True and false, yes and no, is and isn't. Getting answers in these terms would make life simpler, don't you agree? Wouldn't we all like to have definite answers to life's questions? I know I would. Life, however, seems to have other plans. Life is complex. There are almost no simple answers. Even the simple answers, say the constant speed of light, come with an 'it depends' tagged onto the end.
To eat beef or not, raise taxes or lower them, more armies or more aid, to drink regular or diet sodas?
Complexity surrounds us. It always has but with modern media and a globalized economy the complexities of the world become the complexities of our living rooms. Wars, natural disasters, famine, disease, and economic crises used to come rarely to us in our small villages. Today, we are assaulted daily with heart-rending stories of complex problems.
Making Sense Of It All
As our minds attempt to make sense of the senseless we grasp for answers. We need to understand, to categorized, to organize these events into something personal, something manageable. Somehow, we have to integrate the world into our personal world view so we simplify. Wars we blame on right and wrong sets of ideas. Famines on overpopulation or inadequate aid. Natural disasters are God's will. Economic crises are the result of greed. We need these easy, black and white answers for these complex problems, problems our minds are ill-equipped to handle.
For any given issue, the truth is, we probably don't understand it well enough to make good decisions about it. We need to become educated in some depth before we can decide well. Even then, we need to know that our decisions and understanding is limited by the depth of understanding we have about an issue and the influences of our personality and experience. We need to keep our minds open to new possibilities and to the possibility that we are wrong.
The emotion of being wrong is the greatest enemy of the truth. If we can overcome the emotion of being wrong, just as we patiently wait out a two-year-old's temper tantrum, we can learn. It isn't easy but it's always a good idea. The acceptance of our ignorance is the first step to understanding complex ideas. We must know that we are deciding on incomplete information and we must accept that fact.
It is the acceptance of uncertainty that will lead us to deeper understanding, respect, trust, and compassion for others and allow us to make better, more confident choices for ourselves.
Chinese philosophy offers us an easy path to visualize what complexity looks like in the context of our simplifying, black-and-white-desiring mind.
In the symbol of yin yang there is the black and the white. Notice that the shapes are curvilinear, not straight. The balance between black and white is a shifting, ill-defined border. It is also important to notice that the whole is contained within a circle. There is both black and white within. Truth and falsehood within the same sphere. Even within a domain there is a grain of the other. The small dot of white within the black, a grain of truth in a sea of falseness; a small black dot within the white, the falseness within the truth.
The point of the yin yang is not to define precise ratios between black and white but rather to represent the fluid and complementary nature of each perspective. Use yin yang as a mental cue to remind yourself of the true nature of complex ideas. And most ideas are complex. Treat them as such and you will benefit greatly.
Time To Simplify
Why have we evolved to simplify things? I think the answers are pretty clear and we can see them playing out today in different ways. In our ancient, evolutionary past (that's around 100,000 years ago) we humans were hunter-gatherers living on the plains of Africa. Life was dangerous. Think lions. If you spot a lion it's to your advantage to simplify your choices. Run or freeze. You've got to do the math right quick and the answer might be the difference between survival (and the transmission of your genes) or death (the end of those genes). You just don't have time to see whether the lion is hungry, evaluate whether or not he saw you, ask some friends about their experience with the lion, or accurately calculate the shortest path to safety. You've got to go with your gut.
As a result of these kinds of pressures, we've been biologically engineered to respond. Crisis? No problem, I'll decide and act. All this is great when it comes to lions, floods, or other emergencies. You still need these skills. Want to run a major corporation? A certain amount of gut instinct is needed, though for strategy you'll want those yin yang complexity skills in hand. Driving your car is a constant act of crisis response preparation. You just don't have time to figure out all the options when an accident is about to occur. These are the times for simplification.
Like most things in life, striking a balance between extremes is a good idea. For those emergency situations, go with the black and white. When you have time to reflect, treat it as a chess board. Black and white and complex all over. Learn a bit, consider your next move, put the pieces in order in your mind but keep flexible. You never know what life's next move might be or which moves you didn't consider. In the game of life the rules are more complex, there are more pieces, and you can't see all the players. You've got to make your best moves.
Thankfully, we don't need to play the game alone. We have lots of help. We can rely on others for expertise to improve our choices. If we didn't we'd still be dodging lions on the savannah. Society would fail instantly if we all stopped trusting others for their knowledge and expertise. Learn to judge others' capabilities and integrity, then go with it.
This entire website is built on the wisdom of others. Are there original thoughts here? I'm not so sure. There have been a lot of smart people around for a long time. Every thought I believed was original in some way I've, so far, found elsewhere, usually a few thousand years ago. Sometimes it isn't about originality but about synthesis and nuance.
Grey Is The New Black And White
Go for grey. Don't think in black and white when the lions aren't metaphorically roaring. See life as points on a continuum. Right and wrong aren't often clear cut black and white. Choices of all types rarely fall in this way.
Answers to questions fall somewhere on the grey scale. Few, if any, are black and white.
Our greatest universal moral directive, thou shalt not kill, isn't even black and white or wars would never happen (unless war is an act of mass psychopathology). Even acts of murder can fall somewhere on the grey scale.
Greys are measured in term of percentage from 0% (black) to 100% (white). When thinking on any given issue, with no foreknowledge, start at 50% and work your way up or down depending on what you learn. When you think grey, you think well. Hey, maybe that's why the call it using your grey matter. Who knew?