In today’s post, I will be looking at the famous quote from the famous English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred Whitehead.
“Seek simplicity, and then distrust it.”
This quote comes from his 1920 collection of lectures, The Concept of Nature. The quote is embedded in the paragraph below:
Nature appears as a complex system whose factors are dimly discerned by us. But, as I ask you, Is not this the very truth? Should we not distrust the jaunty assurance with which every age prides itself that it at last has hit upon the ultimate concepts in which all that happens can be formulated? The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.
I like this idea a lot. We are all asked to keep things simple, and to not make things complicated. Whitehead is asking us to seek simplicity first, and then distrust it. Whitehead talks about “bifurcation of nature” – nature as we perceive it, and the nature as it is. Thus, our perception of reality is an abstraction or a simplification based on our perceptions. We need this abstraction to start understanding nature. However, once we start this understanding process, we should not stop. We should build upon it. This is the scientific method – plan the prototype, build it, assess the gap, and continue improving based on feedback.
As I was reading The Concept of Nature, several other concepts came to my mind. The first one was Occam’s razor – the idea that Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. Seek the simplest explanation, when all things are equal. At the same time, we should keep Epicurus’ Principle of Multiple Explanations in mind – If more than one theory is consistent with the observations, keep all theories. I also feel that Whitehead was talking about systems and complexity. As complexity increases, our ability to fully understand the numerous relationships decreases. As the wonderful American Systems thinker Donella Meadows said:
We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.
Seeking simplicity is about the attempt to have a starting point to understand complexity. We should continue to evolve our understanding and not stop at the first abstraction we developed. One of the famous Zen story is about the teacher pointing his finger at the moon. I have talked about this here. We should not look at the finger and stop there. We should look at where the finger is pointing. The finger is the road sign and not the destination itself. The simplicity is a representation and not the real thing. We should immediately distrust it because it is a weak copy. Seeking simplicity is not a bad thing but stopping there is. Simplicity is our comfort zone, and Whitehead is asking us to distrust it so that can keep improving our situation – continuous improvement. Whitehead in his later 1929 book, The Function of Reason, states:
The higher forms of life are actively engaged in modifying their environment… (to) (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.
In seeking simplicity, we are trying to be “less wrong”. In distrusting our simplified abstraction, we are seeking to be “more right”. I will finish with a Zen story.
A Zen master lay dying. His monks had all gathered around his bed, from the most senior to the most novice monk. The senior monk leaned over to ask the dying master if he had any final words of advice for his monks.
The old master slowly opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, “Tell them Truth is like a river.”
The senior monk passed on this bit of wisdom in turn to the monk next to him, and it circulated around the room from one monk to another.
When the words reached the youngest monk he asked, “What does he mean, ‘Truth is like a river?’”
The question was passed back around the room to the senior monk who leaned over the bed and asked, “Master, what do you mean, ‘Truth is like a river?’” Slowly the master opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, “OK, truth is not like a river.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Cannon’s Polarity Principle: