Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Psychological-Mindedness Confronts Simplicity

Originally posted on January 14, 2013

People have a deep sense of entitlement to being able to perceive and think about the world in simple terms. It’s easier to imagine that there is either sin or virtue, and we still have a subtle backwash from the belief in higher and lower classes. People feel entitled to scold: “Don’t muddy up the problem!” Indeed, noting that things are by no means that simple is resisted—called “muddying-up”—as if it isn’t really so but someone is making it so for petty reasons. The entitlement of simplicity is pervasive in our culture. I must admit that I would like it too, or at least the lazy part of me, fused with my inner child complex, would prefer that things be easy to relate to.  But when I give in and react to the world that way, I get into trouble. So many people’s actions—one thinks they are well-intentioned—end up making trouble for others or themselves. (In fact, they’re just exposing the trouble that’s actually there in the system, but that seems beyond many people’s minds.) And then what about the bad people who sometimes seem to be doing something good?

Why Can’t It All Be Simple?

This point deserves repeating and emphasis: There is a pervasive human inclination to not only prefer simplicity but also to believe that things basically are simple. Our minds are lazy and it’s hard to wrap our fragile understanding around more complex realities. This inclination, this tendency, is natural and forgive-able, but it should not be indulged. The more mature and engaged parts of our mind should face more realistically the fact that situations are often complex, and indeed, may be more complicated than the mind of any one of us can encompass. It may even be more complicated than any human mind can fully comprehend.

One simple mode that supports traditional religion is the world is fairly clearly divided into good and bad, virtue and sin, and bad things happen as cosmic punishment. Oh, well, then, at least that’s more understandable. Okay, it has its disadvantage in that the answers don’t really fit intellectually, but if you half-close your eyes and just bull through, you “believe,” it works. And it’s much easier than having to really think about the complexities not only at the level of personal psychology, but the incredible complexities of psychology at the economic and political levels. I mean, I know there are crooks and hypocrites, but how prevalent could this be? No, I don’t want to really think about that, now, do I?

The awareness of complexity means that we don’t understand, and the pervasive belief is that  if you think and read the news and follow up on what’s up, you’ll understand. Of course nobody does that, but it’s generally accepted that theoretically it’s so. I’m here suggesting that it is theoretically not so—that it is indeed incomprehensibly too complex, and no amount of “being informed” is possible.

But the belief that it is possible and the failure to do so does end up in unconscious shame: It’s a “narcissistic wound.” To fight against this, our unconscious mind insists that not only should we be able to understand, but indeed things are be simple enough to understand. However, this is simply not so; it is the deceptive mind imposing wishes on reality. Alas, reality is not about to oblige—not even if we pout and stomp our feet. In other words, people tend not only to prefer simplicity, but they feel entitled to simplicity, and feel aggrieved that simplicity is being withheld from them by academics who artificially complexify things. People’s entitlement and preference blurs over into  perception so that the very idea that things are in fact extremely complex is incomprehensible, untrue, unbelievable, an affront to their personhood.

Complexity in the World

Also, increasing numbers of technical breakthroughs confront us with the fact that complexities abound. It’s not just that things are getting more complex; it becomes apparent that things always have been far more complex than we knew. The relative complexity and clueless-ness actually illuminates why history has been such a series of disasters. (Barbara Tuchman’s book, The March of Folly in the mid-1980s was just an appetizer.)

Humans have innate tendencies towards pride, towards imagining that they have control over things. A crusade is good, because the illusion that “we are right” obscures the hardships. How can “our” cause be fundamentally phony? No! It’s beyond our perception or comprehension. Humans will focus on something and make it a mini-idol: This will save us, and our belief in it ennobles us.

For a century humans and their minions, the newspapers, and all propaganda, filled us with prideful glory. If our nation wasn’t triumphant, then our science was. Note the word “our”—even the lowliest worker identified with the progress of the team, whether it be his industry or his favored sports team on television. And this pride is not about to accept limitations! Is it not true that science continues to make progress? More breakthroughs?  The idea that mystery—vast and incomprehensible tracts of mystery—may remain after centuries of insights—is intolerable. (But what if it’s true?!)

What I’m calling for is not a lessening of support for scientific research, but a larger acceptance of intellectual humility. But if we can’t idolize science, if “they” (e.g., the scientists, experts, people who know) can’t deliver, what shall we do then?

If we surrender to an unknown, many would prefer that it be a known unknown, a familiar mystery, the reassurance of a traditional church and a projection of a parent-god. Again there are thousands of ways we can rationalize this and protect ourselves from existential anxiety.

A Solution

Well, it’s complex. I think we need to think more, to cultivate critical thinking in schools, to support it’s subversive energy. This is already another whole paper. But in other ways, I think it’s okay to work out private myths or schemes of meaning about life. To know you’re making it up  hardly detracts from their functioning as a source of solace. It’s not as if you’re running away from a cold, hard reality. I really don’t accept that a reality (one reality for all, for all time, for all cultures) exists. But that leads into a whole ‘nother philosophical by-way.

For purposes of this essay, though, the key is to notice the entitlement to simplicity and the need to be a good mature parent to yourself and to say, “I’m sorry it’s so complicated. But that’s the way it is. So we’ll deal with it together.”

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