Simplicity Beyond Complexity

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If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”

When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.

Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.

In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”

The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.

Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.

People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.

However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”

Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”

Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”

The discussion was over.

Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”

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