A Symphony of Complexity

The Reductive Mirage of Simplicity

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being an author or maybe it’s advancing age, but for some reason, I find myself more and more preoccupied with matters philosophical. This would probably happen, even if I could avoid the news. I can’t and you probably can’t, either. We’re pretty much immersed in it. Can’t even get away from it on social media. (he observes as he adds a link to his latest blog post…). And I can think of nothing more catalytic of reflection than trying to puzzle out how the hell we got where we are.

The events of the last three years have led me to conclude that a significant number of Americans (U.S. Citizens to be absolutely precise) seem to have fallen for the notion that simple solutions to complex problems are generally our best answer. It’s not hard to figure out why. Virtually all of our political discourse, these days, is reductive. Whether it’s macroeconomics, international security treaties or negotiations, here in the U.S., we’ll bite on simple, despite of (or perhaps because of) the complexity of our world.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m sensitive to the undeniable elegance of simplicity. Reducing anything to a few simple concepts is a very seductive notion. And who hasn’t heard of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid)? Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. I know I have. And nowhere is the siren call of simplicity more seductive than in political campaigns. Simple concepts are easy to understand. They lend themselves to clever slogans and effective if meaningless rallying cries.

With all that going for it conceptually, what’s wrong with trying to simplify things? I thought you’d never ask. Work with me a minute, here.

Complexity is baked in...

Let’s start with the observation that our world is home to a dazzling range diversity. It always has been. Never mind all of creation…just wrapping your head around one classification: Avians, let’s say. Ask any Ornithologist and they’re sure to tell you it’s a life study. Whether it’s something we think about or not, life writ large strenuously resists our attempts to simplify it.

Life thrives on diversity, in part because it allows for experimentation and adaptation, a bedrock of evolution. What adapts successfully survives, barring catastrophic events like asteroid strikes. Collectively, the dinosaurs were remarkably successful (and diverse) adaptations to their environment. Absent the hypothesized asteroid strike resulting in the climatic catastrophe that cut them short, might they eventually have developed intelligence we would recognize? We’ll never know.

In the same way that nature experiments through subtle and incremental genetic adaptation, humans (ourselves a genetic experiment) fiddle with ideas. Successful ideas adaptive to the environment giving rise to them tend to survive as long as the environment remains relatively stable. Please note, here, that I used successful rather than good.

It’s a distinction worth making. Successful ideas aren’t necessarily good ones, from an ethical perspective. It “works” in the context which gave birth to it, hence it thrives. A couple pretty obvious examples of bad ideas no longer generally accepted include the divine right of kings or the sun orbits the earth. But old ideas gave way to new ones.

Humanity and Context

But it’s worth remembering where those new ideas come from. Generally, they emerge from a new contextual reality. They are outgrows of a dynamic situation. The old wheeze “shit happens” is a pungent reminder that change is the lei motif not simply of our age but every age.

But there’s a pivotal difference between this age and all the ages that preceded it. Humans have always been change agents. But considering how much we contribute to shaping our environment today, it’s getting increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion we are now the apex change agents on the planet. 

We are shaping our future and not always for the best. And like it or not, some of the pivotal change agents are not copping to their role either in that change, or for that matter that it’s even happening. For the record, it is. Consider the graph following.

The foregoing graph, even supported by evidence is unlikely to move the stubborn atavisms prone to cling to obsolesence. I’m reminded of the old AA wheeze, “Drop the rock, you’ll swim better!” To which the obstinate alcoholic shouts back, “But it’s my rock!” We all get it. Few things are more difficult than abandoning (or even significantly modifying) a paradigm that has served us well for so long.

As with the bio-genetic adaptation referred to earlier, our adaptation to an emerging reality, even before it’s entirely clear what that reality is pivotal. What is unique to our adaptation is that we are re-engineering ourselves on the fly, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the evolution is much faster. Estimates vary with respect to how quickly the rate of knowledge acquisition is occurring. But if Buckminster Fuller’s knowledge-doubling curve is even close, what we “know” collectively as a species.

A couple of important caveats are in order. For starters, the knowledge-doubling curve above is a highly speculative approximation of what the knowledge growth curve might look like if the continued expansion of what we know continues. As a forecast, it is unlikely to be dead-on accurate, nor is it likely to be even. We should also recognize that the distribution of knowledge across the 7 billion human inhabitants of this planet, will not be very uneven, nor will all of it be accessible or readily applicable in it’s immediate, raw form.

Half an hour West of Tomorrow

Those observations made, the prevailing trend isn’t particularly difficult to puzzle out. When we fold Toffler’s concept of Future Shock, it is no longer remarkable that we have a huge disconnect in attitude between those closer to the leading edges of knowledge acquisition and those who are either unaware or even resistant to it. It is also painfully clear that at some point, those who resist assimilating knowledge as it is gained run the risk of becoming irrelevant in short order.

So, does the desire for simplicity in our lives have a place? I think it does, at least on a personal level. It may even be an indispensible component of our personal sanity. But extending that yearning for simplicity to our exogenous life in general strikes me as an unerring path to frustration and rage. I suspect that we left simplicity behind when we settled down to plant crops and domesticate animals for food.

The more ubiquitous and powerful humans become, the more complex our interaction with the contextual reality we call life becomes. Making America, Great Again is not function of “returning to our roots,” or how they did things, “back then.” We can honor our antecedents best by recognizing what it was that made them great.

Irrespective of the political, social, religious or spiritual framework to which they adhered, our Founders and the ones who followed and made us greater still, successfully balanced  honor for our traditions with foresighted innovative spirits. It is not that “simple” solutions, even to complex problems that we must resist. Sometimes simple solutions are the best ones.

Rather it is the reductive, simplistic thinking to exclusion of the evidence that we need to eschew.The future and the keys to it lie in our ability balance our yearning for a time when life was simpler with the recognition that, increasingly, simplistic answers are at best an illusive mirage. 

It is okay…even essential…to recognize when we don’t know. Not knowing is the human condition. What must change is how we deal with it. We must collectively recognize the global community as a community. A global community in which each human has a vested and legitimate interest in the impact of others’ individual and collective behaviors. In the same way change is unavoidable, so is the global impact of that change. Disparaging globalists or deifying nationalists completely ignores the truth. We are the world.  It may be a while before we fully grasp the implications of this new reality. But we can’t wait too long. The lives of our children and the quality thereof literally depend on it.

Fear or Hatred?

Aphorisms, Truth Vs. Fact

I must confess I have a weakness for aphorisms. There’s something about the taut simplicity and economy of words that feels like enlightenment. And of course, that’s the point. A well-worded aphorism should feel that way. For refresher’s sake, an aphorism is:

    “a concise statement of a truth, principle or sentiment.” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

In the interests of short-circuiting philosophical debates about what is epistemically knowable, I’m going to focus on the principle or sentiment aspect, rather than “truth.” Truth drags way too much intellectual baggage around with it, especially today. Personally, I tend to look at aphorisms like a Zen Koan. Aphorisms are not neither wisdom nor truth. They are signposts along the way. Work with me, here.

Fear or Hatred?

The last couple years there’s been a lot of angst richocheting around our country over our “direction,” the polarized divisiveness, intolerance, etc. It’s been argued that #MAGA and the “success” 45 is rooted in all that angst. And it has been hypothesized that the angst in which that success is grounded had its origins in the financial collapse of 2008 or the Obama presidency. As if racism, divisiveness or political hyperbole is new. But this is the United States, after all and historical perspective often gets lost in our quest for simple solutions implemented today and effective tomorrow.

What do you think? Fear or Hatred?

You will likely recall Mohandus Gandhi as the renowned, non-violent activist and the father of India’s independence from Britain, in the late 1940s. Gandhi based his opposition to British hegemony on non-violence and religious pluralism. Given India’s religious and cultural diversity, it isn’t difficult to understand why. The aphorism above is attributed to him.

It would be hard to miss its apparent relevance today. But if you’re also a student of history, you’re painfully aware of how it turned out for Gandhi personally, and for what subsequently happened in India…not to mention how radically times have changed since.

All that aside, it still feels true, at some level. Does not intolerance, suspicion and uncertainty have some grounding in our fears? If so, does it follow then, that fear is the enemy or is there something else going on? At the risk of disagreeing with someone  whose teachings, life and moral courage I admire, I think it’s a little more complicated.

Are we what we fear?

For the record, I am not contemptuous of fear, or people who feel it. As a retired Marine officer, big wave surfer and snow skier, I’ve learned a little about it and understand how debilitating it can be. Fear is often rational and justified. But while  fear may be rational, it does not follow that our response to it will be. 

My experiences with my own fear factors have taught me that fear,  Mr. Gandhi’s thoughts notwithstanding is not the enemy. Misdirected fear, or harnessed to the wrong purpose,  is. In both cases, fear replaces reason, often to our sorrow. 

Okay, so what and why now, particularly? Fair question. These are fearful times. Uncertainty can do that to us, if we let it. And we seem to be letting it do that a lot, of late. It tracks along behind us in our personal finances, unless you happen to be one of the exceptionally fortunate. It shrieks at us in the howling winds of hurricanes and typhoons and leers at us in the flames consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of days. It’s even visible in the eyes of our children whose short memories have no frame of reference for our times.

Through the shadowed forest.

Courage and Hope.

But as fearful as the times may seem and as trite as hope sounds as a remedy, in the jaded 2nd decade of the 21st Century, we must nevertheless hope. Individually and collectively we are larger than what we fear and greater than our challenges. All that stands in the way of our success is are clear eyes, open minds and the conviction that we can craft a future in which the fulfillment of all is not merely possible, but in all of our individual best interests. 

Courageous men and women do not give in to their fears and they certainly don’t allow the fears to morph into hatred or tribalism. Both inevitably consume. Individually and collectively, courageous women and men connect and find inspiring beauty and wisdom in diversity and difference.  We are one by choice. Not by color or by philosophy but by conscious choice and a devotion to the best in all of us. Today, look a brother or sister you don’t know in the eye…and see yourself.