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A few years ago a "Curious Avenue" comic strip by Tom Toles summarized, in a splendid self-referential way, a key challenge of philosophy.

One character says, "Maybe you're just looking for simple answers. Maybe there are no simple answers. Problems require thought and dedication."

The other character replies, "But there are simple answers. There are just no good answers. --- Although that one was pretty good."

We constantly seek "simple answers". We can't help it. Simple answers are triumphs of thought --- brilliant insights that unify whole realms of the cosmos. Newton's Laws are a simple answer to the problem of force and mass and motion. Maxwell's Equations are a simple answer to the problem of electricity and magnetism.

But Newton's Laws fail when things move fast; Maxwell's Equations break when things are tiny. And when complex systems are involved --- like economies, like ecologies, like minds --- simple answers don't even come close.

Our challenge is to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of simple answers. Then we can simplify when appropriate, and contrariwise demand complexity when it is needed. We can distinguish between cases in which the future is unknown, and cases in which it is unknowable. We can applaud a brilliant analysis of the key factors in a situation, yet reject attempts to prescribe quack nostrums to cure complicated interlocking challenges.

We can, in short, learn to differentiate between the simple and the simplistic.

What contrasts our need for simple answers? Too often, since we have unconcious minds, our need to avoid discovering any answers at all. In which case it is not so much learning which releases us to search further, but courage.

Tuesday, May 04, 1999 at 21:54:15 (EDT) = Datetag19990504
- last modified July 20, 2002 = Datetag20020720

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(correlates: HiddenKnowledge, SingularPoints, LearningInconsistency, ...)