Against Simplicity: A Complexity Manifesto

In academia there is a general understanding that the sort of rules applied in (certain specific and limited) physical sciences don’t always work in the “human sciences” due to the complexity involved. Among the general public (and plenty of academia too), there is nonetheless a widespread tendency to impose radically over-simplistic rules on the observation of human behavior.

To my mind, once the earth’s temperature has been observed to set a new heat record year after year, and extremely likely causes have been identified, one can predict the trend continuing as long as the causes do. Most of the U.S. public, needless to say, would not agree.

The same simplicity cannot be found useful in predicting Atlanta Falcons scoring or Hillary Clinton polling, because the brains and behavior of homo sapiens are involved, regardless of how relatively ignorant you may hold many of those homo sapiens and their brains to be.

If a child’s first experiences with red-haired people are negative, he or she may form a generalization about such people. It likely will not last long. Such generalizations, imposed by culture, about people of various races, genders, religions, backgrounds, sexualities, etc., are maintained in the face of often overwhelming evidence that such simplicity is mistaken.

People are not simple. Not even simple-minded people are simple. Not even politicians are simple. Is Donald Trump good or bad? Do you approve or disapprove? Are you for or against? Is he promoting the side of darkness or the side of light? The obvious answer to all such questions is no. If you honestly form your own position on every issue, you will never find a politician who agrees or disagrees with all of your positions. Nor will you find one who agrees with those positions that he or she agrees with, for all the same reasons that motivate you. The same applies all the more so to political parties. Yet more so to whole governments. Radically more so to entire national populations. A country’s people is not its government, its government is not its dictator, its dictator is not entirely good or evil, and a domestic or foreign opponent or alternative to that person is not entirely the opposite.

Is Russia morally inferior to the United States? If it doesn’t ask that sort of question, it is in at least that way superior. But I’m sure some Russian somewhere does ask that.

Russia is less militaristic, less imperially aggressive, locks fewer people in prison, does less to destroy the earth’s climate, etc., ad infinitum. Russia may also be less respectful of LGBT rights, have more nuclear weapons, etc., ad infinitum. Concluding overall superiority or inferiority is vastly too complex a question. And yet answering it is declared to be, not a matter of empirical study at all, but a moral imperative.

Yet, declaring things publicly, whether intelligent or idiotic things, itself has significant consequences — even consequences that can alter the truth of what’s been declared. Labeling a foreign nation aggressive or evil can fuel more of the policies that are so perceived. Banning people from entering a country, as a safety measure, can endanger that country by creating anger and hatred within and without. Preemptively blaming a judge for a possible future crime being actively provoked by bombings, raids, sanctions, insults, travel bans, imprisonment, assassinations, and threats of torture, could have all kinds of horrible consequences.

Establishing policies of drone murder or torture, to be used only when “actually needed,” will almost certainly produce (even if you accept the fantasy that circumstances could justify those crimes) numerous instances of use outside of the specified circumstances. Ticking time-bomb thinking, like partisan thinking or patriotic thinking, isn’t really thinking at all. It’s an attempt to squeeze human behavior into a rule on the model of what happens to a baseball if you hit it with a bat. Academics call consideration of the consequences of actions “consequentialism,” caricature it in extreme simplicity, and then conclude that ethics should be based nonsensically on something other than consequences. In reality, consequences are what we base our aversion to something like torture on, and consideration of the complex consequences of creating a torture program leads straight to a strict ban on torture.

Choices not only have complex consequences, but there are many more choices to choose from than commonly supposed. Would you murder the infant Hitler, homicidal ethics professors ask with a bloodthirsty gleam in their eyes. No, and neither would I do nothing. I’d help prepare him to successfully enter art school. Or I’d work to undo the destructive elements of the Treaty of Versailles. Or I’d teach the power of nonviolent action. The choices are infinite. Would you bomb ISIS or not, demands every television news pundit who wants to stay employed. I wouldn’t do either. I would work for disarmament, the rule of law, humanitarian aid, and a halt to all forms of support for violence.

But, wait, aren’t I being simplistic in opposing all war and all torture? What about the complexity of them? What about the good wars and the good tortures? I want to give ALL people a basic income, create UNIVERSAL health coverage with a SINGLE payer. I want to welcome ALL immigrants. I reduce the rich complexity of religious teachings to the single assertion of atheism. I favor radical steps to protect this one planet as if there aren’t lots of other planets to be colonized. Now who is being simplistic?

But policies are not observations. They’re based on observations, but they’re something else. If keeping the institution of war well funded looked beneficial, I’d favor it. If complex bureaucracies to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy worked as well as universal benefits, I’d lobby for them. If illegally blocking entrance to refugees based on irrational discrimination appeared destined to cause the greatest good for the greatest number, I’d back that approach. Policy should be simple or complex depending what appears likely to work best. A “flat tax” sounds simple — and also immoral. “Deregulation” simplifies and frequently destroys. It is in the area of understanding human behavior that simplicity has become a plague.

But doesn’t Occam’s Razor say that the simplest explanation is the best? No, it says that simpler hypotheses are more easily tested. And when they fail that test, you have to abandon them. When someone says “Look at that Super Bowl halftime show. It just proves that everything good in our culture is homosexual,” (yes, people have said this) it doesn’t of course prove any such thing. It simply demonstrates that some popular culture is created by LGBTQ people, and some popular culture celebrates that. Generalizing with words like “all” is not being Occam-razorish, it’s just being dumb.

When someone says “Always believe anyone who claims sexual assault,” they’re not being “progressive.” They’re being childish. If someone else says “Never believe anyone who claims sexual assault,” they’re being equally childish. Trying to determine which of the two is being more childish is being infantile. This doesn’t impact the obvious facts that real victims are often disbelieved and that the falsely accused are often punished. Nor is it a comment on which of those phenomena is more common. The point is that making up rules about human behavior as if humans were rocks gives humans the appearance of more closely resembling rocks, but not in the way that the theorist intends it.