Humans are obsessed with simplicity. You see it in the straightness that shapes our roads, country borders and thought. Simplicity serves a purpose in some human creations, providing a functionality which is often necessary. However, human creatures and nature are complex and imposing simplicity on such complexity rarely fits well.
Picture a line in your head. Actually, pause and do it now….
Was it straight? I bet it was (although let me know if not!). We use straight lines everywhere. They are the foundation for a lot of mathematics, notably geometry, and shape human creations like roads, buildings and products. In these cases, straight lines are useful thanks to their simplicity. However, this pursuit of functionality through simplicity brings a ‘straightness’ or ‘squareness’ to creations which often loses beauty.
Straight roads take us from A to B as fast as we can. The highways and the autobahns are designed to do this. Through this ‘straightness’, we deliberately ignore what lies between A and B by speeding to our destination. The very statement of ‘A to B’ negates the possibility of something in between. We forfeit the journey for the destination. Small country roads twist and turn, and as they wind, they introduce the complex, the unknown. Sometimes this unknown is unknowably ugly. Cycling last summer across Europe, we were forced off highways and onto the small roads – trudging through the industrial towns which felt rough, dark and depressing. But they had a rugged beauty and added context to the towns of glitz & glamour higher up in the valley which they fed.
Sometimes, this unknown is unknowably beautiful. The greatest surprises never came in the places of known things, the places were we knew what to expect. Straight roads rarely surprise. In our buildings and products, the straight and simple has been tried before. The vernacular nature of Postmodern and Brutalist architecture featured rigid lines and structures. The computer and laptop used to be a device of clean-cut edges. Today, we shift towards curves and rounded edges.
This is not to say that simplicity is always undesirable. Rushing to a hospital, you want the highway to take you from A to B as fast as you can. Building houses, you want the foundations to be structurally sound and often this entails being straight. Nor does straight always entail ugly. The cubism of Picasso or the Mondrian style show the beauty in straight lines that can be lost in formless art. Overall, however, simple and straight has only one possible shape whilst not-straight has an infinite variety. In this sense, simple and straight comes at a cost, particularly when dealing with greater complexity than human creations.
Simplicity in Nature
We hate complexity in nature when we want things to be functional, they confound us and refuse to submit to our man-made laws. In these moments we are reminded that nature is complex beyond our imagination. A testament to this is the inevitable nature of rope, or earphones, to tangle itself – why can’t they just stay straight & simple! It is in their nature, entropy says so. Rivers are much the same, notice that you have never seen a naturally straight river. Rivers are subject to the complex interactions of many creatures and all it takes is one beaver to build a dam to create the magnificent twists and turns of the Nile. Even coastlines cannot be reduced to a single number, they are actually of infinite length according to the coastline paradox. Nature is complex and humans are apart of that natural complexity.
It continues to astound me how little we understand about ourselves. We do not know why people get stitches, we have pubic hair or even what makes a healthy diet. Nonetheless, we try to impose simplicity on humans just as we do to nature and often with severe consequences. Nowhere is this more obvious than in colonial countries. Having visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently, and spoken with people, it is astonishing that it is one single country. The DRC is a case of simplicity imposed upon complexity. Within DRC there are 200 tribes and 700 local languages and dialects, the culture varies enormously across regions and little unites them except a colonial history which forces them to submit to each other through a centralised democracy.
Look at a map of Africa and you see a lot of straight lines dividing countries that do not exist in the Europe of squiggly lines. This simplicity arose thanks to the moments in history when two men sat in a room and decided they would split up ‘their property’ from A to B. As Nikolaj Cyon puts it, his map below, “Straight borders, drawn by rulers, with rulers” and his great powerpoint explains further. A simplicity which ignored the complex topography, culture and people and split some groups apart whilst forced others together. Such simplicity has led to mass conflict and strife for decades.
Simplicity in Thought
Our pursuit of knowledge entails we gather reasoning for the world around us and complexity makes this harder, and more rewarding. We often make the mistake of assuming that for things to be understood they need to be simple and in so doing, we boil down the complex to the simple. Sometimes this is necessary and appropriate, i.e. explaining the physical realities of the world requires a simplification of what is occurring. In other contexts, it is less so, i.e. when discussing the merits of a social policy.
Such seeking of simplicity manifests itself in many forms in our reasoning. Consider that there is only one form for a line to be straight and infinite forms for it not to be. Often, our discussions hinge on the questions ‘is this straight?’ rather than ‘how is it not straight?’. We create simplicity where it does not exist. Questions expect binary responses, yes or no. And politicians seem particularly adept at avoiding such questions, although Michael Howard struggled here with Jeremy Paxman.
The question “Is science compatible with religion?” is a good example. Evidently, there is no clear yes/no or else we would have disposed of the question a long while ago. Similarly, in the field I am most familiar with, Development Economics, everyone is searching for a single answer to ‘why have some countries developed and others have not?’. The premise within that question is that there is one applicable answer across all of humanity; a very strong assumption! The notion of a ‘rational human’ relies on a simplicity that has been proven not to exist. The question of ‘is the gender pay-gap caused by discrimination’ is flawed. We can agree it is not entirely and so the question should be about degrees and weighting these. Instead, the likes of Jordan Peterson are applauded and heralded as a genius for saying ‘it is the result of multi-variate factors’ but not pressed on providing the nuance he so cherishes.
We apply the same tactics in our debates. We create false dichotomies and, as a friend pointed out I was doing, use ‘shortcuts’. We straw man our opponent’s argument to a simple statement without nuance to then respond with our own nuance and watch it ignored. The notion of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance can only exist in a world where ideas are simple. Even when dealing with our own problems, we tend to think afterwards ‘that was such a simple solution’. The fact is, that it never was so simple because it had created the problem in the first place.
A Tentative Conclusion
In our roads, buildings and products we like to create simplicity as it brings functionality and displaces complexity but at the cost of its beauty. When we have applied the same to humans and our thought, the results have been even worse. Human problems are complex and so are their solutions. This statement, however, is itself an attempt to find a simple explanation for a complex issue. We should be wary of such claims…
Relevant posts – If you enjoyed this, you might find this angle on the complexity of Religious Atheists in Thou shalt not take Atheism’s name in vain.
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