Ideas contained in this article have recently been discussed in the Yahoo Group Religious Naturalism.
There is something in religion, which is also in mathematics, science, literature and political movements. That something is the mind's yearning for underlying simplicity -- simplicity that is the foundation of abundant and diverse phenomena, concepts, experiences.
I'm using the word "simple" to describe concepts that can be expressed in a few pen-strokes. A concept may be "simple" in this sense, and yet may not easy to understand if you are not already familiar with its background and context.
For instance, the celebrated mathematical formula known as Euler's Identity is written very simply:
eiπ + 1 = 0
It's not easy to understand, though, unless you know something about the natural logarithm, and trigonometry, and the square root of minus one.
Similarly Einstein's equation relating matter and energy:
E = mc2
Expressed in a few simple letters, but by no means easy to understand unless you have background in theoretical physics.
Descriptions of Tao or Brahman-Ātman or Śakti or God are like that also. They can be expressed very concisely, but that does not mean full understanding comes easily.
For instance the opening statement of Laozi's Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching), expressed in six Chinese characters:
dào kě dào, fēi cháng dào.
The way that can be spoken is not the eternal way.
Occam's razor (after William of Ockham, c. 1287–1347) is the customary term for the principle of preferring a simple scientific hypothesis to a complex one. But William of Ockham was not the first write about this principle. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) wrote in in his Posterior Analytics, "we may assume the superiority ceteris paribus [all things being equal] of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses."
The term "common sense" refers to ideas which, at a particular place and time, seem obviously true to most people. A new theory may go against this common sense, even though it is conceptually simpler than the ideas it replaces. The heliocentric theory of Copernicus and Kepler, according to which the Earth and other planets go around the Sun, was a revolution against the common sense of its time. Yet the theory is simple in its geometry: it describes the orbits of planets as ellipses rather than the complicated epicycles of the earlier, Earth-centred theory.
Evolutionary biology, too, goes against what some people have seen as common sense. The proposition that humans and other primates have a common ancestry has been dismissed as absurd by some Hindus, as well as by some Christians. Yet the theory of evolution is based on simple principles — random mutation and natural selection — and its concept of a family tree of living species can be stated in a few words or in a simple diagram.
Simplicity is appreciated not only in science and religion, but also in literary art. For instance the classic poetry of Tang dynasty China aimed at what they called 小中見大 xiăozhōng jiàndà meaning a lot (of content) in a small (number of words). In the western literary tradition, there is the Latin expression multum in parvo whose meaning is the same.
In natural science, simplicity of underlying principle is not contradicted by abundance of diverse observable things (phenomena). In astronomy, the observable stars and planets are abundant and diverse, but this does not stop scientists from working out general laws of physics which account for the abundance and the diversity.
In religion too, abundance and simplicity are not necessarily conceived as opposites, for there are traditions which have valued the world of abundance perceived through the senses as a manifestation of the great simplicity. Śākta tantra is one such tradition.
The quest for a social order based on simple principles or precepts is a theme of charismatic political movements, be they of the left, the right or the centre. Does that include the Nazis? Yes, it does. It also includes the movements inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The fundamentalist believer has found (or been called to) a world-view that to him or her seems not only simple and coherent, but obviously true. Does not usually understand that other world-views also seem like that to their adherents.
The word "call" is at least as appropriate as "search" or "quest", because it is not a matter of conscious choice. People seek simplicity without necessarily knowing that they are seeking it. It seems to be an instinct, hard-wired in the human brain, like the desires for food and for sex.
No, it is not.
Consider what happens if we start with Euler's Identity
eiπ + 1 = 0
But then we rearrange the expressions within it, obtaining a formula such as
1iπ + e = 0
This statement thus produced is written with just as few pen-strokes as Euler's Identity. It is just as simple. The difference is that Euler's Identity makes sense: it is consistent with a great body of mathematical work in the fields of calculus, trigonometry and number theory. Whereas the above rearrangement does not make sense.
The human mind's taste for simplicity is not a guarantee of truth, and has sometimes led to dangerous results.
The search for simplicity expresses something basic, at least about the human mind itself.
Why, then, does the human mind go in search of simplicity?
Is it because the human mind is born of Nature, and because there is a profound simplicity at Nature's heart?
Colin Robinson, March 2014
© Colin Robinson 2014
24 March 2014
Reading your email caused an inner chuckle...Earlier on at a supermarket, I witnessed a snippet of conversation between a couple of customers. They were bemoaning the fact that these days there is far too much choice on the shelves. This abundance of options left them bewildered and not a little bit annoyed. In the old days, one didn't have to spend so much time and energy trying to make a choice.
Driving back home I mused about the issue. The average mind seems to be put off by too much complicity. It is reluctant to weigh numerous options against each other or follow trends of thought too far.
And yes, this "laziness" seems hard-wired into the brain.
Is it a self-protective instinct against overload, against soaring so far that one loses the ground under one's feet ?
Is it trying to favor the effortless "knowing" of intuition against knowledge acquired the hard way ?
Of course, I do not have an answer but find the question fascinating. Thank you for asking it.
One thing is certain : this inclination towards easy acceptance of second-hand principles and reluctance to question have been serving the System well !
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Very good to hear from you, K. Many thanks for your comment.
Perhaps the question of simplicity is more complex than it looks!
Even in supermarkets. I mean, there must also be shoppers who like to see a lot of variety on the shelves, otherwise the supermarkets would get the idea and simplify their inventory.
Maybe you're right that the average mind is put off by too much complexity, and is reluctant to follow trends of thought too far. But what about the mind of a Euler or an Einstein, who followed lines of thought further than their contemporaries, and came up with results which were surprisingly uncomplicated — the mathematical equivalent of aphorisms?
26 March 2014
Yes, you are right, some people use shopping as a form of entertainment or therapy. It may even become an addiction.
Euler and Einstein had exceptional minds. However, those extraordinary minds probably had difficulties coping with complexity in different fields. Artists and geniuses are notorious for inadequate handling of the commonplaces of life. Perhaps we all have a given capacity for managing complexity. Excessive use of it in one area may result in deficiency in another....(All-consumming passion ?).
Aphorisms (or Japanese haikus for example) are usually the end product of a lot of thoughtful work. It seems the mind must first experience complexity in order to discover simplicity. All things can only exist in relation to their opposite...the I Ching mentions that difficulty must be experienced to find "what is easy". If I remember right, it gives neither reason nor explanation for the fact that this is a necessary feature of the learning process.
Interesting subject indeed.
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Thank you for sharing these thoughts.
>Euler and Einstein had exceptional minds. However, those extraordinary minds probably had difficulties coping with complexity in different fields. Artists and geniuses are notorious for inadequate handling of the commonplaces of life. Perhaps we all have a given capacity for managing complexity. Excessive use of it in one area may result in deficiency in another....(All-consumming passion ?).
I think "All-consuming passion" is a very apt expression...
>Aphorisms (or Japanese haikus for example) are usually the end product of a lot of thoughtful work.
Yes, I agree. They can also be starting points of further thoughtful work.
>It seems the mind must first experience complexity in order to discover simplicity. All things can only exist in relation to their opposite...the I Ching mentions that difficulty must be experienced to find "what is easy".
Yes. Perhaps the phrase "unity of opposites" sums up the situation?
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