Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Einstein and the Fallacy of Complexity

I recently read an enlightening article in Discovery magazine. It was short, of course, as Discovery is a popular rather than academic publication, but enlightening nonetheless. It argued that the secret to Einstein's brilliance was his ability to ignore data irrelevant to the question at hand. It's not that he thought that the data being ignored was without importance, but that he understood that it wasn't important for that particular question. He was able to draw connections that others could not because he was able to cut out the noise that interfered with a clear understanding of the matters that he investigated. A decent education trains one to think this way very early on. I can remember that in our public school math courses we would often be presented with word problems that contained more information then we needed. Part of the trick was to say A and D are relevant to solving the problem, but B and C are not. This is, if the Discovery article is correct, precisely what Einstein did, better than most.

This has got my brain thinking, and it's reminded me of one of my pet peeves. You present an argument, carefully considered, and almost invariably there's some intrepid soul who thinks that the rejoinder "But it's more complicated than that" is a substantive response. No crap, Sherlock. Of course it's more complicated. It's always more complicated. But as Einstein apparently understood, integral to the task of any investigation is to heuristically reduce the complexity to cognitively manageable bits. The key word there is "heuristically": a focus upon only, say, three particular data does not mean that one denies the myriad other data out there, but rather than one has judged that these are the data that are of relevance for answering the question at hand. The rejoinder from greater complexity is only compelling if one can show that certain data necessary for answering the question at hand have been neglected. If one cannot show that then one is simply pointing out the fact that data are in principle infinite in nature, and in virtually every case that observation is going to be a complete non sequitur. In other words, absent that demonstration of neglected but heuristically data the rejoinder from greater complexity is a fallacy.

In Lonergan, this work of restricting the data is the work of attention. It sits rightly at the (again heuristic) beginning of the (again heuristic) pattern of knowing that is attention, intelligence, reason, and responsibility. Because this pattern is heuristic it means of course that the work of intelligence, reason, and responsibility can produce insights that require us to revise what we did in the work of attention. As we move forward in the process of knowing we come to realize that a particular datum that we thought to be relevant is not, or that we cannot answer the question without advert to a datum that we previously thought to be irrelevant. The crucial point is that all Lonergan is providing is a formalized schema for doing what someone like Einstein did more or less intuitively. Lonergan is thus not saying "This is how one should think," but rather "This is how we think, and the best thinkers do it better than most." Put otherwise, Lonergan realized that thought is a skill, and like any skill it can be developed. Or, more accurately, it is a set of densely related skills. And one particularly crucial one is the ability to parse out what is truly necessary to the question at hand, just as Einstein did.