Saturday, May 9, 2009

Complexity vs Simplicity...and Specialization

Since I was a kid I’ve had an ongoing debate in my head about whether the world is complicated and hard to understand or whether it’s actually quite simple and straightforward.

I know, it’s a silly question, and of course, the answer is relative to your perspective, or to the question you’re asking, or to what you’re trying to get out of things. Still, though, whenever my head goes down that road of thought – the one that deems the question silly – it’s clearly coming from the analytic – maybe read complex – part of my brain that wants to break everything down and attach qualifiers to everything it sees. That’s the pro-complex side in the debate talking. It deems not only that the world is complex, but, more importantly, that this is whole question is worthless and unfocused because we have to get back to work and figure more things out.

Nonetheless, this little debate has stayed with me for quite some time – almost in a nostalgic sense, like a pop song that you like when you’re young, and as you return to it throughout life it takes on new meanings. I’m not sure what’s fueling it. I think it’s a nagging feeling that life is pretty simple, but we just make things artificially complicated for ourselves. That’s the pro-simple side of the debate. Recently I’ve been erring towards the simple side. Maybe it’s because I need to think less and do more.

But as I think about it more, the problem seems to be that when you look into phenomena, you can either raise more questions or consolidate phenomena. On some level many of us are familiar with both of these outcomes, and at times they go hand-in-hand. The ability to raise more questions is what drives knowledge – it’s that section at the end of a research paper that states future directions for your research; more importantly, it’s that intuitive feeling that the more you learn, the more you discover you don’t know.

And yet we’ve all had that feeling where we solve a problem, life is better, and, well, that’s that.

Although if the drive for knowledge ever became complacent in its footsteps – as if it were to accomplish some new feat, and say to itself, “That’s just what I was looking for. We’ve made such great progress that I feel like I can take a break for a while and bask in the glory of my achievements” – well, then it would have stopped a long time ago.

At the same time, this endless drive forward produces a more fragmentary and disconnected picture of things, where further endeavors become more exacting and less relevant. We’re back at the complicated side of things.

The saving grace is that all of these bits of explanations will eventually be consolidated, somehow sometime. The individual study of such disconnected areas as the color of pigeons, speciation of dogs, beaver dam-building, and barnacles might leave one with an incoherent view of things, but it left Darwin with the puzzle pieces to propose evolution by means of natural selection. For every system of Ptolemaic complexity I presume there must be a Copernican revolution waiting on the other end to fix things. It’s just that the turnaround time can be slow, and that the whole thing only becomes obvious in retrospect.
Most importantly however different fields are more or less open to change, and this is where that nagging pro-simple feeling – that we’re making the world artificially complex – returns. On the one hand, the modern sub-division of scientific fields might actually reflect true scientific progress along with the real nature of the things. On the other hand, there may be artificial or economic reasons for keeping things so complicated. Afterall, the time-consuming credentials required to practice science or medicine inherently pushes those professions towards further specialization. This specialization might not be a bad thing, as per Adam Smith the modern economy is based on it, but it can become suspect when – unlike private or less regulated areas – the costs of entry are greater than the out-going benefits, creating diseconomies of scale like our health care system (or, more questionably, like science...I'll have to think on that one some more).

From another perspective, the pro-simple side of me keeps wondering what that Copernican revolution – or even just a bit of genuine scientific consolidation – would look like in various fields. Its benefits I’d think would have to outweigh the pressures pushing towards specialization.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1), (2), Metamorphosis series by MC Escher; (3) S'more Peeps!, 03/03/2008, by Rory Finnerman;

Video: (1)Music video, from The Beatles 56 Channel, of the song "We Can Work it Out" by The Beatles, released as a 1965 single. Sphere: Related Content


  1. Fascinating post. I think this idea of complex/simple, or put a more formally philosophical way, reductionist/holist, is as old as the hills. It's one of those thesis/antithesis ideas...Dichotomous. Beyond this dyad, the whole notion of specialization seems related, but distinct. More a phenomena of modernity than of a particular "thought-style", let's say. Anyway, historians and philosophers of science have been going over this ground for years. Still fertile, though...

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  3. Thanks for the comment!

    The classical philosophy vs. modernity/specialization is an interestiing way of putting it, with the movement of time leading to more specialization.

    On the other hand, liberal arts education has been on the rise for quite some time; my hunch however is that this has less to do with its intrinsic value, & more to do with modern shifts in the economy. Economic change due to technology, science, progress has made career shifts all the more common, to the point where they're the norm. It comes to the point where it's dangerous to put all your educational eggs in one basket. Then again, I double back in my mind & think that the intrinsic value of such a return of liberal arts is exactly tied to changes in the modern economy.


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