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Simplicity and Complexity

Simplicity and Complexity

By Dennis Loo (1/1/14)

Time shows that things that once seemed mysterious can yield up their secrets before the power of experience and to greater insight into how things work. Life, nonetheless, remains complex and it will remain so forever. This is going to continue to be true in part because processes both natural and artificial are intricate and complicated. In human relations, for example, negotiating group and individual behaviors and attitudes requires being able to recognize and use nuance, a complexity that contradicts thinking in simplistic terms such as good versus evil. Moreover, everyone has within them contradictory aspects; no one is purely good or evil. If you want to work with others then recognizing that everyone has contradictory elements within them is necessary.

Correctly handling the relation between the individual level and the group level is also crucial. Reducing the operations of institutions and societal level phenomena to individual decisions and individual personalities and treating structural outcomes as due primarily or solely to individuals is foolish. And yet even highly educated people such as professors commonly engage in this kind of faulty reasoning, particularly when they are talking or thinking about political affairs. For the record this mistake is called the Fallacy of Attribution: the notion that group level behavior can be understood on, and as a result of, the individual level. Group level phenomena have their own dynamic, separate from, though overlapping some with, individual level phenomena.

Seen from another angle, the dream of mathematicians and scientists that they could construct a model for the world whereby if they only had enough information, they could tell us where a drop of water would end up after a time interval has had to be abandoned because contingency plays too large a role and at the subatomic level of matter, predicting where any tiny object is, let alone where it ends up over time, is impossible. Again, complexity expresses itself, this time in the form of unpredictability.

The desire for certainty, however, pervades human affairs. Religious doctrines declare absolute truths and immortality, and the assurance that the world can rightly be understood as pure goodness versus implacable evil. Secular versions abound such as Hitler’s prediction that the Third Reich would last 1,000 years or the Project for the New American Century’s dictum - its very name indicating that America can dominate a century - that any rivals to the US’ superpower status, current or future, can be suppressed. The pursuit by the NSA for "total information awareness" is a similarly reactionary venture. Such doctrines seek to quell the changeability and dynamism of actual life. Even were the fountain of youth to be discovered – and there are new developments that provide the tantalizing prospect that aging can indeed be reversed to at least some degree – the fact that change is inevitable and fixity is impossible will remain the case. Life extension, in other words, is not the same as conquering death and the necessary passing of all things into the primordial soup to be reborn and recycled in other forms, animate and inanimate, will not abate.

At the same time, however, probabilistic reasoning such as that used by meteorologists and sociologists produces highly useful predictive information. What groups of people or masses of warm air masses will do under particular circumstances is predictable.

Within complexity resides the simple and the converse holds as well: within the simple resides the complex. When I ask my students whether they think life is simple or complicated they answer without hesitation that it is complicated. Odd then, that so much of education is now geared to making the acquisition of knowledge simple: “Here is what I want you to know. Now memorize it.” Odd, too, that in the political and economic arenas the dominant discourse declares that the answer to our collective problems is simply a matter of choosing which candidate’s statements you like the best – “make your choice, it’s your democratic right and duty.” So very many people on both the right and the left of the political spectrum pick sides based on party affiliation, just like people who cheer on their sports team.

The truth is both simple and complex and anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading you. Authorities who try to conceal what is actually going on can frequently be heard to say that “it’s complicated” when they are trying to cover up some very simple truths. For them, complexity means making something obscure. Be wary of those who tell you the answer is simple and the process to fix things is also very simple and be suspicious of those who say it's all very complicated and you have to "trust us" to handle it all for you. Clarity about the essential (i.e., simple) nature of something and the complexity of how things work within it and upon it is the route to take. 

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