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Sunday, April 19, 2020

KISS - Keeping It Simple Because Complexity Is Too Darn Hard

Brent Palant had an advanced degree in philosophy from Harvard.  His thesis had been on being and nothingness – a treatise on the principles of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal work but deconstructed and subjected to modern semiology and linguistic variance. Brent’s intention was to revisit an ontological conundrum he though only tangentially addressed by Sartre, more seriously studied by Russell, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and distorted by Derrida and Foucault.  He hoped to provide new insights into Man’s primordial dilemma, eloquently stated by Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – How was it that an all-knowing, powerful, universal God could have created Man, endowed him with intelligence, creativity, insight, humor, and talent, allowed him to live but a few decades, and then sentenced him to eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes?

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He knew that the task ahead of him was daunting.  The list of philosophers who had grappled unsuccessfully with the question was long and impressive.  He was taken with those who were incisive, like Nietzsche who concluded that the only validation of life in a meaningless world was the expression of pure will.  Sartre by comparison hedged his bets suggesting that the concepts of authenticity and individuality – i.e. Nietzsche’s validation – are real but have to be earned but not learned. Others like Bishop Berkeley suggested that there was no such thing as objective reality (If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, it makes no sound). 

The phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger studied “phenomena”, the appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.  Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality. And so it goes, unsuccessfully in Brent’s mind.  All these philosophers beginning with Plato used allegory rather than pure reason to deal with existential issues.  Even Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason carefully developed his theory of “Epistemology” — or — what our minds can know and what we can never know, but pure reason got at but did not solve the problem.

Image result for plato imges

Tolstoy wore himself out trying to deduce or adduce the meaning of life by every known philosophical tool, a study of every religion, a review of history, and evolutionary studies on the bio-social ‘reality’ of human nature.  After many decades of searching, Tolstoy finally gave up.  If hundreds of millions of people believed in God and billions before them, he admitted, then maybe there was something to it; and, comforted, relaxed.

Brent saw himself as a modern day Tolstoy – intelligent, more highly educated. less literary and talented, and as insightful.  He would never back into belief as Tolstoy did.  The Russian, after all lived in a religious age and despite his diffidence could not help but be influenced by Orthodoxy.  In fact for the last thirty years of his life, Tolstoy relentlessly wrote tens of books, articles and pamphlets on religion and politics in the hope that it could help awaken his fellow Christians to the true essence of Christianity.

Brent’s Twentieth and Twenty-First Century America was happily secular and quests for absolute knowledge, free from nasty cultural details, might finally have a chance for conclusion.
So on he went, ending up like all before him at one brick wall after another.  Perhaps there was an answer, but human intelligence, as divinely inspired as Tolstoy thought it might be, was simply not up to the task. And worst of all, he died without the epiphany of his hero, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich who ‘sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it because there was no death.  In place of death there was light’
And death...where is it? Where is it? What death?
So that's what it is! What joy! Death is finished. It is no more
Image result for Images Death of Ivan Ilyich

He died mumbling something about Kierkegaard.  Not even peering over the ledge gave him respite from his search.

On the other hand, and with due respect to Brent, life is far more simple than he made it out to be.  There was no irony in God’s Creation.  As most people believe, it simply is – an act of divine will not to be questioned.  Of course the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes break up the narrative, and even Moses questioned God’s reasoning before accepting anointed leadership of the Egyptian Jews; but all in all for today’s believer it was only a matter of accepting the foundational principles of the Old Testament – rock-ribbed, unquestioning belief in the power and glory of the Creator – and trusting the wisdom of Jesus Christ.

Image result for medieval imaages jesus christ

Simplicity is overlooked and underestimated as an evolutionary assist; and religion has given simplicity an edge.  Plotinus, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius, Augustine, and all the early Christian philosophers did not value simplicity and parsed every word of the New Testament to conclude theological matter.  Was Jesus all man, all God, or a combination of the three? What was the nature of the Holy Ghost as part of the Trinity? What were the teleological implications of universal redemption and forgiveness of sin? Only when Constantine had had enough quibbling and squabbling over details and said, ‘This is it’ and codified Christian theology as he understood it, did most debate end.

The rest of the Christian world, happy to have some hope of an eternally happy afterlife, were quick to believe anything Paul said as he went about his evangelical mission through Turkey and Greece.  The new church might have been founded on elegantly complex philosophical principles, but few people cared. 

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov challenges the returned Christ, accusing him of selling the faithful a bill of goods when he dealt with the Devil in the desert.  By promising them eternal life (not a guarantee by any means, but an earned privilege) and not providing for their more human needs (‘Man does not live by bread alone’), he consigned billions of people to a live of poverty, misery, and humiliation.  Worse, his half-promises gave rise to the Catholic Church, a powerful, manipulative, acquisitive institution of cardinals, bishops, and priests.  People no longer looked to the spiritual essence of Christ, but to ‘Mystery, Miracles, and Authority’ – as great a perversion of Christ’s divine mission as humanly possible.

Image result for images ivan karamazov mystery miracles authority

While Dostoevsky was right about the venal nature of the Church, he was wrong to absolve ordinary people of their responsibility in the matter.  He overlooked the basic, fundamental human need for simplicity.  Logic, ontology, epistemology mean nothing to most.  ‘Jesus Is Lord’ is quite enough.
A bleed from this simple religious faith to a secular dismissal of complexity is normal and expected.  Why, if we have all the answers we need from the Bible – God-given, ordained, and eternally true – then why should we worry about the rest?  If most of us are far from the high-IQ asymptote of the Bell Curve, and once authoritarian, fundamentalist religion is factored into rational ability, simplicity results. 

We are programmed and determined to believe the first thing we hear, or the most plausible, or the most emotive.  Shakespeare wrote about the gullible mob in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  Alexander Hamilton wrote extensively in the Federalist Papers about his mistrust of popular democracy.  Why, then, should anyone be surprised at American politics? When has the political process been anything other than simple? 

Ronald Reagan was a master at simplicity and understood the profound need of the American people not to think but to believe.  His ‘Shining City on a Hill’ speech beautifully captured the essence of this quasi-religious simplicity.  ‘Socialist!’ has been the emotional, rallying cry of the Right against the Left for decades.  There is no need to explain the principles of democratic nationalism or wealth distribution.  We get it.

Image result for images ronald reagan shining city on a hill

Donald Trump is a master of simplicity.  ‘Fake news’ is brilliant.  It sums up conservatives mistrust of the media, their liberal bias, and the assumptions of liberalism itself.  No other words need to be said.   No other President in recent memory has been so artful and canny in his dismissal of ‘facts’.  If the media are responsible for publishing fake news, Trump takes full credit for creating it. 

It is perfect complementarity.  Most of us hear what we want to hear, make up our minds early and quickly, and use information to confirm or consolidate our opinions.  Once we have concluded that Donald Trump is worth our attention because of his commitment to our causes, principles, or ideals, we stop parsing his speeches, analyzing his white papers, and listening to his debates; and the more we applaud, the more Trump sings to the choir.

How many women fall deeply in love with men who continually feed them a line about fidelity, respect, and intimacy?  How many daughters continue to idolize fathers who have done nothing to merit their love let alone respect? How many of us fall hook, line, and sinker, for outrageous advertising claims because we have been brought up on Campbell Soup or Heinz ketchup?

We are not a nation of disciplined, rigorous rationality, and we fall for deceitful lovers and bad politicians equally.  Those who have staked their reputation on rigorous contextual analysis and intellectual rigor and who pride themselves on coming to the right moral and ethical decisions based on this reason are in the vast minority, the minority of the Coasts, of the Upper West Side, Duke, and Grinnell.

So religious fundamentalism, political conservatism, socialist liberalism, environmental Armageddon, social justice catastrophe, immigration hysteria are all part of the same simplicity and believers are all congregants in the same church.  We should never be surprised at how simplicity always trumps complexity.  Never.

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