On the simplicity of things

So, I was watching an episode from this TV series where the father of the protagonist tells him how “most things in life are simple” and this appears to give the father an aura of wisdom. Later, I came across several quotes by famous people, of the likes of Confucius – “Life is simple but we insist on making it complicated” and Einstein – “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it enough”.  You hear stories about people who give up everything and deliberately choose to lead simple lives, and when you read quotes like those mentioned above, in books, or on the internet, you feel a sense of respect and awe, the kind of feeling that most generic quotes are associated with. It hits home, and you feel that simplicity is a universal truth and an ideal way of life. As I lay pondering this, something about it irked me, and I thought “But why? Does everything have to be simple?”

It was then that I realized where this respect for simplicity comes from. Although the attitude itself is not negative in nature (on the contrary, it is quite a positive state of mind), this is the truth behind it: Humans appreciate simplicity because the human ego attains satisfaction when it considers the human mind to be competent enough to understand and control the world around it. The appreciation of simplicity is therefore nothing but a consequence of flattering the human ego. This perspective that the nature of reality is ‘simple’ couldn’t, in my humble opinion, be further from the truth. Consider this:

Take an uncooked spaghetti stick and bend it till it breaks. As a potential connoisseur of ‘simplicity’, what would you expect from this simple event taking place in the simple life of a simple observer? Simple — the spaghetti stick should break into two pieces, right? Never. It almost always breaks into three or more pieces. And the reason behind it is complicated enough that several research papers have been published on the topic. Even famous scientists of the likes of Richard Feynman have worked on this problem. And remember that these scientists are people who strive to find a ‘simple’ solution to such problems.

You merely have to look inside yourself to realize that life is not nearly simple enough. You, reader, as a human being are made up of trillions of atoms. Each atom has the most complicated physics working behind it. Together, these atoms interact to create a being like you and me with a not-so-simple property called consciousness, which allows us to study our own body components. We are literally an atom’s means of studying itself. Think this is simple enough to explain? Even a single cell of our body has the most complicated biochemical processes going on inside. We learn about cell biology in textbooks where each little aspect of the cell is separately explained in neat little chapters. Each chapter, when studied of itself, seems simple. But these books fail to include a paragraph at the end urging the reader to understand that the millions of details in the book that you just read, all work simultaneously inside a single cell. And one cell is just one building block of one body, in a world where there is still 13.6 billion light-years worth of space full of physical structures waiting to be understood and explained. And all that still comprises only the ‘observable’ universe. When you zoom out to view the big picture, it’s not so simple anymore, is it?

Now, I have nothing against simplicity. There is beauty in simplicity, and truly, as Da Vinci puts it, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. It is the best feeling in the world when you find simple solutions to complicated problems. But it is a logical fallacy to extrapolate this rare phenomenon and apply it to the whole universe. String theorists are mocked when they make models of reality involving 21 dimensions. Well, on what basis, may I ask? Because a 21-dimension reality is too complicated? I’m not aware of any ‘Universal Law of Simplicity’; and if that indeed is reality, then so be it. Only experiments/observations can prove or disprove that. The subconscious craving for simplicity to satisfy the ego cannot change the nature of reality, simple or complex. My high-school physics teacher once said that he liked Newton’s Second Law (F=ma) more than Einstein’s famous (E=mc2) because it was ‘simple’. Well, I daresay, little does he realize the beauty of the latter, even if it is complicated to understand. Einstein, in his Special Theory of Relativity, started with the simple fact of the constancy of the speed of light and ended up proving that mass and energy are the same thing. There is a reason why his name is associated with genius, and living behind the false veil of ‘simplicity’ will never let you appreciate the beauty of complicated reality. It is paradoxical to think that Einstein himself said that “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it enough” … well, try explaining the General Theory of Relativity to a six-year old simply, Prof. Einstein! I counter with his own quote – “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The biggest problem I have with this issue, really, is the aura of fake wisdom and appeal that seems to emanate from quotes like “Life is simple …” etc. which you may find being uttered by famous wise old men, or on the caption of someone’s cover photo on social media. It is not most pious to lead a ‘simple life’ and perish, when you have the potential to lead a not-so-simple life, dream big, and strive to possibly contribute in some way to the betterment of humanity. It is only on retrospection that one realizes that all the literal bull-shit in the world isn’t enough to balance the pretentious fallacy of a statement like “Life is simple …”, on an imaginary weighing scale. Do you like to think that life is simple? Think again, cause you know nothing, Jon Snow …

I would like to end with a quote by Stephen Hawking that, unlike others, actually reflects the truth and doesn’t just appear to sound wise – “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”

~SRR

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