Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Complexity Anxiety

Everyday I become more and more convinced that complexity is one of the pivotal issues in our lives.

Think of the last time you gave someone directions how to get somewhere, without them writing it down. Every additional instruction is followed by additional despair in their eyes until they eventually give in. "I'll call you when I get lost." From my experience, most people handle at most 4 turns in an area they don't know before losing it. A 5th is just too much to handle.

As someone I know once told me, complexity builds itself. Take a simple concept and embellish it, and before you know it you have complexity. This applies to nature, to philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and every other human endeavor. You don't need to be a big Chochom to create complexity. This is why the Talmud is not particularly impressive to me -- take a set of starting assumptions, about a broken, conflicted document, and then try to iron out a set of laws from that document that is consistent. You'll end up (over many years) with something like the Talmud and its commentaries.

We can learn a lot about the our relationship with complexity through children. Kids live in a bubble of simplicity. They have a minimal capacity to assimilate the complexity of the world. For example, they need clearly defined 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. G-d forbid some of the 'good guys' should turn into bad guys! The very thought is inconceivable to them. The world must be as static and as simple as possible.

Every one of us still lives with that same bubble of simplicity, except some of us have expanded it more than others. Growing up, we realize that morality and the world in general is more complicated than we initially thought. And yet we struggle with life's complexity. Young adults tend to be naively idealistic about ideas precisely because they shut out the (complex) part of the world that doesn't fit in with their views. Even adults often don't accept a certain complexity of life until they experience it themselves ie. until they are forced to expand their bubble in that direction. As just one example, marriage is characterized as a noble ideal - yet when one experiences divorce C"V, one realizes the complex truth that sometimes divorce is necessary and even good.

Everywhere we turn in life we find complexity, and it scares us. The human being evolved to handle a moderate amount of complexity. We evolved with a primitive emotional system that needs simple things to latch on to, causing us to have serious biases and deficiencies in our thinking. We do have an advanced brain (relatively speaking, of course) but it is nevertheless very lacking. Not only is it extremely biased as well, it reaches its limits of complexity very rapidly.

For example, why do human beings need professions and specialization? Because the amount of complexity in most jobs is overwhelming. We can only really specialize in one thing. And how do we do this? How do we conquer complexity in our one field? By repeating the same task over and over again until we learn it. We slowly expand our circle of comprehension, often losing what we've learned along the way until we come to repeat it again.

Another limiting factor of our brain is our memory. It's built as an associative system and thus is poorly made for handling a complex world, which is better organized hierarchically. Our memory is terrible at remembering details, but it remembers stories and narratives fairly well, which is cause for yet another one of our biases - the narrative bias. We remember a juicy piece of gossip (which is understandable from an evolutionary perspective) far better than we do the periodic table, and this causes us to turn dry facts into exciting stories even if that means the stories are mostly fabricated. Think of the concept of 'based on a true story' in the movies and you'll get the idea.

I think this notion of complexity goes a long way towards explaining many phenomena in life. It explains why we tend to make sweeping generalizations. It explains a part of how we measure intelligence (really a measure of grasping complexity) and it also explains parts of religion.

People who live in times of great change are hit particularly hard by both complexity and uncertainty -- two things that scare us to no end. One of the functions of religion is to simplify the complexity of the world for us. Religion claims that it knows everything there is to know about the world. All we have to do is listen to our rabbi, follow what he tells us, and we no longer have to struggle with the complexity of life. It's during times of transition that religion seems most appealing. The anti-authority revolution of the 60s and the accelerating scientific revolution of the last several hundred years has left us with a world that is more complex and ever-shifting than ever. At the same time, we've been stripped of religion, which served as a blanket to shield us from the world's uncertainties. The Jew in Poland who had to tolerate pogroms, nevertheless had faith that his rabbi knew what he was talking about when he said that in the next world, everything would be better.

Some might counter that Judaism bombards us with more complexity than is present in the world around us, in the form of laws, commandments, Gemara and Halacha. It takes years to master this complexity, so how can one claim that Judaism makes life simpler? I think the key point here is that Judaism gives us a measured amount of complexity to deal with (Torah), and then tells us to focus almost entirely on this complexity. By stressing Torah over anything else in life, we're told that all other complexity is not really needed. Our anxiety over mastering the complexity of life is thus greatly reduced. All we need to do is to devote our life to mastering one complex field, and G-d will take care of everything else. Additionally, from the get-go, we're told we don't even need to worry about exhausting this field (Lo Aleicha Hamlacha Ligmor). We just need to make an effort.

On the other hand, I think even skeptics tend to shy away from complex positions. Many skeptics, as soon as they locate the countless holes in Judaism, throw out the entire package. This may sometimes be a reflexive avoidance of a possible complex position -- Judaism may be false, but some of its facets may have truth to them.