Simplicity

"Keep it simple, stupid!" -- a potent war-cry among designers, scientists, medical personnel, technologists, among us all. Simplicity is even part of ourselves, partly. The idea of simple causality is inbred by evolution. We are born with the ability to analyse reality in terms of cause (C) and effect (E). If a bush is suddenly swaying, this is caused by something. A perilous tiger? Or possibly a delicious deer? Anyway, there is a cause. Simple!

The first individual on record to question causality was the Scottish philosopher David Hume. He pointed out that what we mean by causality is a bit different from what is happening in the real world. Because what we normally mean by causality is that

a) the cause C has to come before the effect E in time

and

b) it is necessary for C to make E happen

Nonexistent?

Now, part a) is easily corroborated by observation -- either C really comes before E in time, or it doesn't. But part b) can hardly be proved by observation -- necessity is not observable. So causal connections (in the sense we normally attach to them) cannot be objectively observed. They might actually be nonexistent, to boot.

A revolution in thinking about human thinking occurred thanks to Immanuel Kant of Prussia, a wee bit later. Kant was well aware of the problems that David Hume had put forward. His solution was revolutionary. Yes, maybe we are prisoners of interpreting reality in terms of simple causal connections, connections that probably don't even exist. But that's a consequence of our mental make-up, of our humanity.

Built-in love

According to Kant, we have a number of built-in proficiencies, like finding food, being angry, telling time and distance, finding the cause of an effect, and falling in love. They exist, but they are not necessarily correct, objectively speaking. They are just part of our mental mechanism, for better or for worse. Today we would say that causality is a mental mechanism that evolution has -- after many millennia of experimenting -- found efficient. There is no need for it to be true, only for making us survive and procreate.

Analysing reality in terms of merely cause and effect is certainly too simple to be 100% true. But in 95% of the cases it saves us from solving time-consuming differential equations (or similarly complex methods that could conclusively solve the problem) and instead gives us the means of taking some rough-and-dirty action quickly, before we succumb to the rather non-intellectual, but quite deadly reality. So, causality is good, isn't it? Haven't we survived eons, thanks to simple causality? True.

More than stuff

On the African savannah simplicity certainly made us survive. But life today is not like on the savannah. In old times matter used to be "stuff". This was clearly an efficient way of looking at things, on the savannah. Today matter is composed of umpteen particles, sub-particles and sub-sub-particles. Depending on the results from the ready-to-go LHC in Geneva, we might find umpteen more sub-sub-subs. Seeing matter as "stuff" will not enable us to make computers. Society used to be a group of single-minded people with a Leader. Today society is composed of strata, subcultures, loyalists, rebels -- an extraordinary complex assortment of entangled elements. Attacking some "society" (or a part of it) head-on will not enable us to solve social problems.

Things in reality are extraordinarily complex. Our spontaneous thinking isn't.

This -- our simple spontaneous thinking -- produces a plethora of dangerous quick fixes. If we are not constantly aware of this shortcoming of our evolution-created minds, we might shortly find ourselves in a huge mass grave. Because tigers and lions no longer present a threat on the savannah. Fellow humans do, everywhere. And we, like all our human fellows of different states of mind, addresses, languages, or complexions, are conditioned to the idea of simplicity. However, postulating simplicity in a complex real world is deadly.

Simple deadly solutions

Workers are oppressed by factory-owners. The solution? Simple -- factories should be owned by all of us, i.e. by the State. This simple solution cost the lives of some 30 million people, just recently, in the 20th century. Why are we Germans poor and impotent? Simple -- there is an international conspiracy of Jews. They stand in the way of our rightful development. Solution -- kill all the Jews. Again, this Simple Solution cost 6 million people their lives -- recently, in the 20th century.

Terrorists are attacking, what should we do? Simple -- declare a War On Terrorism, abolish all stupid ideas of human rights and humanity and torture the daylights out of these bastards. That solution has only cost a few thousand lives, as of yet. But it has made us lose our decency, our humanity -- recently, in the 21st century. It may prove to be a greater loss than millions of lives, in the long run.

Please don't keep it simple!

So, don’t ever keep it simple, not when it comes to human relations. There is a plethora of dangerous simplicities. The idea of One God is certainly simple. But applied to social matters it has a very long record of being lethal. It is still taking a considerable toll of lives every day, as we can all see in the evening news. Whether we like it or not, complexity rules, particularly in the social sphere. We should always have this in mind and try to resist our built-in evolutionary impulses of keeping it simple.

Sim*plic"i*ty (?), n. [F. simplicit'e, L. simplicitas. See Simple.]

1.

The quality or state of being simple, unmixed, or uncompounded; as, the simplicity of metals or of earths.

2.

The quality or state of being not complex, or of consisting of few parts; as, the simplicity of a machine.

3.

Artlessness of mind; freedom from cunning or duplicity; lack of acuteness and sagacity.

Marquis Dorset, a man, for his harmless simplicity neither misliked nor much regarded. Hayward.

In wit a man; simplicity a child. Pope.

4.

Freedom from artificial ornament, pretentious style, or luxury; plainness; as, simplicity of dress, of style, or of language; simplicity of diet; simplicity of life.

5.

Freedom from subtlety or abstruseness; clearness; as, the simplicity of a doctrine; the simplicity of an explanation or a demonstration.

6.

Weakness of intellect; silliness; folly.

How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning? Prov. i. 22.

 

© Webster 1913.

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