Saturday, September 03, 2005

Slitting our throats with Occam's razor

In the absence of a proper question, no answer can be a "right" answer. Simplicities tend to blur into complexities when all are free to raise questions. We deserve the mess we make of our society for hankering for the simple answers that politicians and some clergy panderingly offer, for being confused by and voting down messages of any complexity or nuance. Most of what Dubya says should be met with a deliberate chorus of "Repeat the question...slowly!".

Simple answers must ignore real questions and those who offer such answers are as dangerous as they are attractive, not much better for us than drug pushers.

But there is a simplicity on the other side of complexity. You won't hear this from politicians and rarely from the kind of clergy that keep singing that they are going to give you that ol' time religion right up your...uh, constitution. No, not a peep, because it sounds like a damn bunch of hippie mumbo jumbo when they say something like "All you need is love". Simple? Yes. Easy? No. The simplicity beyond complexity is simple to say and felt by all but complex when you try to live up to it.

Only the great truths are simple and there is no simplicity in politics.

I would have to, and I am glad to, acknowledge that this idea sprang from a phrase mentioned to me in correspondence from a Lutheran pastor and friend from waaay back. This good pastor is most definitely secure enough in his faith not to need to cram his beiliefs up the constitution. He had used the notion in a sermon teaching about rewards of facing up to the inevitable complexity of life's problems. My take is the flipside: the hazard of simple answers. Google finds 80 hits in all the web for the very similar "simplicity beyond complexity". The president of Greenville College attributes that to Oliver Wendall Holmes. Richard Mouw uses that phrase in what reviewers call a gentle retrospective of the Christian fundamentalism he left for the evangelicals. The more precise quotation in Bruce Elkin's book shows they are "both right" in that Holmes was misquoated in Greenville and was on the other side of complexity, not beyond it. At the risk of bungling the paraphrase, that usage of the phrase comes from the writing of the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler who recognized that entering the heart of Christianity is not generally easy and takes real work to read your way through the complex edifice of the faith as it is embodied in doctrines and texts. At risk of furhter corrupting the notion, I find that it models many attempts to arrive at the wholeness of a discpline when you can only be presented with the facts and rudiments that are immediately teachable. It counsels me that politics too wants a patient, deliberate and broadly informed approach to yield more than seemingly expedient shortcuts to nowhere. The politicians would ignore that approach at their peril if the voters did their homework.

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