impractical), can be viewed as a trial and error approach to sorting a list. However, typical simple examples of bogosort do not track which orders of the list have been tried and may try the same order any number of times, which violates one of the basic principles of trial and error. Trial and error is actually more efficient and practical than bogosort; unlike bogosort, it is guaranteed to halt in finite time on a finite list, and might even be a reasonable way to sort extremely short lists under some conditions.