It’s natural for most human beings to seek simple understandings. They correspond at least roughly to the simple (or elegant) understandings which are a goal of many theorists in the sciences which have a large mathematical component. Einstein pointed out that a theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Closer to ordinary sorts of common sense, these sorts of simplicities correspond to the rules and aphorisms which can guide us in our efforts to understand our world and our own selves, in our efforts to make our moral decisions, in our efforts to help shape the characters of boys and girls, in our work as carpenters or engineers. Simplicity can be real in this way, so long as stability reigns in social structure and technology and scientific understandings of men and our world, and so forth.
We can glide through much of the day and through the years, not having to constantly expend large amounts of mental and emotional energy. The world outside our own country becomes such a simple landscape of white and black; those who act as Americans wish them to act are good and the others are bad and we might have to invade them or at least refuse to do business with them.
The world doesn’t always seem so simple and, in reality, isn’t so simple to those who need to go below surfaces and behind the customs and prejudices of a particular people in a specific age. Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics had been domesticated in our machine shops and our classrooms and our technology and even our literature and, then, along came technology and popular knowledge at least touching upon the non-Euclidean geometries of Gauss and Lobachevsky, the curved space of Riemann, the curved spacetime of Einstein. That would have been bad enough, but our very understanding of matter was upset by Planck and Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrodinger. This was actually part of various turbulent waves disturbing poetry and creative fiction as well as understandings of history, including that of the Bible and the great religions of mankind. The physical and social worlds of humankind were suddenly beyond our understandings in those years leading up to the Century of World Warfare. The creative scientists and artists had been dealing with this turbulence for decades before others were forced to deal with it.
Truly had the world been turned upside-down and it has remained a complicated and complex place filled with strange entities. Man returned to being a stranger in a strange land.
I’ll dare to be repetitive: the world isn’t really simple, nor is matter or space or time, living creatures or the creatures we call stars or planets or volcanoes.
Yet, I’ll go on record predicting the world will once again be simple, but only after generations of work by scientists and mathematicians, historians and poets and novelists, composers and sculptors and painters, theologians and philosophers and spiritual masters, teachers and politicians and inventors of games and amusements. They will simplify by drawing forth schematic understandings and well-defined behaviors and wise aphorisms from all this blooming buzzing confusion. Things and relationships will fall into place, symmetries will seem to arise by magic, patterns of various sorts and various levels of complexity will be assembled from the symmetries and even the remaining bits of confusion.
The simplicities, the symmetries and patterns, which allow us to make sense of a very big and messy world of evolutionary and developmental processes, which allow us to live our lives without constantly having to engage in lines of moral reasoning or mathematical calculations, will once again dominate. That might not happen for a few centuries, and it be possible that it will never happen. That is, it be possible that we’ve destroyed mankind’s last chance for true moral and intellectual and cultural order in this mortal realm, though that is unlikely to one, such as me, who believes this world is the story in which the Body of Christ develops and matures as much as He can this side of the grave.
Simplicity of the sort I discuss is best seen as communally digested complexity—deep and dense knowledge encoded in various symbols and words and ways of speaking. Deep and dense but elegant and sometimes even beautiful in some of the structures, such as the music of Mozart or the confidence-game of plain language in the works of Mark Twain.
I already noted that Einstein told us a theory should be as simple as possible, but no more. One example of Einsteinian simplicity was an elegant equation governing the possible forms of his theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity. Aesthetically, that equation can be typeset to be as beautiful as a line of Egyptian hieroglyphics or a painting by Rembrandt of some respectable Dutch citizens just sitting around in highly tense leisure. To understand the hieroglyphics, we must know not only a straightforward translation but also a good bit about Egyptian life, perhaps commercial or political or military or liturgical aspects of that life. To understand the painting by Rembrandt, we must know a lot about his reasons for arranging the men and the objects as well as a good bit about Dutch life, perhaps commercial or political or military or liturgical aspects of that life. To understand Einstein’s simple equation, a few symbols telling us much about a highly plausible and well-tested encoding of the structure of spacetime and the ways in which matter shapes that spacetime and moves in it, we must know a bit about Riemannian geometry and the tensor calculus, partial differential equations and the nature of gravity. That knowledge was itself based upon several layers of modern mathematical knowledge, the calculus and the very rigorous `analysis’ which justified the calculus, Newtonian dynamics, Maxwell’s partial differential equations which described static and dynamic electromagnetic fields, and still more. All of this is expressed in forms made more elegant, more dense and more symmetric, by way of reasoning drawn from a variety of fields of algebra and other fields of thought going out so far as the mystical and obscure ponderings of ancient Greek philosophers. Simple? Yes, that is, it’s simple once you’ve reached maybe the third or fourth year of graduate school in mathematics or a physical or engineering science which is highly mathematical. Similar statements can be made about understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics and Rembrandt’s paintings, the Bible and American history.
The situation is little different in other fields, some in which the mathematical concepts of simplicity or elegance apply and others in which well-defined symmetries might not apply. Knowledge of history and other social sciences and various fields of literature and literary studies won’t allow the greatest of human thinkers to construct always valid rules or theorems or models, but the elements of the structural understanding of human being which never comes together will give some understanding that allowed, for example, a Carroll Quigley to see signs of another decline of Western (Christian) Civilization back in the 1930s, a Jacques Barzun to predict, back in 2000 (see From Dawn to Decadence), the imminence (though not “tomorrow-ness”) and depth of one phase of that decline (the coming closing of public schools as this country because we Americans will need to send the children back to work and because they’ve been rendered ineducable by the ways in which they are raised). These were hardly lucky guesses. Read political commentators from the 1800s about the inability to deal with complex reality of the sorts of leaders Americans prefer or the more explicit predictions of collapse first into barbarian mentality and emotions by the likes of Jose Ortega y Gasset (see The Revolt of the Masses, published in 1930). I also take very seriously the sad joke from the early 1900s (found in an anecdote of Albert Jay Nock) that the United States is the first country in history to pass directly from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through a stage of civilization in between; this is important as the United States was the prosperous frontier region of Western Civilization which seemed to have inherited the mantle of leadership of that civilization. Think about this in the context of human history, of human failings as understood in various ways.
We Americans clearly had better things to do than to advance or even just maintain Western Civilization; more accurately, few are the Americans who rise above Ortega’s description of a barbarian child growing up in the city: we simply accepted all this technology as well as the boring stuff in books as being part of our environment; we don’t understand it and aren’t capable of fixing it if it breaks, let alone advancing it. True to our barbarian selves, we would never put in a major effort to even learn the history of mankind, certainly not the effort that we would put into or have our children put into sports.
I’m not attacking sports which is also an important part of human civilization, but I am mounting an attack upon an unbalanced, `barbarian’ life. Tribes organized to develop their boys into hunters and warriors have sports and certainly great athletes even if they don’t have a Superbowl. Those tribes may even have some impressive poetry and music but not at the level of Goethe or Beethoven; nor do they have more than primitive theology or philosophy or engineering—though it is remarkable how quickly conquering barbarians pick up sophisticated understanding of military engineering after conquering a people with siege-machines and catapults or other throwing machines.
On a personal basis? I grew upon in a neighborhood where there were almost daily pick-up games of baseball or football or basketball or ice-hockey. I’m happy about that though I wish I’d spent less time watching professional sports on TV in my late-teens into my early 30s.
Simplicity, of a legitimate sort—the elegant symmetries of mathematical sciences and also the general ‘lessons’ of history and literature, is digested complexity. Generally speaking, if there is a pattern, there is a symmetry, though not necessarily one meeting the standards of abstract mathematics. In fact, some dictionaries define symmetry in terms of a “fitting together” or similar concepts. Being more objective rather than speaking as if the world exists to be processed by our minds: symmetries allow an organism or a larger eco-system or an entire universe to come together. The liver doesn’t devour the heart but rather has (mostly) mediated relationships of a well-ordered sort, symmetries of exchange and of mutual support. Similar comments can be made of healthy economies and polities—more generally, of human communities and parts or aspects of those communities.
We can even ponder a plausible evolutionary reason for the human inclination to seek `simplicity’ of various sorts, a reason true to the nature of created being: it takes too much effort to think every thing through, certainly to think every thing through from scratch. We need manners to make it easier to deal with each other, rules of thumb to deal with basic plumbing or electrical repairs, rules of thumb to set-up experiments on a Martian rover so that we can get quickly to the interesting and important issues of a `higher’ sort.
Some generations of men are called to create simplicity out of complexity; this can often be the building or expansion or re-formation of a civilization or a part of a civilization, such as a culture or a major activity such as banking or manufacturing or researching the nature of life. Before this process can occur, before complexity can be reduced to simplicity, that complexity has to be recognized, explored, raised higher and broadened and deepened. Before Einstein could create a greater and more symmetric system of dynamics, Maxwell had to produce equations describing electromagnetism which pointed to a great problem: there was a constant which seemed to say electromagnetism had a maximum speed. In addition, various contradictions coming from the study of inertia and an ether which could carry the electromagnetic waves and there was an older insight that an infinite universe of a static Euclidean structure would be bathed in dangerous radiation and would be a giant fireball rose again.
Darwin started a process which has recently led to a possibility of understanding man as God created him, of seeing man as necessarily a true citizen of this mortal world if he is to be a true citizen of the world of the resurrected. This should have been obvious to traditional Christians who have, mostly, claimed that grace doesn’t destroy or replace nature (the world), it completes and perfects nature (the world). Even the nasty aspects of this mortal realm likely correspond to some harshness in the world of the resurrected, a harshness by the standards of soft mortal men, a harshness which comes from the sheer dynamic nature of the God whose life we must share if we are to live with Him.
My work has been an effort to provide a coherent narrative of God’s Creation, to simplify the complexity which surrounds us in the 21st century, to deny the possibility of simplifying by simply declaring, “It’s all so simple.” To even pretend this is so in the early part of the 21st century, we have to hold one set of beliefs while we’re in church, another when we’re in philosophy class, another in physics class, another when we’re in evolutionary biology class, and radically different sets of belief when we work or purchase, when we vote or go off to war.
In The House of Intellect, Jacques Barzun tackled this issue from a viewpoint different from but compatible with the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, explaining why and how we `simplify’ our understandings and our responses to our surroundings. He told us:
Intellect is the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence; it is intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning and spurs to emotion—a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth. Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter in hand.
This simplification covers not only intellectual matters and manners. Carpenters, child-bearing and child-raising mothers, nurses and doctors, water-pipe layers, all inherited the past in customs of the heart, habits of thought and feeling. Much knowledge is encoded in those customs and habits, both knowledge which has been systematized and knowledge which is entirely in the form of experiential rules.
Knowledge which is so well-organized is simple; we don’t have to think about most of what we do, which is a good thing for the most part. Some will learn to avoid thinking even when proper and some will be missing or will fail to develop the skills of thinking. Others will move along when dealing with settled situations and will stop, pay closer attention, and think about those situations which don’t seem to be covered by all those simple rules.
The Christian may, quite unwisely, `know’ the world is simple because all the complexities of the ancient creeds and modern confessions or other dogmatic statements can just be taken as what our fourth-grade Sunday School teacher or eleventh-grade confirmation teacher or preacher said they were. `Consubstantial’ means what our teachers explained it to be: “one in being.” At this point, anyone who’s read any competently written history of the concept of `being’ will wait with bated breath, knowing we approach very complex messes; Christian theologians, as one example, have often held a pagan understanding of `being’ which is in conflict with the Christian belief that God is not only Creator or source (oh-oh) of being, but perfectly free to have created or not and to have created a variety of worlds and—as I would say—even a variety of Creations.
Similarly, politics was very simple, certainly in the small New England town where I grew up. There were ways things were done, even ways in which dishonest politicians would act if they won an important office. Enemies, inside the United States and in foreign lands, could be easily identified—they were just who they were and they were obvious, at least by the time our leaders called us to enlist that we might save freedom and truth and justice, surrogate mothers and Apple electronic gadgets.
The incompetent use of overwhelming advantages of American wealth and power as if the real goal of the Cold War was to keep it going so some could have exciting careers and others could make lots of profits.
Afghanistan. Terrorism—see Quietly Charitable or Quietly Murderous But Always Quietly American.
Numerous countries which can’t feed themselves and are just one crisis, perhaps a petroleum shortage or price-rise, from humanitarian disasters which might equal the great wars of the 20th century.
These disasters, and others—including the American economy and educational systems and…, are the result of thinking the world to be so simple. Just feed the hungry and build hospitals for the sick and soon any random country in Africa would become settings for so many cities resembling Paris and so many suburbs resembling those of Orange County in California.
All we have to do was strive to make those stupid or evil people into middle-class Americans and the world will be such a wonderful place. Or a collection of disasters and hellholes.
All we have to do is declare that, for example, evolution is just so compatible, just is so compatible, with Christian teachings, and we’ll understand it all and know it all. Or we might drive many young people away from Christianity and isolate ourselves from the most glorious of civilizations, one built by Christians as a home for Christians and their Church.
The world isn’t simple, though it might be simple in many ways in a century or more if we Christians do our duty by God and man.