Against Simplification

Our minds build theories, models of the world in order to function. To communicate, we build models of reality through language, gestures, paintings, music…

When reading an essay, or any piece of literature really, I read a simplified view of the world. A view that can fit into a page of words. Reality in a can.

Reality can be experienced, that’s for certain. We do experience it every day. It can be argued that we do not experience all of it, because all our experiences are filtered by our senses. Our senses shape our reality, as do our minds. The mind mixes the sensorial inputs to form a pleasant arrangement, one that conforms to our memories and expectations. So maybe, my reality is not the same as your reality. But in any case, we do experience it by living and breathing.

And, maybe I’m not a very eloquent person, but I can’t think of any sequence of words, or any amount of epithets, that would describe that experience in its full. Any description is dumbing down. And because everyone’s experience of reality is slightly different, any one description will always be influenced by the perception of its author. But even if the description were apt, reading about a thing is not experiencing the thing. Reading is an experience, and can be quite an enjoyable one, but no description can substitute to the experience itself.

All models are wrong, but some are useful. Our minds are seemingly incapable of capturing our experience of reality. The function of the brain is to capture the infinite in a finite medium. It compresses. It classifies. It categories. It put small labels on things, and put them in separate boxes. Then, it generalizes. It constructs theories about the things in the same box, so that we don’t always have to deal with individual things, only with boxes. It chunks. And it continues to chunk as we absorb more information, as we experience. It puts the boxes of things in larger boxes, and those boxes in other boxes and so on. It abstracts.

Our mind devour theories. A good theory, for our mind, is like finding a free box on the street. When you have a lot of junk, free boxes are always a good thing. Even more so when the box is accompanied with a list of the things it should hold. So finding a good theory is an opportunity to compress some more, without having to do the work of devising it. Extra space, no effort. A good essay is a coherent slice of reality, carefully chosen and assembled in a way that’s easily digestible by our mind.

There are interesting side-effects to this way the mind works. Soon enough, we start seeing relationships at the “box” level that were not apparent at the “thing” level. Things that had seemingly nothing in common now share abstract characteristics. Before, you saw lamps, wheels, bottle caps, mugs, and holes; now you are seeing circles.

Abstraction is a powerful tool. Everything we know about a circle, we can apply to any object that has a circle shape, or contains a circle-shaped part. Instead of devising theories for each individual thing, we discover facts and solve problems for whole categories of things, at once. Mathematics are a constant reminder of the power of thinking with abstractions.

But abstractions are simplifications. By abstracting, we strip the details, we remove the ornaments, trim the superfluous, the extraneous, to keep only what is essential. But what is essential to a thing is not absolutely determined; it may depend on the context. A detail for one observer may be the essence for another, and vice-versa. Some models may be useful, but all are wrong.

The danger is to mistake these abstractions for reality. Abstractions are artifacts, manifest side-effects of the way our brains make space for new information. Abstract relationships are illusions forged by our minds. Trying to shape the world around us according to our abstractions, our very personal, and very peculiar, illusions, is indistinguishable from madness.

The experience of reality is rich, complex in millions of little ways, and ultimately chaotic. But it is the only one there is, and we should embrace it in full, even if it is irreconcilable with the way our main organ to experience it works.

But that’s only my, very own, simplification.