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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Modern Intellectual's Virtue of Complexity, Part I

After my post, Say Cheese, in which I discussed the effect of pragmatism on modern politicians, there were many great comments including the observation that in the physical sciences, "simplicity" is regarded as a value whereas in the social sciences, the term "simplistic" is used pejoratively and is taken to be synonymous with naivete. In other words, to the modern intellectual, "complexity" is a virtue, or as Galileo Blogs put it, in the social sciences, there appears to be "a worship of complexity." For example, he asks: "Why is it when I describe the absolute properties of water, everyone nods in agreement, but when I explain the absolutism of capitalism, people think I am naive, simplistic, dogmatic, or even cultish?"

This can clearly be seen in the context of the health care debate. The proposed bill is a 1,200 page monstrosity attempting to control and regulate virtually every aspect of the health care system. What if I were to argue that the problem is actually "simple" - if one were to think in principle ? Since health care is a service like any other, if a free market were restored, the health care market would flourish, costs would be reduced, quality would improve, and the result would be the most possible happiness for the most people as is always the case in a free market. I could make this argument with certainty, because the present health care market is but one instance of a more general problem in economics. The ability to think in principle allows one to apply this generalization to any of an infinite number of concretes. Of course, modern intellectuals would immediately accuse me of "oversimplifying" the problem. Surely, they would say, such a complex problem could not possibly be so simple. Surely, they would say, health care is not like repairing automobiles, mowing lawns, or painting a house. But, why?

The essential reason why social scientists regard complexity as a virtue is that they reject the human method of cognition, i.e, reason, whereas physical scientists regard simplicity as a virtue, because they tend to embrace reason.

Imagine that you see a metal looking box with four wheels rolling down a street. Then you see another metal looking box, but it is a different color. Then you see another one, but it is a slightly different shape because it is more round. Then you see one that has only two doors, whereas another has four doors. At some point, a human being can abstract the concept of "car" by retaining the essential distinguishing characteristic (a 4-wheeled vehicle propelled by an engine) and omitting the particular measurements like color, size, number of doors, etc. In a similar fashion, one can develop more complex concepts and abstractions. Note that such a process dramatically simplifies the problem, since all we have to do is retain the concept of car, which can be applied to an almost infinite number of concretes.

Thinking in principle is necessarily a process of simplification. Quoting Ayn Rand:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. By organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts, man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate concretes of any given, immediate moment.

Again, quoting Ayn Rand:

A principle is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes.

Modern intellectuals, who reject reason as an absolute, are reduced to the level of an animal who sees the world of cars in terms of: "blue metal box", "black metal box with two doors", "rounder gray box with four doors and a big trunk", "squarer red box with two doors and a smaller engine", etc. To them, the field of human action appears as a random array of concretes with no possible unifying elements. Whereas the principled thinker grasps that a service on a free market is a generalization that can be understood in the context of the laws of supply and demand, the modern intellectual sees health care, vet care, barber, car repair, carpet cleaner, education, roads, cable TV, dog groomer, fast food, etc. as distinct concretes with no integrating attribute.

Rather than regarding the distinctive human faculty of reason as a virtue, which allows for the incredible integration of an infinite number of concretes into simpler concepts and principles, modern intellectuals regard the cognitive level of an animal to be a sign of maturity and sophistication.

This philosophy has profound implications for every intellectual discipline. I ran across an essay in The Spectator, by Paul Johnson, that discussed this issue. Related to the postmodern approach to history, Johnson notes:

"The same process has been taking place in the study of history. It is by its nature a simple subject. You begin by reading good secondary authorities, like Gibbon, Macaulay and Trevelyan, then proceed to the contemporary authorities, chroniclers like Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Matthew Paris and so on, then dig further, into the objective records, charters, exchequer pipe-rolls, court cases. You also use physical, as opposed to written, evidence: coins, archaeological findings, weapons etc. Postmodernism rejects this simple approach as falsification. It has been well summed up by Gertrude Himmelfarb: ‘Postmodernism is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past... Postmodernist history recognises no reality principle, only the pleasure principle — history at the pleasure of the historian.’ One of these complexity-makers, Keith Jenkins, who has edited The Postmodern History Reader (1997), insists: ‘We can never really know the past... the gap between the past and history... is such that no epistemological effort can bridge it.’ For an overview of the way in which underemployed academia has converted the positive simplicity of history into the destructive complexities of postmodernism, I recommend the essay by Ian Mortimer, ‘What isn’t History?’, in the issue of History for October 2008." [emphases mine]

Note that such an approach to history - an approach which emphasizes that one "can never really know the past", i.e., that one can never really know history - is a total dead end. Refusing to "know the past" reduces the historian to the level of a dog who does not "know the past" and thus, reacts with vigorous excitement each time his owner returns, as if the dog is thinking: "it happened again!!". Similarly, is it any surprise that modern academics appear to have learned nothing from the past as it relates to government intervention into the economy or appeasement in foreign policy. When modern economists refer to the recent crisis as "unprecedented", they literally mean it. To the post-modern historian, apparently, everything is literally unprecedented.

Although Johnson disputes this so-called "worship of complexity" on the part of modern intellectuals, he is led to an illogical conclusion - the advocacy of creationism. In fact, the author advocates a false alternative, and it is this false alternative which highlights the essential philosophical problem. Quoting Johnson:

What is simplicity? And is it desirable, on principle? A good question. My recent essay on the origins of the universe, arguing that the simple explanation, its creation by an omni-potent God, is more plausible than its sudden emergence as a result of infinitely complex (and disputed) events, angered some readers. They took the view that only the simple-minded see virtue in simplicity, and that a love of complexity is the mark of intellectual maturity.

While he is right that simplicity is a value, he conflates the concept of "simplicity" with the arbitrary. A "simple" explanation is one that explains a number of concretes in terms of provable causes, i.e., causes that can be demonstrated ostensibly. Johnson takes "simple" to mean some form of magic as in: "this must have happened due to simple magical factors that I can not prove". In so doing, he accepts the false alternative between religion and subjectivism, which I elaborated upon in a previous post:

To the modern philosopher (or left wing intellectual), everything is subjective, there are no black and whites, i.e. nothing can be proved. Such a doctrine results in the rejection of any objective standards and therefore gives rise to ethical relativism, multiculturalism, etc. This doctrine also gives rise to the false alternative between religion and subjectivism. In other words, if the world is unknowable and secular arguments unprovable, then a man who seeks certainty in any field has only one alternative - belief in the absence of evidence, i.e., faith or religion. Consequently, the modern philosopher equates a principled approach to ideas with religious faith and dismisses it as dogmatic or simplistic and smears its adherents as "fetishists" or "cultists". Therefore, to any group who takes reason, logic, and principles seriously, the writer is led to ask: "How can we take these people seriously?".

The alternative to the false alternative of subjectivism versus religion is a philosophy of reason, i.e., a philosophy that identifies, validates and employs the faculty which integrates percepts into concepts.

So, if complexity is a virtue in the social sciences, why is "simplicity" regarded as a virtue in the physical sciences? The physical sciences still employ the scientific method and, therefore, tend to value thinking in principle (although, physical scientists have also been suffering the effects of bad philosophy, e.g., see modern physics and climate science). As can be seen from the automobile example, logically, one who thinks in principle, or one who seeks more general truths to explain a wider range of concretes, regards ever more simplicity as a virtue rather than as a sign of naivete. In other words, "simplicity" is really just a synonym for "generality", and such a process of continual simplification is the essence of science and of knowledge as demonstrated by Newton's Theory of Gravitation, Maxwell's Laws, Darwin's Evolution, or the Atomic Theory. I submit the entire history of scientific progress as against the "achievements" of the social sciences as evidence of which approach is correct.

Since physical scientists deal with naturally caused phenomena, it is relatively more difficult for them to get away with theories that conflict with reality. For example, if one pushes a block and it moves, it is relatively easy to grasp the causal relationship. Since social scientists deal with human interactions, volition or free will is involved, and given a set of circumstances, human beings can choose to act in any number of ways. This makes generalizing about cause and effect more difficult and implies the need for a differing context than the physical sciences. For example, it appears that some social scientists today treat humans as if they were determined and others accept free will but take it to imply randomness or irrationality. This is a false alternative. Humans possess free will and are fallible, but they are not random either. Understanding human rationality also entails understanding that humans can err. This means we can make generalizations about human behavior, but we can not treat them as molecules or planets either.

I think this at least partially accounts for why the modern philosophical assault on reason has had less of an effect on the physical sciences than on the humanities. However, in any field, one who rejects the possibility of generalization will equate simplicity with naivete, whereas, one who upholds reason will properly regard "simplicity" as a badge of the highest honor.

In Part II, I will examine the philosophical causes and further implications of the anti-conceptual approach to the social sciences.


pomponazzi said...

Great article.One of the few writers who can really teach abstract ideas in a manner that any honest individual ,putting in the requisite effort, can integrate.Bravo!

The Rat Cap said...


Thanks so much. That's a wonderful compliment.

The more abstract posts don't garner as much interest, but I enjoy the process of writing and thinking through them, and so I'm glad someone found it valuable! :)

Unknown said...

Besides "someone," I too found it valuable! The more abstract posts are all too rare. Thanks.
-- Rob McVey, Markham, Ont.

The Rat Cap said...

Thanks, Rob.

You two have singlehandedly sentenced readers of this blog to more abstract posts!

Just kidding. Thanks again.

David DeMatteo said...

Good post,I don't see many pro-capitalism blogs with such strong logic.