Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Simple Distinction

When we feel compelled to describe something in terms of beauty or elegance, simplicity is an integral part of the picture. So why would someone want to give relevance to complicated states? Is this person, myself in this case, merely being provocative or just kinda stupid?

No- at least not here. For instance, I'm all over science's reverence for Einstein's equation of e=mc2: a huge part of the cosmos is comprehended at profound levels by a few simple symbols and a bit of syntax. This equation is quintessential elegance, due in large part to its simplicity. And yet who truly understands mass (m)? that is, why should generic atoms with nothing to do but be atoms, congregate together to form proprietary molecules, whether they be the molecules of something inert like iron or something living like RNA? And if you were to see how much space there is in any actual atom, the last thing you'd expect is for anything that we consider solid to be possible: and there you are; a solid in the company of other solids, unconcerned about falling through what is at it's basic reality, an air chair. As a layman, I might paraphrase the equation to you this way- if the chair you're sitting on could somehow achieve the speed of light times the speed of light (c2, or 186,000 miles per second x 186,000 miles per second) then your chair would no longer be mass but would now be energy (e); so what are you ultimately sitting on- mass, that can be solid, or energy, that is non-solid?

Simply put, the chair you're sitting on is at one level, a complexity beyond any understanding to date. While at another level, that of our interface, (which in this case is your butt, not your face) the act of sitting is done with minimal thought. Elegance.

So I'm all for simple when it's born of elegance. The problem occurs however, when we don't distinguish between the simple that arises from elegance (or beauty) and the simple that stems from reductionism. When arising from elegance, simple is about clarity; it allows us to see into the complexity even if we can't understand it: e=mc2 exemplifies this as we live in the reality depicted by this equation on a daily basis without understanding how atoms, things that are mostly space, can en mass to a level of a solid which then can be made into something like a chair to hold your own (m)ass.

Simple derived from a reductionist approach is different though. Reductionism is our way of reducing a complex whole to some of its basic parts that we can easily fit into our hands. Reducing a whole's innate complexity this way can be useful and even necessary as it makes something easy to hold and manipulate. But the danger that's always lurking along with its usefulness is this: we think we grasp the whole of a thing clearly, when in reality, we're only seeing the parts we can put into our grasp and fooling ourselves into believing that those few parts are the whole of it. The danger of this false simplicity is that it can actually obscure our vision without seeing our hand made reduction of view; kinda like making a set of custom blinders: only in this case not to protect a horse from getting spooked, but to protect ourselves from getting spooked.

So how do we let Life be its normal thriving complexity without getting spooked? I would offer, that in our culture, the reality that suffers so much from our reductionist made obscurity- the blinders we make for ourselves- is the reality of our Humanness. I've been to the farther reaches of Humanness: the distances that typically scare us by their impending spookiness. In light of our culture who's world view is basically composed from Newton's three laws of motion, our farther reaches are indeed spooky; but then, from such a simplistic world view, anything beyond a billiard game is considered spooky. If however, you consider our Humanness in a context more basic yet more profound than Newtonian physics- that of pure nothingness- the existence of a mere generic atom is itself, extra-ordinary. So what are we afraid of- we're not spooked by atoms and the mass they engender, so why should we be spooked by our Humanness?

As I said, I've been to the farther reaches of our Humanness and this is what I see: Elegance. And I gotta say, going in without the blinders on is exhilarating.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Our Human Complexity (Intro)

Life is hard. Scott Peck, the well known psychiatrist and thinker of human spirituality opened his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled, with this piece of granite composed of only three words. He went on to argue from there, that our failing to understand the impact of this idea leads us into personal suffering of all sorts; so coming to terms with it then, begins our way out of suffering.

I read his book over twenty years ago and have appreciated Peck's thinking of our human experience ever since. But twenty plus years later, I’m disagreeing with his idea; not the whole idea though, just part of it; life can indeed be hard: just not all the time. Some times the livin’s easy- when it’s summertime for instance. It can be meaningful or meaningless, full or empty, exciting or dull. And yes, it’s often hard in more ways than we can count. But even though life isn’t always hard, I would point out, it is always complex. Always.

Instead: Life is complex. Our failure to appreciate the complexity inherent in the simplest of living is leading us into troubles of all sorts. For instance, leaders of big nations that don’t appreciate complexity have been known to rush into little ones, thinking that democratizing them would be a cinch; by that, meaning there would be few casualties incurred; that their pictures in History's "high school yearbook" would look cool.

And a Citizenry who equally lacks appreciation of, or out of fear ignores the fact, that Life is ultimately Complex, will live at the hands of leaders who readily woo people into false simplicity in order to domesticate them for their own causes: causes which boil down to their getting the prized adolescent status of bmoc (big man on campus).

Complexity and its off-spring, swirling uncertainty, are difficult to live with. Indeed we often feel them as threats to our very lives. Our human ability to comprehend any complexity though- and we all do have this ability somewhere in us- fends off this threat. In fact, our unique ability to comprehend, that is, our ability to make sense of things new to us, is itself, an act of simplifying and a skill that we can hone. Over simplification on the other hand, is a delusion to avoid.

As a species, we Humans have used the auspices of both religion and science to oversimplify life; by this I mean that we have a tendency to shrink the scale of life from something beyond our grasp to a scale that can't escape our grasp. We've done this through religion by positing a simple power in the sky that we seek to manage through our behavior, such as disallowing gay marriage. And we've done it through science by reducing the complexity of life to the logic of Newton- that is, the logic of a pool table: a thing at rest can't move on its own accord; it's stuck in place until another thing bumps it along a vector not of its own choosing. Here, our closest cousin really isn't a chimp it's a billiard ball….

So what is the cost of our fearing complexity? How do we enter into complexity with confidence? What are the implications of re-conceiving our lives in terms of complexity rather than simplistic mechanics or simplistic theism?

These are my questions that I want to explore through this blog. These are the questions that I want to pose to you who undoubtedly are complex and therefore have something valuable to add to this exploration.

Finally, I would add, Human Being is made for complex life. Therefore, if we are to truly live in the fullness of life, we have to be willing to enter into its complexity: this means, we have to be willing to enter more deeply into our humanness.