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.


  1. I would point out that you should also consider that some developing schools of thought contend that as systems become increasingly complex the rules regulating them become impossible to predict using the rules of the underlying you can't use QM to predict the rules of the stock market.

  2. In other words Adam, all the science that goes into making a car isn't enough to explain how to drive a car in a society of car drivers- yes?

    And yet a core idea driving science is that if we could understand the the very basic building blocks of life, we could then understand all of life. In other words, if you knew everything about the workings of a car, you would then know everything about driving.

    How do you as a practicing scientist react to this developing idea that a lower level of order can't explain a higher level of order?