The Quest for Simplicity
The twentieth century witnessed some of the most remarkable events in human history. Technology and its use have complicated society and its practices to such an extent that its complicatedness can overwhelm the ability to govern. Much of the thinking during the twentieth century weaved an involuting tapestry of competing ideologies organised through instrumental rationalism. These ideologies distorted rationalist premises to produce some catastrophic conclusions resulting in massive human suffering, of which the Rwanda, Balkans, and Iraq are just recent manifestations. Its dominant discourse is to confuse desire as need, to have a utopian Platonic notion of pure or absolute truth, uncontaminated by contradictions, deceptions, or falsities that will bring about the maximum happiness and freedom. Such a goal of pure truth is not possible, but that does not stop those who believe in the concept from reinventing a new set of clothes to re-introduce it in a new guise, repeatedly. However, its pursuit adds to the heady mix of complication when added to instrumental rationality that simplifying it becomes a secondary but important (to them) goal.

Plato introduces objectivity in the pursuit of certainty. In our current discourse, certainty equals simplicity. Plato saw it that he needed to counter Protagoras’s dictum that ‘humans are the measure of all things’. Knowledge houses certainty, accommodating objectivity. Humans would visit it as strangers to enact some objective task, analysis, and produce new knowledge. In the Allegory of the Cave, the poor sod who escapes finds it impossible to communicate objectivity to others who are already socialised in received beliefs and are not receptive to new information. In this context, knowledge is complex, requiring thinking, reasoning, and dialectical argument. General opinion requires that knowledge is simplified and reduced to little energy cognitive effort. The point here is that the introduction of objectivity into our discourse and episteme supposedly provides a common sense view of things. In fact, it has played havoc with the explanations proffered to describe and explain human learning and behaviour. For those who expound the objective scientific view emotively do a disservice to the dialectic and seek to close down the discussion. A typical example is Donal Henahan’s 1987 article ( in the New York Times that outlines such a discussion where the protagonists exhibit contempt for each other’s position, but especially the objective scientific side. The protagonist for the scientific perspective was Allen Forte who called his opponent’s (Richard Turaskin) view as ‘extreme historicism’. Others would have labelled it ‘dangerous relativism’. This name calling by the objective scientific side tarnishes the dialectic to enforce their view. Scientific objectivity, independent of Protagoras’s dictum, has much purchase in our current discourse appealing to common sense, thus simplicity, enabling this message to be easily communicated. Realising that objectivity plays a notional part in human affairs, behaviour, and constructs are to invite complexity and for those in the cave that requires too much cognitive effort.

Indeed, for some, simplicity has become an ideology in itself, a Platonic Form, much prized and sought after. This simplicity presents a particular problem in the education/training sphere where the demand is that everything should be made simpler believing that it enhances the understanding of a particular piece of content. However, this is another confusion, one where the design of content for the efficient delivery of initial understanding equates to simplifying the content to bullet points. However, there is a limit to simplicity. Einstein agreed that ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.

Those who demand simplicity need it to communicate to themselves and others because their knowledge base and vocabulary are too small to grasp the complexity of the issue they are conveying. It is the need to communicate that is at work here. Simplicity is reductionist. Moreover, to communicate complexity, particularly in the media, the One (see Chapter three.) demand simplicity in-order-to communicate a message to as broad an audience as possible. Hence the sound bite, graphic charts, numbers, and PowerPoint presentations, etc. Therefore, the wider the audience, the more simple and banal the communications must be. An example of this might be the metaphor used as an explanation of Chaos Theory where it suggests how a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could start a hurricane elsewhere on the planet. The simple banality of the butterfly easily understood because it is within the experience of most people, is imagined in Disneyesque fashion, to cause a hurricane from flapping its wings. There seems little trouble in accepting this explanation as fantastic and approved, no matter how stupendous it might seem. Nonetheless, it gets over the idea of small variations in a nonlinear dynamic system that could produce large variations in the long-term behaviour of that system.

The mistake here is applying this principle of simplicity to all circumstances. Banality reduces content, and in the attempt to simplify, it impedes understanding of the whole but may produce an understanding sufficient to convince. While we demand simplicity, it does not alter the fact that what it purports to explain is very complex and runs the risk of displacing this complexity that is inherent in human comportment with a quantitative objectivity for simplistic communications thus subverting it to the point where it inhibits knowledge construction.

The result for the quest for simplification is that knowledge is reducible to information, facts memorised, and interpretation either ruled out or reduced to seductive clichéd bromides. Another assumption is that simplicity equals clarity or that they are both synonymous. Those demanding clarity usually demand simplicity, which means that they do not realise that they need to learn new knowledge structures in-order-to handle the complexity before them. They, in fact, demand that complexity conforms to their understanding of how things usually ought to be from their perspective. It gets worse when those in authority, demanding simplicity, confuse their opinion as though it were expertise. One can only shudder at the thought of how many decisions made on that confusion alone.

So now, we are primed to expect simplicity and answers to complexity reduced to information, or data, in-order-to communicate a consensus. A consensus is established, but an ideology has to police it. An ideology supporting the claim of pure Platonic certainty provides many simplistic answers. Nonetheless, can an ideology be married to scientific enquiry? Notwithstanding the fact that the Enlightenment was also dispelling superstition, but holding on to some echo of the pre-Enlightenment world. An interesting depiction of this must be William Paley’s The Great Watchmaker, expressed by William Blake. The Great Watchmaker created nature, gave it immutable laws unveiled by Newtonian physics, ‘which accounted for the perfect adaptation of creatures to harmonious ecosystems’, and our role was to discover its perfection, its truth, through research. This divine (Platonic) perfection married the old world thinking of deferring to authority with the new mechanical quantifying perspective of the Enlightenment, and it persists today, particularly in support of so-call intelligent design. It reminds one of the possible perspectives a flea has on the back of an elephant.