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Simplicity, Complexity, And Human Nature

Simplicity, Complexity, And Human Nature

It's been a while since there were simple answers. About 13.7 billions years, give or take 110 million years. Yes, things were simpler at the beginning of the universe. A point of incredibly hot energy, no matter, no time, no space. Simplicity itself. Of course, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. In this case, simple lasted less than 10-37 seconds (.000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds).

Ever since then, things have been getting more and more complex as simple building block like quarks became larger ones like protons, protons combined with neutrons and electrons to become atoms. Atoms combined to form molecules. Molecules combined to form all that we see around us. The trend is always towards increasing complexity over time.

Here we are all these billions of years later, each of us the most complex living thing on the planet. With our complex brains and complex evolutionary history. Our complex societies and, now, our complex machines built from the simplicity of the scientific method. Even the computer you're reading this on is simplicity itself, ultimately nothing but 1's and 0's but combined into amazing complexity. With such complexity all around us our human need to explain the world is even more challenged than it was in the past.

Yet, there is hope. For it is through the scientific method that we have, at last, found a tool that allows us to become knowledgeable about the complex. To understand nature and to understand ourselves. It is this unique point in history, where the tools of knowledge and the knowledge itself have grown to such a degree that we can step out of our unknowing confusion, away from our best guesses, and into the wise embrace of the truth within all the complexity of life.

Don't Be A Know-It-All

Knowing it all isn't even close to possible any longer. The concept of the Renaissance Man, of a Leonardo da Vinci, is a remnant of the past. The shear amount and detail of our knowledge precludes any such capability within a single human. We can strive for a diversity of talents, knowledge, and skill, perhaps even attaining Leonardo-level capabilities. What we can no longer do, which Leonardo could, is become expert in all these things.

For example, an article I recently read in Science Daily, a layman's journal, has the title "Study Builds On Plausible Scenario for Origin of Life On Earth". That's straightforward. The story was drawn from this, the original research paper, "A route to enantiopure RNA precursors from nearly racemic starting materials." Simple, right? The problem is that every field has its own starting point of knowledge. You could study a lifetime and not approach the depth of knowledge needed to have the cross-disciplinary inventive success Leonardo da Vinci was able to have. Back then, in the 15th century, we simply knew a lot less. Exponentially so.

Trust Issues

Since we cannot become experts in everything we must rely on those who are. We do so every day without even thinking about it. Every time you drive a car, fly in an airplane, or boot up your computer, you're relying upon thousands and thousands of experts who researched and designed those tools. They worked to ensure your car is safe and reliable, even more so for the airplane, and despite the occasional bug, isn't amazing what you can do with your computer?

When it comes to something that challenges our world view we often resist what the experts are telling us. It's as if we have selective trust. Why should we feel this way? Rationally, we shouldn't. Of course, humans aren't particularly noted for being rational, that's what you've got a computer for, right?

That said, we can't, and probably wouldn't want to anyway, rely on our computer to tell us what to think. We've got to do that for ourselves. We have to allow ourselves to overcome those trust issues we've got.

Consider The Source

Scientists aren't always right. That, actually is one of the major strengths of the scientific method. It changes its mind. Not on a whim but when the evidence goes against an idea, that idea is wrong. Karl Popper made a significant contribution to our understanding of the scientific method by observing that one of the key criteria of good science is the idea of falsifiability, which is that a valid theory has the possibility of being proven false. Good theories, no matter how long accepted, always contain the possibility of being proven incorrect.

This stands in stark contrast to the old way of doing things, opinion, intuition, and tradition. Ideas that cannot be proven true and cannot be proven false, are not science. They are opinions and you know what they say about opinions, everybody's got one.

Should you blindly trust scientists? Absolutely not. Should you listen when they speak? Yes, especially when their peers have retested and confirmed their findings. You see, scientists are a competitive lot, fighting for grant money, status, and success like any good human. They love to prove themselves right and others wrong. That competitive spirit helps keep science honest.

Trust but verify. - Ronald Reagan

Science suffers to some degree from our human nature, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, poorly constructed tests, and many other problems but, unlike other methods, there is a process of external confirmation built-in. Errors are usually quickly corrected or eliminated.

Failed Theories

Sometimes a theory turns out not to be the whole story, as was the case for Newton and Einstein. You see, Newton's laws of motion work. They work really well. You can build airplanes with Newtonian physics. What you can't do is make a understand the universe just using Newton's theories. It turns out that Newton wasn't exactly correct in his theories. Einstein's theories proved that when we are dealing with things that move close to the speed of light Newton's laws become inaccurate and you need Einstein's methods.

Now, nobody uses Einstein's complex methods to build airplanes, Newton works just fine, thank you. Newton is wrong but not enough to matter unless you need to fly to the stars.

Einstein's work also starts to break down when we talk about the extremely tiny world inside atoms and molecules. For that we need quantum mechanics. In theory, you could design a bridge and calculate loads and motions using quantum mechanics. You'd be much more accurate, in theory. In practice, you would never attempt such a calculation and if you did you'd probably make small errors that would compound into larger ones just due to the shear number of needed calculations. Each rounding error would be a source of trouble.

You want quantum mechanics when you're designing microchips, not bridges. So even though Newton wasn't 100% right, he was very right, as was Einstein after him. Quantum mechanics will probably be refined further when we finally find a Grand Unified Theory that explains all matter and energy. What comes after that, we'll have to wait and see. Whatever it is, I'm sure we'll still be building bridges with Newton's theories.

Flip-flops Are Comfy

What's so wrong about changing your mind? I'd really like to know, in politics especially, why learning something new, a refinement of your theory or finding out that your old theory was wrong, is bad. Knowing you are wrong and NOT changing your mind is STUPID!!! How can "You're a flip-flopper" be worse than "You know you're wrong and can't change your mind?" Standing by your convictions when you have proof that they aren't correct is human nature. I bet you thought I was going to say "stupid." Yeah, it's that, too.

When you encounter proof that you're wrong, do what science does, learn how to accept that fact, improve your knowledge, and be grateful you learned something new. I know it's not easy but you'll thank yourself later.

Once you can do this for yourself you'll see it's much easier to trust scientists who are in the same boat as you. Every day they worry about being proven wrong. Nobody likes to be wrong. It's even worse when your business is seeking truth.

All Together Now

The only way we can hope to find our personal renaissance is by trusting and relying on others. We need to all do this together. There is no need for blind faith. In fact we need to have the opposite, seeing faith. Our ability to see the universe, nature, and ourselves clearly is dependent upon our ability to see the scientists, scientific method, and knowledge just as clearly. We cannot have one without the other. A dim view of knowledge yields a dim view the universe. Blindness to the scientific method leaves us blind to nature. Ignorance cannot lead to enlightenment.

Knowledge is the path to enlightenment. Enlightenment is a long path with many twisting and branching trails. Fortunately, many people along the way have local maps and local knowledge they have posted online. Until someone invents a GPS for life, we just need to accept their help. Hey, guys, it beats stopping at the gas station to ask directions. Why do men hate to ask directions, anyhow?

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